Of Pomp, Pulpits and Processions




There are elements of worship at Shadyside Church that can be termed formal, and the architecture is compatible with them.  They include a procession by worship leaders, preaching from the pulpit and wearing of robes by the pastors and choir.  Understanding these customs helps one to appreciate them.

Customs in worship vary across time and within denominations.  In recent decades, many churches have moved away from formality and ceremony, reasoning that they seem ostentatious to many people.  Worship begins and ends in a relaxed, casual vein.  Sermons are delivered from the midst of the congregation by preachers informally attired.

There is a note of incongruity when worship of this type is celebrated in an architectural setting which, like Shadyside Church, was clearly designed for a different liturgy.  Elements seen as ceremonious were in fact meant to be just the opposite.


Perhaps because brides favor a church with a central aisle, a procession into worship may be confused with pageantry.  A procession is meant to symbolize a humble approach of the people to God.  Medieval processions included not just clergy, but laity as well. 

At Shadyside, our pastors, choir and (for the Lord's Supper) elders process to indicate that those leading worship come from among the congregation to the open chancel.  They do not appear mysteriously from some secret, inaccessible place.  Neither do they wander in, greeting and talking with those who are preparing for worship. 


Click Here to see a video of a procession at Shadyside

A relatively wide central aisle facilitates procession.  The low chancel rail with a broad opening is symbolic that entrance to the chancel is not restricted to clergy.  Older Roman Catholic and Anglican churches used a rood screen to divide chancel from nave, and the entrance was often gated.  At the time of the 1937 sanctuary remodeling, such a screen was suggested for Shadyside.  Mr. Robert Thomson reports that Shadyside’s long-time pastor, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr gently rejected it, claiming that, “The choir would never behave behind it.”  No doubt, that was not the main reason.

The low, wide treads on the chancel stairs make ascent of the procession convenient.  Ushers and especially elders serving communion can attest that they are a bit awkward to locate and descend.


In many places, pulpits have fallen into disuse – and sometimes, disfavor.  Some churches prefer that their pastors speak to them without a pulpit, in a more intimate manner.  This may stem, in part, from a perceived distance and aloofness of a preacher in a pulpit “elevated six feet above reproach.”  However, the actual reason for confining preaching to the pulpit is to call attention to the authority of the Word proclaimed rather than the personality of the speaker.

It is important to recognize that neither location is prescribed nor proscribed by the Bible.  In fact, the pulpit has its origins in pagan architecture of ancient Rome.  The first “purpose-built” churches followed the pattern of a basilica, a Roman public structure used for civic and commercial transactions.  At the end of a great hall, one or more elevated platforms were used to address the people who gathered.  The platform was called an ambo.  Behind the ambo was a seat for the person in authority.


Basilica with Ambo

In a basilica church, the preacher delivered the sermon from this seat, the bishop’s throne.  Scriptures were read from the ambo.  In the fourth century, preaching moved from throne to ambo.  Within that century, the great Greek preacher, John Chrysostom sometimes abandoned the pulpit.  Dr. Kerr wrote about Chrysostom, “He faced up to people.  He spoke not to problems but to people…He spoke often from the ambo or pulpit, but frequently came down to the reader’s desk among the people.”  (Kerr, Preaching in the Early Church, Revell, 1942)

Various locations for preaching find precedent in tradition.  That a sermon is delivered and received as God’s Word, not man’s wisdom, is more important than the venue.  When a congregation understands the choice of location, it can make appropriate architectural arrangements.  (See also "If Pulpits Could Talk" )


Rev James Tinnemeyer

Shadyside’s pulpit is roomy, so that the preacher has freedom to move and make eye contact with everyone in worship.  Dr. Craig Barnes preaches with the pulpit desk removed, permitting even greater freedom of movement – which gives the sense of the sermon being more of a conversation than an address.  The size, material and quality make this pulpit prominent in appearance.  Preaching from another location can appear awkward.


Just as the pulpit is to divert attention from the individual personality, so is the use of clergy robes.  The institution of black academic robes for clerics is traced to the time of the Reformation and is against the wearing of elaborate vestments of a priest.  Andreas Karlstadt, a colleague of Luther, may have been the first – and he later eschewed robes for peasant’s clothing.  John Calvin, unlike Luther and Karlstadt, was not an ordained priest, and chose the academic robe.  This is likely the source of the Presbyterian practice of using the “Geneva robe” in worship. 

At Shadyside, our pastors wear the Geneva robe over a tighter-fitting “cassock.”  Following a centuries-old Presbyterian tradition, their collars have white rectangular extensions called either “preaching tabs” or “Geneva bands.”  The two bands symbolize either the testaments or the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  They also wear a long band around the shoulders called a "stole" in the color of the liturgical season (not seen below).


Rev. Calvin Wilson (l) Geneva robe with cassock, (r) Preaching tab collar

Our choir wears a somewhat different combination.  The long red robes are also termed cassocks.  The short white covering over the shoulders is a “surplice.”  Once again, the use of robes is to avoid the distraction of the apparel of individuals.  It is rooted in an earlier practice:  An alternate (and original) meaning for the word “choir” is that section of the chancel closest to the nave.  It was occupied by (robed) “minor clergy” who sometimes sang antiphonally.  In the nineteenth century, non-ordained singers adopted the location and attire.  

Lloyd Stamy, Shadyside Choir Member and Vicar of Aberystwyth

During their singing tour of Great Britain, our choir learned that Anglican bishops wear the red and white combination.  While at the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, Lloyd Stamy, in his choir robes, was approached by an American lady who inquired if he were the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Lloyd rose to his full height and intoned, “Madam, I am the Vicar of Aberystwyth!”   Could Dr. Kerr's concern about choir behavior be justified?