Sanctuary Primer




There are a few basic terms and principles which help explain the arrangement of Presbyterian sanctuaries in the Reformed tradition.  They are less widely known than was once the case, since fewer people attend church regularly and many congregations experience a less formal, contemporary worship.  Shadyside Church’s sanctuary (as remodeled in 1938) demonstrates the terms and principals.

The transitional space between the outside world and the sanctuary is called the narthex.  At one time, a narthex was a place where those who were not in full communion with the church were excluded from the main worship space.  Today it is the scene of greeting and fellowship. (See also Sinners in the Narthex.)

The part of the sanctuary where most of the congregation sits is the nave.  There are several theories for the selection of a name with same root as naval, relating it to a boat.  Most commonly, it is said that the roofs of churches, with their exposed structure, when viewed from inside,  resembled the upturned hulls of a boat.


The wings of the nave, extending transversely to the main axis, are called transepts.  They are commonly used to provide more seating close to the worship centers.  The nave with transepts forms a cruciform shape – but the symbolic connection with the Cross of Christ is secondary to its functional purpose.  In churches with long narrow naves, the roughly square area formed by the intersection of the nave and transepts is called the “crossing.”  This most often seen in Gothic churches and cathedrals.

That section at the front of the church, where the worship leaders are, is known as the chancel.  At one time in church history, chancels were the sole province of priests – the laity was not only excluded, but often had a very restricted view of the activities therein.  A screen with small openings had “checkered” lattice-work appearance, hence the Latin name cancellus, translated as chancel.  This led to a truly “divided chancel,” separating clergy and people.  Shadyside’s chancel is technically divided, but only with a low chancel rail, broken by a wide stair.

A narrow extension to the chancel is called apse.  In English structures, these are often rectangular, while French apses are usually round – as found at Shadyside.  This apse was added in 1938 and is the location of Rudolf Scheffler’s mosaic of the Transfigured Christ.


There are four principal worship centers at Shadyside, representing Reformed worship in Word and Sacrament.  From the pulpit, the Word is proclaimed through preaching.  At the lectern, the Word is read. 

The two Reformed Sacraments, Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, are symbolized by the font and the communion table.  The traditional orientation of a church is with the chancel at the East end of the structure, as it is at Shadyside.  Regardless of the actual arrangement, the front of the sanctuary is known as Liturgical East.


Many churches locate the pulpit on the congregation’s left, that is Liturgical North.  Tradition has it that preaching would protect the church from the attacks of the Barbarians of northern Europe .  It is worth noting that three of the worship centers are located on the nave side of the chancel rail.  The font is there, recognizing the participation by and the renewal of baptismal vows of the congregation, whenever this Sacrament is celebrated.  While the pulpit and lectern are approached from the chancel, each is located in the nave.

For a more comprehensive examination of worship space arrangements see If Pulpits Could Talk.