Sinners in the Narthex





Pedantic ecclesiastical architectural etymologists proscribe lexical application of “narthex.”  That is, fussy church building wordsmiths don’t want us to use the term narthex.  Why?  They claim that the purpose of the room that joins the outdoors to the worship space has changed since 1150 AD.  What hasn’t?  And shouldn’t we expect some ambiguity in a word with a Greek root that means “giant fennel?”

Preceding the Gothic period, the narthex was reserved for people who were not in full communion with the church.  The nave, where members gathered for worship, was off limits to those who were being instructed prior to baptism, non-believers, sinners, the deranged and…women.  While that was remarkably exclusive, at least the church provided a place of shelter for these unfortunates.  Further, a screen or railing often marked the boundary with the nave.  Without a wall, those confined to the narthex could at least hear the Word being read and proclaimed.

At Shadyside Church, our handsome narthex serves to invite rather than exclude.  The design of the carved wooden wall does, however, remember the screen of ancient churches.  Here, a Romanesque colonnade simulates a screen, but with the openings in-filled with translucent glass.  Since all who enter the narthex desiring worship are welcomed to the nave, there is no reason to have openings for listening.

What, then, is the purpose of a narthex in modern churches?  Some say we are to do our all our greeting there and begin our transition to worship before entering the nave.  Others are comfortable speaking to friends in the worship space, before the service commences.  Fortunately, the acoustics at Shadyside are such that quiet conversations need not disturb those who have assumed an attitude of worship.

Perhaps the narthex should be the place we turn off our cell phones.  Can you hear me now?