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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Sacred Space

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

One aspect of the diversity within Anglicanism is well illustrated by the variety of approaches to sacred space found within the tradition.  The more evangelical or low church stream within Anglicanism tends to view all space as equal--there is no space that is more sacred than another.  The believer worships God in spirit and in truth wherever that worship may occur, for where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, there Christ is among them. 

Many in the Anglo-Catholic stream would agree that there is no ground that is, in the abstract, holy as compared to other ground.  Nevertheless, Anglo-Catholics would be more inclined to view certain space as sanctified space, as space set aside for holy activity--namely, that space associated with the consecration and administration of the Eucharist.  The Anglo-Catholic perspective is not to be construed as a denial that worship can take place efficaciously in any location, nor as the attribution of mystical properties to geography or furnishings.  Rather, it should be seen as an extension of the reverence experienced toward God's action and presence in the Eucharist.

Furthermore, Anglicans of all stripes (and indeed Christians generally) would deny that any space is irredeemably profane.  Any ground is holy if God is present there, and God is present everywhere.  That presence occurs in an indefinably special way where the Lord's worshippers gather.

The low church/Anglo-Catholic distinctions can carry over into church architecture, but before discussing them, some basics of ancient church architecture are necessary.  Medieval churches had certain elements and characteristics.  They generally faced east, associating the rising sun with Christ.  At the east end was the sanctuary, the area containing the altar.  Farther west came the choir (or "quire" in older spelling), followed by the nave (where the congregation sat), then the narthex (essentially a foyer or vestibule), then the main door at the west end.  Churches that were cruciform (shaped like a cross) also had transepts located roughly at the east end of the nave.  The sanctuary and choir, or just the sanctuary if there was no choir, was called the chancel, which was often physically separated from the nave by what is known as a screen, or rood screen (rood means cross or crucifix).  Screen is not the most accurately descriptive word given modern connotations, so it might be better thought of as a decorated gateway.

This basic format is common in Anglican churches today, as well, albeit with certain modifications.  In most new churches the choir is omitted, or perhaps placed at the back of the nave, sometimes in a balcony or "choir loft."  Without the choir near the sanctuary, the sanctuary is now often referred to as the chancel, and the entire worship space is commonly the sanctuary.  The word "nave" is not generally used in reference to a modern church building.  Modern buildings often make no consideration of facing east and tend not to be cruciform.


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