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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Sacred Space

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

The modern chancel is the locus of much of the variation within Anglicanism.  Buildings designed after an Anglo-Catholic ethos will generally have the chancel elevated by one or a few steps, and enclosed by an altar rail with cushions upon which communicants may kneel for reception of the Eucharistic elements.  Recessed in the center of the chancel is an altar for the Eucharistic ceremony, with seating for clergy and acolytes to the sides, and a lectern (for reading lessons and epistles) and pulpit (for reading the Gospel and preaching) in front of the altar on one side.  A baptismal font might be visible in the chancel, or might be off to one side until needed for a baptism, when it will be brought front and center.

Buildings designed after a low church ethos might have a simple communion table instead of an altar, a chancel that is not elevated, a more prominent pulpit, and no altar rail or kneeling cushions.  Otherwise the pattern would be similar in most cases.  Note that both traditions within Anglicanism place the congregation's focus on the ministry of the word and the ministry of the sacraments; the difference between them is a matter of emphasis stemming from different views of the Eucharist.

When considering Anglican sacred space, the cathedral is worthy of mention.  Because Anglicanism retained episcopal succession, it retained also cathedrals as the seats of bishoprics.  "Cathedra" is Latin for "seat," and from ancient times the bishop, as head of a diocese, would have a special seat or "throne" in a particular church, often in the leading city of the diocese.  The church housing the seat therefore became known as the "cathedral church," or just cathedral for short. 

Traditionally cathedrals have been enormous, towering structures.  Of course, not all cathedrals are grand, nor are all grand churches cathedrals.  For example, the abbey church in Bath, England is much larger and taller than Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.  Moreover, in developing countries a cathedral might be a very simple structure by modern standards, lacking many of the trappings of an ordinary parish church in the west.  It is a cathedral because it is the seat of a bishopric, not because of its architecture.  This having been said, the continuing use of ancient cathedrals in England keeps alive the grandeur of old world sacred space, adapted to greater or lesser extent for the preferences and necessities of worship in the new world.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why might the term “sanctified space” be more useful in evaluating Anglican sacred space?
     2.    Is there such a thing as irredeemably profane space? Explain.
     3.    Describe the basic structure of contemporary Anglican Churches.
     4.    What is the chancel? What elements are associated with it?
     5.    What Anglican worship spaces are classified as cathedrals?


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