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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Sacred Space

Written by: Ted Vial

Reformed sacred space is characterized by a more austere aesthetic than that found in most other Christian churches.  This is the result of Huldrych Zwingli's principle of trying to move Church practice back to the model of the early Church found in scripture.  Zwingli's principle was that only those things explicitly authorized by scripture were allowed.  Zwingli was himself quite a talented violinist, but he had pipe organs removed from the former Catholic churches in his synod because pipe organs are not mentioned in scripture.  Instead of hymns, Reformed worshippers in Zurich chanted psalms. 

It is worth noting here that Martin Luther's principle for reforming Church practice, in contrast, was that anything not forbidden by scripture was allowed.  Organ music and hymn singing played a significant role in Lutheranism. Similarly, Zwingli was less open to the use of images in worship than Luther, and Reformed areas went through a much more intense period of iconoclasm (the removal of statues and images from churches that had been Catholic) than Lutheran territories.  One of the reasons Luther left the safety of the Wartburg castle was to slow the pace of iconoclasm in Wittenberg advocated by his one-time colleague in reform, Andreas von Carlstadt.

Zwingli undertook other significant changes in the worship space of the Reformed church.  While Luther moved the table on which the Lord's Supper was celebrated away from the east wall of the chancel (the front of the church where the pulpit is) so that the minister could stand behind it facing the congregation, Zwingli moved it all the way out into the nave where the congregation sat.  In Zwingli's church the table was set with wooden cups and plates.  Worshippers came and sat at the table, where they were served by the minister.  Zwingli was attempting to come as close as possible to the practice of the early Church.  This is in contrast to Catholic practice that used "nobler" implements, and had the communicants come forward and kneel to receive the host from the priests.

The physical set up of Reformed worship space is strongly influenced by the twin emphases of worship: preaching the word and receiving the sacraments.  A typical church will have a narthex, which is a vestibule or hallway between the outside of the building and the sanctuary, or main worship hall.  In the chancel, one typically finds a table for the sacrament of communion, a baptismal font, and a pulpit in which the preacher stands to deliver the sermon.  Most churches have moved the communion table back into the chancel from the nave where Zwingli had it, but still far enough out from the wall so that people can gather around it. 

Zwingli also moved the pulpit from which the minister preached toward or in the center of the chancel.  The baptismal font was moved from side chapel toward the center of the chancel.  This drawing together of the pulpit and the font demonstrates that, for Reformed Christians, the two sacraments do not function correctly of their own accord.  That is, it is not enough simply to do the actions of sprinkling water on a baby or eating blessed bread.  The sacraments are physical signs of the verbal promise of the Gospel.  They are never to be separated from the preached word.  The worship space of Reformed Christians is designed to highlight these emphases.


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