RELIGION LIBRARY

Anglican/Episcopalian

Rituals and Worship

Sacred Space

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.

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. 

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