Background on space: The post-reformation English chancel

What do Quaker pews and Elizabethan chancels have in common? Certainly not that big altar-table, but there’s something about “church in the square” that makes me thing that these two English-born communions have in common.

But first, go and look at two pictures, and come back.

  1. Deerhurst Parish chancel (not set up for communion)
  2. Hailes Parish chancel (set up for communion, but lacking linen and communion ware

Both and more are at the Ecclesiological Society’s website feature, Communion arrangements in the century after the Reformation, 1560-1640

The object lesson from the Episcopal church these days is that the Puritans were bad, bad, bad for destroying those graven images, and the Oxford fathers were good, good, good for re-establishing catholic standards and practices in the Church of England. Now that it is harder and harder to find low-church Morning Prayer Episcopalianism, the conversion is about complete. But is there something to recover from those now-lost days?

What the Oxfordites did was reconfigure the churches in the Victorian era to eradicate architectural evidence of how churches were used in earlier ages. Indeed, church buildings adapt to the needs of the day. A medieval English church would have had almost perfectly distinct chancels – the realm of the clergy, making the Mass in the virtual privacy – with the nave reserved for the laity to observe the Mass and their private devotions. Grandma Ermengard, in the thirteenth century, might have gone to St. Ninian’s, said the rosary, and when the chancel bell rang, would have looked up to see the elevation of the Host, crossed herself and gone back to her prayers. That’s a rather overstated simplification, but the point holds. (Please put your corrections, amendments, brickbats, etc. in the comments.)

The reformers (and this really is a crass oversimplification) opened out the churches, made preaching and singing (and paying attention) central, and at the height of Puritan power maximized the pulput and minimized the table and baptistry to near-vestiges. But I’m interested in the Elizabethan church. Typically, it moderated between the two extremes. The off-limits chancel was opened, “salon-style,” but not universally. (But then again, you can measure a church by what it does, and so there’s something distinct about the church-in-communion. Read that in both senses.) It was the place for those who communicated: the clergy and laity who came to meet their Lord at the table. To this end, the table (the old stone altars have been smashed) was against the east/back wall when not in use (Deerhurst Parish photo) and brought out when in use (Hailes Parish photo). The Hailes parish chancel appears to be in the place of what we would consider a chapel (indeed, I wonder if it was a chantry chapel before the Reformation) but in a “typical church” it would be “up front” like churches with chancels today. Just partitioned off.

I imagine if you went outside the door, you would find the reading desk and pulpit facing the nave.

Now imagine a substantial, single-tier but movable reading desk/pulpit flipped back inside the chancel. And make the wall behind this reading desk a pair of large doors. Behind the doors put a multipurpose room twice the size of the chancel. Now I think you can see the direction I’m going.

A “chancel” seating thirty-five or so, with communion centered worship would hold services there most of the time, but for larger celebrations – Christmas, Easter, conferences – the doors could be opened, the reading desk turned around, and more space used. Most of the time, it could be safely rented or used for other, secular purposes.

Further space considerations

To piggyback on Derek’s comments:

I think space concerns are important for a new church for two reasons. The lessor one is that the aesthetics set a tone that visitors pick up on. Dirty floors, stained (cracked vinyl flannel-back especially) tablecloths, and a selection of faded silk flowers say something about how the church regards itself, and thus any new members.

But there are bigger theological fish, too. Space tells us what – and who – are important.

I don’t get long-nave buildings for churches with a dominant preaching tradition (I’m thinking of a couple of monied Presbyterian churches) especially since they are almost always anachronistic. First Unitarian Church, Dallas, as an example, is very well set up for a “preaching service” (and would be a complete nightmare for a service of Communion, however distributed) and so the building fits its liturgy.

Also, yes, I think the clergy are important for a church, but there’s no excuse for having the architecture say (from the clergy) “I’m better than you are.” If there wasn’t a heritage of Thomas Potter and his chapel’s “square Quaker pew” we would have to invent one. I have some ideas (please comment on them) about what an idea first space might be for a small egalitarian Christian church. Perhaps it would be a useful way to recondition spaces that are too large for a current congregation, too. In the meantime, I’ll assemble a set of links for images that might get some of my points across.