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Architecture and Furnishings

In the beginning: The church of the first four centuries met in privately owned houses (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 2).

Today ‘house churches’ are all the rage, but they aren’t anything like house churches in the New Testament. A modern house is generally the residence of a nuclear family, but a house in the Roman Empire was a much larger building that was not just the home of an extended family, its slaves, and employees, it was also the household’s place of business. A modern house church typically consists of a dozen or so people hunkered around the coffee table in the living room, some sitting on chairs dragged in from other rooms, but an ancient house church typically consisted of about 100 or so people standing in a large, mostly unfurnished public room called an atrium. Worship in a modern house church is very informal, but worship in an ancient house church was very formal. The closest equivalent to an ancient house church is a modern church.

There was an explosive growth among the churches in the United States in the early 19th century. Most of the growth was on the frontier, where things had to be improvised, conditions were rustic, and worship was, of necessity, very simple. That, compounded by a simplistic view of the past, causes many people to think that Christian worship in the early centuries was plain, spartan, and simple and that early Christians were uneducated. Nothing could be further from the truth! The apostles did not evangelize the western frontier of the United States; rather, they began by evangelizing major metropolitan areas in the Roman Empire, such as Ephesus and Corinth, and set them up to evangelize the small towns nearby. The members of the congregations were sophisticated, educated Jews and God-fearing gentiles who were very well acquainted with the liturgy of the synagogue. We also tend to think that worship began simple and rustic and later became elaborate, when in reality, it started very elaborate and was simplified with time.

In his book, The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix recounts a raid on a house church in Cirta (now in Algeria) on 19 May 303. The official records, which still exist, show that the government confiscated, among other things:

As you can see, early Christian churches were quite different from what many people imagine.

The Roman house was a large building that served both as the residence of the extended household and as their place of business. The front door was the public entrance for people who had business dealings with the household. It opened into a very large rectangular room—the atrium—that had a well, stream, or small pool just inside the entrance. The atrium could be very ornate, with a colorful mosaic floor and paintings of ancestors on the walls, but there was very little, if any furniture. On the other side of the atrium, opposite the front door, there was a raised platform that served as the household’s dining room with a chopping block front and center. There was no wall separating the dining room from the atrium, which allowed servants to attend to the diners from the atrium.

When the household was conducting its business, the atrium was a busy place, filled with people talking to each other and doing business with the household. Since the dining room was a raised platform without a wall separating it from the atrium, it was the best place for the father and his sons to conduct business. The father sat in the center behind the chopping block where he oversaw the proceedings, while his sons, seated on either side against the back wall, conducted the business of the household.

Hebrews 3:5-6 alludes to the different roles of servants and sons in the business dealings of the household:

Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast
—Hebrews 3:5-6, NIV

The sons, by virtue of being sons, had their father’s power of attorney, so whatever they did was binding on the father. Legally, so far as business deals were concerned, the sons were equal to the father:

For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
—John 5:18, NIV

When a house was converted to a church, the water source at the entrance became the baptistery, the atrium became the nave, the dining room became the chancel, the chopping block became the altar, the bishop sat in the father’s seat, and the priests sat on either side. The house could accommodate a congregation of about 100-150 people. Pews were invented in the west in the middle ages. Orthodox churches still do not have seats in the nave.

If you would like to see a simplified version of a Roman house church, just look around you in your own church during Sunday worship (if it has the historic floor plan)!

Altar
The altar is the table in the chancel that the clergy use for Communion. During the Protestant Reformation, some people felt that the traditional term was theologically misleading. As a result, many people preferred to call it a Communion Table. Anglicans decided that both terms were correct, because it is the altar from which we receive the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and because it is the table on which we celebrate Communion. Today, Anglicans and Lutherans generally call it the altar, while churches in the Reform tradition tend to call it a Communion table.
Apse
If the wall behind the altar (the east wall) is curved, it forms a semicircular area that is called an apse. In ancient times, large church buildings were modeled after a type of Roman public building that had such a wall.
Ambo
If there is one speaker’s stand in the center of the front of the church, as is typical in churches with a lecture-hall floor plan, it serves the functions of both lectern and pulpit. The word ambo comes from a Greek word meaning ‘both.’ In common usage, however, ambos are incorrectly called pulpits.
Ambry (or Aumbry)
An ambry (or aumbry) is a niche in the wall in a large church. It is generally used for storing various articles that are used in worship.
Baptistery
In a Roman house, the household’s water source was in the atrium just inside the front door. When early Christians converted a house to a church, that water source became the place where baptisms could take place if it wasn’t possible to baptize outdoors. Even though the position of the baptistery was determined by the existing architecture of the house, it took on a symbolic meaning, because baptism is the entrance to the Christian life. Today the position of the baptistery varies. It can be in one of three places: just inside the doors, in the nave in front of the congregation, or behind the chancel.

In churches that usually administer baptism by pouring, the baptistery consists of a stand with a water basin on top. It could be a permanent structure in the front of the congregation or just inside the church doors, or it could be a portable structure that only appears when there is a baptism.

In Protestant churches that administer baptism by immersion, the baptistery is a large tank that is located in the front of the church, either behind the chancel or to one side.

The Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults calls for baptism by immersion. In newer Catholic churches that are built with this rite in mind, the baptistery is generally an artificial pool with a water pump so there is a continuous flow of water. It can be located just inside the entrance of the church, or in the nave in front of the congregation.

Cathedra
The chair on which the bishop sits. It is located in the chancel, often centered behind the high altar. When a bishop (such as the pope) speaks ex cathedra, it means he is speaking in his official capacity.
Cathedral
The term cathedral refers to the function of a church, not its architectural style. A cathedral is a church that serves as a bishop’s headquarters, so to speak. It’s called a cathedral because it contains his cathedra (chair). The city in which the cathedral is located is the bishop’s see. In this usage, the word see comes from a Latin word meaning seat. The city is the bishop’s see in the sense that a city might be the seat of government.
Chancel
In churches with a historic floor plan, the chancel is the front part of the church from which the service is conducted, as distinct from the nave, where the congregation sits. The chancel is usually an elevated platform, usually three steps up from the nave. In churches with a lecture-hall floor plan, the term sanctuary is often used to mean both chancel and nave because the two are not architecturally distinct. In the historic floor plan, the words chancel and sanctuary are often synonyms.
Chancel Screen
See rood screen.
Chapel
A chapel can either be an alcove with an altar in a large church, or a separate building that is smaller than a full-sized church. Chapels have the same function as church buildings and are equipped the same way, but they are usually dedicated to special use. For example, a large estate might have a chapel in which worship services are held for family members, staff, and guests. If a church builds a new and larger sanctuary, but keeps the old one, the old one is often called a chapel.
Communion Table
See altar.
East Wall
The wall behind the altar, as viewed from the nave, is the “east wall,” no matter what direction you are actually facing. In the past, all church buildings faced east, and it is still the case for eastern Orthodox churches today. A person who enters the church goes from west to east, which symbolizes going from the evil of the present world to the glory of the New Jerusalem to come.
High Altar
A large church may have several altars. The term high altar refers to the main altar in the chancel. Other altars may be located on the sides of the nave or in separate chapels in the same building.
Historic Floor Plan:
As viewed by a worshiper seated among the congregation, there are two speaker’s stands on either side of the front of the church. The one on the left is called the pulpit, and it is used by clergy to read the gospel lesson and to preach the sermon. Accordingly, the left side of the church is called the gospel side. The on the right is called the lectern. It generally holds a large Bible and is used by lay readers for the Old Testament and epistle lessons. Accordingly, the right side of the church is called the epistle side. The communion table stands centered behind the lecterns. If there is enough room, the communion table is placed away from the wall so that the celebrant may face the congregation during communion. The choir may be located behind the congregation, to one or both sides of the sanctuary, or even on the opposite side of the communion table from the congregation. The choir is most often not in direct sight of the congregation. The wall that the congregation faces during worship is called the ‘east wall’ regardless of the actual compass direction, because of the ancient practice, inherited from Judaism, of facing Jerusalem during prayers.

The simplest and easiest shape for a room is a square or rectangle, because it is easier and less expensive to build a straight wall than a curved wall. In the historic floor plan, the chancel is on the short wall of the rectangle. That results in a long aisle and pews in the back that are quite some distance from the front. There are two modern variants on the historic plan; one is to put the chancel on the long side of the rectangle and the other is to make a square room and put the chancel in one of the corners. In these variants, the pews are either curved or placed at angles so that everyone in the congregation faces the chancel. The result is that everyone is closer to the chancel. For example, I attended a church with a nave that could seat over 400 people. The nave was a rectangle with the chancel on the long side, so that despite the size of the nave, no one sat more than eleven pews back from the chancel.

Orthodox churches also follow this plan, except that they actually do face east, the nave is square rather than rectangular, and there are normally no pews. (The congregation stands.) See also iconostasis.

You can see a diagram and get more information about historic church interiors.

Icon
An icon is a highly stylized religious painting on wood. The icon follows detailed artistic conventions, which include the lack of perspective and unearthly colors. The icons are deliberately unrealistic so that they edify faith without causing idolatry. In an Orthodox church, no matter where you look, there’s an icon—and that is the whole idea. It is nearly impossible to be in an Orthodox church without thinking spiritual thoughts all the time. The subject and placement of the icons is significant. An illiterate person could learn the whole gospel just by looking around.
Iconostasis
In Orthodox churches, the chancel and the nave are separated by a partition that generally does not reach all the way to the ceiling. It is covered with icons whose subject and placement is significant. It is called an iconostasis—it is essentially an icon stand. The iconostasis has three doors, two on each side so the clergy can enter and leave the chancel, and one in the middle that, when open, gives the congregation a view of the celebrant and the altar. In Orthodox worship, the nave represents earth, the chancel represents heaven, and the iconostasis is the barrier that prevents us from seeing heaven from earth. The celebrant opens the middle door at appropriate times when heaven is revealed to people on earth.

The western equivalent is called a rood screen.

Kneeler
In churches where it is customary to kneel for prayer, there is often a long, narrow padded bar at the base of pew in front of you, which can be tilted down for kneeling and tilted up to make it easier to get in and out of the pew. Most often the kneelers are the length of the pew and are used by several people. If you are visiting a church that has kneelers, and you are not accustomed to using them, keep the kneeler in the down position during the service except while someone is passing through. Otherwise someone might attempt to kneel when the kneeler isn’t in place. See also prayer desk.
Lectern
In churches with a historic floor plan, there are two speaker’s stands in the front of the church. The one on the right (as viewed by the congregation) is called the lectern. The word lectern comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to read,’ because the lectern primarily functions as a reading stand. It is used by lay people to read the scripture lessons, except for the gospel lesson, to lead the congregation in prayer, and to make announcements. Because the epistle lesson is usually read from the lectern, the lectern side of the church is called the epistle side. See also ambo and pulpit.

In some churches, the positions of the pulpit and the lectern are reversed (that is, pulpit is on the right and the lectern is on the left) for architectural or aesthetic reasons.

Lecture-Hall Floor Plan:
As viewed by a worshiper in the congregation, there is one speaker’s stand, centered in the front of the church. It is actually an ambo, but is often incorrectly called the pulpit. It is used by all individuals who are involved in the conduct of the worship service. The choir is seated behind the pulpit, facing the congregation and in full view. There is usually a long kneeling rail between the congregation and the pulpit. If there is a communion table, it is located between the kneeling rail and the pulpit. To receive communion, the congregation comes up and kneels at the rail. In some churches communion is served to the congregation in the pews. The kneeling rail is often used for individual counseling and prayer as a response to the sermon or the worship service.

You can see a diagram and get more information about this type of church interior.

Narthex
The historic term for what might otherwise be called the foyer or entry way of the church.
The architectural term for the place where the congregation gathers for worship, as opposed to the front part of the church from which the service is led. In churches with a lecture-hall floor plan, the term ‘sanctuary’ is often used to mean both chancel and nave because the two are not architecturally distinct.
An oratory is a room or a portion of a room that is set aside for an individual to conduct personal devotions. The word oratory comes from a Latin word that means a place to pray.
Pew
Originally, Christians stood for worship, and that is still the case in many eastern churches. The pew, a long, backed bench upon which congregants sit, was an innovation of western medieval Christianity. Pews were inherited by Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church, and because of their practicality, have spread to some Orthodox churches located in the west.
Prayer desk, or prie-dieuPrayer Desk
Also called a prie-dieu, a prayer desk is a kneeler with a small shelf for books, as in the illustration on the right. In churches where it is customary to kneel for prayer, there might be two prayer desks in the chancel, one for the clergy and the other for the lay leader. Prayer desks are also found in private homes and small chapels.
Prie-Dieu
See Prayer Desk.
Pulpit
In churches with a historic floor plan, there are two speaker’s stands in the front of the church. The one on the left (as viewed by the congregation) is called the pulpit. It is used by clergy to read the gospel and preach the sermon. Since the gospel lesson is usually read from the pulpit, the pulpit side of the church is called the gospel side. See also ambo and lectern.

In some churches, the positions of the pulpit and the lectern are reversed (that is, pulpit is on the right and the lectern is on the left) for architectural or aesthetic reasons.

Rood Screen
A rood screen (also known as a chancel screen) is a partition that separates the nave of a church from the chancel. It is similar to an iconostasis in an Eastern Orthodox church, except that its origin is more recent. Its construction is different, because it is not a complete visual barrier.

Rood screens are much less common in western churches today than in medieval times, when they originated. Protestants had theological problems with separating the laity from the liturgy. Catholic churches removed the rood screens for the same reason as a result of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). You can still find a rood screen in an Anglican or Lutheran church.

Sacristy
In historic church architecture, the sacristy is the room or closet in which communion equipment, linen, and supplies are kept. It is usually equipped with a sink.
Sanctuary
In historic church architecture, the front part of the church from which the service is conducted, as distinct from the nave, where the congregation sits. The sanctuary is usually an elevated platform, usually three steps up from the nave. In churches with a lecture-hall floor plan, the term ‘sanctuary’ is often used to mean both chancel and nave because the two are not architecturally distinct. In historic usage, chancel; and sanctuary are synonyms.
Shrine
A shrine is a building or a place that is dedicated to one particular type of devotion that is limited to commemorating an event or a person. What makes it a shrine is its limited purpose and use. It could be anything from a large building to a plaque mounted on a pole next to the side of the road. A shrine is located on the site where the event occurred that gave rise to the commemoration and the devotion. For example, suppose someone erects a commemorative plaque on the spot where some important person was murdered and people often come there to think about the significance of the event and pray. That is essentially a shrine.
Stage
In western (not Orthodox) churches where worship is theatrical and the congregation functions as mainly as audience, the architect often enlarges the chancel to accommodate performances and calls it a ‘stage,’ as in a theater.
Diagram of a transeptTransept
In medieval times, it became necessary to increase space near the chancel to accommodate large numbers of clergy, the choirs, or members of religious orders. The result was a space between the chancel and the nave that extends beyond the side walls, giving the church a cruciform floor plan—meaning that it is cross-shaped when viewed from the air.
Undercroft
The undercroft is essentially a fancy word for the church basement under the chancel and nave (and transept, if there is one).