William Bradshaw: The altar, the pulpit and the clergy

(Huffington Post) Since the founding of the Roman Catholic Church in the early days of Christendom, the altar has always been in the center of the chancel area, with the pulpit on one side of the of the chancel and the lectern (from where announcements and scripture are read) on the other side. This arrangement of the chancel area is called the “divided chancel.” The purpose of the divided chancel is to make the altar and the presence of Christ the center of attention, while putting the priest or presiding clergy to one side or the other.

The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and adjourned by Pope Paul VI in 1965, primarily addressed making the Roman Catholic Church more relevant to the modern world. This three-year gathering adopted several changes to the Mass, some of which related to the position of the priest while officiating at the altar. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it was mandatory for the priest to stand directly in front of the altar with his back to the congregation. But the Council changed that by offering non-mandatory suggestions for how the priest can position himself to help worshippers feel more connected with the Mass.

Now the altar may be pulled out a short distance from the wall, with the priest addressing the congregation from behind the altar. A more common practice is leaving the altar positioned against the wall and having the priest stand directly in front of the altar. In both instances, the priest is facing the congregation rather than the altar. But always, the altar in a Roman Catholic Church is in the center — the divided chancel.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century changed that for non-Roman Catholic churches. The Reformation was not one event in a single location, but a series of events that took place in various parts of Europe, the end result being many varieties or denominations of Protestant churches rather than a united Protestant Church.

In an effort to put distance between themselves and the Roman Catholic Church and also to make a theological statement, most of the Protestant churches over a period of time abandoned the divided chancel and placed the pulpit in the center of the chancel area. The exact arrangement of the chancel area varied from one church to another, but usually the pulpit was placed in the center of the raised chancel, with a communion table, which also served as an altar, in front of the pulpit and commonly on the level of the congregation rather than on the elevated chancel area. The communion table usually had a cross on it with an open Bible in front of the cross. [More]


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