Pulpit and Pew (Installment 27)

The title of this series of articles refers of course to the two pieces of furniture most often associated with preaching, the pulpit where preachers stand and the pews where people sit. Nowadays, that’s not always the case since some ministers prefer music stands and some congregants plop down in folding chairs or theatre-style seating. Still, you get the point.

In my Intro to Worship course, I describe the final paper as an Applied Ecclesiology project. I’ve just finished grading a big stack of them. Lord, have mercy. The name of the paper is a fancy way of helping them articulate the practical implications (thus, the Applied part) of their understanding of what it means to worship and do church on Sundays (thus, Ecclesiology, as in the doctrine of the church). Among the many things I ask, I invite them to imagine how the furniture might be arranged if they had their druthers. Be creative, I tell them. For instance, I’ve always fantasized about a church where the aisle leading into the sanctuary is a kind of bridge passing over a pool of baptismal waters. It wouldn’t just be hip and different, but would remind us that we all come into Christ’s church through the waters of baptism.

Of course, churches have more furniture than pulpit and pew. In addition to these two pieces (as well as the waters of baptism), there is also the table, a very important piece of furniture in traditions like ours that eat Communion every Sunday. Here’s where it gets tricky though, the arrangement of table and pulpit. In some of our sanctuaries, the table is central, with pulpit and lectern positioned on the sides, what’s called a “split chancel.” In this pattern, the table becomes more focal. In other sanctuaries the pulpit and table are both in the middle, the latter a step or two below the elevated pulpit. There are pluses and minuses with both patterns. In the split chancel, preaching could be seen as relegated to the edge. With the other pattern—influenced most clearly by the Protestant Reformation—the pulpit may be central, but the table is clearly below it, and in more ways than one. What to do?

I don’t know what you think of my baptismal entryway, but here’s my fantasy when it comes to pulpit and table. What if the table were central, and probably a round one for its egalitarian symbolism, and what if that were the place from which sermons were also given? That’s what the Jews do at Passover, and it is what Jesus did at the so-called Last Supper and all the other meal gatherings with his friends. That’s what we do at our tables at home, too. It’s where we gather to eat, but also to tell stories.

Like I said, I don’t know what you think about my idea. At the very least, it’s something to think about, and thankfully it doesn’t have to be graded.

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