A House of Common Prayer

St. Margaret’s chancel arch.
Photo: Jamie Spiro

The main worship space of a typical Anglican church comprises a nave, a chancel, and a sanctuary. The nave is the largest part of the worship space, and contains all the pews, the pulpit, and the lectern. The chancel is the front part of the worship space and often contains prayer desks and choir pews set perpendicular to the pews in the nave. The sanctuary is the furthermost part of the chancel, is usually cordoned off by a communion rail, and contains the altar (or communion table).
By contrast, a typical Catholic church only comprises a nave and a sanctuary. The classic form of a Catholic church is the Roman basilica, which is a nave terminating in an apse, a semi-circular sanctuary often topped by a half-dome. The only Anglican church in Rupert’s Land that I know of with a Roman basilica plan is St. Michael and All Angels (1920), which was conceived and built as a conscious turning towards Rome. Lower-church Protestants, including some Anglicans, pointedly refer to the whole worship space as the “sanctuary” to reflect the priesthood of all believers, even if in practice the front part of the worship space is still usually somehow distinguished from the main seating area. But, notwithstanding differences in terminology and a great variety in building styles, virtually every Anglican church in Rupert’s Land, large or small, high or low, old or modern, employs the tripartite division of nave, chancel, and sanctuary.
Especially in bigger, older Anglican churches, the nave and chancel are architecturally articulated as distinct spaces, often so much so that they are almost two different buildings sharing a party wall pierced by a chancel arch. Examples of such two-cell churches in Winnipeg include Holy Trinity (1884), St. Philip’s, Norwood (1904), St. Luke’s (1905), St. Margaret’s (1912), St. John’s Cathedral (1926), and All Saints’ (1927). In any of these churches, when you’re sitting in a pew in the nave, you’re looking through a prominent chancel arch into the chancel and sanctuary. The Modernist churches in Rupert’s Land tend to comprise a single, uninterrupted worship space, but they still demarcate nave, chancel, and sanctuary, even if only with minimal means such as steps or even the play of light. The chancel in St. George’s, Crescentwood (1958), for example, is marked by a broad shaft of light coming from a north-facing full-height clerestory window that lines up exactly with the width of the chancel between nave and sanctuary.
In terms of its historical development, the main reason that the rectangular chancel was preferred to the Roman-style semi-circular sanctuary seems to have been largely practical in nature, and determined in part by the close connection between the monastic orders and parish churches in medieval England. Many parish churches were owned and operated by monastic orders, and the monks would occupy the stalls in the chancel that are nowadays occupied by the choir. Fluctuating numbers of parishioners and monks might prompt renovations to either the nave or chancel, and the two-cell church with a rectangular nave and rectangular chancel is extremely easy to renovate and enlarge. Often, a church would be built as a one-cell structure with nave and chancel articulated by a rood screen midway down its length, only to have a second cell added at some later date. And, indeed, we can see examples of this same process in Rupert’s Land, where both St. Philip’s and St. Margaret’s were initially one-cell structures to which larger chancels were later added.
The tripartite division of nave, chancel, and sanctuary is a function of the sacredness of church space. The sanctuary is so called because it is place of the holy Eucharist. But, what is particularly interesting about the typical Anglican church is not so much the distinction between sanctuary and nave, but the survival of the chancel as a distinct space. Extended chancels developed in large part to house monks, and with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, extensive chancels became largely redundant.
So why do we still have chancels at all? What seems to have happened is that the chancel was reimagined and repurposed as the place from which the common worship of the parishioners was led. In older times, people in the nave played a somewhat limited role in the liturgy, which was primarily performed in the chancel by the clergy, in Latin. Now with the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy consisted of a back-and-forth between priest and congregation. The priest led the service from a prayer desk in the chancel, and during the Eucharist was installed in the sanctuary. That is, Anglican liturgy came to consist of chancel/nave and sanctuary/nave exchanges between priest and congregation. Thus, every line of The Book of Common Prayer (and by extension the BAS) corresponds to nave, chancel, or sanctuary.
According to Richard Hooker in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, whatever special dignity attached to churches is a function of their use as houses of prayer, and specifically of common prayer. But prayer can only truly be common – that is, communal – if it has some determinate form so that the community can perform it as a common act: “The public prayers of the people of God in Churches thoroughly settled did never use to be voluntary dictates proceeding from any man’s [sic] extemporal wit.” In order to be public and communal, such prayer must consist of exchanges between a leader and a congregation.
Such is the liturgy laid out in The Book of Common Prayer, and it perfectly corresponds to the formal arrangement of the church fabric as nave, chancel, and sanctuary. For prayer to be common prayer, there must be a congregation in the nave and there must be some worship leader at the prayer desk in the chancel or at the altar in the sanctuary. The basic antiphon of our communion is the mutual invocation of divine presence, the Lord be with you / and also with you. This is how our churches are sacred spaces, that God makes himself present where his people are gathered to worship him publicly and communally. And, it is the tripartite division of nave, chancel, and sanctuary that allows the people of God to pray together, so that the church building may function as a House of Common Prayer.

Graham MacFarlane is Director of Program at Manitoba Pioneer Camp, and rector’s warden at St. Philip’s, Norwood.


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