Ecclesiastical Architecture (3)

If the preached Word is the most important aspect of public worship, and therefore the sanctuary’s architecture, Reformed Protestantism recognizes that biblically, the sacraments are the second most important aspects. Part of the “outward and ordinary means” of grace, they are especially important in communicating “the benefits of redemption” to His people (WSC, question and answer 88). The Augsburg Confession states that a true church is one where “the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” And both sacraments must be administered only “by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained” (WCF 27:4). Theologically, use of the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper, must be in accordance with and under the authority of Scripture.

Because the sacraments must be celebrated and administered according to the Word, this means architecturally that neither the baptismal font, nor the communion table can dominate or distract from the pulpit. Architectural expressions of the eucharist can dominate the front of a sanctuary. Baptismal fonts can overwhelm the entrance to a nave. On the other hand, many modern churches have no visible architectural reminder of the holy ordinances given by Christ to the body as an expression of His love for us. Reformed Protestantism has historically provided biblical answers for all of these issues. This post will look at the Lord’s Supper; baptism will be next week, though both are of equal importance.

The Reformation confronted one of the most obvious architectural manifestations of errant theology when it not only moved pulpits to the center of sanctuaries, but also removed altars, altar rails, and knocked out transepts. This was not a reactionary stamp of Protestant ownership of formerly Roman Catholic buildings; it was an architectural manifestation of biblical theology which rejected the theology of the mass and the adoration of altars and the re-sacrifice of Christ.

Reformed churches recognized that the Lord’s Supper was “a means to strengthen and nourish the believer in Christ when it is received by the “mouth of faith” (Belgic Confession, Article 35; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 28-30); they placed tables under or beside a central pulpit because celebration of the sacrament must be interpreted and celebrated according to the Word, not the other way around.

The table should also to be in visual proximity to the pulpit because it is theologically inseparable from the Word. Going into a side or separate room to celebrate the Lord Supper removes it from corporate worship and turns the public engagement of God’s people to Christ’s service according to His Word (WCF 27:1) into a private rite.

Protestant churches have also made the table accessible to everyone. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, the Old Testament priesthood ended, leaving the Church with one Mediator between God and Man (Mark 15:38; I Tim. 2:5). Protestant churches recognize this by not having screens, rails, or other obstructions – visual or physical – between the congregation of believers and the table. Rabbi Duncan, referring to the wine, told a woman in his parish, “Take it – it’s for sinners!” Creating a barrier between congregation and means of grace is reflective of a theology that either has levels of blessing for believers, or that limits God’s free grace. Protestants hold to an ecclesiastical, not physical, fencing of the table.

The table must also look like a table. The difference between a “communion table” and an “altar” is not the material from which the article is made. Instead, it is the construction of the piece. Communion “tables” look like common tables with four legs, a top and sometimes a cloth which allows the congregation to see the legs. In contrast, “altars” are shaped like sarcophagi: the sides are closed to the ground so that the altar looks like a large, rectangular box and not a table at which it would be possible to eat a meal. The difference is not minor: the Reformation church in England recognized that an altar was a reflection of Roman Catholicism’s rite of sacrificing Christ every time they celebrated mass. The altar was not a table for the church, but a coffin for Christ’s body.

Protestantism has rejected this, theologically and architecturally. From the Church of England’s decree against stone altars made during Edward VI’s reign, to Canadian court rulings in the 1840’s upholding that decree and ordering a stone altar to be torn down and replaced by a table, to modern tables, Reformed Protestants uphold the view of the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance, and not as a sacrifice of the risen Christ (I Cor. 11:24). As Evangelicals are increasingly enamoured with Anglo-Catholicism and high Lutheranism, and some congregations are trading their tables for alters, reminders of our history and theology in this area are necessary.

In all of this, it is easy to become distracted by the exterior, and miss the amazing gift that the Lord’s supper is. This sacrament is not only a remembrance of Christ’s death for His people, but also seals all the benefits of that death to true believers, seals their spiritual growth and nourishment in Him, fosters further engagement in and to all duties which they owe to Christ, and is a bond and pledge of their communion with each other, as members of His body (WCF 29:1). It is also a witness to a dying world that we have a living Saviour: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26). Most of all, it is a pledge of the believer’s communion with Christ – a foretaste of the fellowship that we will enjoy with Christ for eternity. The architecture is simply a support to the spiritual worship as we obey this command of Christ’s.