Four Liturgical Centers – The Lectern

Lectern at Shadyside Presbyterian Church

This post is one of four covering the principal worship centers.  The lectern, compared to the pulpit, font and communion table, sometimes seems to have a secondary status. This may be because its purpose is misunderstood and diluted.  From the lectern we receive the grace of hearing God’s Word read.  In many churches, much of worship (other than preaching and the sacraments) is conducted from the lectern.  This is fine, as long as we do not lose sight of the sacramental nature of four main worship components.

View of chancel at Shadyside Church – lectern toward right

In the Reformed tradition, our worship is in Word and Sacrament – as is true in some other traditions, as well. The Sacraments are the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.  We have, also, the Word proclaimed (preaching) and the Word read (scripture).  Since the Reformation, so much emphasis has been placed on preaching that scripture reading may be perceived as merely preliminary to proclamation.  There is, however, a distinct and inherent grace  imparted during the active hearing of the Word read.

A properly chaste lectern at Bower Hill Presbyterian Church

A high view of the importance of a lectern is neither universal nor a continuous element of  worship through Church history.  Today, many advocate a “table of the Word” from which scripture is both read and preached.  In 1964, the influential author on Protestant worship, James F. White wrote, “…why should the reading of the lessons be separated from the preaching of the Word?  Indeed, placing the Bible on a lectern apart from the pulpit suggests that the sources and authority of printed Word and preached Word are different.  Would it not be better to have the Word read from the same spot where it is expounded?”

A Table of the Word of Ambo in a Roman Catholic Church

There is no indication whether the Primitive Church set aside a place to read scripture in worship.  We do know that some early house churches had a “bishop’s chair,” and that Jewish custom was to stand to read scripture and to sit to teach from it.  Apparently, the lectern shares a common origin with the pulpit:  the ambo.  The ambo was a raised platform extended from the chancel into the nave.  Its roots were in Roman civic buildings, where the ambo was used to expound upon a point of view.

Ambo extending from chancel in an early basilica church

A clearly distinct lectern came into use in the middle ages, particularly in churches intended for use by monastic orders. Worship in such places took place chiefly within the chancel.  The portion of the chancel at liturgical West (toward the church entrance), called the choir, was occupied by  “minor clergy.”  On the chancel centerline in the choir, a lectern served to read the scripture lessons.

St. John’s Chapel Chichester, Sussex, England

After the Reformation, many experiments with the shape and arrangement of the worship space were tried. In some cases, such an emphasis was placed on preaching and the pulpit that the lectern was omitted.  Meetinghouses sometimes made a finer functional distinction and employed the so-called “triple decker.”  A hierarchy of elevation placed the pulpit at the top, a lectern in the middle for reading scripture and a desk on the bottom for conducting other worship elements.

During the nineteenth century, the Cambridge-Camden Society called for a return to medieval architecture and worship. The use of a lectern was one aspect they advocated.  This was favored also in the “second wave” Gothic Revival, led by Ralph Adams Cram.  In his book “Church Building,” he instructs:

“When the pulpit stands on the Gospel side of the church, as should always be the case, the lectern is usually placed in a corresponding position on the Epistle side; but a usage that is now being restored is the placing of the lectern in the middle of the space between the rows of choir stalls…In many ways this position is more convenient and dignified than any other.”

The Gospel and Epistle sides are the left and right, respectively, as the congregation faces the chancel. Never reticent, Cram proscribes and prescribes the form of the altar:

“There is no possible reason why it should be in the form of an eagle;…The realistic bird with natural feathers is, of course, bad art…The triangular lecterns, such as we find all over Europe, are not only convenient, but uniquely beautiful; and we can only hope that their use may be restored.”

Cram’s recommendation for the lectern on the Epistle side became nearly a standard of church architecture in Protestant churches through at least the first half of the twentieth century. As the auditorium worship space regained ascendance, especially in Evangelical churches, the lectern (and eventually the pulpit) disappeared.

Triangular lectern of the type Cram recommends – Calvary Episcopal

Cram was meticulous in his use of Christian symbolism.  The ample symbolic carving on Shadyside’s lectern is the design of his former employee, Charles Marcus Osborne.  The reading desk is supported by the four winged creatures representing the Gospel writers.  The pedestal is formed by three intertwined columns, symbolic of the Trinity.  Between the columns we find the rose and thistle, emblematic of Christ and humanity.  On the reading desk a book is carved:  the Bible, God’s Word.  The legend “Lux In Tenebris” means light in the darkness.

In this church, where the Word proclaimed, the Word read and the Word made visible in the sacraments are crucial in worship, the lectern is substantial, meaningful and beautiful; as is the Word.  Learn about The Font.

About Tim Engleman

I am a semi-retired mechanical engineer with an interest in church architecture.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s