What architectural structure is appropriate for a Christian church building? An Anglican church you walk into in England will probably look like this:
The space, less the aisles on either side, is more like a long rectangle than a square. The pews sit in the nave, which symbolizes earth; in front, raised on a platform (a daïs?), is the more or less deeply recessed area called the chancel, which symbolizes heaven. Used mainly to celebrate the Eucharist, the chancel is traditionally dominated by the communion table. It’s the part of the church ‘where poor men [poor in spirit, that is] durst not presume to come’ except upon the word of our Lord – frankly, I even think it’d be good if we removed our shoes every time we entered a chancel to take Holy Communion.
Minister. Lift up your hearts.
People. We lift them up unto the Lord.
Minister. Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.
People. It is meet and right so to do.
My church, Chinese for Christ Berkeley, is very different architecturally from a typical Anglican church. The building, which once housed a Christian Science church, is much more similar in the general outlines to New York City’s First Church of Christ, Scientist:
To be sure, CFC Berkeley looks much less sleek, and the now-unused organ is hidden, but it too has the side balconies (now modified to be Sunday school rooms) and the lack of space up front. As the church building pictured has no chancel at all, so CFC has one so shallow that it hardly serves as one, and people call it the ‘stage’ (to this name I strongly protest, because the name really matters). This is suboptimal, and I mean that theologically.
I have no quarrel with the beauty of the Christian Science church building, but the lack of a chancel is a problem for a real Christian church, whose worship is about an encounter with a God who exists outside of us as eternally an Other. The point here is not distance but distinction, which the configuration of space ought to express. To further analyse the absence of a chancel, I suggest that it indicates the lack of an I-Thou relationship in prayer, not consummate fellowship – and the same for the Eucharist. What instead is a stage? Rather than a place of numinous relational encounter, a castle of delusion, a place for a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The question of chancel or no chancel, then, is a question of the relationship between God and man. Rather than being merely a practical space for someone to speak in front of an audience, a chancel manifests our belief of what God is.