Protestant Use of Chapels

Old church buildings often have chapels whose proper use in a Protestant church is not always clear. Their original purpose in the Middle Ages – masses at which the communicants were none but the priest and a server – is incompatible with the doctrine of holy Scripture. For their antiquity, however, it seems a shame to destroy such chapels – and, even if their dismantling were desired, it might not be feasible. Even in the iconoclasms of the Reformation and the next century’s Puritan Rebellion, after all, these chapels escaped destruction, and probably for good reason. Better, I think, is to fit them for another purpose, that what was intended for will-worship of man’s devising, God might use for true worship according to his own ordinance.

Architecturally, it is useful, especially inside a larger church building, to have smaller spaces that break down the larger space to a human scale. A large building that does nothing but overpower the human will in the end be nothing but inhuman and unnatural, and such a thing is not worth our admiration. For even our Lord condescended to be born of a Virgin, taking on human flesh, to save the souls and bodies of men. To erect a building that crushes the human soul with its high and mighty forms is no angelic, but rather a diabolical feat. In the order of nature, however, is a wisdom that gives more than faceless walls of glass or concrete. Even a pyramid, one may remember, when it had shimmering slopes of smooth limestone – surely a massive geometric form – also had a mortuary temple attached to it, with columns that in turn were inscribed with words and pictures. So old chapels in larger church buildings answer to the human need for smaller things related to the great. The great thing was the High Mass, and today is the main service on Sundays and holy days. Let us consider what, in biblical religion, the smaller things might be.

Chantry chapels were built for priests to say requiem masses for the dead who had paid for propitiatory masses to be said on their behalf, in order that they might more quickly leave purgatory. Today, these chapels must no longer be used for the abomination of private masses. They can, however, still serve well as small spaces for stillness and prayer. Here are two pictures (taken by Aidan McRae Thomson) of a chantry chapel in Winchester Cathedral:

It is pious to pray in these places, monuments of the Lord’s faithfulness to the dead. No less pious is it than that Jacob took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it, and named the place Beth-el. As the chantry chapels are detailed in their adornment, a Christian may remember, so Christ will not lose one of the sheep the Father has given him. In the end, the order of the world belongs to God, and he will set all things right. If it helps the prayers of the faithful to kneel in the quiet of these places, let Christians so use them, surrounded by stones that speak of the goodness of God.

Besides chantry chapels, I wish also to discuss side chapels, which like chantry chapels were once used for many private votive masses, offered for exposition but not according to the intent of holy Scripture. Many of these side chapels were dedicated to some saint or another, with candles burning before the saints’ images. Some of these images, such as Our Lady of Walsingham, people even made superstitious pilgrimages to see. So side chapels, with all that has been done in them, have often been places of idolatry. It is clear that their former use must give way to another.

One ground plan with side chapels is that of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge:

The side chapels are off to the sides of the antechapel in the west of the building (the chapel, with the main altar, is in the east), to both the north and the south; a couple of them look like this and this (and another elsewhere).

Side chapel, King’s College, Cambridge.

Perhaps the best use of these chapels is those exercises whose nature spans the public and private. These are the exercises that belong to primers, books of private devotion for laymen providing material complementing the official public services of the Book of Common Prayer. In the Church of England, both during and after the Reformation, primers were put out by public authority to teach the people the devotion of a godly people. It is fitting that such exercises should sometimes take place in architectural spaces that are near but not in the spaces reserved for public worship. For some privacy, or rather for some sound insulation, it is perhaps most useful to have not just parclose screens but more solid walls and doors as in King’s College, Cambridge. The advantage of a door, of course, is that it can also be kept open for exercises that are not quite public and not quite private.

Cambridge. King’s College Chapel (interior, side chapels).

One such exercise that comes quickly to mind is the teaching and learning of catechisms, both the simple catechism that appears in the Prayer Book and more advanced catechisms, such as the several written by Alexander Nowell and the one written in Heidelberg and held by some Reformed churches as a doctrinal standard. For this purpose, altars can be replaced by chairs in which the catechists sit in authority as they examine young Christians in the doctrine of the faith. Using side chapels leaves the central worship space free but connects the doctrinal and devotional training of the young and unlearned with the daily round of public worship. Orthodox Christians of all stripes should recognize the reason of seeing to it that believers learn how worship is based on the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the faith finds expression in true spiritual worship; and so it is most sensible that, through the physical nearness between discursive instruction and worship, students of the faith should gather that the two are closely tied. It is for this reason, I believe, that the classical Prayer Book (1662) also orders that in every parish the clergy instruct and examine the parish children on Sundays and holy days after the second lesson at Evening Prayer, to the end that the words of public church services may come forth from believing mouths, and that the truth of Christ may shape the form of public worship.

Another use of the space, for those who are already being searched hard by the Holy Ghost, is what the Prayer Book calls ‘ghostly counsel’, or spiritual advice. This is the Protestant practice of private confession as distinguished from Rome’s pretended sacramental reconciliation. As Abp James Ussher has already spoken at length of the matter, I shall defer to him in the defence and explanation of the Anglican practice. A bruised reed the Lord will not break; and a side chapel is a good place, with quiet, for a minister to help Christians find the right cures for their sins and pray for their deliverance from all the schemes of the devil. In this manner Protestants can use private confession, not as a way to interpose penances between sinners and forgiveness, but rather as a way to encourage those who are humbling themselves before God and wish to hear the counsel of the wise, whether from clerics or from godly laymen.

A more contested use of side chapels, I expect, is prayer concerning the dead, as represented by the Matins, Lauds, and Evensong of the Dirge (ed. Gerard Moultrie) that appeared in some of the primers of the reign of Elizabeth I. In prayers for the dead and for the bereaved, Anglicans should maintain in pride of place the service given in the Prayer Book. Nevertheless, with sound teaching, Evangelicals should not fear to continue prayers for their brethren beyond the hour of death, but should instead pray boldly in the knowledge that God’s elect will be raised from the dead at the Last Day, that the Lord may keep the faithful departed in his bosom and hasten his return to judge the earth and justify the righteous by virtue of his own righteousness. So, both before the burials and upon the obits of the dead, we ought to commend ourselves while alive to God’s mercy and entrust our departed family and friends to the righteousness of Christ: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. That the Father may be faithful to his Word, every Christian sincerely desires; therefore let no one condemn those who would use side chapels to say dirges for the dead.

The above, I find, are uses of smaller spaces inside churches which would accord with biblical religion and please God. I have no desire to see them used again as they were in the Middle Ages, for practices that perverted the piety of the early Church. Nor do I wish to see them embalmed as museums for an unbelieving people. Instead, I wish to see them used for pious purposes, purposes that would strengthen the faith of the Church according to the Scriptures.


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