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Keeping Pulpits Out of the Closet

A friend of mine came to my office a few weeks ago. His congregation is beginning to think about a sanctuary renovation, and he wanted to talk through some of the dynamics at play when considering liturgical furniture. He had found himself, in an initial meeting, agreeing with those who argued, for example, that a pulpit was both beautiful and indispensable. Five minutes later he found himself agreeing with those who said a pulpit was anachronistic at best and at worst an impediment to hearing the gospel.

As it turns out, the sanctuary at Western Theological Seminary, where I teach (and where he was significantly shaped as a student), was recently renovated. So I reviewed with him some of what I had learned in my own research for that renovation.

First, when considering liturgical furniture there are two important dynamics at play: the functional and the symbolic.

Function. A pulpit is, before anything else, a piece of furniture that does something. It's not just decoration. Simply put, it offers a place for the preacher to situate reading material, whether that's a scroll or a bible or sermon notes. Many ancient texts speak simply of the preacher's "desk" — a horizontal surface for paper placement.

In addition, pulpits are often elevated, and that has two functional benefits. First, it allows the congregation to see the preacher more easily. No wondering where that booming voice is coming from — it's obviously from the wildly gesticulating character in the big box up front.

Second, the elevated pulpit allows the congregation to hear the preacher better. A soundboard is a feature of many protestant pulpits for exactly this reason.

It makes sense then, when specifying what sort of pulpit you might want to use in your sanctuary, to consider how well the pulpit in view performs these functions. And if all this is so, I can imagine a very specific situation where a pulpit does indeed seem functionally unnecessary: In a church that has a very good sound system, and a very tall preacher who memorizes scripture and preaches without notes. But for most other situations, a pulpit of some sort will be genuinely helpful.

Symbol. The pulpit does something. A pulpit is also a piece of furniture that means something. What and how does it mean? Sometimes the pulpit is located centrally, sometimes off to one side; sometimes the pulpit is grandly elevated, sometimes it is at the same level as the congregation; sometimes the pulpit is lightweight and portable, sometimes it is hefty and the preacher diminishes to tiny proportions within it. But in all this variety, the presence of a pulpit declares that proclamation — in scripture and sermon — is, as the Reformers would say, the sine qua non of worship. Without preaching, we might have a lovely Christian gathering, but it's not worship.

Of course, a congregation can certainly hear the Word read and preached without a pulpit in the room. But a prominent pulpit speaks as all symbols do, in ways deeper and truer than our words can articulate. A prominent pulpit says that the community gathers in order to encounter God in the Word A prominent pulpit says that the authority of the preacher behind the pulpit comes not from her own personal charisma but from that church gathered and that Word proclaimed.

The thing is, symbols can be misunderstood. The gigantic and elevated pulpits of many churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries might give the impression of privileging the clerical class over the laity. But in fact, the biggest ones were built precisely to make the preacher look smaller, thereby to underscore the importance of the preaching rather than the preacher.

The potential for misunderstanding suggests that the church needs occasionally to explain itself. Symbols speak deeply — but they also speak ambiguously. They are porous, and can soak up meaning by the words we attach to them.

Wise, then, is the congregation whose pulpit is prominent and whose aesthetic design links it to the other classic pieces of liturgical furniture, the Communion Table and the Baptismal Font. And doubly blessed is the congregation who has learned, by repetition and by experience, the truth of words so commonly associated with the proclamation of God's Word: "This is the Word of the Lord" or "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Or, to paraphrase Isaiah 40:8: "Preachers wither and pulpits fade, but the Word of our God will stand forever."