In many churches today, pulpits are a thing of the past. Most Baptist churches, for instance, have done away with their pulpits. Instead lecterns have become the norm – indeed, in some churches there is simply a bar stool on which the preacher may perch.
It is all a far cry from church as I first knew it. As a teenager I belonged to a church where the preacher stood within ‘the hand of God’ – a hand which swept down from above and at the bottom resembled the ‘bridge’ of a boat, with had room for six others, three on the left and three on the right. There was a flight of steps leading up to the pulpit, which Frank Goodwin, the preacher of the day, would bound up two at a time with his ‘tails’ flapping (yes, he wore ‘tails’, a sign that he was in the presence of the King of kings!).
When training for the ministry in Manchester, I often found myself preaching in churches with high galleries with correspondingly high pulpits – 12 or more feet ‘above contradiction’. Those were the days when preachers were expected to be able to ‘throw’ their voices around ‘barns’ of churches seating 600 or more people.
My church in Chelmsford was an Edwardian ‘preaching centre’ – it was a massive space, with high balconies on three sides, and a pulpit so high that there was room for a large baptistery underneath (the baptistery was reminiscent of an old-fashioned bathing machine, for after being immersed the candidates disappeared from sight as they made their way out under the pulpit). The height of the pulpit was determined by the balconies – it was the only feature in the church that was visible to all – by contrast the communion table, although set on a platform was invisible to many in the balconies.
Traditionally in Nonconformist churches pulpits are always in a central position, in contrast to the typical Anglican church where the ‘altar’ tends to be central and the pulpit is on the side. As a result, Anglican churches almost always have a central aisle, whereas traditionally most Nonconformist churches have two side aisles, with pews in the centre – this seating arrangement emphasises that worshippers have come primarily to listen to the Word of God rather than go forward for communion. Some churches, however, have moveable pulpits – this was true of first church in Altrincham where the pulpit was normally central, but when the baptistery was opened up the pulpit was moved to the side!
Pulpits often carry with them a good deal of symbolism. I was very much made aware of this when visiting recently one of the oldest Coptic churches in Cairo – the so-called ‘Hanging Church’, where a large central pulpit, which extends into the congregational seating area, is built on 14 white marble pillars and one dark marble pillar: I was told that the 14 white marble pillars represent the 12 apostles + Mark and Luke, and the dark pillar represents Jesus.
At Chelmsford, when we came to redevelop our building, we created a new worship area by inserting a floor at balcony level into the old ‘sanctuary’. At a push we could still seat 400 people, but with the removal of balconies a high pulpit was no longer a necessity. Instead, on the ‘platform’ we had what in effect was a ‘preaching desk’ – it was certainly more than a lectern on which preachers could rest their Bibles. It was a solid piece of furniture. As I wrote in a guide to the redeveloped ‘meeting place’, “The very solidity symbolises the importance we as a fellowship pay to the preaching of God’s Word. If a ‘sacrament’ is a means of God’s blessing his people, then for us Baptists preaching is our primary ‘sacrament’. As a church we offer all kinds of styles of worship and of music, but central to them all is the exposition of the Word of God.”
Yet much as I like to preach from a pulpit, the truth is that pulpits are not essential to Christian worship. Some advocates of pulpits point to the Book of Nehemiah where we read that “Ezra stood on a wooden platform” (Neh 8.4 NRSV – the AV speaks of a “pulpit”) to expound the law to the people of Israel (Neh 8.7: “he helped the people understand). But the presence of ‘the raised platform’ (The Message) was only necessitated by the size of the crowd. Jesus did not use raised platforms – although on one occasion he used a boat (Luke 5.3); indeed, as was the custom for teachers in those days, he delivered ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ sitting down (Matt 5,1). There were no pulpits when the early Christians met together, for at that stage they were meeting in homes. I am told that the earliest known reference to a ‘pulpit’ in a ‘church’ is found in Clement of Alexandria’s Epistle XXXIII, dated around 250 AD.
Some argue that pulpits add authority to the preacher – for it ‘promotes the centrality and authority of the Word of God’. I am told that the size of a pulpit was meant to minimise the presence of the minister who stood in it. In that context I find it interesting that when Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great Welsh preacher, went to Westminster Chapel, he removed the curtains from around the rails of the large central platform (which could easily accommodate 15+ people) so that his whole body could be seen, transforming the pulpit from something which hid the preacher into something which allowed the preacher’s personality to become much more effectively the vehicle of truth – was, I wonder Lloyd Jones aware of Philip Brookes’ definition of preaching as ‘truth through personality’?
Today many preachers walk up and down the platform – and sometimes up and down the aisle – with their Bible in their hand. This preaching style is reckoned to enhance ‘listenability’. Personally, I am not convinced. Certainly, for me, I need at the very least a lectern on which I can place my Bible and my five pages of notes, if I am to preach and teach effectively – and that is true whether I am preaching to a large congregation of 400 or 500 people, or to a small congregation of 15 – 20 people.
So although today when congregations, alas, are much smaller and where electronic screens can help with visibility, pulpits may no longer be necessary, I still believe that most preachers need more than a ‘bar stool’ as a place from which to preach!