Liturgical Practices: the Architectural Setting

Fr. Michael, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. III, No. 4, December 2000. First in the series 'Western Rite Orthodoxy'.

The purpose of this series of articles is not to be a detailed, scholarly exposition of the Church in the British Isles, century by century for the first thousand years of Christianity. It is rather to move fairly quickly via a sketch of the historical base the point of looking at where we should be today, as we pick up our Orthodox heritage, and carry it into the third millenium.


The Western Rite in the British Isles evolved from first century Ephesian importations, probably with later input from Marseilles. There are no church buildings remaining in the British Isles from that period. The best indication that we have is that the Church in those days was probably largely a domestic situation and indeed we have some supporting domestic Christian architectural remains from the Roman period. The Romans introduced the classical Roman villa into the somewhat warmer Britain of those early days and the form was adopted by Romano-Britons of standing in the administration. IT was a design very easily adapted for small to medium scale worship.

Very early on, the Christian Faith appeared in the indigenous community. This is not the place to go into the order or manner of the indigenous Church, but there is some reason to believe that the indigenous Church came into distinct existence within the first fifty or so years. There is some good archaeological reason to believe that the Church in the British Isles (CiBI) adopted a fairly aggressive policy of placing its churches directly on top of pagan places of worship. It seems possible, given some scant evidence in Wales, that they may have initially incorporated occasional existing druidic structures.

It is thought that a common Christian presence in some parts of the country in the second and third centuries might have been lone semi-eremitic Priests living close to a Chapel to which local Christians resorted. Such western eremitic Priests are recorded by AD 80 (e.g.: St. Aime). Certainly there are remains of quite small early Chapels in various parts of the country.

More substantial structures seem to have followed the regularisation of eremitic activity into coenobitic monasteries or settlements of hermits. The cathedrals at Glendalough and Iona although later than this, are replacements of earlier permanent church buildings. Saint Bede in his life of Saint Benedict Biscop gives us a detailed picture of the work carried out at Jarrow on the Monastery church there. Certainly by the fifth - seventh centuries, the Church is building all over the British Isles, much as one would expect any long established Church to do.

The lasting changes from the seventh century to the eleventh century, in the vast majority of villages and towns are not really readily evident to other than the expert. The "two box" or "three box" or "five box" church is the norm, according to the need. The earlier Celtic churches - one box chapels - often gained a second box in the form of an added Sanctuary, enabling the original box to be used for an enlarged congregation. The east wall was pierced by a round arch, often little more than a large doorway, as is the case at Saint Laurence, Bradford on Avon. Bede, in the description of Saint Benedict Biscop's church at Jarrow, gives us the first description of the Rood Screen, filling an enlarged version of this arch, and details the icons used. The church described was probably at that stage a two or three box church, built of stone, with glass windows, some of them stained glass, which as Saint Bede explains, was coming into use at the time.


A year after Saint Benedict Biscop began the Monastery of Saint Peter at Jarrow, in AD 683, he set about building a stone church for the monastery. It was built in the Romanesque style. A year after the laying of the foundations, the church was complete enough for the stained glass windows to be fitted. (The remains of the stained glass workshop are at Jarrow, and stained glass windows from the end of the seventh century are displayed). Both lower windows and the clerestory were glazed. Saint Benedict then decorated the interior: An icon of the Mother of God, icons of the Twelve Apostles, fixed to the wooden "entablature" reaching from wall to wall in the narrow central arch. The south wall had icons of incidents from the Gospels and the north wall had icons of scenes from the Book of Revelation.

The translation of Bede's description using the word "entablature" is important since the sense from Bede is of a deep panel containing the icons, reaching between the capitals of the half pillars on each side of the arch. in other words the embryonic Rood Beam/Screen.

With the civilising of the Anglo-Saxon invaders and their inclusion into the CiBI, there was an increase in the Romanesque decoration of churches which otherwise maintained more or less the same basic floor plan. While the newcomers did build wooden churches, of which only a very few examples have survived, those majority of survivals of the period are stone.


This is one of those cruciform Saxon churches in Winchester Diocese, others being at Breamore, Colemore, and Ropley, where the north and south porticos are narrower than the nave, whereas at Nether Wallop, the porticos are the same width and the plan is almost Romanesque.

At St. Andrew's, the space over the chancel arch is painted with a "Christ in Majesty" in the style of the "Winchester School". The traditional theme of a "Majesty" is a seated figure of Christ giving a Benediction, enclosed in a framed oval, with a mandorla being supported by flying angels, as can be seen at Bradford-on-Avon. The painting has been dated before the Great Schism, as being executed between AD 1000 and 1030.

The Normans, in widening and heightening the chancel arch, destroyed the central motif of the painting, leaving only fragments of the angels and the very tip of the mandorla, sufficient however to enable a reasonable impression to be made. It has been suggested that a painting of such high quality, of about the year 1030, may imply Royal patronage. It follows that the wall on which it is painted must be of at least the same date. The present church is therefore of an Saxon foundation. It is similar to an example of the expanded church, although by this time, churches were routinely built as five box churches from the start.


This is another of the cruciform Anglo-Saxon churches, this time with only one portico (north) intact. The structure of the church is otherwise complete and although it has been replaced by a much later building nearby, it is still in regular use. The Chancel Arch here, was never altered by the Normans, so we see it as a low, round-arched door about three feet by six inches wide. Because the Saxons, while maintaining the Celtic floor plan, greatly increased the height, frequently to twice the width of the building, the acoustics are surprisingly good, even for a congregation separated from the Sanctuary by a full-height wall, pierced only by a small arch. Such is Saint Laurence church.

These, then are examples of first millennium churches still in use today. What can we draw from this for our own use?


In order to convince the majority of Orthodox that our Orthodoxy is legitimate, we must be seen to be picking up from the last point of our unquestioned Orthodoxy.

No sensible person will argue that nothing valid has happened in Western Christianity in the second millennium. Nevertheless, we need to think through just what it is we collect from that period to bring with us into this re-awakening of our western Orthodoxy.

The point therefore, is that we be clearly seen to be picking up from where our Orthodox forefathers left off, and working carefully from that point. Here, in this series of articles, we are concerned with the Divine Liturgy, its setting and ceremonial. That is the limit of our interest, so let us address just those points.

In a sense, with the externals of worship as with the theology that we are expressing in our worship, it is necessary firstly, to see what we have at the last point of our Orthodox history before we can look at how that might be used today.

Whether one likes it or not, modern western taste tends to avoid the over-decorated, fussiness common to Anglican Victorian Gothic Revival, Roman Catholic Baroque and Eastern Orthodox Byzantine churches. We are well aware that the late British and Anglo-Saxon churches were far from the bare stone walls that remain to us today. For evidence of this we can look at the slightly later post-Schism churches which have survived with their decoration, churches such as Saint Thomas in Salisbury with its marvelous "Doom" filling the wall above the chancel arch, and Saint Michael and All Angels, Copford with its frescoed interior dating from just a hundred years after the Great Schism, including fresco icons in the apsidal sanctuary which would gladden the heart of any Byzantine. Our forefather's Orthodox churches were extensively decorated, the best early pointer to this is the famous description by Saint Bede of the church at Jarrow.

Nevertheless, the relatively austere architectural form of the seventh and eighth century churches is something that we should bear in mind. Then there is the fairly obvious fact that Western Rite Orthodoxy is likely to be building for small congregations. Given that the Liturgy that we use is a pre-Schism form, the separated Sanctuary, small size and clean lines of architecture seem to be an excellent architectural setting and a credible starting point for a restored Western Rite Orthodoxy. Once the classical form of the church has been determined, one really need go little further than to adapt Bede's description of Jarrow, to proceed with a phased completion of the interior of the church as funds allow.

A sanctuary separated from the nave by a wall pierced by an arch. That wall may be the remnant wall seen in many later post-Schism churches, represented by little more than a chancel arch stretching the entire width of the building. Such an Arch is filled with the light western Rood Screen, having a lower rank of icons depicting the Twelve Apostles. Above the Screen is the Holy Rood, on the beam supporting the Rood, are smaller icons of saints peculiar to the district or favoured by the Parish. Above the Quire Doors and immediately below the Rood is the Last Supper. The lower rank of the Quire Doors has the Archangels. The main icons of Christ and Our Lady are to either side of the Arch. Such a screen preserves our western heritage and allows a virtually uninterrupted view of the Sanctuary.

Inside this Screen is the Sanctuary. If there is a mixed choir (as most Parishes will have) it is located outside this screen. Holy Communion would be distributed in front of the Quire Doors, as there would be no communion rails inside the Sanctuary. A sort of "three person wide" prayer desk can be placed there for the purpose with a houseling cloth over it, or people can receive standing, with servers holding a houseling cloth.