April 20, 2016 by: Ben Heimsath

Just about every project in the office right now involves some major change or addition to create an effective narthex, a space to gather and prepare for worship. Many of the firm’s recently completed projects have included narthex additions. These spaces have not only been successful in fixing circulation problems, they have transformed the experience of arriving and gathering for worship and other congregation activities.

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The narthex for St. Albert of Trapani includes a transition zone in preparation for worship.

So why don’t historic and older churches have narthexes? Some traditionalists even reject the term and the concept, simply because they don’t see any large gathering spaces in the old edifices they so admire. For me, the answer is obvious. The traditional church building didn’t have a narthex because traditional ministries of the day didn’t need them.

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The old St. Mary’s Catholic Church had steps right up to the door. With no room for a true narthex, our preservation plan included a level gathering space outdoors.

Think about the experience of attending a typical American church 150 - 200 years ago. Members lived in the neighborhood. Most if not all walked to church. When they entered through the narrow doorway an usher was there to hand out prayer books or song books. People didn’t work on Sunday. They prepared at home to go to church. They dressed in their Sunday best. They washed and groomed and used the facilities long before they got to their place of worship.

After the service, the minister parked himself outside the entry doors. One-by-one he was able to share a quick greeting. Parishioners cued up in the center aisle, waiting until their turn for a handshake or quick comment. Once the niceties were exchanged, the family went home for Sunday dinner. Social time after church meant company coming over. Families took turns having the minister and his family at their homes.

Now think about modern ministries and the number of ways a central gathering space functions in providing for some of these same activities. If anyone suggests these spaces aren’t somehow legitimate, they must be planning for ministries in the past century, not for ones to come. A special space like this deserves special consideration. Using the term “narthex,” is entirely appropriate.

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The narthex for Holy Trinity Episcopal Church links both parking areas and the worship space to all other church functions.

The word “Narthex,” though a relatively new term, refers to an archaic word for the porch or ante-chamber in front of the old cathedrals in Europe. It has been embraced by many liturgists and church planners because a foyer or lobby that leads to a worship space has distinct characteristics. Ideally, the narthex is a place to greet and socialize as congregation members gather for any number of church functions. But when the gatherers are preparing to enter the sanctuary or worship space, the narthex becomes a place of transition from the secular world to the sacred.

For more about the narthex, click on the button below to download an extended discussion on its importance and role in gathering people together and preparing them for worship: 

The Narthex: Why is it Important?

Our post from several years ago, “What is a Narthex,” continues to be one of the most popular page on our website.

Sacred Architecture