You may have noticed that I use the pulpit when I preach.
That is not so that I can shout at the congregation, but rather because of the symbolism of the pulpit and the heritage it represents. Some preachers prefer not to use the pulpit because they seem to talk down to people. And yet, the pulpit is actually a symbol that focuses not so much on the preacher, but rather on the Word of God.
From Byzantine times (330-1453 A.D.) onwards, church architecture was adapted from Roman public buildings, where the magistrates processed to the front and sat on an elevated platform, separated by a rail from the common people. Over time that separation became more pronounced as screens were put up to divide the holy events happening in the sanctuary from whatever the common people were up to in the nave of the church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the division developed into the iconostasis, a wall decorated with icons that often completely blocks off the view to the sanctuary, except when the doors are opened. In Europe, rood screens became common in medieval times. These allowed people to glimpse and hear what was going on in the sanctuary, but not see it fully. There was hardly any preaching or teaching in church. There was no shared meal. Instead, the focus was on the mystery, miracle or magic (however it was taken) of the transubstantiation of the elements.
In Europe, the mass was said in Latin, which the common people could not understand. But people were hungry for the Word of God. And so, travelling preachers would speak to the people. Pulpits were erected in some churches for preachers. The construction of these pulpits was influenced by the bema in synagogues, highly ornate preaching platforms with a sounding board to amplify the voice.
During the Reformation many rood screens were removed from churches and pulpits were added. For now the Word of God was proclaimed in the Church; there was no strict separation between clergy and laity; God was not distant and only communicated through the ecclesial representatives or the saints. By having the
Lord’s Table and the pulpit side by side the church affirmed that God was in our midst in word and sacrament. This Jewish (right back to at least Nehemiah) and Evangelical heritage is expressed through the use of the pulpit when the Church gathers in Christ’s name.