The Episcopal Church is a member of the world-wide Anglican Communion of churches. As the American progeny of the Church of England, the traditions and architecture of both its parish churches and diocesan cathedrals have been strongly influenced by the same in the United Kingdom. Episcopal churches and their Anglican cousins look very much like older Roman Catholic churches at first glance due to a shared heritage.
Many Episcopal churches have their doors painted red. The color traditionally signifies that refuge from persecution could be offered inside. There is also the story that doors are painted red to signal the church's Anglican heritage since the English flag's primary color is red. Once inside the door, you are in the entrance area of the church called the vestibule. Some churches following an Anglo-Catholic tradition may have a font of holy water by the door for congregant use if they choose. The vestibule leads to the rear of the church called the narthex. This traditionally was the area in the early church where non-baptized believers would go to be instructed in the Christian faith. Usually an Episcopal church's baptismal font will be located there off to the side and infant baptisms performed there out of respect for the tradition.
Next comes the nave where the congregant seating is located. Most Episcopal churches use pews for seating. When you sit down, you will see a red Book of Common Prayer in the cubby in front of you. The church uses this prayer book to guide congregants through the responsive liturgies. You will also notice either a row kneeler or individual cushion next to your feet. Many congregants kneel to pray during certain parts of the service. In the middle of the nave and often to the sides are aisles. They are designed and utilized for liturgical processions and easy access for congregants to partake of the Eucharist.
The aisles lead to the bar-shaped transept area. The transept is often utilized for "low-church" services where a movable altar is placed. Either side of the transept may have small chapels in bigger Episcopal churches or may lead to other parts of the church.
What's next depends on the church's architectural preference. Many small churches place their altar just behind the transept. Larger churches and diocesan cathedrals tend to follow a more traditional pattern of placing the church's chancel next. The chancel contains the clergy's sitting area, the choir area and at least one raised lectern for the readings and sermon. Many churches have two lecterns: one for the readings and one for the sermon. At least one lectern will have a large Bible since Episcopal (and most Anglican) churches traditionally do not have Bibles in pews. Most lecterns are positioned off to the side in order to have the central focus of the sight line on the altar and the Eucharist.
Behind the chancel is the sanctuary containing the high altar. It is called that because it is usually on an elevation so all congregants may see it in a large church or cathedral. The majority of Episcopal churches have the celebrant go behind the altar to perform the Eucharist service while facing the congregation. Older churches and more traditionalist ones may have their high altar flush with the back sanctuary wall and the celebrant will perform Eucharist service with his back to the congregation.
Most Episcopal churches will follow an Anglican tradition of having an altar rail with kneel cushions just in front of their altar. Anglicans share the same practice as their Roman Catholic cousins of kneeling to receive communion whenever possible. The rails serve as both as a reminder of the sacredness of the Eucharistic area and as a practical measure to limit access. Before sports arenas, English cathedrals were used as gathering places for events such as animal fights. The rail helped to keep the critters and their "fans" away from the sacred area.
Usually to the sides of the chancel area are the sacristy and robing rooms. The sacristy is where the Eucharist bread and wine are kept when not being used along with clergy vestments and parish records. Clergy may use the sacristy for robing or for private prayer. Many churches also have robing rooms for congregants to vest or use for other purposes.
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