The Nave

Anglican Nuts And Bolts December 2015 by Father Nico

One of the first things one notices upon entering a church is the nave. This is the name given to the section where the congregation is seated.

When the ancient Greeks and Romans built their temples, they didn’t need to trouble themselves by providing a place for a congregation. Pagan temples, by and large, had no congregation. A god or a goddess might have adherents, but they fulfilled their duties mostly by paying for the sacrifices that were the business of the temple.

Christianity, on the contrary, is intensely communal, and a church’s nave signifies this quality. The nave is a church’s central open space, usually extending from the sanctuary to the front entryway of the church. It is the part of the building reserved for worshipers.

Places to sit are arranged for the faithful so they are able to participate in the sacred celebrations. Unfortunately, desire for better seats within the nave led to the custom of charging pew rents. Renting a pew entitled a person to use a given place at all or any of the divine services in that church. Due to the scandal this practice caused, it was eventually discontinued.

Given that many churches were built in the shape of the crucified Christ, the nave signifies his body. By virtue of the sacrament of Baptism, one becomes a member of the mystical Body of Christ. The following prayer by Saint Teresa of Avila reminds us of the reality of being part of Christ’s body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

The origins of the word nave are uncertain. There are two strong possibilities, both of which evoke profound Christian meaning. Some say it comes from the Latin word navis, meaning ship. This naturally evokes biblical images such as Noah’s ark and St. Peter’s boat.

Others, however, say that the word nave comes from the Greek word naos, meaning temple. If so, it evokes the image of Christianity’s transformation of the pagan world. For it is Christ’s Church, that has rendered the old pagan temples obsolete.

The distinction between the nave and the sanctuary was considered important during the Middle Ages given that the nave was often used for secular purposes. A custom which arose in England was that the parish priest had full authority over the chancel, and was bound to keep it in repair at his own expense, while the parish itself was responsible for the care and maintenance of the nave.

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