I recently visited Gibside Chapel, a late 18th century country chapel near my house in Durham, UK. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my life, but this one stands apart as utterly unique. From the moment of walking in you see this imposingly tall and beautiful three-tiered, central pulpit and sounding board. It stands opposite from the entrance and with its back-lit lighting it feels impressive. It can plainly be seen from every seat in the house. The surrounding walls and ceiling are themselves beautiful, but plain in comparison to the spectacle in the middle of the room. This contrast only serves to heighten the awareness of the pulpit itself.

Usually when I walk into a church, find a seat and unconsciously orient myself to my surroundings. Without knowing it, I feel the distance between myself and the front of the church, measure the density of the people sitting in the pews, and my eyes are drawn to the most prominent feature within my horizon. These features prejudice how I interact with the upcoming service, for better or worse. If the lighting is low, I feel tired. Florescent light bulbs feel sterile. Stone steps feel cold. I don’t often give much conscious thought to a church’s architecture, but it is precisely this thoughtless self-orientation that makes such aesthetics so important.

The pulpit at Gibside Chapel was designed both with this subconscious effect in mind and a “high” view of the sermon. In this way, form and function are united. The sermon would be given from the very top of the pulpit. So preaching is a form of divine intervention – through the sermon, one is given confidence before God and man, comforted in sorrows, and enlivened to good works. Far from being dependent upon rationalist presuppositions, the pulpit at Gibside has a very sub-rational effect which reinforces this belief in the preached word. When seeing the pulpit, one can’t help but be pulled in and captivated. It’s imposing and reverential, but not distant. It is interesting without being distracting. By virtue of its grandeur, one instantly anticipates that something important is going to happen from the top lectern.

If only some new churches would take a clue from this gem of the past.