Eastern Christians often refer to the area behind the iconostasis as the “Holy Place.” We Latins prefer to call it the Sanctuary. Our separated brethren in the Protestant sects typically refer to the entire meeting-house in this way, the place of prominence typically being the pulpit, or indeed the quire.
When I did my tour of duty as organist at a United Church of Christ, a denomination in the lineage of the Reformed Churches, the minister would go up into the pulpit for the proclamation of the Word, whilst their commemoration of the Supper of the Lord was celebrated on a table beneath the pulpit, on a level with the congregation and no more than a few feet in front of the foremost pews (versus Deum, oddly enough).
In the Eastern Churches, on the other hand, the highest point of the Mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated behind closed doors in the Holy Place. In the traditional liturgies of the Latin Rite, this too is the case, the gates to the rail being closed for most of the Mass, and the words of Consecration spoken behind a veil of silence.
Access to the Sanctuary, too, is limited in both of these traditions. In the East, only the priest may enter through the Royal Doors in the middle of the Sanctuary. Deacons and other lesser ministers enter through the Deacon Doors on the side. Readers do their appointed task from the midst of the nave. In the traditional Western rites, under no conceivable circumstance would an un-vested layman (that is, a layman not visibly acting as a substitute for a missing cleric) have had any reason to enter the Sanctuary during the liturgy.
The United Church of Christ, of course, has none of this, and draws no distinction between the nave and sanctuary of the church building, calling the entire house where the congregation meets a Sanctuary, under the thesis presumably that where two or three gather in His name He is present in their midst.
But what are we to make of our own traditions? Surely in these days of lay ministers of everything, of female servers who could not possibly be clerics and whose vesture makes no pretension of doing anything of the kind (that is if we believe the line about the alb as a vestment that is not specifically clerical, as opposed to the cassock and surplice, a line which I find odd, given that a surplice is nothing but an abbreviated alb), of men and women in layclothes going in and out and in and out of the Sanctuary all through the Mass, we must be puzzled by the strict exclusivity of the past.
Really, one would have a right to be puzzled about the insistence in the past on keeping up the appearance of restricting the Sanctuary to clerics when in reality laymen were darting in and out of it all the time in the form of small boys and the older, married, expert masters of ceremony, or of lay choristers vested in the quire stalls in some of the great cathedral churches.
Clearly what is at stake here is not any real and necessary restriction of the Sanctuary to clerics, or even to men, since dispensations could be, and were, granted for laity and, in some female religious houses, for women to perform their functions in the Holy Place.
So why does the tradition insist on this point? Why do we not, like the United Church of Christ, simply recognize that there is no reason why the laity cannot be allowed into the Sanctuary, insist upon ourselves as the Body of Christ, and gather round the Lord’s table as at St. Mary’s, Brisbane, Australia, the suppressed progressive parish whose many and dissenting congregants packed around a table in the middle of the nave to celebrate Eucharist?
The answer is that liturgy is in part our teacher about the relationship between God and Man, and exists in any splendor and ceremony at all to let us gain though in our bodies some experience of and participation in the heavenly realities which we celebrate. It does this by symbol, and when these symbols are compromised, when mere words, orthodox though they be, are substituted for these signs, liturgy becomes a less effective teacher of our whole persons, becoming more and more a rarefied and intellectualized experience.
The Sanctuary, the Holy Place, is Heaven, and the nave is Earth. It is to Heaven that we strive, but to which we have not yet arrived. The priest acts in the person of Christ, to Whose life he is intimately conformed by Holy Orders. The power of the symbol comes in the Eastern Rites many times. The Deacon comes forth from the Sanctuary and leads the people, like a messenger from God, in the Litanies, the Word of God in the readings is proclaimed in the midst of the Earth. The Gifts, which represent Christ, come from Heaven down to Earth at the Great Entrance before returning to Heaven, and then, at the climactic moment of the Mass, Heaven meets Earth at the communion, the ministers standing at the foot of the Holy Place, the men and women approaching from the nave and carrying Christ back with them to continue the work of the Incarnation in the world. The same thing happens in the Latin Rite, when the faithful kneel at the altar rail, a part of the altar itself.
If all is Earth, then Christ comes from Earth, and Earth remains where it is. But Heaven came down to Earth, and raises Earth up to Heaven. The Holy of Holies, Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, begin each liturgy confined to the recesses of Heaven, the sole possession of the priest and his heavenly cortege. And at each liturgy, the Holy of Holies is taken from the Holy Place and, through the assembly, finds its place upon the Earth, effecting what it signifies, the work of God’s becoming Man, so that Man might become God.
What is perceived as clericalism, then, does not diminish the laity, it exalts them. Sacrality, confined in the Jewish temple to the domain of priestcraft, is brought from the Holy Place out into the mundane by a priest who, like the High Priest he represents, in humble service bestows life upon us. We are to do the same to world we encounter after Mass has ended.