Liturgical Arrangement Typology

One of the glaring omissions in the study of church buildings is the lack of a comprehensive system for describing and classifying buildings. While there are some good systems for historical styles, there is really nothing for modern churches or for liturgical use-based descriptions that is not incomplete or heavily biased. Part of the goal of the Building Catalog portion of this site is to build a basis for such a taxonomy and to test different criteria on a wide range of churches. A little prompting from colleagues and a request on behalf of the Texas Historical Commission for help in classifying the styles of moder churches provided a kickstart to get this project under way in earnest. While we (I am joined in this effort by Timothy Parker) have a substantial amount of work to do on this, and I'm not sure where it will ultimately lead, the basic framework for a four-part taxonomy is in place. I am able to share an overview of the first part and hope to share more as the project progresses.

The first part covers Liturgical Arrangements which provides a very succinct method for adding a use-based typology to existing stylistic descriptions. After experimenting with different sets--everything from 3 to 12 different diagrammatic arrangements--I have settled on a set of four major categories. This set is the least ambiguous when attempting to categorize buildings, and it is the most clearly defined in terms of the relationship between the "body" (or congregation or people or nave or  laity or seating or audience or whatever) to the "focus" (or sanctuary or choir or platform or pulpit or stage or what-have-you).

If you would like a copy of the PDF of the following or have further questions about or suggestions for this project, please email me at[AT]

Liturgical Arrangement as a Typological Basis for the Classification of Christian Church Buildings

Changes in both church-building practices and ecclesial considerations leading up to the 20th century make it difficult to classify modern-era church buildings according to style. The primary distinguishing characteristic of a church shifted from its aesthetically- & historically-determined style to its liturgically- and functionally-determined arrangement. As interest in novel forms diversified the formal landscape of church buildings (a diversity which has not been adequately described in a systematic system based on style), variations in arrangement coalesced into a typological set which may serve a similar purpose as stylistic classification in older churches. This typology can also be applied to the whole history of church buildings. As a supplement to historical styles, classification of the liturgical arrangement adds an extra dimension to the description of church buildings.

Therefore, the preferred method for briefly describing the “style” of any church building would be to denote the historical/aesthetic style, followed by its liturgical arrangement.

The liturgical arrangement describes the relative position and postures of the body of liturgical participants and the focus of the celebration.  The specific nature of the focus will vary in composition and contents with denomination, tradition, or particular instance, but will be identifiable as the sanctuary, stage, or similar function. The absence of a focus, as might be typical of a Quaker meetinghouse, is itself also a defining focus. Further description might include the appointment and relative positions of those physical elements necessary for Christian worship which constitute the focus, but the relationship between body and focus provides the basis for this typology.

The Basic Typology

There are four essential types of arrangements: terminal, antiphonal, integral and central. The diagrams for each show a variation for linear and radial seating, but many further variations in proportion and profile are possible.

In the terminal arrangement, the focus occupies one end of the building with the whole of the body facing in one direction towards it. The focus will be given a distinct area from the congregation.

The antiphonal arrangement has two facing sections of the body to facilitate antiphonal singing or prayer. The focus may be anywhere along the axis between the two sections.

In the integral arrangement, the body partially surrounds the focus so that the focus is an integral part of the form of the body. An auditorium with a thrust platform or a tau cross with the altar at the crossing both fit this type.

The central arrangement has the body distributed around the focus on four sides or 360 degrees. The focus may or may not be the geometric center of the building.

Use of the Typology in Stylistic Descriptions

The basic form of a description using these types would be: “Gothic Revival style; terminal liturgical arrangement,” or

“Modern style; central liturgical arrangement”

Further specificity may be added by qualifying the basic geometry of the seating and the contents of the focus, as in: “Gothic Revival style; linear terminal liturgical arrangement towards a high altar,” or “Modern style; radial, central liturgical arrangement around a pulpit”

For the purposes of historical documentation it is important to note that the liturgical arrangement of a particular building can change without a complete architectural renovation. The original and any adapted arrangements are of significance as they represent significant changes in the attitudes and identities of the inhabitants.

Note also that the profile of the liturgical arrangement may not correspond directly to the form or footprint of the church building. It is possible to have any of these arrangement types in a wide variety of building forms and styles.