What, knave! Are you so naïve or vain as not to know a nave?
If you speak Italian, this word will look familiar: pronounced in the Italian way, it’s the word for ‘ship’. It comes from Latin navis, whence navigator. But in English it’s pronounced as an English word, and while it refers to a place where the people are, so to speak, all in the same boat, it is not at sea.
Consider a church, in particular one in a classic cathedral style. It may be cross-shaped; there are probably aisles up the sides separated from the main body of the church by pillars; but in any case there is a main body of the space, with rows of pews or chairs. Imagine those rows as benches in an ancient ship, each filled with oarsmen. Or as seats on a more modern ferry. The church is a ship, and the congregation are the passengers or oarsmen. The priest is the captain. The name for that central section of a church wherein the congregation are seated is the nave. (In a cross-shaped church, the wings to right and left form the transept.) The name for the top part of the cross – or just the front part of the church near the altar – varies, but depending on form and time it may be a sanctuary or chancel.
But ships haven’t always had such a direct interface between captain and crew, or between captain and passengers. And churches haven’t always either. In medieval times, the sanctuary was separated from the nave by a screen, called a rood screen (how rood! actually rood means ‘cross’). The clergy would celebrate the mass and take communion in the sanctuary, and the common folk – who generally didn’t understand the Latin anyway – would be in the nave in their own private devotions, heeding the moment of the elevation of the eucharist by the priest. For those to whom this terminology is opaque, I’m referring to the moment when the priest holds up the consecrated bread and wine which are about to be consumed – in small amounts – by those present. Only back then, the ordinary knaves in the naves didn’t receive it. It was just for the navigators up front. You know, the captain and officers. The clergy.
Those of us who grew up in Protestant churches know sanctuary as the word for the entire interior where the service happens. This is because of the reformation. The people were effectively invited into the sanctuary by erasing the distinction and expanding the sanctuary to include the whole space. In other churches the old terminology still holds, but you don’t have to peek through gaps in the rood screen – or listen to Latin. For those who attend Roman Catholic services, you can thank various reforms – some from centuries past, some just a half century old – for making the experience a more inclusive and engaging one and bringing the priest and the people into a face-to-face relationship in the same space. If you are an atheist, you may think this all naïve, and that is your right. But to those in the pews, it’s all nave. These days everyone is in the same boat.
Except the choir, of course. Choirs are special.