Vocabulary —Sanctuary

What is the Sanctuary?

A photo of the Sanctuary looking down the center aisle toward the altar below the cross

Our Sanctuary.

To explain the part of the church called the “Sanctuary” we also need to mention the names of some of the other parts of the church.


The Narthex (as we usually refer to the vestibule or the foyer at Mt. Olive) is the first area encountered upon entering the church through the main doors. We still call this area the Narthex as it represents the point of entry into the church. (In history this area would have separated those who are reconciled to the church from those who are not.) A baptismal, or pool of water used to baptize infants, is kept near the entrance on purpose, as baptism is the “door to the church.”


The nave is the area of the church where parishioners, or members of the church, sit or stand. In Catholic and Protestant churches, this area is comprised of pews. The nave is the central and principal part of a Christian church, extending from the entrance (from the narthex) to the transepts (transverse aisle crossing the nave in front of the sanctuary in a cruciform church) or, in the absence of transepts, to the chancel (area around the altar).

Photo of the inside of the church showing the piano, the MOM screen, and the altar and the cross.

Sanctuary showing the altar, the MOMM screen, the cross, with candles reflected in the top of the piano.


In most churches, the sanctuary is in front of the nave, and kept separate by a railing if possible. This area is home to the altar, pulpit and a chair for the priest or pastor. The pulpit is generally raised and used during the sermon, or instructional time of the service. The pulpit is a raised stand for preachers in a Christian church. The origin of the word is the Latin pulpitum (platform or staging). The traditional pulpit is raised well above the surrounding floor for audibility and visibility, accessed by steps, with sides coming to about waist height.

The altar is the place in the Sanctuary where the pastor prepares communion.

The narrow definition of the Sanctuary refers only to the front part of the room, but in common usage we more often refer to the entire room where we usually gather for worship as the Sanctuary. In that case the sanctuary can mean the entire room and all the parts discussed above.