Since the founding of the Roman Catholic Church in the early days of Christendom, the altar has always been in the center of the chancel area, with the pulpit on one side of the of the chancel and the lectern (from where announcements and scripture are read) on the other side. This arrangement of the chancel area is called the "divided chancel." The purpose of the divided chancel is to make the altar and the presence of Christ the center of attention, while putting the priest or presiding clergy to one side or the other.
The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and adjourned by Pope Paul VI in 1965, primarily addressed making the Roman Catholic Church more relevant to the modern world. This three-year gathering adopted several changes to the Mass, some of which related to the position of the priest while officiating at the altar. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it was mandatory for the priest to stand directly in front of the altar with his back to the congregation. But the Council changed that by offering non-mandatory suggestions for how the priest can position himself to help worshippers feel more connected with the Mass.
Now the altar may be pulled out a short distance from the wall, with the priest addressing the congregation from behind the altar. A more common practice is leaving the altar positioned against the wall and having the priest stand directly in front of the altar. In both instances, the priest is facing the congregation rather than the altar. But always, the altar in a Roman Catholic Church is in the center -- the divided chancel.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century changed that for non-Roman Catholic churches. The Reformation was not one event in a single location, but a series of events that took place in various parts of Europe, the end result being many varieties or denominations of Protestant churches rather than a united Protestant Church.
In an effort to put distance between themselves and the Roman Catholic Church and also to make a theological statement, most of the Protestant churches over a period of time abandoned the divided chancel and placed the pulpit in the center of the chancel area. The exact arrangement of the chancel area varied from one church to another, but usually the pulpit was placed in the center of the raised chancel, with a communion table, which also served as an altar, in front of the pulpit and commonly on the level of the congregation rather than on the elevated chancel area. The communion table usually had a cross on it with an open Bible in front of the cross.
The significance of all of this was several-fold. The Protestant churches, though different in their specific theologies, shared in some basic rudiments: that the final authority on all matters of salvation rested with the holy scriptures rather than with adherence to church rites, hierarchical edicts, or religious ceremonies; that one is justified not by good works but by faith; and that each believer can communicate directly with God and does not need to go through a member of the clergy (the priesthood of all believers). The physical locations of the pulpit and the altar were visual affirmations of these rudiments of Protestantism.
The placement of the pulpit in the middle of the chancel area with the open Bible on the communion table in front of the pulpit was a visual affirmation of the importance of the scripture and the spoken word. The communion table being on a slightly lower level than the pulpit maintained the importance of the sacrament, but made it clear that the spoken word was more important than ceremony.
Through the years, Protestant leaders, clergy and congregations came to forget or ignore the history of the chancel area, and the placements of the pulpit and altar gradually became hit-and-miss preferences of those in decision-making positions.
In the mid 1900s, a majority of Protestant denominations began adhering again to the practice of having a divided chancel, putting greater emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ and less on the clergy. But in recent years, members of the clergy of nearly all denominations have appeared to take the development of the electronic microphone as a sign from God that they should simply wander during the service from one place to another. They seem to have put out of their minds that where they place themselves during worship transmits a message to the worshippers, as do their spoken words: it may be a message of clarity -- or one of wandering. Likewise, it appears to me that many members of today's congregations fail to realize that the placement of the altar and the pulpit and the position of the clergy during worship transmit visual messages about the theology of their congregations.
From what I know about the curriculum of most theological seminaries, there is little emphasis currently being placed on the issues I have focused on. But as the Christian Church of all varieties -- Roman Catholic and Protestant -- is in competition with the many enticements of today's modern world for the hearts and souls of men, women and children, it seems to me that we who care should take notice not only of what is said during our worship services, but also of what is done and how it is done.
I am not suggesting to Rome or to the leadership of Protestant denominations or independent churches how your worship areas should be arranged or where your clergy should be positioned. Those are clearly your decisions. But I strongly encourage the local leadership of all parishes and congregations -- Roman Catholic and Protestant -- to give prayer and thought to the theology of worship you want portrayed by your worship services and to ask yourselves if, in fact, that theology is being portrayed.