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A 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. From the late medieval period onwards, pulpits have often had a canopy known as the sounding board, tester or abat-voix above and sometimes also behind the speaker, normally in wood. Though sometimes highly decorated, this is not purely decorative, but can have a useful acoustic effect in projecting the preacher's voice to the congregation below. Most pulpits have one or more book-stands for the preacher to rest his or her bible, notes or texts upon.
The pulpit is generally reserved for clergy. This is mandated in the regulations of the Catholic Church, and several others (though not always strictly observed). Even in Welsh Nonconformism, this was felt appropriate, and in some chapels a second pulpit was built opposite the main one for lay exhortations, testimonies and other speeches. Many churches have a second, smaller stand called the lectern located in the Epistle side, which can be used by lay persons, and is often used for other Scripture lessons and ordinary announcements. The traditional Catholic location of the pulpit to the left side of the chancel or nave has been generally retained by Lutherans and many Anglicans, while in Presbyterian and Baptist churches the pulpit is located in the centre behind the communion table. Many modern Roman Catholic churches have an ambo that functions as both a pulpit and lectern.
Equivalent platforms for speakers are the bema (bima, bimah) of ancient Greece and Jewish synagogues, and the minbar of Islamic mosques. From the pulpit is often used synecdochically for something which is said with official church authority. upon.
It is central to Protestant belief that the clergy should preach sermons on Biblical passages to the congregation. To achieve this, some existing churches were adapted to place the clergyman in a position audible to all, which in larger churches usually places this in a visible location, and raised up. This had long been the practice in larger Catholic churches and many smaller ones, but was now made universal. In smaller churches the pulpit remained in the traditional east end of the church, where altars were usually located, but was often raised higher than before.
In Protestant churches, the pulpit is considered one of the most important pieces of furniture in the church. In certain Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches designed with a pulpit-centered chancel, the pulpit is located centrally in relation to the congregation and raised, with the communion table being in front of it. In such churches it may be where the minister stands for most of the service. In the eighteenth century, double-decker and triple-decker pulpits were often introduced in English-speaking countries. The three levels of lecterns were intended to show the relative importance of the readings delivered there. The bottom tier was for the parish clerk, the middle was the reading desk for the minister, and the top tier was reserved for the delivery of the sermon. A good example of a three-decker pulpit is found in St Andrew's Church, Slaidburn, Lancashire. America's only surviving three-decker pulpit on the centerline of the church is at Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island. In Lutheran churches, as well as many Anglican and Methodist churches designed with a divided chancel, the pulpit is located on the Gospel side of the chancel (from which the Gospel is read and the sermon is delivered) while a lectern is located on the Epistle side of the sanctuary, with the latter being used by readers to vocalize the other Scripture lessons.
In many Evangelical Christian churches, the pulpit stands squarely in the centre of the platform, and is generally the largest piece of church furniture. This is to symbolise the proclamation of the Word of God as the central focus of the weekly service of worship. In more contemporary evangelical churches, the pulpit may be much smaller, if used at all, and may be carried out after the end of the song service. Often placed in the centre of the platform as well, the item of furniture may be used by both lay and ordained members, in effect doubling as a lectern.