web analytics

Decani and Cantoris

Salisbury Choir
Salisbury Cathedral Choir

The “Decani” side of a church building is on the South side – except when it’s not.

Church buildings are “orientated” (meaning “face East” – to the rising sun, often aligned to the sunrise on the patronal feast day). Except when they are not – St Peter’s in the Vatican is famously “occidentated” (faces West). So the Bishop of Rome has traditionally faced East across the altar from the congregation. And it is possible (probable?) that the congregation turned their back on the Bishop of Rome during the Eucharistic Prayer to face East (just as in East-facing churches priests turned their back on the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer). That, at least, is the logic of “all facing in the same direction to pray”.

So we speak of the liturgical points of a compass. Even in church buildings that are not orientated, “liturgical East” will be understood as the “far end of the building”. “Liturgical West” will be understood as the main entrance.

North and South have gained traditional uses. North is regularly referred to as the “Gospel side” – the Gospel was proclaimed towards the heathen north of Europe! There being only two readings at the Eucharist, South became the “Epistle side”. The Epistle was read on that side, and the book was moved (normally by the server) from the South side to the North side of the altar after the Epistle was read.

There is a curious tradition (is it unique to Anglicans?) that “the Gospel candle may never burn alone”. The candle on the Epistle side is lit first, then the one on the Gospel side. The Gospel candle is extinguished first, and then the one on the Epistle side. I struggle to make sense of this tradition – it means that the Epistle candle always burns longer than the Gospel one and so will be shorter! I wonder if the server came in from the South, lit the first candle encountered, and after lighting the second, left the candle-snuffer with which they had lit them on the North side – reversing that action from the North side upon leaving? In any case, a delightful event happened to me when, in one church building, I took up presiding across the altar, facing the congregation, when all predecessors had faced the other way. The person used to lighting the candles had always lit the one on the priest’s right hand (as it would have been during the Eucharistic Prayer) first. I was asked: “now that you are facing the other way, which candle do I light first?!”

Percy Dearmer in The Parson’s Handbook argued for the pulpit to be on the South side:

The Pulpit may be in almost any part of the church, the usual place being at the side of the nave. My own opinion is that the south side is the best for every one who is not left-handed; for the preacher, having his stronger side towards the people, is able to speak right across the church with more ease and self-command.

The Parson’s Handbook

Fascinatingly, in nearly every church building in which I have ministered, the Pulpit is on the North side! Someone may know why this is a New Zealand tendency?

Now to the “Decani” side. Decani is Latin for “of the Dean” – currently as I am the Acting Dean of Christchurch, you will understand how I came to write this post. Salisbury Cathedral has the Dean on the South side of the choir (in the first return, ie East-facing, stall on the South side of the choir), and the cantor is on the other side, “Cantoris”. The Cantor is normally the Precentor.

The Sarum liturgical tradition (that of Salisbury), has been highly influential in Anglicanism – so the Decani being liturgical South can be sourced in that. But it is not universal: in Durham Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, St Davids Cathedral, Carlisle Cathedral, and Southwell Minster, Decani is on the North! Christchurch’s Cardboard Transitional Cathedral faces South (in the world’s only Church of England settlement where the street plan normally had church buildings facing East). So currently, Christchurch’s Decani side is West.

A church choir regularly has a cantoris and decani side (often abbreviated to “can ” and “dec”. This  “split chancel” approach favours antiphonal and responsorial singing.

I would love to untangle more of this history – and hope that some can enlarge on it. There seems to be a monastic origin for this seating arrangement. Durham was Benedictine Durham; Carlisle was Augustinian. In these, possibly the Dean, in the post-Reformation usage, sat where the Prior used to sit – on the other side to Sarum usage. So the questions are: where did/does the abbot normally sit, in which tradition, and why? And the same questions about the Prior.

Do follow:

The Liturgy Facebook Page
The Liturgy Twitter Profile
The Liturgy Instagram 
and/or sign up to a not-too-often email

Similar Posts:

3 thoughts on “Decani and Cantoris”

  1. “The Gospel side candles never burn alone” and “Keep Jesus warm” are the two memory aids I’ve used as an acolyte, when lighting the six candles, three on either side of the tabernacle. The ones closest to the tabernacle (containing the reserved Sacrament so the Real Presence of Our Lord) are lighted first; since this is done by two acolytes, they’re lighted at the same time, then we work our way to the outer ones. Extinguishing goes from the outside in. But for Low Mass, the first phrase above is handy…or just start on the right to light, start on the left to extinguish. We do the same for our freestanding (west-facing) altar, as we light its candles also from the west side of the altar.

  2. By the time I’d traipsed through all the ‘places’, possibilities and my own experience I confess I poured a wine!! Look forward to you unravelling it all

  3. Ely was Benedictine. The bishop was the titular abbot and had the stall on the south side of the entrance to the choir, with the prior, the de facto head of the community, sitting opposite on the north. After the monastery was suppressed and the college of secular canons founded, the dean took the prior’s stall, and the bishop, though no longer abbot, retaining his stall on the south. Thus at Ely the north side is decani.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.