Many early churches were built in the form of the old Roman basilica. Entrance to the western end of the church was through an outside area called the atrium into the narthex. The narthex was either an external structure similar to a porch or inside as a part of the nave but separated from it by a screen or rail. The narthex was used by catechumens and penitents who were not admitted into the nave. Often a baptismal font was also placed in the narthex.
Traditionally, this vestibule serves as a buffer between the world and the Kingdom as represented by the church building proper. There are also certain rites which are conducted in this part of the church, such as the exorcisms which precede the sacrament of Baptism, the betrothal at weddings, and in some Orthodox communities the prayers of churching after birth. On designated occasions certain Vesperal prayers and rites are also celebrated here.
In time the atrium passed into disuse and reforms ended the exclusion of those who were not full members of the church. After this, the nature of the narthex changed to that of a vestibule or a porch. In some church buildings even the vestiges of the narthex disappeared, with entrance to the nave of the church occurring immediately upon entering.
Women behind Veils
According to The Holy Catechism of Nicolas Bulgaris, page 79:
The Narthex is named by Gabriel the Corinthian, the Women's place. "For where the women stand in the Temple, this is called the Narthex," certainly in the space allotted to the Catechumens, where we described the Narthex itself, the women's place is fixed by Basil, illustrious to the heavens, who lays down the law for it, and was its first inventor. "He ordered veils to be hung," writes Amphilochius in the Saint's life, "among the Catechumens, having laid injunctions on the women that if any were seen during the Divine Liturgy outside the veils peering through, she should be put out of the Church, and remain excommunicate." In our times places for the women are also built over the Narthex, and so the Narthex evidently means only the vestibule of the Temple.
An *historical study by Matthew Namee on the use of pews in early American Orthodox churches indicates that many Orthodox Churches separated men and woman during services. Women and children were usually located in a loft or balcony over the Narthex just as Nicolas Bulgaris earlier recorded. Matthew Namee discovered that: According to parish historian C.J. Skedrosin, "men and women were separated" in the early twentieth century at the Greek Orthodox Church in Salt Lake City. In 1906, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in the Greek Church, "As in the Jewish church the men and women are segregated, and only the women are allowed to sit down during the service." In 1908, the Washington Herald reported that at St. Sophia Greek Church, Washington DC, "In the back of the church are seated women and children." In 1921, the Oregonian newspaper reported that at Holy Trinity Greek Church, Portland, OR, "In the interior the main floor is for the men and the women and children have the gallery for their use. This is provided with seats, but on the main floor there are only a few seats for the use of aged persons or cripples.” According to Fr. Anthony Conairis, priest of Annunciation Greek Church, Minneapolis, "the church originally had folding chairs, and men and women were separated, with women sitting in the balcony. This persisted until the mid-1920s." Lastly, Matthew Namee uncovers that when St. Nicholas Greek Church was built the parish council then decreed "that women were to sit in the balcony, separate from the men." The parish website confirms:
In a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that discussions at several parish council meetings during this era involved the place of women in the Church: Woman’s place, they decided, was in the balcony – unless it was full – in which case they would be permitted to sit on the main floor. Needless to say, the fairer sex was not amused. However, the Council stood by its decision. A few years later, a new seating arrangement evolved with women sitting to the left of the main aisle and men to the right. By the 1950’s, families began to sit together in worship.
- A Holy Catechism, or Explanation of the Divine and Holy Liturgy, and Examination of Canidates for Orders by way of question and answer of Nicolas Bulgaris, Constantinople, Patriarchal Press, 1861, reprinted 1961
- Pews (or lack thereof) in early Orthodox churches, The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas, Matthew Namee,