September 4, 2016
What is the altar rail for and is it a requirement for the worship space?
The altar rail came into use during the period of the Reformation. There were a number of factors which influenced its use. It became a way to mark the boundary between the ordained with their appointed assistants and the remainder of the laity, and in multi-use buildings, which many of the reformation church buildings were, they kept the animals out of the altar area. Kneeling at the Altar rail was a latter development. During the early Reformation, like the one thousand or so years before, communion was received standing up.
Our current Book of Common Prayer anticipates the liturgical reforms expressed in the Roman Catholic Church subsequent to Vatican 2 and in the Reformed Churches in the aftermath of that great council. The reforms of that era anticipate greater lay participation in the service, which leads to less need for the altar rail.
One of our sister parishes, Holy Comforter in Vienna, recently redecorated and put the altar rail behind the altar in order to keep the area between the pews and the altar open for easier entrance and exit, and to send the spiritual message of openness.
Beginning Sunday, September 11, I am inviting the gift bearers to come to the altar to present the gifts of bread, wine, and alms. That will entail ushers inviting a couple, a family, or even a few friends to bring the bread and wine all the way to the altar table. They will be joined by children bearing the alms from children's chapel, and ushers with alms baskets from the offertory in the church. This adjustment is intended to highlight full access to the holy table by the gathered body. After all the gifts have been presented, the acolytes will set the altar rail while the Presider and the altar party finish preparing the table.
This is, admittedly, a change, and it is a change with a purpose. The laity are fellow celebrants with the clergy and their appointed assistants in the blessing of the bread and wine, and it seems right to have that visually highlighted in the midst of our service.
The Rev. David Lucey