The most prominent element in a liturgical church’s worship space is the Holy Table or Altar, where the prayers are read and the Communion is celebrated. The nomenclature and its ornamentation has a history of some controversy, though most of those arguments are very much muted today.
The Prayer Book consistently refers to the Table or Holy Table, rather than an Altar. This was to appease those who found the term Altar objectionable, cautious as many were to distance themselves from the Roman view of the sacrifice of the mass. For others it was a matter of emphasis: better to speak of God’s Board or Table (where we feast) than of the Altar (where we make a sacrifice). Nevertheless, the altar terminology never entirely left Protestant discourse; we have always recognized the sacrificial aspect of the Holy Communion, and thus you typically will hear people today using the terms synonymously.
Another controversy in the days of the Reformation was what to put on this table or altar. There was a period of time when even candles were banned, for fear of symbolizing the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. This was eventually conceded to be excessive – the use of candles (and indeed nearly all Christian liturgical ornamentation and beauty) long precedes any late medieval abuses thereof. Thus even in “low church” settings it is not unusual to see a pair of candles and a cross on an altar table. After all, many ancient traditions have practical origins: candles on the altar helps the person(s) there to read the books!
The only ornament that remained a requirement in Anglican practice is the “fair linen cloth” to be draped over the holy table. This was in part a continuation of ancient practice, in part a symbol of cleanliness and holiness, in part an act of beauty and decency and decorum. Like the white robes worn by the saints in the Book of the Revelation, and the white pall draped over a coffin at a funeral, the fair linen cloth hides the tabletop (be it expensive and beautiful, or inexpensive and plain), emphasizing the holiness with which Christ clothes us, creating an equality and common ground that we would not otherwise have. One altar may be very ornately carved and another holy table may be a plastic fold-up (spoiler alert, that’s what we’ve got, still!), but the white cloth covers that up and says “whatever’s underneath here doesn’t really matter; what matters is that Christ is served here.”
Grace Anglican Church has had this altar cloth, cross, candle set, and bookstand for most of its history. The cross comes with kind of a funny story. When it was first purchased and arrived, a parishioner set it on the table. The cross being nearly two feet tall and the celebrant being on the shorter side of average, it stood squarely in his face, a strange barrier between him and the congregation. So during that morning’s setup he said “Here’s how we solve this!” – he pushed the table up against the wall and celebrated ad orientem instead of versus populum. Many of my readers know these terms, but some of you may not.
Worship ad orientem means “toward the East” – that is, the priest & people all face East together: toward the altar. Worship versus populum (or is it populorum? I decline to remember which, if you’ll pardon my Latin pun) means “against the people” – that is, the priest and the people are facing one another. Most traditional altars are built against the wall (either literally East or just symbolically East), such that when the celebrant prays here he is facing in the same direction as everyone else. In the 20th century some liturgical reformers decided it was not very hospitable to have the priest’s back turned to the people, so a different ancient arrangement was dredged up from the history books – versus populum – which necessitates a freestanding altar or table that the priest stands behind such that when he is praying, the people can see his face as well as everything on the table.
The Prayer Book tradition has a hybrid setup often called North Facing, as the priest is directed to stand at the “North end” (congregation’s left) side of the holy table to celebrate communion. This has been implemented in a couple different ways, and I’m not really well-versed in this practice, so I’ll not wade any further into this subject lest I teach something incorrect.
All that to say, Grace Anglican Church has been an ad orientem worshiping community for about 10 years simply because of the furnishings! And frankly, I found it a much more comfortable posture for the prayers than facing the congregation – I’m not praying to them and they aren’t praying to me! We’re all praying together, to one Lord.
The bookstand is another common tool found on most altar tables – it elevates and angles the Prayer Book, Bible, binder, or other form of text, so that the celebrant can see it and turn pages more easily. Ours, you’ll see in the picture, has the letters IHS in the center. (So does our cross.) This is often thought to stand for “In His Service” (at least that’s what I thought when I saw those letters as a child), but it’s actually the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, or Ιησους.
There are other things to be said about the altar furnishings, and other ornaments around it, but that’s all we’ll address for today. Stay tuned for one more bonus article in this Visual Tour before next Wednesday!