What’s on the Altar Table?

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!

The Saint Aelfric Window

This is how I intended to begin my “visual tour” of our chapel – with the image of the man himself, Saint Aelfric. There aren’t a lot of images of Aelfric out there, unfortunately, but this rather fetching stained-glass picture is from the church in Eynsham, the town where he was an abbot for many years.

The quote below the picture is from one of his Easter Homilies. It reads “This mystery [of the Holy Communion] is a pledge and symbol; Christ’s body is truth. This pledge we hold mystically until we come to the truth, and then will this pledge be ended. But it is, as we before said, Christ’s body and his blood, not bodily but spiritually. Ye are not to inquire how it is done, but to hold in your belief that it is so done.” Nearly 500 years before the Protestant Reformation began, Aelfric is a witness to the ancient Christian faith that confidently spoke of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, yet without resorting to fanciful explanations that the medieval church would eventually fall into, particularly in the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. His writings, therefore, as well as the earlier Church Fathers from whom he drew, were of great importance to the English Reformers as they sought to correct the recent Roman errors and restore the true teaching of the Catholic Church.

But why is Saint Aelfric the namesake, or patron, of my ministry, this blog, and this chapel? Well first of all Saint Aelfric himself is a difficult historical figure to identify. Historically he was understood to be the Abbot of Eynsham who wrote many biblical commentaries, sermons, and hagiographies in Old English, and the 28th Archbishop of Canterbury. In modern times “Aelfric of Eynsham” and “Aelfric of Abingdon, Archbishop” tend to be identified as two different men. Both lived in the late 900’s and died in the early 1000’s. Both of them are considered the namesake, or patron, of my ministry.

For one, the Aelfric who wrote all those treatises may also be responsible for some of the earliest Bible translation in the English language. Centuries before Wycliffe, significant parts of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, of which the four Gospels, the Psalms, and other fragments survive to this day. Curiously, however, Aelfric was said to have been reluctant to do this; he apparently preferred the Latin Scriptures and liturgy, which were widely understood by all who learned to read and write, but he made his translation out of acquiescence to royal demand. My approach to liturgy and worship, and ministry in general, reflects that sense of caution, acquiescing to the authority of the Book of Common Prayer (2019) as set forth by the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), yet looking back to the long-standing tradition of Anglican worship that was interrupted in the late 20th century. Rather than revert to the “only-ism” characteristic of many traditionalists, it is my aim to follow the present standards with our Great Tradition in mind whenever possible.

The split identity of Aelfric –the Abbot of Eynsham or the Abbot of Abingdon who became the Archbishop– also plays into the context of our church at large. As it stands, the ACNA has its own form of identity crisis: traditional hymnody versus contemporary praise songs, solemn liturgical standards versus charismatic leniency, disagreement over ordination, a wide range of interpretation regarding the wearing of clerical vestments… all making this province a colorful and confusing place. It is my aim to worship and minister in such a way that Christians of all stripes may benefit from the riches of our historic tradition without too much intrusion from the particular preferences of the milieu of today.

Thus the faithful spirit and example of St. Aelfric is a constant companion in my service to the Lord and his flock.

The Saint Peter Window

Today I’m beginning a new series of posts providing a Visual Tour of the Saint Aelfric Chapel, from which I serve and host my little parish, Grace Anglican Church. My intention was to begin a couple weeks ago, on the first Wednesday of the year, and to make this a weekly entry on each Wednesday following, so there are two I’ve missed which I’ll make up between now and next Wednesday.

In the years leading up to the purchase of my family’s first house and the establishment of our own chapel space therein, I had dreamed and hoped for the opportunity to collect and gather a lineup of saints whose images and relevant quotes could adorn one of the walls. The chapel we’ve ended up with has not made that a feasible wish, but I found an alternative: the windows.

Now, this is a sort of a multi-layered pun. First of all, we have a window on either side of the bay, where the altar is located, and during Holy Communion I place a picture of a saint on both of those window sills. One is a picture of Saint Aelfric, the namesake and patron of this blog, the chapel, and my ministry in general. The other is rotated out between several different saints and images throughout the year. Now, many of those images are printings of traditional icons, which (as the Eastern Christians say) are “windows into heaven”. So we have windows in the windows, but for most of the week these pictures, sitting in their picture frames, are up on the altar.

Currently Saint Peter is up:

Saint Peter, is, of course, commonly considered the leader of the original twelve apostles, and generally recognized as the first Bishop of Antioch and then of Rome. He is thus a hugely significant figure for the Roman Church, who claim him and his patronage and (errantly) his primacy over all other apostolic sees. But he’s also a hugely significant figure in the New Testament itself, being the most active character in the Gospel books save for our Lord himself, as well as the author of two epistles.

As for me, St. Peter took on a special significance while I was attending seminary. In part, it was because one of my exegesis classes was on 1 Peter, and so I got to know him through his writing better than I did any other author. But also something that resonated with me was one of his last encounters with the risen Christ. The story is quoted on the picture (or “window”) above, and it’s from John 21:18-22. In that encounter, Jesus foretells the sort of death that Peter would eventually die. Peter, a relatable human to the core, looks over at John and asks “what about him?” as if he’s once again trying to compare himself to others. And Jesus gently retorts “what is that to you? You follow me.” As a human, it’s tempting to compare myself to others to evaluate my worth and my success. As a pastor and priest, it’s all the more tempting to compare myself to other ministers to measure my success and my worth. Jesus reminds Peter, and all pastors, that the fate of other pastors is not important – we all must follow him.

So Saint Peter’s window is up in the chapel for most of the month of January, in which we celebrate his marvelous confession of faith (today in fact) recorded in Matthew 16. As one of the most significant of the Church’s Saints, he’ll also cycle back in a second time for the month of June, in which we commemorate his martyrdom (alongside the martyrdom of Saint Paul, in our calendar).