Altar

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Altars in the Anglican Communion vary widely. In the Book of Common Prayer, the basis of doctrine and practice for the Church of England, there is no use of the specific word altar; the item in question is called the Lord's Table or Holy Table. This remains the official terminology, though common usage may call the communion table an altar.

At the time of the Reformation, altars were fixed against the east end of the church, and the priests would celebrate the Mass standing at the front of the altar. Beginning with the rubrics of the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI published in 1552, and through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which prevailed for almost 300 years), the priest is directed to stand "at the north syde of the Table." This was variously interpreted over the years to mean the north side of the front of a fixed communion table, the north end of a fixed table (i.e., facing south), the north side of a free-standing table (presumably facing those intending to receive the Elements who would be sitting in the quire stalls opposite), or at the north end of a free-standing table lengthwise in the chancel, facing a congregation seated in the nave.

Often, where a celebrant chose to situate himself was meant to convey his churchmanship (that is, more Reformed or more Catholic). The use of candles or tabernacles was banned by canon law, with the only appointed adornment being a white linen cloth.

 
High Altar of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, London

Beginning with the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, the appearance of Anglican altars took a dramatic turn in many churches. Candles and, in some cases, tabernacles were reintroduced. In some churches two candles, on each end of the altar, were used; in other cases six three on either side of a tabernacle, typically surmounted by a crucifix or some other image of Christ.

 
The "low" altar area at Canterbury Cathedral[h]

In Anglican practice, conformity to a given standard depends on the ecclesiastical province and/or the liturgical sensibilities of a given parish. In the Parson's Handbook, an influential manual for priests popular in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, Percy Dearmer recommends that "All altars should be 3 ft. 3 in. high, and at least deep enough to take a corporal [the square of linen placed underneath the Communion vessels] 20 in. square, with an inch or two to spare." He also recommends that the altar stand upon three steps for each of the three sacred ministers, and that it be decorated with a silk frontal in the seasonal colour. In some cases, other manuals suggest that a stone be set in the top of wooden altars, in the belief that the custom be maintained of consecrating the bread and wine on a stone surface. In many other Anglican parishes, the custom is considerably less rigorous, especially in those parishes which use free-standing altars. Typically, these altars are made of wood, and may or may not have a solid front, which may or may not be ornamented. In many Anglican parishes, the use of frontals has persisted.

When altars are placed away from the wall of the chancel allowing a westward orientation, only two candles are placed on either end of it, since six would obscure the liturgical action, undermining the intent of a westward orientation (i.e., that it be visible to the congregation). In such an arrangement, a tabernacle may stand to one side of or behind the altar, or an aumbry may be used.

Sensibilities concerning the sanctity of the altar are widespread in Anglicanism. In some parishes, the notion that the surface of the altar should only be touched by those in holy orders is maintained. In others, there is considerably less strictness about the communion table. Nonetheless, the continued popularity of communion rails in Anglican church construction suggests that a sense of the sanctity of the altar and its surrounding area persists. In most cases, moreover, the practice of allowing only those items that have been blessed to be placed on the altar is maintained (that is, the linen cloth, candles, missal, and the Eucharistic vessels).