December 10, 2016

Work with Faithfulness & Devotion: In Praise of the Altar Guild

This is a busy time of year both inside and outside the church. Someone said to me last week, “You must be so terribly busy,” and she was very kindly implying that there’s probably a great deal of work behind organizing our congregation’s annual meeting a few days’ ago and getting ready for the Christmas pageant and worship preparation for this season and Christmas Eve and pulling off last Sunday’s Advent Lessons & Carols. I admitted to her that, yes, it’s a full time for all of us, both church-workers and everyone else. But in the back of my mind I wasn’t really thinking about all the work. In fact, in the back of my mind was that series of emails and meetings, way back in late-September, with the president of the altar guild, during which we reminded one another of the times of services and the little details attached to all the special observances which were coming up from late fall through early January.

And with that series of emails and, I think, two phone conversations, the work has indeed been out of my hands, and into the hands of vastly more capable people -- namely, that blessed institution called the Altar Guild.

Amidst all the changes in our society and the very changes going on within the culture of the church, itself, there is that one fairly stable, present, enduring group of lay ministers who do that most fundamental and holy part of our common life – tend to and make ready the space and objects and place of corporate Christian worship. Whether your church’s altar guild is comprised of forty or four, whether you are in a great big cathedral or a humble rural parish church (such as mine), there is likely a guild such as this, and they know how to pull off big events with subtle grace. Thanks be to God for them! Even looking at the future, if current trends continue we will raise up new liturgical resources and even, down the road someday, revise the prayer book and hymnal, but we’ll nevertheless need people in local communities of faith who know how to store and polish brass, and understand at quick glance the difference between office lights and Eucharistic candles. No matter to what end we debate the role of a priest-in-community, and whether that rector is chaplain or CEO, we will still need folks to dust off kneelers and straighten bookshelves and keep the parish church tidy. That’s because no matter what the church, as institution, does or thinks, the church, as Christ’s living body, will still and always gather for worship, thanks, and praise. And so long as that shall be – until Christ returns in glory, that is – we’ll still need something like an altar guild. Thanks be to God for them!

In the annals of my parish church, there was no such thing as an altar guild until 1950. That’s when this traditional mid-Atlantic ‘low church’ called a new rector, following a twenty year rectorate during which the one, dark red dossal curtain, allegedly, never changed and Holy Communion might’ve been offered every now and then. That new rector in 1950 and his successors dared to use the title “Father” – as opposed to the more conventional “Mister,” by which most of their predecessors were called – and he, Fr. Moon, in 1950 even put candles on the altar. He lost some parishioners, apparently, aghast at such ‘Romish’ innovations! But young Mrs. Kitty Barnes and young Mrs. Mary Jayne Pembroke – now both in their 90s and, still, pillars of this congregation – formed a new, previously unheard of organization called an ‘altar guild.’ One of their first acts was to write a manual, and they added at its outset a line from the great preacher, Phillips Brooks: “Duty makes us do things well. Love makes us do things beautifully,” Brooks once wrote. Along the way, as well, someone added to the manual a lovely altar guild prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that we
may handle holy things with reverence and prayer,
and perform our work with such
faithfulness and devotion that it may rise
with acceptance before you and obtain your
blessing, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And even as Kitty and Mary Jayne retired from altar guild service, their legacy continues in Valley Lee, Maryland, and the humble, important, and necessary work of the guild they helped form carries on. For which I, and so many parish clergy, are so very appreciative – especially in this wonderfully busy time of year.