To ‘rail’ or not to ‘rail’ – that is the question!
I have to say that I’ve never given a great deal of thought to the question of ‘altar rails’. Some Churches have them, others don’t, and I usually
take things as I find them. My natural inclination would be to knee to receive
Holy Communion but, as I’m most often the celebrant, I only really get to do
this once or twice a year when I’m on holiday (if the Church in question has rails!).
Why then, do I raise this issue?
Over the last year or so we’ve been developing a plan to re-order the Chancel at St Giles with St Matthew. The idea was to bring the celebration closer to the congregation to aid participation and also to reduce the distance people had to walk to receive Communion. We wanted to make all this possible but without fundamentally changing the way that the Church looked – a big ask you might think!
What I imagined (and proposed) to the PCC was a plan to add a semi-circular extension to the Chancel step, to reduce (or scale-back) of the Choir furniture and then introduce a nave altar with together removable altar rails.
Things continued apace and various ‘learning curves’ were hit as we steered the plans through the Faculty process (hello to members of the English Heritage and the 20th Century Society!). But it wasn’t until the work started to happen that the ‘problems’ started to reveal themselves. Rather foolishly (I realise this now!) I went on retreat while the work began and when I returned I soon realised that the extension to the Chancel step needed to come out by at least another foot and that the proposed altar rails didn’t fit the size and scale of what we were creating – they looked terribly out of place. Fortunately, and with grateful thanks to all involved, we managed to call everything to a halt and to re-assess and make the necessary changes whilst negotiating our way around Sunday services, Weddings and Baptisms.
The step-extension was brought out by another foot and I resisted (wisely as it turned out) my inclination to cut a further inch-and-a-half off of the bottom of the new altar (we got it in a sale!!!). When all was completed the altar rails still didn’t work (I got that sinking feeling in my stomach) and I began to think about alternatives – longer, higher, different design etc. However, any further change would be out of the question if the carpet (which was about to arrive was cut to accommodate the rails as they currently stood. So, I decided to put the altar rail issue ‘on ice’ and go ahead with the carpet and see what happened….
The result was somewhat unexpected!
Suddenly, we had wonderful ‘open space’ in front of the choir stalls and plenty of room to accommodate the new altar (which finally began to look like it might belong in the Church) together with the lectern and font. The absence of the proposed rails also seemed to temper one of the most challenging features of the Church building as, quite literally, nothing lines up! The Chancel doesn’t line up with the nave roof, the centre aisle doesn’t line up with the Chancel or with the Tower arch (which doesn’t line up with the window in the west wall of the Tower…). Somehow, the curve of the new Chancel step seems to bring everything together. Great! But, now to the ‘tricky bit’…
So, what do we do now?
Well, my suggestion (at least for the moment) is to try life without altar rails at the Sunday 10am service. If people can kneel unassisted then they are free to do so. For others, the intention will be to stand to receive Communion (something that a number of people do already). On the plus side, this might help us to distribute Communion more quickly and efficiently (something that has been a bit of a worry). It’s certainly not an ‘unknown quantity’ to some members of the congregation as the former St Matthew’s Church never had rails and Communion is received standing on a Tuesday evening at 7pm.
Really, I think there are plenty of reasons / arguments either way but my ‘gut feeling’ is that, in this context, it may be as well to do without them. Time will tell!