What Is an Altar (Part III)? <i>The Ecumenical Dimension</i>
Oct 25, 2022

What Is an Altar (Part III)? The Ecumenical Dimension

Catholics visiting other Christian churches are struck by what appears different, but they also note what seems similar to furnishings in a Catholic church. I have already noted, in various Catholic Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches, the altar is concealed by the great sacred screen, the ikonostais. Except for the screen, the Eastern sanctuary arrangement is similar to our Roman Rite churches.

Likewise, in Anglican and Lutheran churches we notice a closer similarity to the arrangement in our Roman Rite because their forms of worship developed out of our shared Western European liturgical traditions. There is a visible central altar with a cross and, in most cases, candles, and the ambo or pulpit is placed to one side, usually on the left.

In churches following the Calvinist tradition, the arrangement may be similar, but not always. In traditional Presbyterian churches, for example, the large pulpit stands at the center and a small table may be in front of it, to be moved forward for a communion service. In the Baptist churches, on the other hand, a baptismal font for total immersion holds pride of place, usually located at the back of the pulpit and communion table. Historical background helps us understand what happened to the altar in these traditions.

The Crisis of the Altar

The Protestant Reformation marked a crisis for Christendom and, as a result, for the Christian altar as well. Martin Luther was only prepared to say that the Mass was “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” which is a partial truth. In Catholic teaching the Mass is much more—the same sacrifice as the Cross, an action of adoration, intercession, and propitiation for sins. Nevertheless, Luther’s followers retained the altar and the existing plan and furnishings of Catholic churches. In some Lutheran countries such as Sweden, the priestly vestments are still worn by the pastor. In Lutheran regions only one or two altars continued to be used in a church for the new Communion service that replaced the Mass.

The more radical Protestant reformers, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, went further than Luther. They taught that the Eucharist was not a sacrifice at all. They reduced the Eucharist to a symbolic meal eaten in memory of the redeeming death of Jesus and they denied his Real Presence, describing it more as a spiritual presence in the heart of the believer. One does not need an altar for a religious meal in remembrance of the death of Jesus, so the existing stone altars were destroyed and replaced by wooden tables for “the Lord’s Supper.” The pulpit was moved to where the altar once stood because preaching the word was regarded as more important than receiving the sacraments.

Wherever the civil authorities accepted the radical form of the Protestant Reformation, this new doctrine led to waves of altar smashing. The stone altar was rightly seen as a symbol of the Mass and a campaign to abolish the Mass meant that the old altars had to go.

In England in 1550, guided by the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, the government of Edward VI ordered the destruction of all the Catholic altars. Many were rebuilt during the brief reign of the Catholic queen, Mary I (1553-1558), because she restored the Mass and the sacrificing priesthood. However, in 1559, Elizabeth I commanded that these altars had to be dismantled and replaced by wooden communion tables. The top of the old altars, the large consecrated altar stone or mensa, was put to profane use in farms or shops. Sometimes it was set into the floor of the church so that the people had to walk over it, to inculcate a rejection of the Mass.

The destruction of Catholic altars took place during a series of waves of iconoclasm, the breaking and burning of statues, paintings, and frescoes, and the smashing of much stained glass. At the same time, the Crown confiscated or required the sale of altar vessels, ornaments, and vestments. Along with altars, these were rejected as objects of “idolatry” and “superstition” or “papist paltry.”

However, as the research of scholars such as Eamon Duffy shows, this radical mayhem was not accepted by the masses of the people. Most of them hated these changes, and many were confused by demolitions and restorations. Queen Elizabeth herself was not happy with the destruction of altars that she had authorized. She kept the crucifix and candles on a communion table in her private chapel. In the light of this confusion, it comes as no surprise that more moderate and prudent Anglican leaders promoted moves not only to restore the ravaged church interiors but to make the Anglican communion table look like a Catholic altar.

Restoring Altars

In the 17th century, King Charles I of England and Archbishop Laud directed Anglicans to move the communion table back to the position where the Catholic stone altar once stood. It was fenced in with a railing, where the people knelt for Communion. It was dressed with fine hangings and furnished with candlesticks. But the Puritans were enraged by these changes. After the English Civil War, when the Puritans took power under Oliver Cromwell, this restored beauty was brutally swept aside as “popery” and any remaining images and stained-glass windows were smashed in yet another wave of vandalism. While there was a return to better days after Cromwell’s era, it would take centuries to repair the harm done by the iconoclasts.

It was not until the 19th-century Oxford Movement that “high church” Anglicans in England began to design and adorn the communion table like a Catholic altar and to describe and reverence it as “the altar.” The revival of Gothic architecture and medieval symbolism in stained glass and fine carving led to a recovery of pre-Reformation décor, rites, practices, and customs. A richly carved or painted reredos of wood or stone was often set up behind the altar, as in St. Mary the Virgin Church in New York City.

In some “Anglo-Catholic” churches, stone altars were built and full Catholic ceremonial was adopted, as may be seen to this day. By contrast, many Evangelical Anglicans still use a simple “communion table” according to strict Reformation principles. With consistent logic, they do not describe these as “altars” because they do not accept the Catholic doctrines of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Real Presence, and the sacrificing priesthood.

However, in the last century in the United States, a “high church” style of church design spread not only among American Anglicans (Episcopalians) but even among some Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations which have no tradition of an altar. They began to dress the communion table with a frontal (antependium), a cross, and candlesticks. A majestic reredos even appeared behind it in some churches, such as the non-denominational Riverside Church in New York City. More significantly, the pulpit was moved to the side so that the communion table now takes pride of place. As noted, a number of Lutheran communities have always maintained a noble form of communion table similar to the pre-Reformation altar.

The post-Vatican II freestanding Catholic altar has been widely adopted in other denominations. This also is part of a recovery of respect for sacred signs and symbolism in worship. Such a rediscovery of liturgy, whether in traditional or new forms, has significant value in ecumenical relations, especially when Catholics and other Christians take up dialogue over the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Rather than becoming a symbol of division, as in the past, it is to be hoped that the altar may be seen as a hopeful sign of convergence and the hope for unity.

Bishop Elliot examined the theology of the altar in part I of this series and some of its history in part II.

Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott is Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Melbourne, Australia, and holds degrees in history (Melbourne), theology (Oxford), and a doctorate in sacramental theology, Lateran University, Rome. Because of his Anglican background, he was the delegate of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Australian Bishops’ Conference for establishing an Australian Ordinariate for former Anglicans. Having been a Consulter to the Congregation for Divine Worship, he was a Member of the interdicasterial commission “Anglicanae Traditiones,” preparing liturgical texts for the Ordinariates. He was a member of the Australian Bishops’ Liturgy Commission and the Australian National Liturgical Council. Bishop Elliott is the author of Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press, 1995, 2005), Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (Ignatius Press, 2002), and Ceremonies Explained for Servers (Ignatius Press, 2019).

Image Source: AB/Joe Mabel on Flickr. Iconostasis and altar of Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Seattle, WA.