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United Methodist Altars: A Guide for the Congregation (Revised Edition)

United Methodist Altars: A Guide for the Congregation (Revised Edition)

by Hoyt L. Hickman

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This basic, fully illustrated manual for congregational leaders explains how to prepare the sanctuary and its furnishings for the celebration of worship and sacraments throughout the Christian year. This practical, informative guide is an indispensable companion for worship committees, altar guilds, or individuals whose responsible for these vital tasks in their


This basic, fully illustrated manual for congregational leaders explains how to prepare the sanctuary and its furnishings for the celebration of worship and sacraments throughout the Christian year. This practical, informative guide is an indispensable companion for worship committees, altar guilds, or individuals whose responsible for these vital tasks in their church. 

United Methodist Altars includes: care, cleaning, and storage instructions for all vestments and appointments; a calendar of the Christian year, with appropriate colors for each season; responsibilities and suggested organizational structure for the altar guild; an explanation of the history and meaning of worship furnishings; preparation instructions for the various United Methodist services; and, a glossary. 

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Abingdon Press
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United Methodist Altars

A Guide for the Congregation

By Hoyt L. Hickman

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3069-6


[The Altar Guild]

You may not call your committee or group an Altar Guild. In your church you may be the worship commission or the chancel committee. Or you personally may be the Communion steward, or you may change the candles and the altar cloths, take care of the flowers, make banners, or keep things the way they should be in the sanctuary. You may be the pastor or the custodian doing some of these things. But if you or your group have been entrusted with any part of the care of the sanctuary and its furnishings or the things that pertain to the worship services, you have a special responsibility and a privilege of the highest order. It is for you that this book is written.

How many people or how much organization you need depends on the size and character of your congregation and the sanctuary where you worship. Whether or not you have an organized Altar Guild, you should be aware of certain basic principles that apply.

1. The purpose of your service is to provide the best possible environment for your congregation's worship of God. No detail of that environment is too insignificant to matter when preparing for the worship of the people of God. The fact that you have been given your responsibilities is a testimony to the trust the pastor and congregation place in your dependability and devotion.

2. Because the pastor is in charge of congregational worship, you will work closely under his or her direction. It is most important that you meet regularly with your pastor to study worship, share ideas and feelings, and keep communication open between you.

3. It is essential that you know your assigned duties, which may vary from one local church to another. Clarify these with your pastor and then list them on a sheet or in a leaflet. When they have been approved by the pastor, Worship Commission, Council on Ministries, or Administrative Council, they can be used when training new persons.

4. You need a good working relationship with the custodian. You will neither direct nor replace the custodian but each of you should have an understanding and respect for each other's work.

5. You or your group are related to the Worship Work Area. If your church has organized the Worship Work Area into a commission, the Altar Guild should be represented on it (by your chairperson if you have one) and should relate to the Council on Ministries or Administrative Council through it. Materials or supplies needed can be provided from the church budget through the Worship Work Area.

6. If you have an organized Altar Guild, it should include the Communion stewards, the person or persons in charge of flower arrangement, and probably a musical leader who can help you relate to the singers and instrumentalists who also serve God in the chancel.

7. Divide the responsibilities where possible, but do not make an Altar Guild so large it is unwieldy. Persons can take turns serving a month or a quarter at a time. If a particular responsibility such as Communion or flower arranging is too much for one individual, it can be entrusted to a committee with a chairperson. On the other hand, it is better to have fewer people performing their duties well than to have an organization so large that it cannot effectively train or use those who serve on it.

8. Give reverent care to the things that have been set apart and consecrated to sacred uses, as a way of practicing reverence for all God's creation. Yours is a very special service to God, an act of worship in itself, through which God can change your life and the lives of other people.

9. On the other hand, do not treat these things as ends in themselves so that you come to worship your beautiful church and its furnishings rather than God and value them above the people who can make use of them.

10. Men as well as women can serve in any of these capacities. Look for youth as well as adults who have abilities and who, under proper guidance, can be trained to serve. Use your imagination as you search for persons with backgrounds, talents, or skills to contribute special services.

11. Find ways to recognize and express appreciation to those who serve, especially those whose service is behind the scenes and often unknown to the congregation. At the very least, each year recognize and install persons as part of your congregational worship.


[Space and Furnishings]

The environment—the space—in which your congregation worships is extremely important for what happens as you worship. It has more effect on the worshiper, for better or for worse, than we usually realize. Unless worship is held outdoors, it is held in some kind of room. There is no one universally accepted name for the room in which Christian congregations worship. This room is often called the sanctuary, although traditionally the term sanctuary has been used to refer only to the immediate area around the altar table. Many people prefer to refer to the whole room as the sanctuary because God is present in, and sanctifies, the whole worshiping congregation and because the whole room has been carefully designed to help the worshiper be more aware of the sanctity of God and of God's creation.

Sometime soon, take a careful look around the room where your local congregation worships. Notice all the things that have been done in design and decoration to make that room conducive to worship. Notice any assumptions that seem to have been made as to what should happen when people worship. Notice, too, anything about the room that seems to detract from worship.

In most churches, particularly medium-sized and larger ones, there is between the outer door of the building and the inner door of the place of worship a hallway, or vestibule, or lobby, which is traditionally called the narthex. It helps us make the transition between the place of worship and the everyday world. It is a space where the bonds of Christian community are formed and renewed, as ushers, greeters, or the pastor welcome persons and as people greet and talk with one another. On cold days it provides a place to catch one's breath after coming in out of the cold, it provides space for removing and hanging up wraps, and it protects worshipers from a draft of cold air every time the doors are opened. Everything in the room should help make it a warm and friendly shape that serves these purposes. Even in churches without a narthex you can often tell when you step directly into the worship room that there is a space immediately inside the door which serves these purposes and is not quite like the rest of the room.

While rooms designed for worship differ widely in many ways, they are usually designed to draw one's attention to a focal area, usually on a raised level, commonly called the chancel, which may either be recessed behind an arch or project out into the area where the congregation sits, which is called the nave. Sometimes the room is shaped like a cross, with seating areas called transepts on either side, as in the diagram on the next page.

You will often see reference to the chancel end of the room as "east," the rear of the nave as "west," the left side as "north," and the right side as "south." This does not refer to actual geographical directions but is a usage based on the tradition that churches were built facing east, the direction of the rising sun, a sign of resurrection.

Since the chancel is where the work of the Altar Guild is centered, we should look at it in more detail. The chancel customarily contains several key furnishings.

1. A table—variously known as the Lord's table, holy table, Communion table, altar table, or altar—functions primarily as the place where the feast of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is held. As such, it symbolizes God's presence in the church and is the symbolic center of the church's life. It is the center of actions in our worship, uniting us to God and to one another. Every other function of the Lord's table is secondary. It is never merely a convenient surface on which to place books, empty offering plates, and flower vases.

2. A pulpit is a stand behind or in which the minister stands to preach and perhaps to conduct other parts of the service. It symbolizes the authority of the Scriptures, which are "opened" to the people by reading and preaching. For this reason it is appropriate that an open Bible be on the pulpit and that the Scriptures be read as well as preached from there. Sometimes there is also a lectern, a smaller stand which may be used for reading and for conducting certain other parts of the service.

3. A baptismal font, which contains water, is used for baptisms. While in some denominations the font is placed at the entrance into the church, in United Methodist churches generally it is placed in the chancel area where the welcoming congregation can gather around it and where it is in close relationship to pulpit and table. Occasionally United Methodist churches have baptistries where persons may be baptized by immersion.

Sometimes the chancel area also contains seats for the choir or choirs and an organ or piano. Also, there is usually a rail around, or within, the chancel where persons can kneel for prayer, commitment to Christ, or Holy Communion. This rail can be called the Communion rail or the altar rail. These furnishings support our sense that we are a people gathered around the table of the Lord.

There are many ways of arranging these basic furnishings, but most United Methodist churches tend to follow one of several basic patterns:

1. One pattern, sometimes called pulpit-centered, was dominant in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is still fairly common. There is a raised platform with the pulpit in the center, from which the minister leads and preaches. There is no lectern. The Communion table is probably in front of the pulpit, on a lower level. The baptismal font can be in various locations, but attention is not usually called to it unless there is a baptism.

2. A second pattern, sometimes called divided chancel, was dominant during the middle of the twentieth century and is still very common. In the center against the wall is a table or altar that is intended to be the center of worship. The pulpit is on one side of the chancel, and a lectern or baptismal font is usually on the other side.

In recent years many churches with divided chancels and immovable altars have put a free-standing Lord's table well in front of the altar where there is room to walk around it. Such a table can function far more effectively as the Lord's table than can the altar against the wall.

3. In the last generation a variety of arrangements have been tried, with none clearly dominant to date. Most of these patterns, however, center around a free-standing Lord's table in the middle of an open space, with pulpit usually to one side and sometimes balanced by the baptismal font on the other side.

No matter what the arrangement of space and furnishings in your sanctuary, the work of the Altar Guild (or its equivalent in your church) is centered in the altar table and its immediate surroundings. So we need to look more closely at the table itself.

Sometimes the Lord's table looks like a dining table—made of wood, with a tabletop and supported by legs that can be seen. This is appropriate, since its primary function is to be the place at which the holy meal that we call the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is celebrated and served. In the early Church the Lord's table was a real table. This has been the case throughout most of our denominational history as United Methodists. It is again the prevailing practice today.

Often, however, the altar table is designed to look more like an altar of sacrifice. It may have a solid front and be placed up against the far ("east") wall of the chancel so that the pastor stands in front of it with his or her back to the congregation as though offering a sacrifice. It may be partially or entirely made of stone rather than wood. It may have a tablelike step or shelf, called a retable or gradine, rising above it at the back next to the wall, on which cross, candles, and flowers often have been placed. Above and in back of these may be a large carved stone or wood panel known as a reredos, or a hanging fabric known as a dossal.

Christians have often disagreed as to whether or not the Lord's table is properly called an altar. On the one hand, we can make no sacrifice that adds to Christ's "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world." On the other hand, Paul appeals to us: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). As we remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, we pray God "mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."

Whether or not we choose to refer to the Lord's table as the altar, it is certainly the Lord's table. The trend in recent years is once again toward a table that looks like a table. Even churches and great cathedrals that have ornate and historic altars fixed against the wall now often have, in addition, a free-standing table at which Holy Communion is actually celebrated and served. A number of United Methodist churches that once had Communion tables and then put in an altar against the wall a generation or so ago have now discovered their old Communion table (often in some classroom) and have placed it, free-standing, in front of the fixed altar.

If you are making or buying a new table, it should be free-standing, with enough space around it so that persons can walk around it and the pastor can stand behind it to preside in Christ's name at the Lord's Supper. Since it is not a table to be sat around, a counter height of thirty-nine inches, rather than the usual thirty-inch dining table height, will function better. This height makes it easier for the minister to stand behind the table, read the service, and handle the bread and cup. A width of twenty-four inches and a length of at least five feet are also customary and practical for the serving of Communion.

In the following chapters we shall consider in detail what is appropriate on or around the Lord's table, but certain principles are crucial: (1) nothing should detract from the primary function of the table, which is to be the place where the Lord's Supper is celebrated; (2) everything used on the table should be selected and procured with great care and be appropriate to its holy purpose; (3) everything should express to the worshiper the qualities of truth, integrity, simplicity, and purity. Anything that expresses falseness or pretence, or that is gaudy or cheaply ornate, should be avoided.

This principle of integrity is not a matter of rigid rules as to what is "correct," nor does it mean that what is more costly or more beautiful is necessarily better. Often the worth of an article is more to be found in the quality of work and material involved than in the dollars-and-cents cost. A cheaper material that is genuine is more appropriate than an imitation of a more expensive material. We express outwardly, by our use of material things, what we are inwardly. What we see sometimes "speaks" so loudly that it cancels out what we hear, and the sloppy appearance of the chancel can make it harder to hear the preaching of Christian commitment and consecration. On the other hand, this message is powerfully reinforced when the worshipers see before them visual evidence that there are people who care enough to give their best.



Your congregation in its worship constantly uses symbols, and as you prepare the environment for worship you will constantly be using symbols. We have seen in the previous chapter that the space and furnishings used in worship are symbols—that is, they represent something beyond themselves, usually something abstract or immaterial. Words are symbols, acts can be symbols, and there are countless visual symbols.

It is with these visual symbols that this chapter is concerned. Look carefully around the place where your congregation worships and notice the great number of pictures and designs that are used in the chancel appointments, the stained-glass windows, the woodwork, the walls and ceiling, hymnals and bulletins. Their purpose is not to be admired as an end in themselves but rather to lead us beyond themselves to God. Most of us learn even more through our eyes than through our ears, and we are familiar with the truth of the old Chinese proverb that "a picture is worth ten thousand words." The language of the Bible is filled with vivid word-pictures that have inspired Christian art since ancient times.

The most familiar symbol of our Christian faith is the cross. Jesus Christ gave us life by dying on a cross and rising from the dead. Long before the time of Christ, pre-Christian peoples used the cross as a symbol of life; and it was natural for Christians to see in the cross not only a symbol of how Jesus Christ died but also of the life he gives us.


Excerpted from United Methodist Altars by Hoyt L. Hickman. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hoyt L. Hickman has been a visiting professor of worship both at Drew University and at Vanderbilt University. From 1972-1994, while at the General Board of Discipleship, he directed the worship resources development team and wrote many of the worship texts that appear in the United Methodist Hymnal and Book of Worship. He is the General Editor of "The Faith We Sing." He has also been a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and Societas Liturgica for more than 20 years.

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