English Altar

Anglicans who wish in the spirit of the Ornaments Rubric to furnish the Lord’s Table in the tradition of what the Church used before the Reformation often favour what is known as the English altar. As Percy Dearmer says, however,

People call these altars ‘English altars’, because they must have some name; but they are really Catholic altars – the type which, in more than one form, persisted from early times over the whole Church, and only succumbed, two centuries after the Renaissance had begun, to the Baroque influence of the counter-Reformation. There are many Flemish pictures in the National Gallery to show this; and all over Italy from Giotto to Ghirlandaio and the painters of the sixteenth century, the pictures show no other form of altar.

In Gothic interiors especially, this configuration of the Table is harmonious and dignified. As in all Anglican arrangements of the Table, noted for their noble simplicity, there are no more than two candlesticks. Most distinctive, however, are the riddel posts with their altar curtains on the left and right, and often behind the Table as well. For there is a presence of Christ in the sacrament, even though not locally bound, to which the proper response is awe. What happens in the believing heart is the unveiling of the spirit’s ‘face’ to a presence before which the seraphim veil their faces. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. So it is very fitting that this reality, a glory that made the face of Moses shine brighter than the Israelites could bear, should be suggested in curtains. And atop the riddel posts, indeed, are the figures of angels.

Liturgical position

One advantage of riddel posts is that they præclude the celebration of the Lord’s Supper versus populum, in which the elder faces the people. For many a time has this posture detracted from the priority of the Lord’s own signs of bread and wine offered by the hand of God and taken from the hand of God. Yet celebration ad orientem, in which the elder with the people faces the front or ‘east’ end, is apt to be focused too exclusively on sacrifice at the moment when the sacrament is given precisely as a gift from God. When we pray with the bread and wine lying before God, we plead upon the merit of Christ that this same merit may, by the power of the Holy Ghost, be applied to all who take the signs with faith enabled by the Holy Ghost. And so where should our eyes fall but upon the bread as it is taken, broken, and designated, and upon the wine as it is taken and designated? Though ancient precedent of the Church is for celebrating the Lord’s Supper ad orientem, that position has a weakness that the selfsame Church has the right to remedy. Besides the fashionable versus populum and the ancient ad orientem, there is a third position:

Altar in St Mary-in-the-Baum, consecrated 2 February 1911 by Edmund Knox.

The position the arrangement above leaves room for, and the position ordered by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, is the Table’s north end (the right side facing the people, the left side as viewed by the people). As Evan McWilliams notes, ‘The resulting placement of the minister and clerk on opposite sides of the Table occasionally has been termed “the lion and the unicorn” in reference to the supporters on the royal coat of arms.’ Here, then, you would see the minister on the left and the clerk on the right, like cherubim flanking the ark of the covenant.

Reredos

Sometimes, instead of a dossal (back curtain) of cloth right behind the Table, what you have is a graven or painted reredos, of wood or other hard material. Behind an English altar, the reredos may look like this:

The Lord’s Table with riddel posts and a painted reredos.

Being Reformed, and following the principles of earlier Christians, I am not fond of having prominent images front and centre to dilute attention away from the visible signs the Lord has ordained, though symbolically clearer images can be used instead to focus attention upon those divinely appointed signs. Instead of the images on the reredos, I would want the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer, with the middle panel occupied by a golden dove signifying the presence of the Holy Ghost. But, since the panels are not large, the Creed might have to be represented by a heart, the Decalogue by two tablets, and the Lord’s Prayer by two praying hands. The dove in between the law’s two tablets would show that the law, once for all fulfilled by Christ, was now graven into us by the Holy Spirit of Christ.

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