Project Canterbury

The Parson’s Handbook

By the Rev. Percy Dearmer, M.A.

London: Grant Richards, 1899



All altars should be 3 ft. 3 in. high, and at least deep enough to take a corporal 20 in. square, with an inch or two to spare. Their length will depend upon the dimensions and character of the church; and, as the whole dignity of effect depends very much upon the length of the altar, the advice of a competent architect should be sought. It should be borne in mind that altars are nearly always too short nowadays:[1] the vast majority of churches suffer greatly in this respect. As for the material of which the holy Table should be made, it may suffice to state that wooden altars were sometimes used before the Reformation, while many stone ones were set up in the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries in this country. Plain stone altars are by far the best.

The minimum amount of furniture allowed by the Canons of 1603 for the Lord's Table is (1) A frontal, ‘a carpet of silk or other decent stuff,’ and (2) ‘A fair linen cloth at the time of the ministration.’[2] We are not, therefore, allowed to dispense with frontals. We may be grateful that the naked altar is not allowed by our Church, because this Puritan, French fashion helps to destroy that teaching power of the Church’s seasons which needs so much to be [58] enforced, and also because the element of colour is sadly lacking in modern churches both English and foreign.

The frontal, if accurately made with a backing of union cloth, needs no frame. It can be hung by rings from hooks under the altar-slab, without any rod or wooden lath; and it may be folded up when not in use. This seems to have been the general ancient custom. It dispenses with the need of a large chest; and most frontals look the better for not hanging stiffly. But for some embroidery a frame is necessary.

It is generally safer to avoid embroidery altogether. It is one of the most difficult and expensive of the arts, and nearly all so-called ecclesiastical work is thoroughly bad—fussy, vulgar, weak and ugly. If it is used at all it must be of the best, and the church-furnisher must be shunned. A real artist must be employed, otherwise the money spent will be worse than wasted.[3] Amateurs should not attempt embroidery, unless they have learned the art from a competent teacher (and there are few such); but the most effective stitch is a simple one, and therefore amateurs can usefully work under an artist who carries out the design and chooses the silks.

On the other hand, plain materials should not be used, but figured silks, or mixtures of silk and wool, etc. There are even one or two printed Morris chintzes which make beautiful frontals.

It requires experience as well as natural gifts to know how a material will work out when it is taken out of a shop and set up in the peculiar light of a church. To avoid disaster (and most frontals are nothing less than ecclesiastical calamities), amateurs should only attempt frontals under advice.

The frontal should have a fringe along the bottom, [59] and preferably at the sides as well. For an average-sized altar the bottom fringe may be 3 in. deep, and that at the side 1 in. There may be strips of other material and colour on the frontal, but they are not necessary, and often the frontal is better without them.

The Frontlet (often mistakenly called the super-frontal) is a practical necessity for hiding the suspension of the frontal. For convenience it may always be red in colour, but any colour is admissible.[4] It is often made too deep. For an ordinary altar a depth of 7½ in., including fringe, or even less, is sufficient. The fringe should be about 1½ in., and laid on the frontlet, not hanging below it. The frontlet should never extend over the top of the altar: it should be tacked to one of the under linen cloths, like an apparel; but it is more convenient that the linen used for this purpose should be stout and of a dark-blue colour: such linen can be got at Morris’s, or from Harris (Derwent Mills, Cockermouth), or that used for butchers’ blouses will suffice. If the altar stand clear (as it should), the linen cloth can fall a couple of inches over the back, and leaden weights or an iron rod will keep the whole in position. If anything rest on the back of the altar, which is an objectionable foreign practice, then the method of fixing the cloth with drawing-pins (plugging a stone altar with wood for this purpose) seems to be unavoidable.

Altar Apparels add much to the beauty of the altar. They can be of any colour that suits the frontal and frontlet, and require, of course, taste in the selection of their material. They may hang 1 foot to 15 in. from the ground, and may be fixed with hook and eye to the top of the frontal: for an average altar 10 to 12 in. is wide enough. They should be fringed [60] at the bottom, and have braid or narrow fringe at the sides.

The ecclesiastical devices on frontals, which one so often sees, are not in harmony with Catholic tradition. They are usually of a cast-iron, soulless, and altogether objectionable character; quite unlike the free and gorgeous designs they are supposed to imitate, as can be seen by a visit to the South Kensington and other museums.

The Linen Cloths. It is a very ancient custom that there should be three linen cloths on the top of the altar, the object no doubt being to provide against accidents with the chalice, as well as to secure a smooth and substantial surface. The dirty habit of making with the frontlet a permanent velvet cover to the altar is not to be commended.

The outer cloth (the ‘fair linen’ of the Canon) should be long enough to reach down to within a few inches of the ground at each end. It may have five crosses embroidered in linen thread on it,[5] as a quincunx, and it may also have embroidery at the ends, or it may be altogether plain. The ends may be fringed; but there is no English precedent for any lace on them. It may be exactly the width of the altar; and I think it looks better if none of it hang over the frontlet.

The two undercloths should be exactly the size of the top of the altar, and quite plain. One of them may, as we have seen, be tacked on to the frontlet. It is an ancient custom that no other material but linen shall cover the top of the altar.[6] The linen for altars should be stout: undercloths may be of diaper. [61] The Roman fashion of tacking lace to one of these cloths is against all English tradition, and very seldom looks well. Anything suggestive of effeminacy should be rigidly excluded, the more so as it always has a tendency to creep in through the efforts of well-meaning women. The hem of the undercloths may be ¾ in., of the fair linen 1 in. at the sides and 2 in. at the ends.

It is cleaner to follow the old custom of removing the linen after service, especially the outer cloth of an altar which is not in daily use. It can be taken on to a wooden roller and put away in a drawer. In any case the Lord’s Table should be protected by a cover. This cover should be exactly the same size as the mensa, unless the fair linen cloth is left on, in which case it may be 12 inches longer. It may be of silk (say a good yellow or green) lined with blue linen, or of blue linen lined with American cloth; in either case it would need a binding.

Whether gradines can be included among the ornaments allowed by the rubric is a disputed point. The majority of experts think that they were never in use here; and undoubtedly it was the general custom for the two candlesticks to be placed on the altar itself. But the gradine was sometimes used in England from the Jacobean period until the present day. Post-Reformation use can, therefore, be urged in its favour; and a shelf has something to recommend it, on the score of convenience alone, if it be low—say 3 in. in height. But anything like a flight of steps is unsightly. The altar should not look like a sideboard, and it cannot be too often remembered that the altar itself should be the central feature of a church and not any of its adjuncts. When a gradine is ugly or cold and irremovable, it can be redeemed by being entirely covered with a piece of really good tapestry, which of course need not be changed, except, perhaps, in Lent.

The Ornaments on the Altar included under the [62] rubric are a cross or crucifix, cushions, and one or two candlesticks. Reliquaries, images, and plate were also formerly used for decking the altars. It was generally the custom to remove cross and candlesticks from the altar after service.

The Cross was very generally used, but not always, before the Reformation;[7] though nowadays many seem to consider it a necessity. In cases where a painting forms the altar-piece it is often better dispensed with, especially for minor altars; and the appropriateness of using a cross where the crucifixion forms part of the altar-piece is more than questionable. Although altar crucifixes are certainly included under the rubric, there is much to be said both from the ceremonial and from the theological point of view against their use on the altar.[8] The proper place for a representation of the crucified Redeemer is the Rood-screen. In any case the primitive crucifix, in which our Lord is represented in an attitude of benediction and majesty, is more seemly than the twisted and distorted figure one often sees.

The Candlesticks. The use of a row of six candlesticks above the altar is pure Romanism, and cannot be defended from our rubric. An altar with two candlesticks only is more dignified and more beautiful. Furthermore, a row of candles hides the altar-piece, which should be one of the most rich and beautiful things in the church; the miserable way in which priceless masterpieces are hidden in Italian churches by tall candlesticks and tawdry sham flowers will be painfully familiar to every traveller.

Many people have been misled by the Sarum [63] custom which orders eight candles for the greater festivals. But six of these candles stood round about the altar and only two were on it: this represents the utmost to which even a gorgeous cathedral like Salisbury went in the matter of altar-lights.[9] Another cause of error was the sex in eminencia coram reliquiis et crucifixo et ymaginibus ibi constitutis of the Consuetudinary; but these six were for the rood, and not altar-lights at all, nor in any way connected with a shelf or gradine. The local medieval rules of Salisbury Cathedral are not in the least binding on us; and the increase in the number of lights at festivals should depend upon the size and richness of the church.[10]

There is no authority whatever for reserving special candles for use at Mass, and no such things as ‘Vesper lights’ are known to the Church.

Tall candles are a modern fashion, and often spoil the look of a church. The height both of candles and candlesticks is a matter of proportion for the architect to decide. For many years after the Reformation candlesticks were made low and broad even on the Continent. If stocks have to be used they look all the better for being plain and short. If covered with wax their surface soon assumes a disagreeable appearance: it is better in my opinion to enamel them, socket and all, with wax-colour paint. Metal sockets break the line of the candle; and trumpery shields are really detestable. Coloured stocks are generally as bad. Indeed nothing can be more beautiful than the white line of a moderately thick candle. To use no stock but to burn the candle to within a few inches of the end is the more excellent way, and is possible with all well-proportioned [64] candlesticks, more especially on minor altars. Much of the beauty of a lighted candle is due to the glow which the flame throws into the few inches of candle nearest the wick; therefore, for this, if for no other reason, sham tin candles with springs inside should be consigned to the dust-heap. The Church has never sanctioned the use of anything but real wax for candles; semi-transparent composition candles are therefore irregular as well as ugly. Furthermore, the ends and scrapings of real wax candles can always be sold back to the chandler. If all the altar candles are made of the same diameter, they can be used up, when burnt short, at the minor altars.

It is always better to get a few good things than many bad ones. It is also better for poor churches to buy a good thing in simple material than a bad thing in more expensive material. For instance, if standard candlesticks are wanted cheap, they can be turned in deal and painted a good colour, or stained green, for two or three pounds. But if metal ones are wanted, a good price must be paid and a skilled craftsman employed. A proper craftsman can be obtained through the Clergy and Artists' Association, the Art Worker's Guild,[11] or the Guilds of Handicraft.[12] For altar use, also, wooden candlesticks can be turned and painted or gilt, where economy is an object. Standards should be weighty, and about 5 ft. high (not counting the stock): if there are two only, they should stand on the pavement in front of the steps, and well beyond the line of the altar on either side.

Cushions were generally used for supporting the missal, and they are still ordered by the Roman rubrics. Desks, however, were not unknown: wood [65] is perhaps better for this purpose than brass, which is cold to the hand and scratches the book; and it should be covered with a strip of silk brocade or tapestry of any good colour, which should be long enough to cover the desk and hang nearly to the bottom behind. As cushions survived in the English Church through all the bad times, it seems a pity to drop them now. They are extremely convenient; and, if made of beautiful material, they add a pleasant touch of colour and warmth to the general effect. Two is the most convenient number, as it lessens the amount to be carried by the server. The cushions can be left at either end of the altar out of service time. Very rich ones may be provided with an extra (but not ugly) cover to protect them from the dust,—blue linen is a good material. The size will depend on the altar-book. The cushions should be stuffed with down (not too tightly), and made up with cord in the usual way. They may have tassels.

The Books for the altar may include the Book of Common Prayer (with which may be bound up any special collects, epistles, and gospels allowed by the Ordinary), and the Gospels and Epistles bound up separately. Four or five silk markers are a convenience in the altar-book, and so are tags gummed to the pages at the beginning of the Service, at the Creed, and from the Consecration to the end of the Service. The latter tags are generally put in missals, but that at the beginning is almost as useful, while that at the Creed is very necessary to save fumbling about when the Gospel is finished.

The custom of using two embroidered markers, which are changed with the seasons, is a piece of fancy ritual which does not improve the condition of the book. I have found that the most convenient and least destructive plan is to have three or four rather narrow markers (about half-inch) sewn into the [66] binding, and each of a different colour (say yellow, red, blue, and green). That for the colour of the service (using yellow for white, which would become dirty) is turned across the page, before the book is set on the altar; and, if there are to be any extra collects, other markers are turned across the pages that contain them.

Flower vases are of late introduction, and therefore not strictly covered by our rubric; though flowers themselves are a very ancient feature in church decoration. But now that flowers are usually preserved in water, there can be little objection to their being placed in vases, if they are removed after a day or two. Anything like decaying vegetable matter, with its taint and slime, or wormy flower-pots should of course not be tolerated near God’s Board.

Still it must be remembered that, in these days when many people are occupied about our altars, the tendency is always to lose simplicity; and the loss of simplicity is the destruction of dignity. A great deal of money is usually wasted on flowers, which ought to be spent on necessary ornaments. Flowers are not necessities of worship, beautiful as they are; and they can easily be overdone. The idea that there must be flowers on the altar except in Advent and Lent should be discouraged. Where they are used it seems best to let them be the free offering of the people, and not to buy them. Their only traditional use is for festivals. The altar ought to be rich and beautiful in itself, and not to need flowers to make it pleasant to the eye. In private houses, desolate wall-papers cause people (generally without knowing why) to cover their walls with fans and fal-lals. In the same way ladies often unconsciously try to atone for a blatant frontal, or to cover a chilly reredos, by a crowd of flowers. It will not do. If the altar is not beautiful and dignified before a single ornament is set on it, nothing will make it [67] so. Indeed the general use of Christendom has been not to set any ornaments on the altar except at service time.

A certain ugly shape of brass vase (decorated with sacred emblems at a slightly higher cost) has become almost an article of faith in some churches. The use of plain glass vases will help to remove the hard effect produced by these brazen jars; and so will good earthenware, such as can be got in some old-fashioned towns, and at one or two shops, like Mr. De Morgan’s in Great Marlborough Street. By far the best glass is that made by the Whitefriars Company (Powell’s), Whitefriars Street, E.C. Tin shapes to hold flowers need only be mentioned to be condemned. Flowers should be arranged lightly, freely, and gracefully. Intelligent people hardly need reminding that, if flowers are used, there is no conceivable reason why they should follow the colour of the frontal, or be tortured into emblematic shapes.

There is no authority and no need for altar cards.

Of the Reredos little need be said here, as it is a concern of the architect. There is no part on which the richest colour is more needed than here, and really beautiful reredoses could be made for a quarter the cost of the badly carved, uncoloured stonework which defaces many of our churches and cathedrals. The simple upper frontal of silk or wool tapestry[13] forms the cheapest, and for many churches the most effective, backing to the altar. It can be of the same size as the lower frontal, and should not obscure the east window; it may be changed with the seasons. High dorsels and canopies should not be attempted without professional advice.[14] Canopies, when they [68] are used, should always project over the altar as well as over the candles.

Wings, or Riddels as they were called, should as a rule project at right angles to the wall, and reach as far as the front of the altar. The rods should be strong, so as not to bend in the slightest degree with the weight of the curtains: wrought iron is a better and stronger material than brass, and cannot tarnish. The rods may have sconces for candles at their ends, and these may be of a brighter metal, in which case they should be lacquered. Sometimes the riddels were hung between four pillars which stood at the four corners of the altar,—an excellent arrangement. The curtains should not be of a shabby material or washy in colour, as they generally are.

The Tables of the Ten Commandments ordered by the Canons were not unknown in pre-Reformation days. In Elizabeth’s reign they stood over the Lord’s Table; but since 1603 the ‘east end of every church’ of Canon 82 seems most literally followed by a table on either side of the chancel arch at the east end of the nave, because the place must be ‘where the people may best see and read the same.’ In these days of universal education and cheap prayer books there is no need for the tables to be large. The lettering may be made very beautiful by an artist, ‘to give some comely ornament,’ as the Queen said.

Credence tables may not have been in use in 1548, but they were used here in the seventeenth century by Andrewes, Laud, and their school, and the secular courts have agreed that they are required for the reception of the elements until the alms have been presented.[15] The locus administrationis of the Sarum rubric may have been a credence. It was used by [69] the monastic orders. The credence should be on the south side of the altar, and, if there is room, against the south and not the east wall. It is seemly to cover it with a linen cloth, but there is no English authority for placing candles upon it.

Now that the services are in English it is considered by some that the use of the small sacring bell inside the church is unnecessary. Where it is used care should be taken that it be not of too shrill a tone.

There is very little evidence for the use of a tabernacle in England, where the general method of reservation was in the hanging pyx,[16] which was suspended over the high altar. It is believed by some that aumbries have also been used for this purpose.

Lamps can be hung before altars. One or three are generally enough. Pure olive oil should always be used: and there should be a little water at the bottom of the glass. Floating wicks are most convenient.

Altar-rails were introduced by Archbishop Laud’s school to protect the altars against irreverence and to prevent their removal. Though sometimes extremely useful, they are, therefore, not binding upon us. Often they are very much in the way, as architects are apt to place them too near the Holy Table, and to make the entrance too small. In some cases they can be moved to a more convenient distance, in others they can more advantageously be replaced by movable wooden benches (which were sometimes used before and during the sixteenth century). Often two short benches at the side for infirm people will suffice, as it is not difficult for a hale person to kneel upright for a few moments without assistance. As the altar is now generally protected by a chancel screen or gates, the rails are no longer needed as they were in the eighteenth century. When they [70] are used, it will save the clergy many an aching back if the architect is told not to place them close against the step, so as to force the communicants to kneel on a lower level than that on which the ministers stand.

A linen Houseling Cloth was held under the communicants or laid on the bench at the time of the Rubric, and for long after; indeed at Wimborne Minster it is still in use at the present day. Three feet is a convenient width, and its length will be as long as the rails, to which it may be fastened by hooks.

The Piscina is a necessity. It enables the water that has been used for rinsing the purificators, etc., to be reverently disposed of. It should of course be kept scrupulously clean, and the drain should run on to the soil outside. The shelf, which is sometimes found above it, is for the cruets, etc., to stand on.

The Sedilia should be hung with some good material which may continue over the seats and reach to within two or three inches of the ground. Cushions may be placed on the seats, and where the hangings only reach to the seats they are a necessity. Small chairs or stools will also be necessary for the servers, and where there are no structural sedilia chairs also for the ministers, but these should be of such a shape that the vestments can easily fall over the back. In building a new church it is best for the seats in the sedilia to be movable.

The Carpets are far too important a factor in the colour scheme of a church to be left to individual whims: they should be chosen under advice. Good Turkey carpets are becoming scarcer every year; but those at Morris’s are beautiful and most durable, and the advice there may be relied upon. Some of the big furnishers also supply good carpets now. Besides the carpet in front of the altar it is often advisable to spread other carpets or matting on the pavement or planum to prevent the danger [71] of the ministers slipping: in this way, too, glaring tiles can often be advantageously hidden. In the case of poor churches it is useful to remember that felt can easily be procured of good colours; and, though it is only a substitute, it is far better than a bad carpet, for the average commercial carpet has no real colour at all, and is little more durable than felt.

Flat cushions or mats for the servers are a convenience, and should be provided for each server at every point where he will have to kneel, at least unless there is a carpet. But nothing of the kind is required for the priest; the foot-pace or predella where he stands should be covered only by the carpet. The mat which one sometimes sees in the midst of the foot-pace is a great nuisance, and has come down only as a relic of the hassock when the priest knelt at the north end.


1 The old altar at Arundel is 12½ ft. by 4.

2 Canon 82.57

3 The Clergy and Artists’ Association (6 Millbank Street, S. W.) will recommend good embroiderers and teachers; Morris (449 Oxford Street, W.) also.

4 E.g. in the Exhumation of St. Hubert at the National Gallery there is a beautiful green frontal with purple apparels and frontlet.

5 In the instances given by Mr. Atchley (S.P.E.S. Trans. iv. 3) there are not only crosses of silk on altar-cloths, but also black crosses, ‘fflour-de-lusis and crownyz with 5 red-crossis thereon and J H S in the middis,’ another ‘with 3 part blew starres,’ another with ‘3 blew kayes at each end,’ another with ‘blew kayes’ in the middle, another with I H S in red silk in two places.

6 There were many exceptions to this in the way of undercloths, such as a cloth of ‘hair.’ But the use of a cere-cloth is extremely doubtful. (See Mr. Atchley in S.P.E.S. Trans. iv. 3.) Horsehair is apt to breed fungi. Cotton is to be avoided.

7 After the Reformation, high churchmen often set crosses or crucifixes on the altar; and Queen Elizabeth’s crucifix is famous. In the eighteenth century the great Bishop Butler had a plain marble cross let into wall over the altar in his chapel; but crucifixes had quite fallen into disuse,—in spite of their prominence in the Lutheran churches.

8 Rev. F. E. Brightman, S.P.E.S. Trans. iii. 105.

9 Mr. Comper in S.P.E.S. iii. 204, and iv. 75. Alcuin Tract, ii. 31. See also on the subject of lights, p. 119 of this book.

10 In the Sarum Customary, a parochial book (just published by Mr. Frere, p. 4), all the directions in the cathedral Consuetudinary as to the number of lights are omitted.

11 The address of the Art Worker's Guild is Clifford’s Inn Hall, E.C.

12 There is a Guild of Handicraft at Birmingham, and one at Essex House, Mile End Road, E.

13 The tapestries which William Morris designed are by far the most beautiful that have been produced in modern times. They can be got at 449 Oxford Street. There are some good ones also at Watts’, 30 Baker Street, W.

14 High dorsels are adaptations to particular needs of the upper frontal, which with its riddels is the normal furniture of the altar, and represents the ciborium curtains of the basilica. The riddels should be the same height as the upper frontal, i.e. about 6½ ft. from the ground. They should not be spread out unless they are very high.

15 Book of Church Law, 99.

16 Described by Mr. Comper in S.P.E.S. Trans. iv. 80-5.

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