Project Canterbury

From The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Volume 6),
edited by B. Talbot Rogers, New York: Longmans, Green, 1914, pp. 1-7

Plain Suggestions for a Reverent Celebration of the Holy Communion

by Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton


Preface to Second Edition


The following pages were written and published some twenty years ago, and at that time found favour with a number of the clergy. Since then a great many books have been written on the subject, giving elaborate details, full and particular, as to just how every part of the divine service is to be ordered. Such minute directions are useful to some; and the careful study of ritual as an exact science will always have a fascination for some minds. But there is a large number of the clergy, constantly increasing, who have neither the time nor the inclination to make a study of ritual, and who would not find places to put it in practice if they did. Yet there is a real desire for reverence, a desire to perform all priestly acts in an orderly manner and in conformity with ancient customs. To such this book will appeal. It is not a full directory of ritual, nor is it a book of private prayers. It simply gives sufficient direction for the fulfilment of the great priestly acts with reverence and edification. It is thought that nothing has been written which cannot be supported by competent Anglican authority.

Chapter I

The Altar

The Book of Common Prayer, in the Institution Office, calls the holy table an altar. It should stand at the east end of the church and within the communion-rails. This part of the chancel is commonly called the sanctuary.

The reason why the Christian Church came to place its sanctuary, or holy of holies, at the east and of the building probably was to mark the distinction between the Christian and its forerunner the Jewish Church, which placed its sanctuary at the west end. The Jewish Church, it has been remarked, since it looked forward to the death of Christ, placed its holy of holies toward the setting sun. The Christian Church, built on the triumphant face that Christ not only died but rose again, and the belief that He will come in glory, symbolises her faith by building her churches toward the rising sun and placing her altars in the east.

As an architectural feature the altar may have a screen of either wood or stone, more or less ornamented, behind it. When from the size of the church the altar is somewhat large, it will be found convenient to have a small space of some eighteen inches in width left between the screen, or reredos, and the altar, in order that persons engaged in the necessary work of cleaning or dusting the reredos, or arranging flowers upon it, may do so more conveniently.

The altar may be of wood or stone. There is no universal tradition in the Church as to the most appropriate material for the altar. While the practice of the Western portion of Christendom has been in favour of stone altars, the Eastern Church has preferred wood, as bringing out more significantly the idea of sacrifice and the offering upon the altar of the cross.

For the very practical reason that the priest may be the better heard, as well as the symbolical one of the ascent to Calvary, it is customary to raise the altar on one or more steps. Save in very small churches or chapels, three steps of from four to six inches in height will be found a convenient number. As the priest is obliged, by the directions of the Prayer-Book, for the most part to stand while engaged in the altar service, it is important that the altar should be of sufficient height to enable him, in a standing posture, easily to read the altar-book.

This matter demands attention, because in portions of the communion service both of the priest’s hands are so occupied that he cannot take the book into them; and one cause of the not infrequent injury done to a clergyman’s throat is his being often constrained to read in unnatural positions. Three feet four to five inches is a good height for an altar. An altar lower than this will compel a priest of average stature to stoop inconveniently. Its length should be in proportion to the width of the sanctuary. The length varies from five feet and a half to twelve feet in American churches.

Often, but inaccurately, the term "superaltar" is applied to the shelf which runs along the back of the altar and rests upon it. Properly speaking, a superaltar is a small movable slab of stone, which is placed, as occasion for the celebration of the Holy Communion may require, upon some unconsecrated table or altar. There is no necessity for such an article among us, unless it be in a sick-room. It is, however, fit and seemly that nothing should be placed on that part of the altar where the consecration takes place save the vessels required for the celebration and the altar-book, from which the service is read; for although in pre-Reformation times candlesticks and other ornaments were frequently placed on the altar itself, yet a sense of reverence suggests some change from this mediaeval usage. This propriety is secured by the shelf, or retable, as it is sometimes called, placed at the back of the altar, and upon which any needful ornaments may be placed.

The form of the altar-shelf resembles that of a box, of the same length as the altar, eight to ten inches broad and four to six inches high. There may also be shelves or ledges, as part of the reredos, for use in the fuller decorations of the sanctuary, customary at Christmas and Easter and other festivals.

It may be observed that, for the most part, our altars are unnecessarily wide. Two feet or two feet three inches is considered as giving ample width. There is thus scarcely any existing altar upon which a retable may not be placed without any change in the present position of the altar, or trenching upon the space needed in the sanctuary.

Where there is an altar in a church too low and small for convenience and dignity, the fault can often easily be corrected, at a little expense, by putting a base of a few inches in height under the altar, and by constructing a plain and simple reredos, which, by extending beyond the altar on either side and also partly enclosing it, will give to the old altar its required dignity. By this arrangement, where, as in some places, there are special associations connected with any existing altar, the feelings of devout persons will not be pained, as they might be by the removal of an old altar and the substitution of an entirely new one. Reasonable persons will rather be gratified by the care taken of and the beauty given to that which they have so cherished.

The Credence

In order that the priest may obey the rubric, before the prayer for Christ’s Church militant, which requires of him, "Then [to] place upon the Table so much Bread and Wine as he shall think sufficient," a small table or shelf, called a credence, is needed, upon which the elements can be placed before the service, and remain until they are, by the priest, placed upon the altar.

It is a matter of common sense to put the credence where it has anciently been accustomed to stand, on the south side of the sanctuary. There is no mystical reason involved in this. It came about, probably, from the fact that the celebrant at the altar, when about to receive anything brought to him, naturally turns by the right. Then coming to the Epistle corner, he can more readily make use of his right hand in taking or receiving the elements which may be handed to him.

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