Monday, December 5, 2011

Do we really need altar guilds?

No. We don't. We really don't. Most of the problems that I have had in my ministry have come from altar guild members--altar guild members who are absolutely inflexible, completely closed off to change on any kind, and who think it is their personal duty to protect the congregation from the pastor and all this "catholic" stuff. Now please understand, I have known many faithful Christian altar guild members over the years; but I have also known a lot of sharks. The altar is their territory and woe to the pastor who tries to move anything, change anything, or even suggest anything. It doesn't matter if the pastor is the one who has to stand at the altar and do all the things required of him by the Church's liturgy; it is the altar guild's way or the highway.

Many altar guild members are, let's be honest, older ladies. They learned their craft under the well-meaning but incompetent guidance of some protty clergyman a long time ago, one who had little real interest in liturgy; or worse, they were left on their own to make up their own "rules" (not drawn from any official manual) which they stick to as rigidly as any observant monk. You can explain to these altar warriors how the altar should be set up for Holy Communion, but don't expect that they are going to take you seriously. When Sunday comes, you'll see, it will be back to the same old way they learned when Pastor Krunch was pastor forty years ago.

The one serious problem I have with altar guilds is the fact that they often undermine the proper, reverent, respectful treatment of the Eucharistic elements after the Communion Liturgy. I, gladly, don't have little shot glasses in my parish, so I am able to ablute the chalice and the flagon at the altar and consume any uneaten hosts. I have instructed the altar guild to rinse all vessels and dispose of the rinse-water reverently before washing the vessels with soapy water. However, this has always been an uphill battle. Sadly, there are a lot of pastors out there who just don't care what happens to the consecrated elements after the liturgy has been concluded. Altar guilds are just left to do their thing, and when a pastor who cares about liturgy comes along, he gets a lot of opposition from guild members who have "always done it that way."

Lately, I have been giving serious thought regarding the need for altar guilds. Honestly, I don't think we need them. Unless the members are faithful, well-trained, flexible, and have an understanding that their job is to help the pastor do his job, I say disband them. Altar guilds that think they have the final say in liturgical matters are a nuisance at best, and at worst they (albeit unwittingly) serve the devil.

Here's my proposal: Every parish should have a sacristan or two. The sacristan should be very knowledgeable in liturgy. He or she should work closely with the pastor. The sacristan can appoint members of the parish to wash linens, polish brass-ware, etc. He or she might be someone who wants to train for the ordained ministry someday, and being a sacristan would provide much needed training that is usually lacking in Lutheran seminaries.
As far as altar guilds are concerned, keep them if they behave themselves. Otherwise, they are not worth the headache.


Unknown said...
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Padre Dave Poedel, STS said...

I tend to agree that Altar Guilds are unnecessary, though I have been blessed that my present congregation has men and women who are anxious to learn about the changes I have made in the past 6 years: reservation of the sacraments in a Tabernacle (and a refrigerated Tabernacle used exclusively for the Blood of Christ in the sacristy...I serve in Phoenix, after all), the use of a pouring Chalice, separate water cleaning and disposal of the individual cups, with the water returned to the ground, use of a priest host for elevation and many others.

These wonderful folks simply asked that I explain why I was asking these things, so they could tell the others.

My previous parish in Tucson was a different story, and it took 6 years (and a few deaths) to get the folks to do the right things.