Thinking allowed

Uses for an altar table

Holy Table at St Michael and All Angels Church in Uffington, Lincolnshire


The role (and oth­er aspects) of the altar or holy table will be con­sidered in some detail in a future post. But this story in today’s press is of some interest.

The Daily Tele­graph reports that Lin­coln dio­cese has banned [a church] from using altar to serve cups of tea.

Accord­ing to the report

Wor­ship­pers at the St Michael and All Angels Church in Uff­ing­ton, Lin­colnshire, wanted their oak altar to double up as a place to “serve refreshments”. 

Update: Law and Reli­gion UK provides some more details. Per­haps most sig­ni­fic­ant is that the altar is one in a chapel, not the church’s main altar, pic­tured above and in the Tele­graph report. The peti­tion was to place a table in the chapel which could be used to serve refresh­ments, and which would be used occa­sion­ally as an altar.

But the Chan­cel­lor of the dio­cese, Mark Bishop, 

decided the altar could only be used for wor­ship, not to serve snacks.

Rul­ing that “an inter­change­able use for the altar” was cer­tainly not accept­able, he said a “decent table of wood, stone or oth­er suit­able mater­i­al” should be provided in every church or chapel for cel­eb­ra­tion of Holy Communion.

He added: “The table, as becomes the table of Lord, shall be kept in a suf­fi­cient and seemly man­ner, and from time to time repaired, and shall be covered in the time of Divine Ser­vice with a cov­er­ing of silk or oth­er decent stuff, and with a fair white lin­en cloth at the time of the cel­eb­ra­tion of the Holy Communion.

“It would be com­pletely inap­pro­pri­ate for an altar to be used occa­sion­ally for the cel­eb­ra­tion of Holy Com­mu­nion, but more fre­quently ‘for the ser­vice of refreshments’.

“The oblig­a­tion of the Church­war­dens is to ensure that the Lord’s Table is kept in a ‘suf­fi­cient and seemly man­ner’ and I am quite sat­is­fied that what is pro­posed does not amount to that.”


  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:

    Jesus gave us a meal, not din­ing room furniture.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • David Gibson says:

    How on earth did this get as far as a Con­sist­ory Court? Surely, the Par­ish Priest should have nipped this one in the bud from the start – or was she the instig­at­or? It makes me won­der about the qual­ity of litur­gic­al form­a­tion in this par­ish, where sac­red space is con­sidered nego­ti­able, and the tea break of more sig­ni­fic­ance than the Euchar­ist­ic cel­eb­ra­tion. Per­haps they got the idea from St Andrew’s Cathed­ral in Sydney, where a ‘host­ess trol­ley’ is wheeled on for the Lord’s Sup­per once every three months (or how­ever infre­quently they have it). Per­haps that has an altern­at­ive use as a cof­fee bar, com­plete with chor­us-singing baris­tas! Ser­i­ously, though, it really is a cause for des­pair when this kind of thing makes it bey­ond the PCC and, pre­sum­ably, the DAC. Yet more proof of what John Mill­bank (Prof of Theo­logy at Not­ting­ham – not a mil­lion miles from Uff­ing­ton) was get­ting at when he high­lighted the lam­ent­able levels of theo­lo­gic­al lit­er­acy among many cur­rent C of E clergy.

  • Kirk Hollingsworth says:

    The long-term rect­or of my church (St. Luke in the Fields, NYC) lost a long and bit­ter battle with his con­greg­a­tion: when the church was being rebuilt after a fire, he wanted a small free-stand­ing altar which could be moved to per­mit soci­able activ­ity in the space. He was thor­oughly voted down and the church was built with a heavy per­man­ent altar.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Lynessa Austen says:

    since HC can be cel­eb­rated in the open air and is no less val­id than one in a cathed­ral and Jesus fed 4/5k in the open I think we get more pre­cious about THINGS than is healthy. This does not mean we should not respect a sac­red space.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Kennedy says:

    Although I do admire St Gregory of Nyssa in San Fran­cisco who serve the after ser­vice cof­fee from the altar, I pre­sume as an expres­sion of table hospitality

  • The judge­ment in Re St Michael and All Angels Uff­ing­ton states that the applic­a­tion for the fac­ulty was made “in accord­ance with details that have been sub­mit­ted on behalf of the PCC”, and that the spe­cific­a­tion of the chapel table had been recom­men­ded by the DAC, although it is not clear wheth­er the DAC was aware of its pro­posed dual use. 

    The Chan­cel­lor gives the applic­a­tion pretty short shrift, dis­miss­ing it with ref­er­ence to Can­on F2, an early ref­er­ence to which would have sup­plied the PCC with a more imme­di­ate answer, gratis. 

  • Matthew McDade says:

    An altar doub­ling as a tea point? OK, let’s have the chalice also serving as a spare cola cup, should the church run out. When some­thing is set aside and con­sec­rated for the Lord’s use it means it should have no oth­er use. I know the church in Uff­ing­ton and was some­what per­plexed by their lack of theo­lo­gic­al under­stand­ing. The phrase “is noth­ing sac­red?” sprang to mind. Well, appar­ently not.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • I’ve replaced the ori­gin­al pic­ture from the Tele­graph with one that actu­ally shows Uff­ing­ton church. The Tele­graph had pre­sum­ably just chosen some ran­dom church pic­ture. My apo­lo­gies. New pic­ture is by J Han­nan-Briggs under a Cre­at­ive Com­mons Licence. The image links to the page and licence.

  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:

    My under­stand­ing, Mat­thew McDade, is that at the Last Sup­per Jesus sanc­ti­fied the dis­ciples, not the crockery.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • H. E. Baber says:

    Are they really so short of tables that they need to use the altar to serve tea? This is Crom­well, stabling horses in cathed­rals. Nyah, nyah, none of that silly, super­sti­tious nonsense—let’s debunk all that rubbish. 

    All transgressive—and mor­al­ist­ic. Trans­gress­ive: none of that silly, super­sti­tious prudery for us—how silly you prudes are for get­ting all bent out of shape if we serve tea on an altar. Mor­al­ist­ic: oh you wicked people, reserving altars for silly reac­tion­ary rituals, when you could be using them for prac­tic­al pur­poses, to serve tea.

  • Matthew McDade says:

    The altar is set aside, con­sec­rated, for the sole use of glor­i­fy­ing God. To turn it into an ordin­ary table is at best naive and at worst disrespectful.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Gerry Lynch says:

    At the Last Sup­per Jesus “sanc­ti­fied the dis­ciples”; well, that’s an inter­est­ing theo­lo­gic­al state­ment being presen­ted as if it were an obvi­ous fact that we all agree on.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:

    Well he cer­tainly did­n’t appear to sanc­ti­fy the fur­niture or the crock­ery, so why get so excited about an altar/table? Cer­tain­ties regard­ing inan­im­ate object so much safer than per­son­al chal­lenges of the Holy Spir­it perhaps?

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Matthew McDade says:

    Sonia, let’s agree to disagree.

    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:


    [com­ment syn­chron­ized from Facebook]

  • A copy of the judge­ment is now avail­able on the Eccle­si­ast­ic­al Law Asso­ci­ation web site at:


  • James says:

    I recently read some­thing by the last great Bish­op of Winchester, John V Taylor, which is ger­mane to this dis­cus­sion. In a talk to guides at Winchester Cathed­ral he said that churches and cathed­rals need to be “a per­man­ent and much-needed remind­er that this is not a human-centred uni­verse: it revolves around God and for God.” I won­der if the Uff­ing­ton PCC had begun their delib­er­a­tions with this insight, their applic­a­tion would have been com­pletely different?

  • Rod Gillis says:

    Fas­cin­at­ing con­tro­versy. It offers pos­sib­il­it­ies in terms of a con­ver­sa­tion about the actu­al meal sym­bol­ism of the meal. Posters so inter­ested may wish to read or review J.D. Crossan’s chapter on The Com­mon Meal Tra­di­tion, in his, The Birth of Christianity. 

    I note Crossan’s cita­tion from Robert Jew­ett (Crossan p. 424). ” The purely sym­bol­ic meal of mod­ern Chris­tian­ity, restric­ted to a bite of bread and a sip of wine or juice, is tacitly pre­sup­posed for the early church, an assump­tion so pre­pos­ter­ous that it is nev­er artic­u­lated or acknowledged”

    Using the same table for Com­mu­nion and fel­low­ship food, sounds like an inter­est­ing pro­pos­al. Let’s dis­cuss it over a bite. 

  • James says:

    Of course, cer­tain con­trib­ut­ors to this thread assume that the arche­type for the Euchar­ist was undoubtedly a fel­low­ship meal which developed from the domest­ic Pas­sov­er tra­di­tion. There has been a sig­ni­fic­ant devel­op­ment in schol­ar­ship over the past dec­ade to cast a huge ques­tion-mark over this (by now) lazy assump­tion. There is a com­pel­ling case to be made that the place of the temple sac­ri­fice ritu­al, the altar and the holy of hol­ies have much deep­er res­on­ances in the New Test­a­ment (and early Chris­ti­an prac­tice) than we pre­vi­ously acknow­ledged. Before we dis­cuss Rod’s pro­pos­al ‘over a bite’ it might be worth read­ing some­thing like Mar­garet Bark­er­’s Temple Themes in Chris­ti­an Wor­ship (2008) or some of the more recent work of Paul Brad­shaw on Euchar­ist­ic ori­gins. We might also want to reflect on the way in which we are impos­ing 20th and 21st cen­tury notions of club­bable middle-class churchy­ness on the way we inter­pret early Chris­ti­an ‘fel­low­ship’ in rela­tion to the Euchar­ist. This leads me to ask wheth­er the all-too-easy iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the altar with the kit­chen table will come to be seen as the greatest icon­o­clast­ic tend­ency to evolve after Vat­ic­an II?

  • I’m not sure that Mar­garet Bark­er­’s sug­ges­tions have found wide­spread accept­ance. There was an inter­est­ing review by Henry Wans­bor­ough of her latest book in a recent edi­tion of the Church Times. Not yet avail­able to non-sbscribers

    On the oth­er Hand, Paul Brad­shaw’s book on Euchar­ist­ic ori­gins, alluded to above, does indeed pos­it that the meals which Jesus shared with his dis­ciples were a sig­ni­fic­ant ante­cedent of the Church’s euchar­ist, lead­ing into the diversity of prac­tice which we see in the the early Church.

  • Rod Gillis says:

    @ James, enga­ging com­ment thanks. Not famil­i­ar with the work of Mar­garet Bark­er, but texts must be read, as Paul Brad­shaw poin­ted out, in con­text, and texts are con­tex­tu­al­ized, for example, using archae­ology and where pos­sible a hypo­thet­ic­al recon­struc­tion of social cus­toms. There is likely some­thing more recent, but just for example, both themes are explored in, The Mak­ing of Jew­ish and Chris­ti­an Wor­ship edited by Paul Brad­shaw and Lawrence Hoffman. 

    Your point about impos­ing con­tem­por­ary per­spect­ives on pre­vi­ous epochs is well taken. The counter point, of course, is the impossib­il­ity of enga­ging the past without any dia­lect­ic­al ten­sion with one’s own present con­text. There is a great spec­trum of thought on this, J.D. Crossan,The Birth of Chris­tian­ity, and Bern­ard Loner­gan, Meth­od in Theo­logy ( two chapters!) being just two examples of dif­fer­ing points of view on the same ardu­ous task. Noth­ing lazy about either schol­ar or those who wrestle with them. 

    One of the great high­lights of the Cana­dian Church year is Har­vest Thanks­giv­ing, cel­eb­rated in Octo­ber. The observ­ance has waned with rur­al decline; but churches are dec­or­ated with pro­duce of the land and, more recently, with dona­tions for the loc­al food bank. Loaves of bread, bunches of grapes, and oth­er food­stuffs are to be found on and around the com­mu­nion table, wheth­er east­ward or west­ward facing. The observ­ance which usu­ally dis­places the prop­ers of the Sunday con­nects Euchar­ist to food, meals, shar­ing, need. It is a remind­er of how impov­er­ished our “sip and a bite” Euchar­ists are from a sym­bol­ic­al point of view. 

    As Crossan asks, was there ever an actu­al “last” sup­per? Who knows. How­ever, the high altar and mostly non-com­mu­nic­at­ing con­greg­a­tion of pre Vat­ic­an II, or the priest behind the table dis­pens­ing sub­way token like wafers to people in a line, remind us of the work still to be done in hav­ing a gathered people recog­nize Jesus in the break­ing of the bread. Har­vest Thanks­giv­ing or tea and scones served from the altar after Com­mu­nion may be just the thing to ground us. 

  • James says:

    I think Rod and I could get car­ried away with ourselves on this thread (and it’s import­ant that oth­ers are drawn into this dis­cus­sion), so I’ll offer this and no more (unless invited to). I am fully in agree­ment from the Crossan point of view – not least because his argu­ment under­mines any simplist­ic tra­ject­ory from Last Sup­per to Euchar­ist. His 1991 The His­tor­ic­al Jesus, for example, is pretty emphat­ic in its insist­ence that “Jesus and those closest to him would have had a last sup­per… a meal that later and in ret­ro­spect was recog­nised as hav­ing been their last togeth­er…” But he also says “I do not pre­sume any dis­tinct­ive meal known before hand, des­ig­nated spe­cific­ally, or ritu­ally pro­grammed as final and forever…” Add to this, John Bal­dov­in’s obser­va­tion that Egeri­a’s diary fails to men­tion a cel­eb­ra­tion of the Euchar­ist on Maun­dy Thursday in rela­tion to the site of the Last Sup­per, and the ques­tion marks con­tin­ue to accu­mu­late. This is not an apo­lo­gia for a neo-Medi­ev­al (neo-Romantic) return to the Use of Sar­um or a Counter-Reform­a­tion liturgy. But it is an invit­a­tion to ask wheth­er the sloppy theo­logy which leads to a par­ish want­ing to com­bine an altar with a tea bar is rooted in a much deep­er litur­gic­al mal­aise: that that lan­guage of table fel­low­ship and the post-1960s cul­tur­al con­di­tion­ing that has informed ideas of ‘Euchar­ist­ic assembly’ has res­ul­ted in an anthro­po­centric liturgy and litur­gic­al envir­on­ment, devoid of mys­tery and grav­ity, with wor­ship spaces being overly domesticated.

    I also think it is vastly over­stat­ing the case to say that Bark­er­’s thes­is has no wide accept­ance. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times Row­an Wil­li­ams and schol­ars of a sim­il­ar stature have high­lighted her ori­gin­al and stim­u­lat­ing work. Wans­bor­ough’s review made some good points. But (back to Rod’s point about dia­lect­ic­al ten­sions) you would hardly expect a Roman Cath­ol­ic Bene­dict­ine monk to be wildly enthu­si­ast­ic about a mode of bib­lic­al cri­ti­cism which chal­lenges the status quo – or the broad frame­work of the magisterium.

  • Rod Gillis says:

    @ James. Appre­ci­ate your rejoin­der. I’ve made a note to look for Bark­er­’s work. Thanks both to you and Think­ing Liturgy for the tip. 

    The sources I quote show my vin­tage to some degree. Usu­ally, I like to quote things I can pull off my shelf. One of the draw backs of retire­ment is less of an imper­at­ive to stay up to date. One of the bless­ings of retire­ment is less of an imper­at­ive to stay up to date. 

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