Thinking allowed

Uses for an altar table

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

Updated

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.”

23 comments

  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:

    Jesus gave us a meal, not dining room furniture.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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?

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  • Matthew McDade says:

    Sonia, let’s agree to disagree.

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  • Sonia Falaschi-Ray says:

    Ok.

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  • 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 http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/15-august/reviews/book-reviews/tracing-a-theme-through-john

    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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