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The Ministry of the Altar Guild as a Visible Sermon

The Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, Bishop of Central Florida, Province IV

In the Episcopal Church, aesthetics matter. Our churches are known for their beauty, both in terms of architecture and exterior design as well as what we present on the inside, where the surroundings in which worship takes place have their own meaning. In fact, we believe God intends these elements as what I often call “a visible sermon.” 

This is particularly true of the ministry of the altar guild, which deals with using various objects and elements to create a sacred space for worship, specifically Communion — the altar guild’s tasks have a profound impact on the life of the church. The beauty of altar guild work has true theological value. It says something about how we care for what we do as well as how we care for people. It tells us that every detail has significance and every task is important.

Honoring a Legacy

For some people, the altar guild has to do, as much as anything, with taking care of a legacy, particularly if gifts have been given such as altar ware, silver, and so forth to honor a relative or respected member who has died. And that actually does have its place; the scriptures tell us we should give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7). 

God also calls us to honor our parents, and this would apply to “parents in the faith” as well. Doing so through the visible means of caring for the altar and its accoutrements has everything to do with allowing our invisible respect to become visible. Creating and maintaining a legacy that lasts has immeasurable value.

Caring for Creation

Yet even more important than legacy is the visible sermon created by the work of the altar guild. It says something important about how the church understands the ministry that God has given us: that creation and creation care are a part of who we are and what we do. This principle extends beyond the ministry of the altar guild to those such as healing, health care, feeding the hungry and more. All of that actually comes out of the same root, one that says God’s creation is precious, and we must do whatever we can to preserve it. This also says we care about the visible world that God has given us, a concern that is meant to be expressed in terms of the way we care for and use the spaces the Lord has given us. 

In fact, I would even go so far as to say if a church’s altar work is sloppy, it doesn’t have that meticulous attention to detail, my hunch is that if the church is involved in any ministries to feed the hungry, they probably carry that same element of sloppiness. There’s a single thread that ties together the different ways we express care. When we feed the hungry, we are serving our Lord. When we greet a visitor, we are serving the Lord. When we prepare the elements for Communion, we are serving our Lord. 

Extending Our Hospitality

When we do our altar guild work with excellence, we are also making a statement about what and whom we value. To continue the analogy to Christian hospitality, when my wife and I have people over to our house for dinner, we do our best to make them feel special. We fulfill that both in the food we serve and the table we prepare. 

When we extend thoughtful hospitality, we are doing our best to honor our guests. And altar ministry is much the same, in the sense that we’re trying to honor both the King of kings, whose feast this is, and also the people who come. We say to them, “We’ve spread a table of welcome for you.” 

For me, all of that finds expression through the work of the altar guild: the way linens are cared for, whether silver is polished, how the elements are placed. I think all of those together say something essential. 

Preserving a Value

Another aspect of altar guild ministry is that, in some ways, we’re trying to preserve a value that, in some parts of our culture, is completely lost. When people invite others over for a meal, they may not think at all about what they intend to serve or how they will serve it. It’s far too easy to just throw something together or dial the number of the local pizza establishment. 

Of course, all our meals don’t need to be formal. Yet we don’t serve Coke and crackers for Communion, and the fact that we don’t says something just as important as following the pattern set before us in scripture. We are saying something about the value of what we’re doing: the value we place on serving the King of kings and on serving one another over the course of what we’re doing in Communion. For me, serving on the altar guild says a lot about caring for one another and understanding our care for the world, but more important than that is the way it expresses our understanding of true hospitality. 

Communicating the Gospel

The people whom I know who have been the most faithful people on the altar guild are almost always deeply prayerful people who see the tasks of the altar, whether ironing linen or polishing silver or hanging greens for the Christmas celebration, as deeply powerful acts. Altar work is worship, not just preparation for worship. And because this is true, we must always consider what message we are communicating by what we present on and around the altar. It’s not whether we’re saying something; we are. Altar work is, in fact, a visible message. But the question is: Is it a visible sermon? Is it communicating the gospel and what we believe about our love for Jesus, our value for people and our commitment to care for the world God has given us? 

That’s how we are to approach the ministry of the altar guild, as one that has genuine significance. I personally value this ministry and those who perform it because I value the message they communicate in a very visual, nonverbal way. The message matters, and the work of the altar guild does too.

The Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, Bishop of Central Florida, Province IV

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