A truth about me: I cannot follow rules. I mean that literally. Everything is negotiable gray area for me. When I am made aware of the rules and agree to comply, a moment later I will inevitably say to myself, “Yes, that may be a rule, but this situation is different.” And I go right ahead and do what I think I should do.
I know it’s maddening (just ask my husband), but I contest that this inability to follow rules isn’t all bad. Because I don’t see the rules as relevant, I can think of crazy new ideas for projects. Everything is a possibility because there are no boundaries holding me in place. I believe that rule breakers are important because we challenge the standard. It is exhausting and exhilarating to me, but I can see that it seems downright disrespectful to those who like things just the way they have always been.
I reluctantly started going to church in my 30s. Despite some major resistance to being part of The Christian Institution (again, my anti-rules issue), I was made to feel welcome and eventually learned to love the Episcopal Church. Not having any idea how church services run or the meaning behind the ceremony, I was mainly just following along; standing when everyone was standing, sitting when everyone was sitting, singing when everyone was singing.
After a while, I started noticing little things in the service, like the beautiful flowers on the altar and how they change color with the seasons. Then I began to wonder, who gets the communion wafers out? Who picked the wine today? I heard a rumor that the wine can’t leave the church grounds after it’s consecrated and so SOMEBODY makes sure that it’s disposed of correctly—who is doing that?! And those amazing extra crisp folds on that perfectly white cloth that goes over the chancel cup—who is doing all this exemplary ironing and laundering? Clearly, someone was running a tight ship behind that stained glass wall.
I discovered that there are several women who attended to the Episcopal ceremonies I’ve come to love. They serve on the Altar Guild and while it is definitely not a job for the rule breakers of the church like me (that would be a disaster), I so admire these wonderful people caring for the traditions of the church.
I was curious why someone would take the time to honor the church traditions with such dedication, so I asked Patsy why she serves on Altar Guild. This is what she wrote, which I am not embarrassed to tell you, brought a tear to my eye. It is so lovely.
“The Altar Guild is the liturgical partner of the priest. As one Altar Guild manual puts it, ‘We are the ones chosen to prepare for the meeting of the people with God.’ (Working Manual for Altar Guilds, Dorothy Diggs)
Personally, I’ve been involved with the altar guild for 30 years now (wow didn’t realize it has been that long) starting in Virginia, then with A&HT since 1993-ish. I so like the quiet, reflective time when setting up for service. When handling the vessels or the Holy Hardware as we sometimes call it, you see the memorial inscriptions, some dating to the 1800’s. You see all those that have come before you, and offer a silent thank you prayer. I see it as setting the table for honored guests. We the congregation are the guests for God’s table.”
Okay, this is where I shed a tear. Me?! An honored guest? I’m not worthy…but yet I’m made to feel worthy. This is why I love this church so much!!
Patsy continues, “When I first served on AG, I didn’t pay any attention to the service. I was too concerned if I included the priest host on the paten*. I did, but there have been several times I had to look to reassure myself! *Also being a part of this service, you get to learn some fancy words or terminology like paten, burse, lavabo, purificator, just to name a few.”
“The Altar Guild is part of an unbroken tradition reaching back to the faithful women who provided for Jesus during his lifetime (Mark 15:40-41; Matthew 27:55). We follow our patron saint, Martha, partly because of her practical life of active service, yet also because she was among the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah (John 11:7-29).
Some Altar Guilds have been composed exclusively of men or exclusively of women. Today, anyone can be a member. You don’t have to have any experience to join. Hands-on training is available, and we have these wonderful check lists!”
Of course they have check lists! They’re amazing!!
Debbie is on both Worship Commission, Altar Guild, AND Chancel Choir! In her words, it’s “because Sunday worship is very important to me – it charges me up spiritually for the week. [Serving] enables me to protect traditions, facilitate change, and hear the thoughts of others regarding worship elements and style.”
Where do I see God’s love in action at our church? I see it in the work of these wonderful women who diligently and reverently care for our traditions. I see it in the challenge that the rule-breakers like me bring to the institution. Most of all, I see it in the loving way that we try to appreciate these gifts we give to each other and to the whole body of the church. I believe that God’s love is in ALL of our gifts, and we were created this way to provide balance; to make sure that our rich history is not forgotten for the sake of progress, and to not allow those traditions to stop us from growing in Christ’s love as we know it.
Thank you to all those who serve on Altar Guild. Now, will someone please tell me what the heck the “burse” is?
Margot Madison is a working mother of three, wife to one, and an Episcopalian/Christianity newbie.