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  • Linda Forrest

A New Breed of Altar Guild Society in the 21st Century

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Over the last 10 years, it has come to our attention that many altar guild societies are going through much transition. This transition can be very good, but certainly can bring to light many areas of need in this ministry to serve the Church. As time goes by, many very experienced and dedicated altar guild workers have either retired or gone on to be with the Lord.

For those who have inherited this calling, some of the knowledge and experience has not been passed on. As an altar guild society, it is very important to understand the basis of this specialized ministry.

History of Altar Guild Societies

Altar guild societies are a relatively new ministry for lay people, dating only from the last half of the 19th century. However, their roots can be traced to the very earliest times in the history of the Church.

Originally, these duties were performed by sacristans and altar guilds comprised of monks and laymen in minor orders all through the centuries.

The Apostolic Tradition, a book written in 200 A.D. in Rome by Hippolytus begins by assigning the care of the vessels of the altar to a subdeacon, books to the lector, and the building to the doorkeeper. A little later, there was a person called a sacristan whose job was to care for the church building and everything in it.

These were some of the “minor orders” of monks or laymen in the Church. After the Reformation, these minor orders were not observed in parts of the Church, especially in England. So the duties of the sacristan were assumed by the parish clerk, among his other duties.

In the 19th century, there was a movement in the Church that began to stress an increased involvement of the laity into all phases of church life, including liturgical ministries. This ended the need for the parish clerk to continue his duties and functions in so far as liturgies and in matters dealing with the altar. Those duties were assumed for the most part, by a group of women volunteers who became know as the altar guild or altar society.

Fast forward to living in the 21st century requires that some of these older traditions, such as altar guild members being required to have no other responsibilities outside the church and home, have changed. We cannot take for granted that all members can be on call 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week.

Many of today’s altar guild members come from the ranks of working parents of school-aged children, who may only be able to devote a few hours once or twice a month. This “new breed” of altar guild society membership does, however, require greater organization and better training.

Training for the New Breed of Altar Guild Members

It has become evident, that many altar guild directors, sacristans, and priests have voiced their concern for better training of new altar guild society members, especially in the care and maintenance of church linens. After much consideration, we have put together a training workshop that will address these needs and concerns directly.

Our workshops and classes are comprised of lectures, needlework training, and linen making. Lectures can include the exploration of symbolism in the liturgy, especially as it applies to the use of linens for the Eucharist. We provide a biblical context for this by showing the history and lineage of linen used in the church. Workshop training can include the care and maintenance of linen, hand embroidery, and linen making.

We can tailor design a program to suit your church or diocese needs. A simple questionnaire is offered to help us determine what type of training would be most suitable for members and future members of your altar guild community.

If you would like more information about our programs we would be happy to explore ideas with you. For upcoming classes and workshops click here.

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