An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Altar Rails

Chest-high rails around the altar were used as early as the fifth century to prevent the people from interfering with the ministers of the eucharist. The people came to the altar rails to receive the sacrament, which meant that the altar rails served as communion rails. Some places continued the early church practice of administering communion by ministers who moved among the people. Standing was the normal posture for receiving communion until the thirteenth century, when kneeling to receive the sacrament became customary. This practice was related to the elevation of the host by the celebrant. Altar rails were first used in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Puritans disliked altar rails. They often removed them from churches and moved the altar into the body of the church. William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury, directed that altars be returned to the east wall of churches and fenced by altar rails for protection against desecration. The altar rails were latticed. Bishop Wren of Norwich noted that they were “so thick with pillars that doggs may not gett in.” The English clergy continued to move among the people to administer the sacraments until the eighteenth century, when the altar rail came to be used as the communion rail. In the nineteenth century, the chancel was seen as the room for the sacrament and the nave was seen as the room for the liturgy of the word. Altar rails in the Episcopal Church are low, reflecting the assumption that the people will kneel to receive communion. Altar rails may be made of metal or wood. Current liturgical usage has emphasized the shared participation of celebrant and people in the eucharist, and tended to remove barriers between the altar and the congregation. Standing to receive the sacrament is practiced with increasing frequency, and altar rails have been removed from some churches. Altar rails may become obsolete as standing to receive communion becomes more widespread in the Episcopal Church.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.