According to an article in the National Altar Guild Association, Altar Guild in the Episcopal Church began in the late 19th century as a natural outgrowth of what had been from the beginning, an exclusively male world. In our earliest days of the church, followers of the church gathered in private homes to break bread together and share their memories of Christ. Presumably the head of the household provided whatever was required for the meal. As Christians multiplied and gathered in larger buildings, certain people were given the task of caring for these places, while the worshipers provided the meal. By the fourth century the parochial ministry of today, a local Christian family, had become established.
For hundreds of years thereafter certain leaders (later referred to as clerics, the sacristans) were responsible for everyone that is now considered Altar Guild ministry. The sacristan’s position was a very important one. He was required to be devout, sensible and even tempered. He was required to see that a list of servers be posted on the wall for every service in the week and everything was ready before the service began on Sunday—the vestments laid out, the candles lit and the charcoal heated.
Women were given some duties, but very limited, and never in the sanctuary. In the late 19th century, our ministry went through another change. Women of the Altar began serving behind the scenes, providing care of the linens, polishing the brass, caring for albs, vestments and chalices, and assisting priests and deacons in the preparation for the Eucharist. By the end of the 20th century, men again were welcome participants in the preparation of the churches for worship and altar guilds became a joint lay ministry.
I have been blessed to be a part of the Altar Guild ministry for many churches over the years since I was a preteen. Our congregations are grateful for this ministry. Others are not aware of all the behind the scenes work that goes into preparing for all of the services.
Altar Guild is far more of a force in the parish than the holy housekeeping tasks that need to be performed. It is a spiritual community –the spirit in which it lives ripples out to affect the feel of the entire congregation. Altar Guild members become real team players. The seasoned members are neither rulers giving orders, nor doers taking care of everything themselves. Instead they are leaders and teachers.
Another spiritual issue is hospitality. Transfiguration welcomes new members and uses the Altar Guild ministry as a way to build relationships. We feel this creates the mood of the church to be considerably warmer and friendlier.
A certain spirit floats out of every sacristy the way an aroma floats out of a kitchen. It sets the tone of the worship and more than that, it sets the tone of congregational life. A well-set service with the corporal and lavabo bowl in just the right place is a good thing. However, there are more important intangibles in this ministry—care for each other, building up each others’ competence and confidence, welcoming and including new members and above all, prayer and fellowship.
Our meetings are held monthly, normally on the first Saturday of each month at 11:00 a.m. in the church. These meeting last about an hour. The meetings include preparations needed for our Sunday services and any tidying up in the sanctuary/sacristy or church. There are special seasons that require us to come together for seasonal preparations. We are so thankful to have our Monday morning group members come together with us to help make the Easter services and our Christmas services festive and meaningful.
We invite you to take a look at this ministry. Feel free to ask any member about our ministry or myself (Ruby Seyffert: 602/318-0568) should you be interested. You would serve at the altar with a partner once a month at either the 8:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. Sunday service, whichever service is your choice to attend. We are a ministry that works harmoniously together, lovingly preparing our Lord’s table for the Eucharist celebrations and other services. We invite you to join our ministry or just check us out to see if this is a ministry for you. We would love to have you as part of our family.
Ruby Seyffert Altar Guild Director