|Seventeenth-century altar rail in|
an English (Anglican) Church
For many Catholics who are disturbed by the liturgical changes of the last fifty or so years one of the most upsetting has been the removal of the altar rails from their parish churches. What many do not know, of course, is that the altar rail has its origins in the Protestant reformation.
We can tell from reading the Fathers of the Church that the practice of receiving Holy Communion for at least the first seven centuries was—as it remained and still is in the Eastern Churches—for the communicant to present himself or herself standing to the priest at the foot of the altar. In the very early centuries, let us say from apostolic times up until perhaps the seventh century, it was expected that all present would receive Holy Communion. (Those who were not eligible—catechumens and penitents—had been dismissed after the sermon.) However, as through missionary efforts Christianity spread northward into what is today Germany, England, the Low Countries, Austria, and eventually Scandinavia and Poland, and as the various “Barbarian” tribes swept down into Italy, the large number of poorly catechized converts saw a dramatic decline in the numbers of those who received Holy Communion. Many never received at all. An exaggerated emphasis on the need for Sacramental Confession before receiving Holy Communion and the imposition of very strict Communion Fasts also contributed to the decline in people receiving. The situation became so desperate that in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had to mandate that Christians must receive at least once a year and that during the period from Septugesima until the Octave of Pentecost—the Lent-Easter season. Even then many never received the Sacrament from their first Communion until their deathbeds. Communions became so rare that they were often separated from Mass with people receiving from the Reserved Sacrament in the Tabernacle before Mass or after Mass. Indeed it was not rare for there to be no “Communion of the faithful” at Mass, with only the priest receiving.
In such cases those few receiving Holy Communion would present themselves kneeling in one of the smaller chapels of a large church or at a side altar of the main church before or after Mass. Kneeling became a common practice after the seventh century as the Church more and more stressed the need for penance and demanded of communicants a penitential posture.
Tourists and pilgrims visiting Rome are often surprised how few churches in the ancient city, and none of the old churches, have communion rails. That is because of this practice of receiving outside of Mass. With only four or five people receiving on any occasion—and often as few as one—the communicants would approach the priest one by one, kneel and receive Holy Communion. The Rite for Communion outside of Mass involved the priest coming to the altar in surplice and stole, the candles being lit at the tabernacle. The people, or more often the server(s) recited the Confiteor and priest granted the absolution that follows. The priest then showed the Host to the communicants saying the Ecce Agnus Dei…and the response thrice given “Domine non sum dignus…” The communicants then approached the priest, knelt and received the Host on their tongue as the priest said the “Corpus Domini Jesu Christi…” There was then a final prayer over the communicants. (There were local variations of this rite but the practice of Communion outside of Mass persisted as the normal form until the Liturgical Reforms of Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century and was in common use even up to Vatican II.)
The Protestant reformers tried to restore frequent and universal communion—with mixed results. Luther had more luck with this than Calvin or with the Anglican Church. Luther’s liturgical revisions were far less drastic than either Calvin or the English Church’s and much of the Mass appeared very little altered except for the substation of the vernacular for the Latin (though even the Latin persisted in some places, especially for the sung parts of the service). From sixteenth century woodcuts of Lutheran liturgies we can see the introduction of the rail with communicants kneeling to receive.
Let me back up here for a moment. Railing the altar in one form or another was nothing new. At some older churches in Rome, notably Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Clemente, Santa Sabina, we can see the rails that were erected as early as the sixth century to mark off the space for the choristers and the Sacred Ministers during the liturgy. These were not Communion rails—they are approximately four-and-a-half feet to six feet high. They were simply an effort to prevent the crowds from taking over the space around the altar needed for the Ministers to perform the Liturgy. Similar barriers developed in the East into the Iconostasis. In the West, particularly in England but also elsewhere, they became choir screens. The magnificent choir screens of many of the Spanish cathedrals have survived but these are high walls—thirty and forty feet in height.
During the Catholic Reforms of the fifteenth (Spanish) and sixteenth (Trent) legislation demanding that the altar area be railed off became normative and rails were built around the sanctuary to divide it form the nave. Originally they had nothing to do with the reception of Holy Communion but were to keep out stray animals, wandering children and over-enthusiastic worshippers. Where these railings survive they are usually about four feet high (too high for communion rails) and without a kneeling step on which the communicants can kneel. Communion rails were not needed in Catholic Churches since communions were relatively rare and usually conducted away from the main altar before or after Mass.
The Lutheran custom of the rail caught on in both Germany and Scandinavia. In England there was a conflict. The Puritan wing of the Church of England, Calvinst in theology, clung to Cranmer’s practice where Holy Communion was celebrated at an ordinary table placed in the chancel. The communicants were expected to kneel around the table as the priest placed the bread into their hands and then gave them the cup from which to drink. Frequent communion did not catch on in England at the time. People would come for Morning Prayer and the Sermon and then leave with only a dozen or so remaining for Holy Communion. But the efforts of the High Church Party under Archbishop Laud in the early seventeenth century won a significant number of people over to a more Sacramental worship. The High Church party moved the table from the middle of the chancel or from the nave where Cranmer had put it back to the traditional position against the eastern wall of the Church. And it introduced communion rails with the communicants kneeling at the rail rather than around the table. All this was done away with during the Puritan Commonwealth but was restored with the Restoration of the Episcopacy and the Crown in 1660.
There was a dramatic Reformation of the Catholic Church in France in the seventeenth century. The French Crown had blocked the promulgation of the Decrees of the Council of Trent for decades but a determined group of French ecclesiastics under the leadership of (later Cardinal) Pierre deBérulle undertook an internal reform of the Church. Old religious orders were reformed and new religious orders were founded along with the Society of Saint Sulpice to train diocesan clergy. Francis de Sales preached an everyday spirituality for lay people that brought incredible new energy to the Church. Great attention was paid to the liturgy and magnificent churches were built. And in these new churches communion rails appeared. There were many connections between England and France at this time. Sizable communities of English Catholics—both lay and religious—had taken refuge in France. People went back and forth across the channel with regularity. Many French churchmen had contacts with Church of England clergy and academics. Many English converts to Catholicism came to France for education in the faith. England had a French Catholic Queen from 1625 until 1649. Catholic chapels were maintained in London by Continental European embassies throughout the sixteenth century except for the years of the Commonwealth. We can’t say for certain that the communion rail was an import from the Church of England but its appearance in France from where it spread through much of the Catholic world strongly suggests a link.