A Protestant Pastor reacts to the Communion rail entry

When I see that someone has linked back to WDTPRS, I will sometimes go find out what is going on.  I often find gems.

For example, on the blog Power, Love, Self-Discipline a pastor of a United Church of Christ parish reflects on what I wrote here about Communion rails. 

Here is a large part, but you should go check out what he wrote in full.

I was on the blog yesterday of Father John Zuhlsdorf, a Catholic priest and prolific writer on all things Catholic and liturgical. If you follow the link, you’ll find an entry concerning altar rails.  Apparently, there are churches (even Catholic churches) that are tearing them out, seeking to reduce the distance between a priest and a parish that this physical dividing line inevitably causes.  But is this a good thing?  Father Z finds this to be a disturbing trend, and he argues for the usefulness of the altar rail.  But I want to draw your attention to one of his arguments in particular:

Lay people and the ordained have different roles in the liturgy. They have their own particular places. When you blur those places by making them less distinct, you undermine something important in the hearts and minds of the clergy and congregation.  When you constantly tell people that they are being empowered by being given things to do and places to sit or stand that cannot be distinguished from what the clergy do, you are really telling them that on their own they aren’t good enough. They are really not good enough unless they do things priests do, or sit where they sit.

This blew me away because it perfectly describes me.  Part of the reason I wanted to be a minister is because it seemed like I couldn’t be the best Christian I could be unless I was a minister.  All the best Christians I knew were pastors (I now see how wrong that was), which suggested to me that clergy were on another spiritual plane that couldn’t be accessed unless on was clergy.  Furthermore, if it was acceptable for me to preach as a 15-year-old, then I wasn’t doing enough, and was therefore less of a Christian, when I wasn’t preaching.  The thought never entered my mind that I may have a vital role to play in worship as a member of the congregation. 
I wonder if I would have felt this way if there were a greater distinction between clergy and congregation growing up, if the creep of egalitarianism wasn’t so strong.  What if there were places I wasn’t allowed to go on the altar?  What if someone had explained to me that there are things the pastor does that the congregation can’t do, and things the congregation does that the pastor can’t do?  What if I knew that both are essential for worship (and, by extension, we do great harm to the worship of the church when we don’t show up)?  I wonder if I would have valued the sacraments and the preaching of the Word more if I had a better understanding of the differences between ordained and lay.

I applaud this fellow’s questions. 

The writer, Pastor Sam Chamelin is 25 years old.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Matt M says:

    This guy gets it, why can’t we as Catholics get it?

  2. Matt Q says:

    Great. A particularly articulate and insightful 25-yr-old. We should invite this gentleman to the fullness of Religion. May the Lord bless him on this faith journey.

  3. Andreas says:

    For those who like to appeal to the early church: various antique documents describe altar rails (cancelli altaris), mostly praising and commemorating some Church construction by a bishop or abbot but also at times mentioning their use as for example (Durandus lib. 1. Ration, cap. 3. num. 35): “In primitiva Ecclesia peribolum, seu parietem, qui circuit chorum, non elevatum fuisse … quod ideo fiebat, ut populus videns clerum psallentem, inde sumeret bonum exemplum. Verumtamen hoc tempore quasi communiter suspenditur, sive interponitur velum, aut murus inter clerum et populum, ne mutuo se conspicere possint.”

    In early Church they used to have a “peribolum”, or a wall, not very high … so as to allow the people to see the clergy singing, in order to have a good example. But these days there is a veil usually or a wall between the people and the clergy so that they can’t see each other.”

    Here is another example from a Roman Synod from a.d. 853. can. 33: “Saeculares… ne inter sacros cancellos ordinibus debitos nisi permittente Episcopo, adtentent accedere.”

    Let not the seculars attempt to enter beyond the sacred rails designated for the clergy except with the Bishop’s permission.

    Here is a link for additional examples:

    http://standish.stanford.edu – need to click on “Browse” then “Author” then “Du Cange Charles Du Fresne” and finally select the “vol.2” pdf file where you can find the word “cancelli”.

  4. MarkAA says:

    Lots of Lutheran churches never got rid of their communion rails. Works great, and honestly doesn’t have to create much separation between pastors and congregation. But remarkable for maintaining order and intimacy during communion time, as families go up for communion together, receive together, are blessed and dismissed together.

  5. This idea that the clergy and laity are some how equal has been disastrous. It is good to see a Protestant who gets the picture.

    Yes, both functions of clerical and laity are equal in dignity, and one need not be clergy to get to heaven….however the lines that have been blurred between clergy and laity (that is abuse of EOMHC’s, allowing EOMHC’s to purify the vessels, and allowing everyone and their neighbor in the sanctuary) I truly believe this has helped contribute to the damage of our Catholic Identity, and why some people left during the Liturgical hijacking of the 70’s.

  6. Agnes says:

    Sort of goes back to what is meant by “active participation”. The mind, the will, the heart all need to be fully engaged in the Sacrifice whether you are clergy or laity. My prancing around in the Sanctuary detracts from that full engagement required of me, the clergy, and those in the pew. In quietly uniting my prayer to that of Jesus the High Priest whose minister stands in His Person, I am also united with my brothers and sisters. Really, aside from the rubrics for us in the pew, I need not budge an inch. I don’t have to “do stuff” to be actively participate at Mass. I only need to pray. Western culture seems to have a major problem with stillness.

  7. “lay and clergy”, “equal”??? Listen. Just because we have a communion rail does not mean that we are above anyone.

    I don’t use the communion rail as a wall of separation between clergy and laity. I use it to define where the sanctuary is and where it is not. The tabernacle, the holiest of holies, is there, above the altar. this is not about distinguishing between different kinds of people, it is about showing you the presence of God in the flesh so that I (and you) can worship Jesus Christ who is GOD.

    We all have different charisms. All are equal. But not all are the same. They clearly carry different responsibilities.

    For example. The priest – most people think he does so-called ‘apostolic’ works. Those works are managing a budget and visiting the poor and widowed and stuff. NO. Those are the Deacon’s job. The priest’s job is to TEACH and PREACH and BRING CHRIST IN THE EUCHARIST, and heal the sick by annointing them. Sadly, the role of Deacon is also completely misunderstood. The job of the Deacon is not to stand near the altar during Mass reading the Gospel and acting as a glorified altar server. NO. We have altar servers for that. Let them do their own job so they will grow up wanting to be priests and deacons. That’s what that’s there for – preparation. The Deacon’s job is to be the so-called “pastoral associate” which some laity think is their job. They pretend to act as priestesses and confusingly call themselves “associate pastors”. Bullshit. You are not a pastor, neither is the Deacon.

    The Deacon must be present all FIVE days of the week, working in the parish office managing the affairs of the parish, while the Priest continues to study the word of God so that he can share with the Deacon how his job is to be done.

    Unfortunately, most priests think they got all they needed to preach from seminary, and then they get a parish and they suck at preaching. They water down the Gospel with ambiguity and a secular vocabulary. They are too lazy to continue studying philosophy so that they will know how to preach against the undercurrents of our time. They do not keep up with the news so that they can preach against the overcurrents of sin in our time. They do not reach theology either, so they do not know what the Word of God means to them in their hearts. They are content just to be “nice enough” and try not to disturb the herd.

    But your job, as priests, which you have systematically rejected, is TO DISTURB THE HERD. We don’t need blogs, we need priests who do their job from the pulpit and then go out live what they preach.

  8. Maureen says:

    Well, actually it is the deacons’ job to read the Gospel. But all the other stuff, too. (And if we go back underground, it’s their job to lock the doors and throw out the catechumens after the Liturgy of the Word….) :)

  9. DanR says:

    Lots of things to get excited about. Altar rails isn’t one of them. Don’t recall an altar rail at the Last Supper, yet Peter never got the idea he was the Messiah did he? Let’s focus on spreading the Gospel. That’s all our jobs, not just the ordained. Let’s get to work!

  10. Larry says:

    DanR says he’s not excited by communion rails and doesn’t recall one at the last supper. Cute; but, really not very helpful. Of course Dan, you might reflect on the fact that the last supper was an ordination ceremony as well as Mass therefore all present were to be ordained and would be inside any commmunion rail in any event. You might want to look into the old testament and the discription God provides for the place of worship. You won’t find a rail but you won’t find the laity in the Holy of Holies either. It is this design which forms the basis of church design from very early times. Less you feel that the priests or bishops have it better it is precisely those who will find judgement more severe from the LORD because they had special assignments in the Church. There is a difference between the ordained and the rest of us and that is important and is manifested best by setting off the Sacred area from the place of the laity. Peace and Joy

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