Altar rails

From Academic Kids

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A set of altar rails in a Dublin Church.(Though this particular sanctuary was re-ordered, both the reredos and the altar rails were left in place.)

Altar rails are a set of railings, often ornate and frequently of marble, delimiting the sanctuary in a church, the part that contains the altar. A gate, often of brass, at the centre divides the line into two parts. The sanctuary is a figure of heaven, into which entry is not guaranteed.

Barriers of various kinds often mark off as especially sacred the area of a church close to the altar, which is largely reserved for ordained clergy. In the Armenian rite curtains are drawn to cut off that area during the holiest moments of the liturgy. In other eastern rites, this evolved into a solid icon-clad screen, called the iconostasis, with three doorways, in each of which there are usually curtains that can be closed or drawn aside at various times. Western Europe had its more transparent Gothic rood screens and the smaller more economical altar rails.

Many Roman Catholic churches have had altar rails, those of the late nineteenth century being particularly decorative. Communicants receiving the Eucharist knelt at the railings to be given communion by a priest. After the Second Vatican Council, a re-ordering of churches led to the removal of many altar rails. Previously, only altar servers were allowed to join the clergy within the sanctuary during the celebration of the liturgy. Now lay Readers of Scripture and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion may enter the sanctuary during Mass, symbolizing a greater access to heaven and the increased role of the laity in priestly functions. Many bishops of the Church proposed the removal of altar rails because they felt that the rails were inconsistent with the Vatican's desire to reduce the differentiation of members of the Church. Some conservative Catholics see the altar rails as reminders of the need for humility and others object that their absence reduces reverence at communion, because communicants must stand and queue in such a church.

Traditionalist Catholics and many architects and planners critised some removals, often on liturgical, historical and ęsthetic grounds. While in some states, the Roman Catholic Church has adopted a minimalist approach towards the removal of altar rails, in other countries, for example in Ireland, almost every re-ordering eliminated altar rails. Although most conservative catholics resisted the changes some have taken legal action to try to prevent the removal of altar rails and of other traditional features in pre-Vatican II sanctuaries. Similarly, not all liberal catholics supported the changes to sanctuaries; some have disputed the belief that the altar rails were a barrier, claiming that many churches were able to allow full participation by the laity in the new Mass without removing altar rails.

The Holy See has responded to queries by stating that there is no requirement that altar rails must always be removed; this only needs to be done when enlarging the sanctuary or bringing forward the altar. It is the diocesan bishop who is to decide on concrete questions of removal of the altar rails in a church of his diocese.

In other denominations, such as many of the churches of the Anglican Communion, the use of altar rails has remained more common.


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