Altar Guild or Alter Guild? … by Sara Fischer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike a lot of Episcopal churches, ours has an Altar Guild which, like those in most Episcopal churches, consists of a shrinking handful of faithful folk who polish silver, wash and stretch linens, clean candlesticks, tidy, dust, arrange flowers, set up and clean up for Sunday services as well as every wedding and funeral that comes along, and a hundred other things you and I don’t want to know about.

Like a lot of Episcopal churches, we acknowledge that the Altar Guild is a time-honored tradition and provides a necessary service, but—like others—we have a shortage of people willing to serve.

Like a lot of Episcopal churches, we have a not insignificant number of church members, both within and outside of the Altar Guild, who write “Alter Guild” instead of “Altar Guild.” This used to annoy me. Especially coming from people on the Altar Guild. But then, during a week of particular stress and conflict, brought about by the very real scarcity of people equipped and motivated to do the work of the Altar Guild, I started to wonder if an “Alter Guild” might be exactly what we need.

The majority of people in our congregation are under forty. Those who grew up in the Episcopal Church have memories of their mothers’ or, more likely, their grandmothers’ work on the Altar Guild of their childhood. No matter how many times I share from the chancel steps that setting up the altar for worship is one of the best kept secrets of joyful ministry in the church, our congregation has no interest. Nor should they. They’ve got jobs and kids and lives. They’re happy with the mystery of the sacrament; that’s why they’re here. The 40-somethings in our community are stretched even more thin than their younger peers, and the 50+ folks are either already on the altar guild or overcommitted in other parish ministries. Or in the case of some, they’re simply getting too old and frail to serve in that way.

So recently I’ve been thinking: perhaps what we need is an Alter Guild. A guild that helps those of us who do understand the very real behind-the-scenes needs, to open up our imaginations to what could be. Isn’t that what we’re all called to do as followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century?

So the first job of the Alter Guild might be to dream up a way to get the church ready for the sacramental highlights of our common life without the scarcity-drama that plagues our and many other liturgical communities. What else might be the Alter Guild do? Crowd-source the Annual Report? Flash-mob the Christmas Pageant? Craft a choral hip-hop sermon? A Monty Python-inspired stewardship campaign?

What must we keep, in order to be faithful, and what must we let go of, in order to be faithful? Or, to put it another way, what would you do with a cracker-jack parish-wide Alter Guild?