Monday, 5 September 2011

Sussex Communion Rails

Communion rails are a surprisingly recent innovation, probably dating only as far as late medieval times when people began to kneel to receive the bread and wine instead of standing up. They may have also been intended to keep animals out of the sanctuary.
The earliest altar rails date from the 16th century, and the church at West Wittering (above) has a splendid set dating from that time.
By the reign of James I, altar rails had become fairly standard and a fine set from that period survives at Didling church (left). Short, fat balusters support a deep rail carved with semicircles, as though the designer wanted an aqueduct but couldn't find anyone capable of carving the arches.
As with almost all aspects of church furnishing, communion rails became higly controversial in the run-up to the Civil War. Charles I's Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, decreed that all altars should be made of stone and surrounded by rails to prevent profane use, which was regarded as close to popery by the Puritans.
Most of Laud's stone altars were destroyed in the Commonwealth, and were not, by and large, brought back at the Restoration but replaced with wooden tables. But the rails were kept – they were just too convenient for resting your elbows on when waiting for the bread and wine. 
In the 18th century communion rails became more slender and elegant, often with balusters turned in a lovely barleytwist shape, like the lovely rails at Kirdford (right). 
The Victorians seem to have regarded the balusters as looking too much like a fence for excluding the laity from the abode of God, and began to introduce communion rails on metal posts that could be spaced much more widely. 
In the Catholic church, altar rails became controversial again after the Second Vatican Council. Many were removed, to the consternation of some congregations. The Catholic church has since back-pedalled somewhat, allowing rails to be kept if they are of historic significance. 
The latest trend in church design is the Demountable Sanctuary Stage, a structure for multi-use spaces using technology developed for temporary theatres. The raised altar can be installed quickly and easily, with the communion rail slotting into holes in the front.