If I had to choose, I guess I’d have to say that, prior to my ordination, I actually learned far more about being a good priest from the Altar Guild than I ever did from clergy.
You see, new priests tend to arrive at a parish intent on making a big splash, put a lot of effort into remaking the place into something more closely resembling their ideal, change this, change that, issue liturgical directives that may or may not be followed, then deal with the resulting chaos and confusion with varying degrees of grace and good humor.
Members of the Altar Guild, on the other hand, are rarely newly arrived. They tend to be the backbone of any given parish, the ones who have been there through good times and bad. They’ve typically served under multiple priests, and know that they’ll probably still be preparing that altar long after the current priest has moved on. And no matter how much chaos and confusion might follow in a given priest’s wake, the Altar Guild invariably responds graciously. They know where all the keys are hidden and where all the skeletons are buried. They embody wisdom and faithful service.
At least, that’s always been my experience. I’ve heard tales – apocryphal, no doubt – of determined Altar Guild members who actively set out to sabotage clergy. But I’ve never actually witnessed that first-hand. If it DOES happen, I have no doubt who the winner in that battle would be. I’d bet on the Altar Guild every time.
We priests are focused on immediate results. But the Altar Guild plays the long game. They know that today’s annoyances are simply fodder for tomorrow’s cherished memories and tales told over Coffee Hour. I treasure the time I’ve spend in sacristies, soaking up that Altar Guild ethos.
In short, without the Altar Guild, the church would pretty much collapse. Yet much of the critical work they do is done beneath the radar. Like the acolytes who move wordlessly around the church during services, making sure everything happens when it is supposed to, the Altar Guild ministers under a cloak of near-invisibility.
But show up here on a Saturday, and you’ll see Altar Guild members busily at work, making sure all is ready to go for Sunday’s worship. Or poke your head into the sacristy following the Sunday service, and you’ll see the Altar Guild scurrying to clean up while the rest of us are settling down to the pleasures of coffee hour.
Theirs is a ministry of taking the mundane and making it sacred. It’s a ministry of laundry. And ironing. And polishing. And pouring. And counting. And folding. And cleaning. And mending. Yet in those quotidian tasks, they honor God, and make God’s house as beautiful as human hands can make it, a place worthy of a king.
We are blessed to have a strong and growing Altar Guild at St. James, ably headed by director Rose Applegate. Rose ensures that new members are trained in correct terminology and proper procedures, and periodically conducts refresher lessons for the veterans.