The altar rail or communion rail is a low barrier, sometimes ornate and usually of made of stone, wood or metal in some combination, delimiting the chancel or the sanctuary and altar in a church from the nave and other parts that contain the congregation. Often a gate, or just a gap, at the centre divides the line into two parts. Rails are a very common, but not inevitable, feature of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist churches. Catholic usage prefers "Communion rail". They are usually about two feet 6 inches high, with a padded step at the bottom, and designed so that the wider top of the rail can support the forearms or elbows of a kneeling person.
The altar rail is a modest substitute for earlier barriers demarcating the chancel, the area containing the altar, which was reserved (with greatly varying degrees of strictness) for officiating clergy (including boys as choristers and altar servers). Although it only emerged after the Protestant Reformation, it has been found convenient by both Catholic and more traditional Anglican and Protestant churches, although it is disliked by many Reformed and Evangelical churches.
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. The templon was typical for the Late Antique period. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, curtains are still drawn to cut off that area during the holiest moments of the liturgy. In Eastern Orthodox and related rites, this evolved into a solid, icon-clad screen, called the iconostasis, that has three doorways which usually have doors and curtains that can be closed or drawn aside at various times.
Following the exposition of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the fourth Lateran Council of 1215, clergy were required to ensure that the blessed sacrament was to be kept protected from irreverent access or abuse; and accordingly the area of the church used by the lay congregation was to be screened off from that used by the clergy. Apart from the congregation, pet dogs were often taken to church, and a dog-proof barrier was needed (more recent rails often fail in this). Barriers demarcating the chancel, such as the rood screen, became increasing elaborate, but were largely swept away after both the Protestant Reformation and then the Counter-Reformation prioritized the congregation having a good view of what was happening in the chancel. Now the low communion rail is generally the only barrier; despite being essentially a Counter-Reformation invention, this has proved useful and accepted in the Protestant churches that dispense communion. However the screen enjoyed a small revival in the 19th century, after the passionate urgings of Augustus Pugin, who wrote A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, and others.
There were medieval structures like communion rails, but the various types of screen were much more common. A church in Hasle, Bornholm claims to have "a rare 15th-century altar rail"; perhaps, like other examples, this is in fact a sawn-off medieval screen. The origin of the modern form has been described by one historian as "nebulous", but it probably emerged from Italy in the 16th century, though the German Lutherans and the Church of England were not far behind in adopting it, perhaps without being aware of the Italian versions. In England the rail became one of the focuses of tussles between the High Church and Low Church factions, and in many churches they were added, removed and re-added at different times.
Archbishop Laud was a strong supporter of rails, but the common story that he introduced them to England is incorrect; he was trying to prevent Puritan clergy from continuing to removing them, and his pressure in favour of rails was bound up with his very controversial "altar policy", reasserting the placement of the altar in its medieval position. Matthew Wren, Laudian Bishop of Ely, was imprisoned during the whole of the English Commonwealth and had to defend himself against charges of enforcing altar rails, which he pointed out had been found in many English churches "time out of mind". In both Catholic churches and Anglican ones following Laudian instructions, the congregation was now asked to come up to the rails and receive communion kneeling at them, replacing a variety of earlier habits. This too was controversial in England, and the Laudian party did not push too hard for this in many dioceses.
Roman Catholic churches
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; today they typically stand. After the Second Vatican Council, many parishes removed their altar rails, and a myth has arisen that the Council ordered the change (although the Council said nothing about it). 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 enter the sanctuary during Mass.
Some Catholics and many architects and planners criticised some removals, often on liturgical, historical and æsthetic 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. Many 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. However, 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 Order of the Mass without removing altar rails.
In the most recent liturgical legislation enacted by the Holy See, the Institutio Generalis Romani Missalis 2000, the traditional distinction between the chancel and the nave of the church is retained and may be delimited by a number of options, including an altar rail. The same legislation makes it clear that there is no requirement in liturgical law necessitating the removal of altar rails from historic churches and nothing prohibiting their erection in new ones. While a diocesan bishop is competent to decide on concrete questions concerning the removal of altar rails from a church in the diocese committed to his pastoral care, he is required prudently to make that decision in accordance with the norms of law, taking into account the wishes of the faithful. Any decision taken by the bishop, however, may be appealed by hierarchical recourse to the competent instance of the Holy See which, in this case, is the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
In other denominations, such as many of the churches of the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church, and the Methodist Church, the use of altar rails has remained more common. There is typically no specific regulation concerning their presence or use, although they remain a common feature even in newly constructed churches. Their continued popularity results from a preference on the part of many to assume a posture of kneeling to receive the Eucharist. For those sanctuaries without an altar rail, in some cases a portable rail with attached kneeler is used for those who wish to kneel to receive the Eucharist.
Within Lutheranism, an altar rail is the common place for a pastor to hear a confession, which generally is required to receive the Eucharist for the first time. A common Lutheran practice from Scandinavia is to have an altar rail in the shape of a semicircle, with a similar stone half continuing outside against the sanctuary's outer wall in the church graveyard. The two halves symbolise the connection between the current congregation with those gone before.
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- "The Key Furnishings in the Chancel". United Methodist Church. Retrieved 2010-03-27.
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- Online text
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- Altar Rail - Article from the Catholic Encyclopedia