In the Book of Common Prayer most references to altars come, not surprisingly, in the rubrics of the Eucharistic rite. Other references occur in the Prayer Book’s pontifical: in an initial rubric before each of the three rites of Ordination (for deacons, priests, and bishops); in rubrics to the Form of Consecration of a Church; and in rubrics and prayers in the Office of the Institution of Ministers and in the accompanying Letter of Institution.
In the American prayer book the altar is referred to with four different terms. Outside of psalms and New Testaments lessons the altar usually is called the the Holy Table, but this term changes to the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist after the consecration of the oblations. The term Holy Table occurs also in the Consecration of a Church, with the variation Communion Table also occurring once (p. 566). Finally, in the Office of Institution the altar is called the Altar in the prayers, in the rubrics, and in the Letter of Institution.
The word ‘altar’ itself occurs 18 times in the Prayer Book. Eleven of these uses refer to the altar in the temple in Jerusalem, which is mentioned seven times in psalms and four times in New Testament lessons given in the Prayer Book.
The other seven uses of ‘altar’ in the Prayer Book occur in the Institution of Ministers. In the Institution rite ‘altar’ is used in reference to the altar rails (rubrics p. 570 and 571) and the altar itself before which the newly instituted priest kneels for the prayer on page 573. The Letter of Institution also refers to I Corinthians 9:13 (‘they which minster about holy things live of the things of the temple…and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar’) in conveying temporal authority within the priest’s cure: ‘as the Lord hath ordained that they who serve at the altar should live of the things belonging to the altar, so we authorize you to claim and enjoy the accustomed temporalities appertaining to your cure’ (p. 569). It is noteworthy that the Institution rite’s preference for the term ‘altar’ is congruent with its use of other terminology made more popular by the Catholic Revival following the Oxford Movement, particularly ‘holy Eucharist’ (p. 574) and ‘Apostolic Succession’ (p. 572).
The Prayer Book says remarkably little about Christian altars, though it clearly assumes that each church or chapel shall have one. In regard to altar ornaments or vesture, all the American Prayer Book says is that the altar is to be covered by ‘a fair white linen cloth’ at ‘the Communion-time’ (p. 67). Apart from its fair linen covering the Prayer Book gives few indications about the altar’s use and the posture of the priest in relation to it. The altar is at the offertory to have placed upon it both the alms of the people (in ‘a decent Basin’) and also the oblations of bread and wine (p. 73). After the communion of the clergy and people but before the ablutions any of the consecrated Elements remaining are to be covered by ‘a fair linen cloth’ before being reverently consumed (p. 83). In addition to these directions, the rubrics also prescribe that the priest shall turn to or from the people or the altar at a few points. Otherwise, the American Eucharistic rite does not refer to ornaments or furnishings of the altar, however denominated, nor does it direct the precise use of the altar. Even the form for the Consecration of a Church does not refer to chalice, paten, candles, cross, missal, frontals, veils, and other items placed upon or used with altars in most times and most places.
The English Prayer Book of 1662 supplies much of what is simply assumed by the American book’s silence with a rubric directing the use of such ornaments and vestments as were in use in the second year of the reign of Edward VI. The 1549 Prayer Book, which dates from that year, refers to the traditional Western Eucharistic vestments (albs, chasubles, tunicles, copes) and would appear to embrace and authorize the use of the items of altar furniture and priestly vesture customary in the late medieval Church. The American Prayer Book does not include this Ornaments Rubric and instead appears simply to assume that the altar will be furnished, without saying how or with what. Similarly, the American Prayer Book just assumes that priests will be clothed or vested, without saying how or what they are to wear. The only mention of vesture in the American book is a direction in the Ordinal that ordinands shall be ‘decently habited’ (pp. 530, 536) and that bishops-elect will wear rochets.
The most significant fact in the American Prayer Book’s references to the altar is a very noteworthy shift in terminology in the course of the Eucharistic rite. The altar is called the ‘Holy Table’ before the consecration of the Eucharistic elements. This term, Holy Table, occurs in the initial rubric concerning the vesting of the Table and the priest’s position at the beginning of the rite (p. 67); in the offertory rubrics (pp. 71 and 73); and in references to the priest’s position before the Sanctus (p. 76) and at the beginning of the Prayer of Consecration (p. 80). Once the Consecration has occurred, however, the terminology changes. Then the Priest is instructed to kneel down ‘at the Lord’s Table’ to say the Prayer of Humble Access, which is a prayer of adoration with realistic language of Eucharistic Presence (p. 82). Likewise, after communion the Elements are to be returned to ‘the Lord’s Table’ (p. 83) before they are consumed. The implication of this change in terminology is that while the place of the Eucharistic consecration is always Holy – ‘separated…from all unhallowed, worldly, and common uses’ (p. 564) – the nature of this holiness, the nature of its sanctity, changes and is made more specific by the Eucharistic consecration. The generically Holy Table in the church or chapel becomes through the Eucharistic consecration the Lord’s Table, the place of the Lord’s Real Presence. Beginning with the consecration of the Eucharistic Elements and extending through the consumption of all of those consecrated Elements, either during holy communion or the ablutions, the nature of the altar is changed and elevated. That which is merely holy and set aside by men and women is, by the divine condescension in the Eucharistic consecration, taken up as Christ’s own and made the re-presentation of Calvary’s sacrifice and the altar of his saving Presence.