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Rt. Rev. Henry Nutt Parsley

The ministry of the altar guild makes me think of beauty. Our ancient forbearers said that the purpose of life is to know “the good, the true and the beautiful.” The business of the altar guild is beauty, the beauty of holiness.

In my former parish of Christ Church, Charlotte, NC, we were graced by an unforgettable chair of the altar guild, Gwen Thomason. I have known few Episcopalians more joyful and dedicated than Gwen. Each Monday, as she spent the morning taking care of the Sunday flowers and other altar duties, she brought flowers from her garden for my office! What a gift that was, sheer beauty both in sanctuary and office, reminding us of the beauty of God.

Our cathedral church in Birmingham was blessed by the ministry of Mabel Shepherd who led the altar guild for longer years than most can remember. When I was consecrated she insisted on bringing the cathedral altar and vestments to the secular space where the service was held. She knew what a difference it would make. It was said that she single-handedly moved an altar across town that it took the previous dean ten years to move two feet from the east wall!

Elaborate silk hangings, embroidered vestments, polished silver and brass, well-tended candles and elaborate banners, infinitely varied flower arrangements — these are the mainstays of altar guild ministry. Too often I fear we diminish the significance of these in our time. We are vaguely apologetic for the “trappings” of the church as we think of the servant Christ who calls us to service and sacrifice in the world. It is certainly true that we must never let the fabric of the church become the most important thing (and, as we know, it can happen!) God’s people and mission matter a great deal more than the polish of the brass candlesticks.

Yet beauty is indispensable. We need to cherish it in the church.The scriptures tell us tirelessly of the glory of God and the beauty of holiness. We worship and adore the creating God who made a world filled with beauty and whose heavenly realm is ravishingly glorious. To be sure, our altars are but poor reflections of God’s vast, eternal glory, but they are reflections. They point beyond themselves to the great mystery and to the beauty at the heart of things.

Seeing a well-arrayed altar and sanctuary each Sunday morning and at weekday services fills us with a spirit of joy and gratitude. It lifts up our hearts. This vision of eternal reality through earthy things renews us for ministry and service in the world of great need and struggle. Such holy beauty inspires us to strive to make the world a more lovely and loving place.

In one of his memorable writings, Frederick Buechner tells of seeing the whales at Sea World perform. He recounts how the vision of whales and people, wild nature and humanity together unexpectedly brought tears to his eyes. Others surprisingly admitted to the same experience. Buechner concludes, “In that dazzle of bright water as the glittering whales hurled themselves into the sun, I believe what we saw was that joy in what we belong to. Joy is home. God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us from that joy.”

The beauty of God’s altar, lovingly tended by altar guild members day after day, across the church, gives us glimpses of that same joy for which we were created. The joy of God. It is easy to forget in your day to day duties, but to be on the altar guild is to be part of something big. You help us know the beauty and joy of God that keeps us going, that keeps us loving and serving, until we see face to face.

Thank you Gwen and Mabel for the beauty of holiness. Thank you all.

by Rt. Rev. Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr., Bishop of Alabama



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