The Key Furnishings in the Chancel
1. A Table
Variously known as the Lord's table, holy table, Communion table, altar table, or altar -- functions primarily as the place where the feast of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is held. As such, it symbolizes God's presence in the church and is the symbolic center of the church's life. It is the center of actions in our worship, uniting us to God and to one another. Every other function of the Lord's table is secondary. It is never merely a convenient surface on which to place books, empty offering plates, and flower vases.
2. A Pulpit
A pulpit is a stand behind or in which the minister stands to preach and perhaps to conduct other parts of the service. It symbolizes the authority of the Scriptures, which are "opened" to the people by reading and preaching. For this reason it is appropriate that an open Bible be on the pulpit and that the Scriptures be read as well as preached from there. Sometimes there is also a lectern, a smaller stand which may be used for reading and for conducting certain other parts of the service.
3. A Baptismal Font
A baptismal font, which contains water, is used for baptisms. While in some denominations the font is placed at the entrance to the nave, symbolizing baptism as entrance into the church, in United Methodist churches generally it is place in the chancel area where the welcoming congregation can gather around it and where it is in close relationship to pulpit and table. Occasionally United Methodist churches have baptisteries where persons may be baptized by immersion.
Sometimes the chancel area also contains seats for the choir or choirs and an organ or piano. Also, there is usually a rail around, or within, the chancel where persons can kneel for prayer, commitment to Christ, or Holy Communion. This rail can be called the Communion rail or the altar rail. These furnishings support our sense that we are a people gathered around the table of the Lord.
There are many ways of arranging these basic furnishings, but most United Methodist churches tend to follow one of several basic patterns:
1. One pattern, sometimes called pulpit-centered, was dominant in the 19th and early 20th centuries and is still fairly common. There is a raised platform with the pulpit in the center, from which the minister leads and preaches. There is no lectern. The Communion table is probably in front of the pulpit, on a lower level. The baptismal font can be in various locations, but attention is not usually called to it unless there is a baptism.
2. A second pattern, sometimes called divided chancel, was dominant during the middle of the 20th century and is still very common. In the center against the wall is a table or altar that is intended to be the center of worship. The pulpit is on one side of the chancel, and a lectern or baptismal font is usually on the other side.
In recent years many churches with divided chancels and immovable altars have put a free-standing Lord's table well in front of the altar where there is room to walk around it. Such a table can function far more effectively as the Lord's table than can the altar against the wall.
3. In the last generation a variety of arrangements have been tried, with none clearly dominant to date. Most of these patterns, however, center around a free-standing Lord's table in the middle of an open space, with pulpit usually to one side and sometimes balanced by the baptismal font on the other side.
More About Lord's Tables:
Sometimes the Lord's table looks like a dining table--made of wood, with a tabletop and supported by legs that can be seen. This is appropriate, since its primary function is to be the place at which the holy meal that we call the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is celebrated and served. In the early Church the Lord's table was a real table. This has been the case throughout most of our denominational history as United Methodists. It is again the prevailing practice today.
Often, however, the altar table is designed to look more like an altar of sacrifice. It may have a solid front and be placed up against the far ("east") wall of the chancel so that the minister stands in front of it with his or her back to the congregation as though offering a sacrifice. It may be partially or entirely made of stone rather than wood. It may have a table-like step or shelf, called a retable or gradine, rising above it at the back next to the wall, on which cross, candles, and flowers often have been placed. Above and in back of these may be a large carved stone or wood panel known as a reredos, or a hanging fabric known as a dossal.
Christians have often disagreed as to whether or not the Lord's table is properly called an altar. On the one hand, we can make no sacrifice that adds to Christ's "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world." On the other hand, Paul appeals to us: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). As we remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, we pray God "mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."
Commonly Used Altarware:
Churches commonly have flower vases that match or coordinate with the altar cross and candlesticks.
There may be one or two candle lighter-extinguishers. They should match or coordinate with the candlesticks.
Offering plates are also often bought to match or coordinate with the other altarware. When the offering is brought forward during the service, these plates are received at the altar and are sometimes stacked in a large matching receiving basin. Many churches place the filled offering plates on the Lord's table, but these plates are often so conspicuous that they violate the principle that nothing should detract from the primary function of the table as the place where Holy Communion is celebrated. It is more appropriate to place the filled plates on a side table or shelf in the chancel.
Some churches have a missal stand or missal pillow, which holds the service book on the table at a suitable angle and distance for easy reading by the minister. Because the key prayers at Holy Communion are usually read and the minister's hands must be free, it is appropriate and necessary that the printed service be placed on the Lord's table during Holy Communion, but the placement should be such that it in no way interferes with the centrality of the bread and cup or lessens their visual prominence.
At this point it is important to correct a common misunderstanding. A missal stand is NOT a Bible stand, and the practice of placing an open Bible on a stand on the Lord's table or the retable so it faces the people confuses the functions of pulpit and table. The pulpit is the place from which the Scriptures are "opened" to the people by reading and preaching and therefore the place on which an open Bible is an appropriate and powerful symbol. An open Bible on the Lord's table detracts from the function of the table as the place where Holy Communion is celebrated. Furthermore, this practice violates the principle of integrity by placing the Bible permanently where it cannot be used. As James F. White once said to me: "When I see an open Bible on the Lord's table I immediately know two things: first, that this Bible is not going to be read and, second, that today on this table the Lord's Supper is not going to be celebrated."
--The preceding material is taken from United Methodist Altars, Hoyt Hickman, (Abingdon: 1984)