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    Sunday, March 23, 2003
    Altar Guild Made Ridiculously Simple

    Friday night my next-door neighbor Susan called to ask if I wanted to go walking with her the next morning. We usually walk two miles on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I said sure, but we'd have to leave at six because I had to be at church at eight.

    "Church? On Saturday?"

    "Yes, I've got Altar Guild this week."

    "Oh. Okay," she responded blankly. The next morning, after puffing up the first hill, she reintroduced the topic: "So, what exactly is it that you're doing at church today?"

    "Well, I'm a member of something called the 'altar guild.' We're in charge of setting up the church before services." Susan was raised Mormon and has renounced organized religion ever since she was old enough to have a say in the matter, so I tried to keep my explanation basic. "We set out the votive candles, put up the hymn numbers, set up the chalices and other stuff for Communion, and wash up afterwards. We also clean the church linens. There is ironing involved. It's not very exciting, but I find it kind of relaxing."

    "I see," she responded dryly. "So it's like the housework you pay other people to do... and you find it relaxing."

    I started giggling. "Yes, it's sort of the same.. but it's, you know, different. The other thing is, it's flexible. It's something I can do for the church on a weekend, and there aren't set hours for it as long as it gets done." One hill later, I added, "Being a little eccentric helps, too - we've got a lot of obsessive compulsives in the Altar Guild."

    We left it at that, but the conversation stayed on my mind as I let myself into the church later that morning.

    My Altar Guild rota schedule is every fourth Sunday. I usually work with George, who has been head of the group for years. He likes things done in a very specific way, but his attitude is laid back enough that I don't find this to be a problem; I've learned a lot from working with him. After being on the guild for over two years, I still haven't memorized the way the chalices and other items are to be set out for Eucharist, so I usually limit myself to washing the votives and putting out fresh candles, putting up the hymn numbers, putting out the kneelers, and fetching and carrying generally. This week as I unlocked the sacristy I was greeted by a nasty smell of mildew - we'd had heavy rain the week before and the ceiling had leaked badly. We had to stop our usual duties to deal with the problem of the overhead light fixture, which had taken the brunt of the rain; several light bulbs were half-filled with water and these were removed after we found the church janitor and got him to shut off the power to the sacristy for a few minutes.

    Saturday mornings in the church are very peaceful. Tom, another member of the guild, is usually there early to practice playing on the organ (he's taking lessons) and I enjoy hearing him play while I'm wandering around the church trying to see what else needs to be done. Tom had been on guild duty last weekend: "The hymn numbers got soaked and I had to take them home and put them in the oven to dry!" (We use an old-fashioned system of cardboard numbers placed on wooden racks around the church to post the order of hymns in the service; we still do this even though the numbers are also printed in the service leaflet.)

    Our church was built around 1920 and has really not been renovated since, except for the installation of a new organ. We still rely on radiators in the winter and freestanding fans in the summer - there's no air conditioning. The wooden pews have been there for eighty years and still bear numbers on them, from the time when families who were contributing members of the church had reserved pews. I love our church building, archaic as it might be, and I do enjoy Altar Guild. The next morning it's always nice to sit in church, look around, and see the results of our work - the hymn numbers, the candles fresh and ready to go, everything properly set out.

    Since there had been a funeral in the church a couple of days before, we had to change the frontal cloth on the altar, the Lenten veil on the cross, and the cloth drape on the pulpit from white (for the funeral) back to purple (for Lent). This reminded me of the upcoming funeral for my friend who had worked with me on the school board - her funeral is the 28th. I knew George would be coming to church the night before to set up for this event, and to change the frontal cloth and so forth back to white. I asked if he'd be needing any help: it was something I wanted to do for her and it would be an opportunity for me to learn how the church is prepared for funerals (something I haven't done before). George said he'd be glad of the help, so we agreed to meet Thursday night.

    Later this week: Episcopalian funerals - more than you ever wanted to know.



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