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Discover the Altar Guild Online Manual

Prepared altar on Palm Sunday, 2019, Old North Abbey, Knoxville, TN

Did you know: One of the most consistently visited pages on ADOTS.org is the Altar Guild Online resource page!

The Altar Guild Online Manual is a comprehensive guide prepared by the Diocese of the South to outline the practical tasks necessary to prepare the altar for worship, while still allowing space for local church customs. As Archbishop Foley says in his preface to the manual, we are not “liturgical legalists,” but rather the manual is meant to “help things be done properly and good order (1 Corinthians 14:40) and in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 96:9).”

Take advantage of the printable Altar Guild Manual PDF: Printed and kept in a binder in your sacristy or other convenient location, this can be a valuable reference while teaching new Altar Guild members, or for seasoned members in preparing for certain services that only happen occasionally.

[Author’s Note: A printed resource at the ready also allows Altar Guild members to be present in the moment for preparations, rather than searching up the manual online on a phone or other device, should a question arise… especially appreciated by those creating boundaries between Sabbath and phone use.]

What You’ll Find in the Manual

Let’s discover what’s in the guide – and maybe learn a few new tidbits along the way!

Altar Guild Mission & Purpose

“The Altar Guild is a lay ministry to serve God in His house by preparing the Sanctuary for worship, maintaining and caring for the sacred vessels, altar linens, and vestments, and serving the clergy and the parish.” It is emphasized that Altar Guild members should be those confirmed in the Anglican Church, and view their service as a sacred duty.

Altar Guild Training & Responsibilities

This is a great place to start as an overview of Altar Guild duties. This section provides a simplified list of tasks and responsibilities, as a starting point for the required training needed as an Altar Guild member.

Comprehensive Breakdown of All Sacred Items

The manual provides complete instructions on care for and identification of sacred vessels, all the various altar linens, clergy vestments, and more – often featuring photos and diagrams.

The Altar Table. Complete instructions on size and placement of the Table, when and how to prepare the Table, options for Vesting the Chalice according to the Rector, and preparing of the Credence Table (which holds the bread and wine to be consecrated).

  • Did you know? The top of the Table is called the Mensa, and often has five crosses etched in it: one on each corner and one in the center. These crosses symbolize the five wounds in the body of Christ.

The Altar Linens. Let’s be honest… there are a lot of altar linens, and they have a lot of unusual names: burse, corporal, lavabo towel, palls and falls, cere cloth… just to scratch the surface. The manual focuses on the purpose, care – and in some cases, exact folding – of each one, with precise size requirements and folding diagrams. For congregations with talented sewists, these guidelines on fabric requirements help churches create their own linens instead of purchasing ready-made.

Don’t know what a corporal or a burse is? Just check out the ‘Commonly Used Terms’ at the end of the manual!

Vestments diagram from the Altar Guild Manual.
  • Did you know? All worn out altar linens should be burned, and the ashes poured into the picina or buried in the earth.

The Vestments. Here you’ll find some very useful drawn diagrams of vestments for the altar guild and clergy, with specific diagrams for the priest and bishop.

  • Did you know? The tippet is a black scarf – wider than a stole – worn about the neck, with ends hanging down the front, worn by the clergy at choir offices. Usually the diocesan shield and the shield of the priest’s seminary are on the ends of the tippet.


The Sacred Vessels. Guidelines on proper materials for the chalices, lavabo, cruets and more, with diagrams for identifying each. Also included are instructions for emergency situations where proper materials may have been lost in a fire or natural disaster – or even for economical reasons, when silver or gold are not yet an option.

Paschal candle in foreground (a hand-thrown pottery oil lamp) on Easter 2019, Old North Abbey, Knoxville
  • Did you know? When working with the sacred vessels, metal should never touch metal, and the chalice never touches metal or wood. An altar linen is always used in between and underneath.

The Candles. The Guide allows for a wide variety of altar candles, according to a local church’s preference. It also advises on different candles used in the various liturgical seasons.

  • Did you know? The Paschal candle symbolizes the risen Christ and is lighted from the Easter Vigil until Pentecost, but is also lighted during baptisms and funerals.
Responsibilities for Various Services & After the Service

Altar Guild members have additional tasks during baptisms, weddings, and funerals:

  • Baptisms require additional sacred vessels with the font and ewer (water pitcher) and linens.
  • Weddings require special thought given to the Altar Table, making room for the rings.
  • Funerals require Altar Guild members to take special care placing linens on the coffin. An Altar Guild member may also ring a funeral bell for a length of time after the service.

After any service, the Altar Guild has specific instructions for disposing of consecrated elements, as well as the cleaning of sacred vessels and laundering of linens. The manual helps walk members through all those processes.

  • Did you know? Linens should never be put in a dryer! Iron, wrong side up, while the linens are very damp, never using starch.

Seasons, Symbols, & Sacristy

Knowledge of the liturgical seasons, colors, and dates is indispensable for Altar Guild members – and the manual highly recommends liturgical calendars stay close at hand for reference. The ACNA calendar can be purchased here for personal or Altar Guild use, for just over $5 each (or less if purchased in bulk).

To help Altar Guild members understand more about their worship space, the manual includes a list of early Christian symbols, plus a common worship space diagram with a glossary of terms. It also offers a section of helpful ideas on the organization of the Sacristy space and storage of sacred items.

  • Did you know? An anchor is an early Christian symbol of faith.
Flowers during Ordinary Time.
Altar Flowers

The Anglican preference is for simplicity when it comes to fresh or dried flowers on the Altar Table, or elsewhere in the worship space. The manual makes clear how to prepare, place, and dispose of flowers that are dedicated to the glory of God – and how they are (and are not) to be used.

[Author’s Note: As the organizer for my church’s Flower Guild, I had not seen these guidelines for flowers until researching this article! Now I’ll be bringing some of our practices more in line with these guidelines, especially about how to handle their disposal. It proves that this manual can be worth sharing with those who are not necessarily Altar Guild members!]

Resource Materials

As mentioned earlier, the Commonly Used Terms section at the close of the guide is a comprehensive glossary that helps identify the names of sacred items and their uses, and includes much of the terminology surrounding an Anglican worship service. Also check out a list of online suppliers for linens, vestments, and sacred vessels.

by Rachel Moorman
Communications Associate