For most of my adult life
I have thought of the Chancel Guild as The Other. They were an
unknown, the ultimate back room workers who moved quietly, unseen
and unheard, setting up for this or that, dismantling for the other
They were older, wiser,
neater, better ironers for sure. In fact, their razor sharp
creases in fair white linen seemed the dividing line between women
who do and women who don't. Among all my friends I cannot
think of one who regularly irons—or
at least admits it. If the wrinkles do not fall away in the
dryer, they are there to stay. We are the mothers of crumpled
children with a whole season of full clothing we rarely wear because
the demands of 100 percent cotton are just way too high.
So it was with a staggering sense of
inadequacy that I recently joined the Chancel Guild in our church.
As a priest's wife I was privy to their discourage-ment over
dwindling numbers. I decided I had ducked away from
making loaves of egg salad sandwiches, pouring tea and yes, the
Chancel Guild, for long enough. My children are old enough
that they are no longer
The Excuse. It was time.
At the first meeting I
came clean: "My whites are grey. My iron has been used
twice." They heard my laundry confession, absolved me with a
smile and welcomed me anyway.
I was led to a room in
our church I did not even know existed. I had never ventured
into the hall that led to the sacristy because, if I've learned one
thing in parish life, it is there are owners and there are
trespassers. I've never wanted to be a trespasser.
But there I was with
Carol, my brave Chancel Guild mentor, peeking into drawers, opening
up cupboards and cabinets. Purple velvet bags with drawstrings
pulled loosely over silver chalices filled one shelf. Crystal
clear flagons with a bulb of a stopper that reminded me of something
magical waited on a tray. Drawers full of neatly folded and
tissue wrapped linens and hangings were at our fingertips.
Carol pulled some out,
unwrapped them like a gift, and spread them out on the spotless
countertop. Wheat stitched from golden thread, leaves
sprouting from green silk embroidery, flames the color of a sunset
rippled out across the counter. Some hangings are the ancient
ancestors to others. No longer hung in the sanctuary, they are
and faded but still cherished in their special drawers.
Then the words tumbled
over me. Lavabo, burse, pall, paten, maniple, amice,
purificator, veil, corporal, cruets—this
was the language of liturgy and I was finally learning to speak it.
Carol assumed I would already be fluent, me being a Super Anglican
and all. "But, no, no I'm not," I assured her. Then, in
the silence of the Saturday sanctuary, Carol mentioned Alice, the
woman who had been her Chancel Guild mentor and who had died two
years ago. We both got quiet.
This was sacred stuff,
this passing on of ancient how-to—a
whole other world of order and setting things straight of which I
had not a clue.
The burse goes on the
veil goes on the pall goes on the paten, goes on the purificator
goes on the chalice that will be brought to the lips of the people
on their knees in worship.
Two things became really
clear to me at that moment.
The first: I should not
be left alone to do this stuff for a really, really long time.
It is not simple. But it is sacred.
And that is the second
Remember the old saying
"The devil is in the details?" Preparing the sanctuary for
worship is a holy detail thing. Keeping silver shining,
polishing a brass rail until you would never know a four-year-old
had been swinging off it like a monkey; filling a vase with clean
water for flowers given in the memory of.
That day, in the quiet of
the clean, sunlit sacristy I realized that it is actually God who is
in the details. And caring for the details is worship in the
Karen Stiller is a
freelance writer and editor, and a regular contributor to The
Anglican Planet. She lives in Port Perry, ON, with her
husband and three children.