God and the Chancel Guild

Karen Stiller

An article from The Anglican Planet October 2005, Vol. 1 Issue 4, p. 6

republished on this site with permission.

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 thing.


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 ironsor 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 retired artthreadbare and faded but still cherished in their special drawers.


Then the words tumbled over me.  Lavabo, burse, pall, paten, maniple, amice, purificator, veil, corporal, cruetsthis 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-toa 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 thing.


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 making.


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.