The front altar policy

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Evokes awkward images, “altar face”. A Chaucerian priest raised his cassock at Sunday mass to reveal the paschal candle below. Not a pretty picture. Do not be afraid, however, little flock. An altar front is simply the cloth that adorns the Lord’s Table. The priest will choose different altar facades – an unfortunate term, isn’t it? – as the liturgy requires. Purple for Lent or Advent. White for the Blessed Virgin, Christmas or Epiphany. Red for Pentecost or the Feasts of the Martyrs. Green for ordinary weather. But a new trend has also emerged recently: the political altar front, often seen embellishing progressive congregations. This tendentious textile has no liturgical significance, and its underlying concept is doubtful.

Picture this: a rented warehouse at the posh end of town for a sanctuary. Enter through a door opened by various paperback books on how to become vegan. Some independent Christian groups, now defunct, serenade a handful of bearded apostles chuckling over the public address system. Relaxing atmosphere. One of those folding garden tables for an altar. Also serves as a commendable booth for the annual Knitwear Sale fundraiser. And in the middle of it all is a striped Pride altar front. It’s Urban Outfitters made Jesus. Minus only houseplants, vinyl and wellness crystals. Welcome to the hipster church!

I’m joking of course. If the celebration of the holy mysteries a Gilmore Girls meeting set is your jam, then it’s your jam. All that ecclesiastical hipsterishness has its place, no doubt… Except, and listen to me on this one, the Pride striped altar front. My intense dislike of the pride stripes on an altar front is not anti-LGBT, quite the contrary. I couldn’t be more liberal, in the British sense of the shapeshifting word, on LGBT rights. This is not the problem. To me, instead, the Pride striped altar front symbolizes a mistaken approach to LGBT inclusion, a mistaken philosophy that I vigorously oppose.

Aside from a few marginal outliers, I would say that most LGBT people hate any patronizing attempt to reduce us to a facet of who we are. There are some who tout their LGBTness as a main personality trait. However, most of us find this attitude incomprehensible, from what I can understand. Perhaps it is the lingering mystique of homosexuality having been illegal in the West and still banned in much of the developing world. (Anything criminal breeds vain curiosity.) Thank God, we’ve come a long way since Alan Turing. But surely the goal of equality, which is not yet assured, is to become as commonplace to our steadfast traits as anyone else.

This brings me to the Pride striped altar fronts. I warmly applaud and sincerely applaud the good intentions behind this innovation. At first glance, this seems like a bold way to make a statement of inclusion. I so despise the assumptions he represents about what LGBT people need and want from Christian fellowship. One of those assumptions is that LGBT people like to be constantly reminded that we are different. You are special. Not in Max Lucado’s sense, however. You are a little more special than everyone else. A little below the angels but somewhere above the cisgender straight guys.

Fairness requires that LGBT people have access to the same worship experience that everyone can benefit from. Equality before God is a given, or it should be. The mocking sermon of an altar striped with pride is, on the other hand, “You are different. You will never blend in. And I’m here to make sure you know it.” Exalting a demographic as a cut above the rest is just as perverse as denigrating it as inferior. Thus, the symbols of human identity on an altar in this supremely sacred space are only agents of division. We are on an equal footing before Almighty God.

Another assumption is that, unless draped in pride stripes, the Lord’s Table is not metaphysically accessible to LGBT people. We need a fancy tablecloth to help us get through this metaphysical breach like the curtain door of the Holy of Holies. Liturgical colors are for straight and cisgender people, you see. The rest of us need a personal affirmation of our worth encoded in the drapery of the Church lest we lose course on ourselves. Only the service of communion on the stripes of pride can allay this existential angst. We are so needy; they seem to think… I would bet, however, that many LGBT people find this toe curling and like to see the liturgical colors in their full use.

More than that, leaving a rainbow flag on the altar all year round defeats the purpose of using one color at a time to mark one liturgical season from another. It is Pentecost, Easter and Lent both when the Pride stripes are on display. Christ is killed daily on a cross (red stripe) during ordinary time (green stripe) and the 40 days of Lent (purple stripe). A hideous bastard of assorted liturgy from Pastor Frankenstein’s underground laboratory, a mush of everything wrapped up in one omnibus. In addition, some colors of pride do not even have a liturgical function: orange, yellow, blue. They are therefore as useless on the altar as the fins of a flying squirrel.

And I have yet another complaint. I classify the practice of Pride striped altar facades under the same umbrella that I would use the disturbing term “direct ally.” Noble intentions are expressed in a condescending manner. This erodes the possibility of equal friendship between LGBT and non-LGBT people if one of them is an “ally” instead of just being another person’s friend. The less often identity comes up, and the more we continue to be the Church, the better. Church is all about extending a welcome hand in a non-invasive and unpretentious way rather than through performative pageantry.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek”, in the kingdom of God, “there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” ( Galatians 3:28). Saint Paul would add, I suppose, “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither trans nor cis,” he wrote today. We retain, of course, the things that make us diverse. (I don’t think the Apostle is too literal here.) But these characteristics are far less important than the things that unite us. The mighty history of the Church is the greatest of these unifying forces, the gospel of our Savior Christ.

And so, the Pride striped altar front:

  1. Emphasizes rather than minimizes the difference.
  2. Makes liturgical colors absurd.
  3. Stifles equal friendships between LGBT and non-LGBT people.

So there you have it, three good reasons to ban the stripes of pride from the altar, where they shouldn’t have been in the beginning, and to put the traditional facades back where they should have been from the beginning. We Anglicans were historically poor to separate Church and State. Even I can see that politics has no place on the altar. I would be tottering if the Union Jack swaddled the sacred gifts. But I am proud that he flies at the bottom of my Church. And so, allow me to suggest that the Lord’s Table, that sacred apolitical corner of a Christian’s life, be a zone of political exclusion without propaganda.


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