Should there be communion rails in a church?

Communion rails can divide the worship space into two areas. A strong separation of the nave from the chancel is a questionable practice. A single space encourages congregational unity, stating that all Christians belong to the priesthood of believers.

The history of the communion rail is difficult to trace. Possibly it is an offshoot of the rood screen that became popular during the Middle Ages. (The word, “rood,” is Old English for cross.) These screens were physical barriers separating the chancel, the domain of the clergy, from the nave, the place of the congregation. Centered above the screen was placed a crucifix. During medieval mass the people could not see the priest because of the rood screen, but could see his elevated hands holding the Host above the screen. Other practices permitted the people to peak through the ‘squints’ or holes in the screen. (It was important to the Roman Catholic Church for the people to see the bread made flesh.) The rood screen was part of most church buildings during the Middle Ages until the Reformation, at which time its use disappeared from protestant churches. Today the communion rail seems to be a carry-over of the rood screen, though much smaller than the rood screen. The rail is still a fence that often separates the clergy from the people. The rail also encourages kneeling and suggests that communion is individualistic. The Lord’s Supper is not a private event nor is it penitential since Confession takes place earlier in the worship service. This shared celebration is “communion.”

In the 1840s, a revival of Gothic architecture once again set a trend that intensified the division of the chancel and the nave. Many church leaders at that time thought that the Middle Ages was the most perfect Christian period in the history of the church. Accordingly, the Gothic cathedrals were considered the most perfect worship spaces. These buildings contradict most protestant theology. The reformers were correct in their attempt to converge the chancel and nave. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and until recently, many architects with no concern for a congregation’s theology have often leaned strongly on the attitudes of the Gothic revival, designing worship spaces that mimic those of the late Middle Ages. For centuries, the heavy communion rail was important to the design. To avoid this separation between nave and chancel, the designs should omit a massive communion rail if it is used at all. The best practice would seem to be eliminating a fence or division between the two areas.

Also, some congregations are now practicing communion with the participants standing, a position that suggests joy. Kneeling does not express celebration. The Lord’s Supper is a festival for many.