How to explain altar rails?


(This may or may not be the right section for this…)

How are we to explain altar rails? If your church doesn’t have these, they’re low barriers around the chancel marking an area typically reserved for the ordained clergy and servers at the altar. They usually will have a padded step at the bottom for people to kneel and pray. But this seems to go against Christ’s tearing of the heavy curtain in the Temple, cordoning off the Holy of Holies from the laity, that they may come. So how is it that altar rails are reconciled with scripture? They seem to me to be at least a little contradictory it.

I’m not trying to be combative or issue a “gotcha,” I’m genuinely wondering how to we are to think about this.



There were many threads about this and it was best explained accompanied with photos.
At least that is what posters shared for a better understanding,and it worked fine.
I am trying to look them up for you,but the Advanced search is kind of hidden behind “Catholic Answers Forums”.


If altar rails bother you certainly don’t go looking up iconostasis.

Basically the answer is that it’s just a symbolic way of showing reverance to the altar and Blessed Sacrament, recognizing it’s a holy place. It’s not as if we believe a lay person would die if they went beyond the rail, it’s just a way to show respect. Clearly we believe that the holy of holies is open to all, you recieve it every mass…


I do not feel the need, nor have any opportunity to “explain.” Most churches I frequent have had them removed, and everyone has accepted that fact.


Altar rails set up a division between the sanctuary and the nave, making it clear to anyone paying attention where they really shouldn’t be going.

You don’t want strangers nebbing around the altar, checking it out, when a liturgical celebration isn’t going on.

There are other ways to designate this, and to control pedestrian traffic, but the altar rail was an old school way to regulate traffic. Probably more important in the Catholic Church, which traditionally keeps its buildings open during the week.


From the reading I’ve done in historic church architecture, the rail was simply a place for parishioners to kneel when receiving the Eucharist. It was not meant to divide the nave and chancel. However, a variety of rood screens did exactly that, most of which were removed during the Reformation. Some remain and are remarkable for their intricate beauty. Any earlier meaning they once had is not relevant any longer, except as an historic interest.

I stand to be corrected by those perhaps more familiar with these features.


They haven’t always been the norm everywhere. In many monasteries there is a grille separating the cloistered choir from the nave, and people would like up two-by-two at an opening in the grille to receive communion. The Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome is still like this (I visited last November).

Rood screens were another popular medieval separation between the nave and sanctuary.

According to Wikipedia, altar rails developed after the Reformation. I’m not knowledgeable enough to confirm that.


Yes, do some research on Rood screens, which were typical for churches prior to the Reformation. We don’t know of them in the U.S. because we were founded later.


No, not everyone. Churches are having them restored. The Reason: “Because of what happened in the 1960s.”


Well Ed, I was speaking for myself, and the churches I go to.



Let’s please not make this thread antagonistic. I reeeeaaaally don’t want that to happen in a thread I started, especially not this early on in my participation here! I’m not accusing anyone, nor am I angry, but I can see how it will become that way. My query was purely academic, I didn’t know how to explain it. Now I understand it, so thank y’all! Let’s leave it at that :blush:

And no, not quite bothered, per se, but I was indeed confused. Not anymore! Post concluded, guys…?


Maybe in 50 years, in the 2060’s, folks will think to remove altar rails to go back to the traditional times of the late 20th/early 21st Century, when the church didn’t have this innovation?


There was no innovation. The altar rails clearly marked of an area around the altar. When I was a boy, I and the others took Communion at the Altar rail.


It was the norm for a place and time though. I prefer altar rails to a wide-open sanctuary myself, but we have to acknowledge that historically, the altar rail has not been the only means of enclosing the sanctuary, see above re. rood screens and cloister grilles.


Given that the laity (in a state of grace) are able to receive communion, I don’t see how people are cordoned off.

The Church has never operated Sola Scriptura, other traditions and practices are allowed.


If only it were that easy! There will be 500 posts worth of people arguing back and forth over the necessity, or lack thereof, of altar rails. The only way to save yourself is to mute the thread.

Welcome to the hornet’s nest that is CAF! :laughing:


One good thing about the altar rail is that when people have to receive the Eucharist kneeling, it does frame reception of communion in a reverent manner rather than habitually letting things become overly casual. When people lose reverence for the Eucharist, they fall in danger of receiving it unworthily.

(Not to get into the argument with others about whether or not they are necessary – I mean this more that I think they are a good thing to have as a matter of my personal preference. )

1 Corinthians 11:27
“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.”


Another good thing about an altar rail, is that if I elect to receive communion kneeling, I have something on which to support myself to help propel my 60 y.o. arthritic body back up :wink:

Without it, I simply won’t kneel.


A lot of medieval depictions don’t seem to show any kind of separation:


Reverence really does matter.

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