'The Communion Table or Altar': an 18th century Anglican defence of imagery and the Laudian vision

Having considered Thomas Wilson's Introduction to The Ornaments of Churches Considered, With a Particular View to the Late Decoration of the Parish Church of St. Margaret Westminster (1761), we now move to the body of the text. The same Laudian vision evident in the Introduction is also seen here. In Section III, the work reviews descriptions of church buildings of the patristic era. This extract, in thoroughly Laudian fashion, notes the patristic basis for use of the term 'altar':

The upper Part corresponding to the Division of the Jewish Temple, was the Chancel; here was placed the Communion-Table, or Altar. These Names were promiscuously given, the former in regard to the Use to which it was applied, of partaking of the Communion on it; and the latter principally on Account of the Prayers and Oblations there made; and in this Part were Seats for those whose Office it was to perform the ministerial Functions.

This is not the first use of the term 'altar' in the work.  It appears in the work's subtitle: The History of the said Church; An Account of the Altar-Piece, and Stained Glass Window erected over it. Wilson uses the term when summarising the report to the relevant committee of the House of Commons: "and that a New Altar and Window should be made". It also appears in his quotation from William Wake's Exposition of the Doctrine of the Church of England (1686): "some of us now bow down towards the Altar". Wake was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln in 1705 and was translated to Canterbury in 1716: he was not, in other words, a sympathiser with the Non-jurors, on the margins of the Church of England. And the same, of course, is to be said about Wilson: D.D., son of a bishop, and prebendary in a royal peculiar.

This is indicative of how the Laudian tradition continued to shape mainstream Anglican thought and piety across the 18th century. The extract quoted above, describing the patristic foundation for the use of 'altar', echoed the Laudian Canons of 1640:

And we declare that this situation of the holy Table, doth not imply that it is, or ought to be esteemed a true and proper Altar, whereon Christ is again really sacrificed: but it is, and may be called an Altar by us, in that sense in which the Primitive Church called it an Altar, and in no other.

Placing its use of the word 'altar' alongside its robust defence of imagery, Wilson's Introduction and the work itself, are suggestive of how a Laudian vision profoundly shaped 18th century Anglicanism.


  1. The more you put out about all this, the more I notice a pattern, that this sort of Laudian religiosity - inclusive of pre-Reformation imagery, art, music, etc. but sensitively restrained - is where Anglicanism always wants to settle; and, after a few decades of doing so, the whole thing gets disrupted by Puritans or Enthusiasts or Ritualists (or other bored mostly white people, like we still see today) and we're back in trouble again, struggling to reclaim an identity, a character that's always been there. This character, which after many centuries should be apparent that God has bestowed it upon us for a reason, will preserve us in the end, if we can resist devolving further into the chaotic functional congregationalism that is plaguing all our supposedly Episcopal Churches.

    1. Yes, a rather good description! A "sensitively restrained" approach to imagery, ceremony, and music captures something important in Anglican piety.

      Of course, we do need some balance in our historical assessments of renewal movements. Movements of renewal are a fact of ecclesial life. They usually bring with them important gifts. They key thing is to receive these gifts without rejecting the good in the ordered pattern of what has been. In many cases, a discerning moderation is required in order to identify both sets of good gifts and then to integrate them.


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