In Western Christian liturgical architecture, an altar rail is a horizontal railing at which communicants kneel to recieve the Eucharist or Holy Communion. It can be made of many different substances; wood, metal, and marble are most frequently used. Altar rails resemble kneelers in that they frequently have knee pads to kneel upon, or at least a ledge to place the knees against. In the Roman Catholic tradition, communicants recieve the Eucharist on the tongue. Protestant traditions frequently allow the parishoner to recieve the Eucharist in his/her hands while kneeling at the rail.

What may not be obvious in a cursory description of the altar rail is the ideological and historical importance of the structure even to our present day. Not all Christian groups use it; those who do may not agree on the significance of this barrier which is the notable division between the altar and the congregation.

The reorganization of Christianity under the Roman emperor Constantine, as followed through notably by Justinian, greatly solidified Christian doctrine and liturgy. The earliest examples of Byzantine liturgical architecture did not sport the large icon screens (iconostasis) as found in medieval and modern Byzantine churches. Rather, they contained small railings similar to an altar rail. Early Byzantine liturgy may not have used these railings for reception of the Eucharist, however. Only after iconoclasm did the iconostas mushroom, perhaps to reinforce the value of images in worship. To the modern day Byzantine liturgy calls for communicants to stand to recieve Communion served from a chalice on an altar spoon, a richly decorated precious spoon that ladles the Body and Blood into the mouth of the congregant. Altar rails are not present in modern Byzantine churches.

Roman Catholicism did not adopt iconography in most cases, opting rather for fresco, painting, and statuary in veneration. Little or no partition separated the altar from the people. Rood screens did exist in some areas, but these wooden partitions were translucent and many rood screens did not cover the entire view of the sanctuary. Rather, the custom of kneeling at a rail became prevalent by the Tridentine period (late 16th century to 1962). The rail may have been seen by many Roman Catholics in the same way as the iconostas is seen by Byzantine Christians -- as the barrier past which only the ordained may pass. Altar rails frequently have doors in the center of the rail, which are closed except for when altar servers, deacons, or priests need to go into the congregation. These doors may be considered analogous to the Royal Doors of the iconostas, except that the Byzantine liturgy places more importance on the movement of ministers through the iconostas than Roman Catholicism places on the use of the altar rail doors.

With the reforms of Vatican II, there have been many changes with in Roman Catholicism that have also been reflected in liturgical Protestant movements, like the Anglican and Lutheran churches. One of them is an abandonment of the altar rail for the Byzantine style of reception while standing. Rails also may be seen by some as separating the congregation from the action at the altar. Conservatives in both Catholicism and some Protestant groups have expressed desires to reintroduce the altar rail, either for reasons of piety or as a political symbol in a backlash against liberalism. In many cases, the altar rail is one of the battle flags that conservative worshippers in their fight to swim upstream.

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