It is a custom unique in Canada. In fact, Knox may be one of the few Presbyterian Churches to use houseling cloths during its Communion services. The practice of using the houseling cloths is not new at Knox, as it dates back more than 85 years, but the custom itself dates back even further into history as it was used in Scotland in 1830.
The following story appeared in the Presbyterian Record in 1997, and helps explain the use of these cloths. Although the story indicates otherwise, today the houseling cloths are sent out to a dry cleaners after each service.
In 1830, in Scotland, Rev. Thomas Chalmers found himself with a dilemma most 20th-century Canadian ministers would welcome. He was drawing so many people to Sunday worship, the celebration of Holy Communion was becoming a time-consuming practice. And the customs of the congregation were not designed for speed.
Members would come forward, perhaps 12 or 18 at a time, to a table placed at the front of the sanctuary. Not surprisingly, it took a long time to serve everyone. Add to the mix, the invitation, fencing and exhortation which took place at each "sitting," and the service of Communion was threatening to become tedious.
Chalmers' solution? Make tables out of pews. Strips of linen, or "houseling" cloths, were placed on each pew. The bread and wine were passed from the end of the pews, the large cups of wine refilled from flagons carried by the elders.
The congregation of Knox Church, Burlington, began using houseling cloths in 1927 under the leadership of Rev. Robert Moorehead Legate. Legate's ministry to the congregation came to an abrupt end when he resigned over the session's refusal to change a Communion date so he could attend the Church of Scotland General Assembly on behalf of the national church. The use of houseling cloths at Knox continued, however; and, today, they are used at four Communion services yearly.
This meaningful and stately custom does not come without cost. There is a lot of work involved. The linen must be washed, ironed, rolled and placed on each pew using small, metal clips.
Today, after 85 years, it is obvious Knox Church finds the work worthwhile, and the fabric of the congregation is strengthened through its use of houseling cloths.