Thursday, March 14, 2019

Facing God Together – Thoughts on Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

Before I begin, I need to make something very clear. Because I'm going to say some things about the priest celebrating ad orientem (facing east or, more accurately, facing the same direction of the people), but I don't want people to misunderstand how my views on this question impact my own approach as a priest in the parish. 

The church where I am currently honored to serve as rector is a church where the altar is pulled away from the wall. The custom in this congregation for quite some time is for the priest to face the people during the Great Thanksgiving. That is, the priest stands behind the altar facing the people as all pray together for Christ to become present with us once more through the Blessed Sacrament.

I think it is important to be clear that I find it tremendously unlikely that at any point in my priesthood, including in my current cure, I would ever “fight the battle” to put the altar back against the wall. Indeed, when altars were pulled out from the wall it was all too often done in a violent act, without a deep engagement with the people of God. It was the will of the priest, trained in the ideals of the Liturgical Movement, which reigned supreme. People were told that this was the way things should be. 

Thankfully, our General Convention has apologized for the way in which we handled putting the ideals of the Liturgical Movement into practice in the Episcopal Church, specifically in the way that authorizing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer created some wounds among those who had loved the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I don’t believe battles should be fought in churches over questions like altars and fonts (at least, if battles can be avoided). These should be great places of uniting with one another—not contests of wills. 

(As an aside, I have often found it fascinating that clergy fought for pulling altars away from walls—something that  is required nowhere in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and  yet, by and large, did not fight equally hard for the creation of full immersion baptismal fonts—something that is explicitly the preference of the prayer book. I think it says something about what priests value that they fought over where they stood during Holy Eucharist but did not fight over the how to celebrate the sacrament of initiation for all Christians… but I digress.)

If I ever served in a church that did decide to change the location of the altar or the custom of which direction the priest faced during the celebration of Holy Eucharist, it would be a change that the community made together after prayer, study, and conversation. 

Because who I am as a priest rests not only upon the broader church which ordained me into this but upon the people of God who I am called to serve in my current cure. Any authority I have derives from their gracious gift of choosing me to be their presider. 

People like to think of the mid-to-late 20th century, particularly the 60s and 70s, as the great decades when our church threw off the bonds of clericalism and that finally priest and people were placed on the same level. With a decade of priestly ministry under my belt, one-third of the way through my career, I am increasingly doubtful that this actually happened.

Sure, priests stopped being called father—because it was only father then—and instead chose to be called by their first name. Altars were pulled away from the wall and the laity were invited to participate fully in so many aspects of Holy Eucharist. But these things did not end clericalism, they just sent it into more subtle and unseen places.

After all, I have known priests who bristle at being called father or mother and yet still exercise their ministry in profoundly clerical ways (like, for example, insisting people call them by their first name when a parishioner or colleague might have a piety that prefers titles). There are several ways in which priests who don’t wear clericals and insist on their first name can still allow their own opinions and preferences to run roughshod over the gathered community. There are plenty of priests who don’t wear clericals and eschew titles but who also feel very confident placing their own personal beliefs ahead the decisions of the broader church when it comes to issues like communion without baptism. 

So, let’s be clear. Clericalism will likely always be one of the besetting sins of the Christian church. Where you place the altar and where the priest stands and who the priest faces… None of this will actually fix clericalism. Clericalism is best addressed through good formation, modeling of healthy ministry by bishops and those in authority, and priests being serious about saying their prayers and becoming more like Jesus.

And yet, I do increasingly have a desire to say a few words about where we place the altar, where the priest stands, and the direction the priest faces. I do want to say a few words about the ancient tradition of celebrating Holy Eucharist with the priest facing the same direction as the gathered community, all gathered together in front of the altar of God.

One of the reasons I want to say a few words about this because of a change in my own parish that happened last year. Through generous gift from a family in the church (and then several other families were inspired likewise to contribute‚, we renovated what had been an old narthex and turned it into a small chapel for the saying of the Daily Office and the celebrating of weekday Eucharist. We call it the All Souls’ Chapel because of the columbarium which now rests within the walls and of the commitment that we have in that space to pray for all the faithful departed.

Because it is a very small space, the altar stands against the wall. It is a beautiful small granite altar, one that was originally in the chapel of the cathedral of our diocese, before we sold the cathedral to a mega church. It had spent some time in the garage of a former member of the cathedral and then made its way to our church because of a gift from our parish administrator that was matched by a generous gift from our previous bishop. 

When I say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at our weekday celebrations of Holy Eucharist, I stand in front of the altar with the people only a few feet behind me, all standing in front of the single row of chairs.

The first time I celebrated Eucharist in this new space, I got a little verklempt. I was overcome with this sense of the people of God standing behind me, supporting me as I sought to preside faithfully over this holy prayer. When they said the words that are assigned to them in the Great Thanksgiving, it was as though I could feel those words pushing against my back, holding me up, enabling me to stand. I felt more one with them than I have ever felt celebrating facing them.

I often feel like so many of the debates over the question of which direction the priest faces during Holy Communion entirely miss the point. 

In the early church, the question was not whether or not the priest faced to the people or the people faced the priest. In the early church, what was essential was that you prayed facing east, looking expectantly for Christ to come again. In the early church, all those gathered—priest and people—faced the same direction. (In what follows, I’m going to try to summarize some of the masterful work of Uwe Michael Lang—you can read his essay on this question online here, or better yet, buy the book.)

The practice of facing east was based upon the ancient custom of Jews in the diaspora who would always face Jerusalem when they prayed. For most Jews in the diaspora, Jerusalem was to their east and so that is the direction they would face. The Hebrew word for east is mizrah, and ancient synagogues in Europe and the Mediterranean were built with an orientation to mizrah, to east. The mizrachrefers to the wall of the synagogue that faces east, the place where the rabbi nad other lieaders would sit. Even when the temple was destroyed and the glory of God, the shekinahhad departed from the Holy of Holies, Jews continued to turn toward Jerusalem, hoping for the Messiah who would come and gather up God’s people.

And so early Christians faced east, first because it was for many of them the direction toward Jerusalem, but then also because of their belief that Christ would come again in the east, the direction of the rising son. Early Christians faced east when they prayed in longing expectation for Christ’s return believing with all your heart that Jesus did not leave us alone and that he would come upon the clouds finally to make this world right through God's love. And in Holy Eucharist, facing east, Christ then would indeed come to us again in simple bread and wine, reassuring us that Christ was present with us in this holy sacrament even while we yearn for his return at the end of time.

As Louis Bouyer notes in Liturgy and Architecture, the oldest Syrian churches from the fourth century were built with the apse facing east, with the altar paced either directly in front of the east wall or slightly forward from it. There was a bema, a raised platform in the middle that was adapted from synagogue worship and from which the readings would be done and the prayers offered. Then, the bishop and the clergy would move eastward to the altar for the liturgy of Eucharist, with the people and celebrant all facing east, all facing the altar together. 

The debate about facing east during prayers in the early church usually comes from early Roman basilicas, where the entrance was oriented toward the east and the altar was in the west (which means that in those churches, for the priest to face east also meant the priest faced the people, who were then facing west). Bouyer suggested that in those churches all would instead face the open doors at the east, with the rising sun coming in, during the Eucharistic prayer. Others doubt this, because it seems unlikely that the people would turn their backs to the altar. In Liturgie und Kirchenbau, Klaus Gamber suggested that the people stood on either side of the altar and so when they faced east with the priest, the altar would have been to their side. Others find this hypothesis likewise unlikely. In the end, we simply do not know for sure and there are good arguments on all sides (no pun intended!).

During the first millennium of Christianity, before the divisions between east and west, all Christians faced east together during prayer. It was not until modern times that the idea arose, first in Roman churches, that the priest and the people should instead face each other. Still, to this day, the vast majority of eastern churches have the priest and people face the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer. The only exceptions are those churches that have been influenced by the Roman rite and culture. 

And though the Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council which came out of that movement believed that having the priest and people face each other during the Eucharistic prayer, that assumption is now increasingly called into question by scholars in the Roman tradition and outside the Roman tradition. It is also important to note that the Second Vatican Council actually did not require celebration facing the people, as is commonly assumed. Our own 1979 prayer book, which is considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of the Liturgical Movement assumes a celebration that is done with the priest facing the altar—and not necessarily the people—for the Great Thanksgiving (see the rubric on page 361 after the sursum corda, which says "Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds.")

Lang, who I cited earlier, has argued strenuously that the tradition of all facing the same direction is one that should not have been discarded so quickly. Rather, it should be recovered in contemporary liturgy. He quotes Christoph Schönborn who talks about how signs and gestures and movement are all essential for "incarnating the faith." He then gots on to argue that "the constant face-to-face position of priest and people expresses a symbolism of its own and suggests a closed circle." Even the Protestant sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, notes that when the liturgy is celebrated with the priest and people facing each other, "this new position makes wonderfully clear that the sacred being that is worshipped exists not outside the gathered community but rather inside it. It is a powerful symbolic reversal." 

I know that this reversal cuts to the heart of what some liturgists and clergy longed for in the second-half of the twentieth century—a sense of a God who was truly present within us. But I do wonder if much of what occupied our attention as Christians in the twentieth-century helped foster a perception of God within us to the extent that we worshipped what we liked and lost our sense of the presence of God outside the community, outside the walls of our churches, inviting into a transcendent reality that will always be more than what we can confect in the closed circle of congregational worship.

Furthermore, scholars, clergy, and laity alike have all increasingly noticed that the priest and people facing each other has had an unintended side-effect. Though the goal was for the liturgy to become more communal and less hierarchical, the opposite happened. Whereas the focus point had been the altar and the transcendent God beyond that altar who meets us in the sacrament, by shifting the priest to that position on the other side of the altar, the priest now becomes the focal point. 

This is particularly ironic for Anglicans, who have not generally held to the Roman understanding of the priest acting en persona Christi, standing in for Christ as the host of the meal at the table. For us to have the priest in that position is to import some very significant ideas about Eucharist and the priesthood that have not been core to our own theology in the same way that they have for the Roman church. 

The priest now as the host of the meal, faces the congregation across the altar. This means that the priest no longer blends as easily into the grand liturgical action. Now the priest's facial expressions, where one sets one's attention through the eyes, the choice of manual actions with the hands, all of this is on display for the people of God—even though none of this should be the focal point of the liturgy. 

It is in this context that an approach to presiding has developed where the personality of the priest can entirely overcome the liturgy in ways that are both unhelpful and contrary to our understanding of the true goals of Christian worship. As the great Hans Urs von Balthasar argues,
An element lacking in good taste has crept into the liturgy since the (falsely interpreted) Council, namely, the joviality and familiarity of the celebrant with the congregation. People come, however, for prayer and not for a cozy encounter. Oddly enough, because of this misinterpretation, one gets the impression that post-conciliar liturgy has become more clerical than it was in the days when the priest functioned as mere servant of the mystery being celebrated. Before and after the liturgy, personal contact is entirely in place, but during the celebration everyone's attention should be directed to the one Lord.
Thus, celebrating facing the people can often be done in a way that more resembles watching a cooking show than it does the sacred prayers of the faithful gathered around the table.

Even such a noted Anglican luminary as Louis Weil argued in a lecture I attended that celebration facing the people only makes sense if the entire liturgical space is redesigned so the people truly are gathered around the altar. That is, in architectural spaces that have the altar in the center of the space with the congregation gathered around it. If your liturgical space remains the gothic arrangement of long nave, followed by chancel, and then altar, then Weil said one would be better off remaining with an eastward style of celebrating so as to avoid the priest becoming the center point of the liturgy.

Now, like I said when I started, though I hold these views quite seriously, I would never fight this battle in a congregational context. Other clergy who agree with me on the importance of the priest and the people all facing the same direction may disagree with my choice here—and I wish them well in their work. At this point in my ministry, my attention as a priest is occupied with other matters that I think are more important to our congregation's attention—seeking to articulate a welcome that makes the church more diverse, getting people to stop calling Republicans or Democrats evil, encouraging people that devoting time to spirituality is well worth the effort, etc.

However, I will keep talking about this, because I do think it is a conversation worth having in the church. And someday, who knows, my own community here in Grand Haven—or some other community I serve in the future—may raise their hand and suggest we reconsider the orientation of our prayer and our liturgical space. I look forward to leading this conversation at that time, exploring together, as priest and people, how the direction we face in the liturgy has in impact upon the way we understand God, ourselves, and our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

In the meantime, I will continue to celebrate facing the people on Sundays—but I will also do it knowing that I must be very careful and very intentional in ensuring that the focus point is not me, that every liturgical choice and action should draw the attention of the people to the Christ who becomes present for us once more upon the altar, and not upon the presider who lead's the people's prayers asking God to make it so. 


  1. Quite nicely said. I currently serve a parish where we all face east. But it has often occurred to me that if I ended up in a parish where I once again stood behind the Altar, I would try my darndest to move that Altar to the middle of the community, and only stand near it during the Eucharistic Prayer.

  2. Fr Tobias Haller wrote a very good article on this topic, "People, Look East", a couple of years ago. I am glad that several people of the same mind come to similar conclusions.

  3. I face East during Lent, and quite prefer it - if does feel like I'm more one of the people than it does when the table's between us. To keep everyone happy, I go back behind the altar come Easter.