Friday, August 19, 2011

A Note on the Eastward Position

I am repeating a post from 2008, just because I think it's important in the context of the questioning of some liturgical assumptions of the 1960s and 70s, including the idea that in authentic Christian worship the "celebrant should face the people" across the altar. The following piece from the late Bishop Lionel Renfrey's book What Mean Ye by this Service (1978), a critique of An Australian Prayer Book of the Anglican Church of Australia, should not be forgotten. Back then his was a voice crying in the wilderness. Now many others have caught up!

In the years which have followed Vatican II considerable interest has been aroused in the Church of England concerning the place of the altar in the church and the position which the priest takes at the altar. Following the changed custom of the Roman Catholic Church whereby the priest now stands behind the altar and faces westward towards the people, some Anglican priests have followed suit. It is worth looking at some basic considerations concerning this subject.

In Christian centuries from the earliest times prayer and worship have been offered to Cod by worshippers, priest and people, facing east. Since it was believed that Christ had ascended on the Mount of Olives, which lay to the east of Jerusalem, and also that his expected and eagerly awaited Second Coming would also appear in the east (Acts 1:11), Christians turned to the east to welcome the Parousia of the glorified Christ.

The house churches of the second century frequently had a cross placed on the eastern wall in acknowledgment of the belief that the Second Coming of Christ would be marked by the sign of the cross appearing in the eastern sky(Matt. 24:30). It is good for us to be reminded that for those early Christians the celebration of the Holy Eucharist did not only look back to theLast Supper, but also heralded a joyous looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ in his glory in the consummation of the ages. We bear St. Paul's words in mind in this connection. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”(1 Cor. 11:26).

When Christians were able to move from house churches to buildings constructed exclusively for worship, these buildings were constructed to face the east for the reason already given. They were “orientated”, as we would say. There is also evidence that the priest celebrating the liturgy faced the east with the people. The Rev’d. C.E.Pocknee, who is a recognised authority on primitive liturgical matters and the author of several books on these subjects, has recently written that archaeological evidence now available from Syria demonstrates the fallacy ofthe belief that the priest celebrating the liturgy in primitive times always stood facing the people. He goes on to say: “Throughout the larger part of Christendom and from the earliest times churches have been constructed to face east; and for the celebrant to celebrate in such buildings facing the people would have meant facing west, the region of darkness, a liturgical and ceremonial contradiction of the purpose of an orientated building. In the primitive era baptizands faced west and renounced Satan, and then turned east and embraced Christ and the light of the Gospel.”

It is sometimes said in support of the westward position that in some old basilicas in Rome the celebrating priest faces the people across the altar. However, as the Rev'd. C.E. Pocknee points out, in these churches, notably in St. Peter’s in the Vatican and at St. Mary’s Major in Rome, it is impossible for the priest to stand on a foot-pace before the altar because an opening or fenestration has been constructed in thatposition through which the faithful can see the reliquary of the Saint whose body has been buried beneath the altar. Such basilicas give no liturgical support for a universal adoption of the westward position. Pope Vigilius bore witness to the normal practice when, writing in the sixth century, he said that although in some churches in Rome the celebrant faced the people, in most other places the celebrant had to turn round when he saluted the people.

Those who desire to promote the custom of the priest facing the people across the altar need to find grounds of justification other than those of primitive practice and belief. In fact, there are strong liturgical considerations in favour of the eastward position, because nothing then stands between priest and people, but all are turned in the same direction to offer to God their united worship in the great action of our redemption in Christ.

From “What mean Ye by This Service? – A Critical Examination of An Australian Prayer Book” by The Rt Rev’d L.E.W. Renfrey, Adelaide 1978


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