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Presiding East or West?

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I recently had a penny-drop moment about the debate (sometimes heated) about the priest facing East or West when at the altar. East is argued to be all facing in the same direction. West is seen as priest and congregation facing each other. East is denigrated as the priest having [his] “back to the congregation”. West is denigrated as the congregation focusing on the priest.

I have tried to develop another way of looking at presiding at the altar: rather than the East-facing/West-facing dichotomy, I advocate for an architecture and renewed understanding of us all gathered around God’s altar table. Hence my coining in circuitu altaris (around the altar; in circuitu mensae around the table).

But, to the penny-drop: I wonder if the bigger issue is not East or West facing, but the distance that the congregation is from the altar. Fr Richard Peers was part of my reflecting when he commented about presiding “eastward with the congregation gathered closely at the altar and a simplified rite. The feedback was very positive on that and it was a good experience I think.” On the other hand, I often see the priest alone W-A-Y, w-a-y up there behind some sort of sideboard altar: priest; sideboard; long, empty space; congregation.

I wrote about this here:

I visit a Sunday Anglican Church service in a building which was built for a vigorous parish with a choir and originally with the long, rectangular sideboard-like altar against the far, east wall. During the Eucharist, the priest would have been at that far end with young servers, then a full choir, facing each other in the choir stalls, and then a good, mixed congregation. Some time, over half a century ago, the vicar taught a series on liturgical reform and the altar was pulled out a little from the east wall, enough for the priest to get behind it and face the congregation.

But the choir is gone now. And so are the (young) servers. At the start of the service, the priest leads from half way down this building, with the empty choir stalls behind the priest. But when it comes to Eucharistic Prayer (The Great Thanksgiving), the priest moves through the half of the church building that is empty, between the empty choir stalls, through altar rails, and then this priest stands, way in the distance, alone behind the sideboard – this altar that was pulled out from the wall in the 60s, but nothing else has been done in the intervening years. The priest stands at that distance as if behind a large kitchen bench, like a sole bartender in the distance.

What do you think: is distance maybe as much or possibly even more of a discussion to be had than which way the priest faces? And somewhere in this discussion is a sense of transcendence and a sense of immanence.

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7 thoughts on “Presiding East or West?”

  1. There is an old saying, “The building always wins.” So I am inclined to think that the “Julia Child” effect of the priest standing behind a sideboard doing a demo is exacerbated by pulling the table out a few feet in such a large space, creating what I regard as the worst of both worlds. Better install an altar at the steps into the choir or just within it (as it is now empty of singers anyway) and face the people with some proximity.
    That being said, you likely know I prefer the Eastward posture for the celebrant in general — but it has to suit the architecture.

  2. Easter Greetings, Bosco.
    I had thought that this issue was sorted out long ago. You say that:
    ” East (position) is denigrated as the priest having [his] “back to the congregation”. West is denigrated as the congregation focusing on the priest. ”

    However, my understanding is that the more modern approach is when the priest presides around the altar (instead of in front of it, blocking the view of what is actually going on during the Liturgy) the Faithful are actually included in the work of Celebrating the actual Presence of Christ among them – rather than concentrating on the presence of the priest.

    The old understanding of ‘the SECRET prayer of the priest has (for me) given way to the more corporeal understanding of what is meant by ‘The Body of Christ’.

    This is one reason when, at SMAA, the priest prays “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the Body and Blood of Christ”, I want all present to cry our ‘AMEN’. This means it becomes the prayer and desire of each one gathered – rather than the pious expectation, solely, of the presiding priest.

    Christ is risen, alleluia! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron. As you know, I share your approach. I respect there is much discussion now – including amongst catholic Anglicans. As to the “Amen” to the prayer you mention – I know of no rite that includes such an “Amen”, formally: there’s a movement for you to start 🙂 Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

      1. Thanks, Fr. Bosco,
        I can only influence a congregational response by example in our local parish at SMAA, Christchurch. When I explained it’s important theological coherence to our small Friday community, they willingly responded. However, without the backing of our N.Z. Liturgical Commission – to which body I have no access – this fine point of liturgical observance may never become a reality in our Prayer Book. Thus a more important opportunity for the Faithful to invest of themselves towards what ought to be our common Eucharistic intention at the Mass – to become ‘One In Christ’ – may be missed.

  3. In addition to the interesting dynamics you have discussed here, Bosco, how *the congregation* is organized/’facing’ greatly contributes to the sense of connection or disconnection from altar and priest. Chief amongst the villains is pews, rows and rows of dark, hard, straight pews (was Christ overturning tables or pews in the temple?).

    I once worshipped in a church that met in a lenticular circle in the nave (priest included), and then processed up to and gathered around the altar for Eucharist. The sense of togetherness and pilgrimage (movement together through space) was profound, and we really got to occupy and know all corners of our church building. For Lent, the priest turned the seating back to east-facing rows: it was a hardship, and we all suffered it til Easter!

    1. Thanks, Columba. In one study leave, I went to St Gregory’s in San Francisco – there the Liturgy of the Word is in one place and then people move to stand around the altar. I have also occasionally come across churches which alter their seating layout by the Seasons: semi-circle; choir-style (facing each other); straight lines facing East. Easter Season Blessings.

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