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ad orientem

Priest back to the people

ad orientem

The above image appears to be going viral, being posted by even some of my most sensible friends. So it is worth a moment of reflection.

Some people heatedly want a Western return to the priest presiding ad orientem (facing East) rather than the popular versus populum (facing the people). This type of person rejoiced in the papacy of Benedict XVI and is struggling with Francis (all the “obedience to the pope” arguments that they used during Benedict’s papacy are quietly being sneaked out of the room).

Yes, the pulling out of the altar a yard (metre) from the East wall of the sanctuary, and having a priest being able to slide sideways behind it to face the congregation across an oversized sideboard that would be incapable of being used as a table, is not liturgical renewal! Having a liturgical space so that the priest’s back is to the crucifix is not liturgical renewal.

Yes, in the early church people faced East to pray (also see orientation). Yes, in the culture of the early church, for meals people “were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe”.


When the church building faced West (and some famously did and still do), and all faced East to pray – ALL faced East to pray. When the Bishop of Rome in St Peter’s in the Vatican presided at the Eucharist in that famously West-facing building, he did so looking across the altar at the congregation. And the congregation, during the Eucharistic Prayer, also faced East. (See here and here). They turned their backs on the pope.

I will listen more to liturgical fundamentalists who assiduously advocate ad orientem for the Eucharist when I see them turning their backs on the pope during the Eucharistic Prayer – as everyone would have in the early church.

Liturgy is not about an archaeological obsession to replicate some sort of early ideal period. It is not about mimicking Jesus and his last supper.

in circuitu altaris

Our culture has meals around a table – not (as in the period of the early church) on one side of it. We may be limited, in inherited buildings, to produce that image well (but actually we can do a great deal better than a lot of the pulled-out-sideboard effects that make the priest look like a bartender who owns this particular piece of furniture). When it comes to creating new worship spaces – there just is no excuse for producing something that is neither fish nor fowl, neither having the integrity of the pre-Vatican II ad orientem configuration, nor the sense of the whole people of God gathered around God’s table as equals.

Let’s stop using the term versus populum. It is time to start using the term in circuitu altaris (around the altar in circuitu mensae).

And puhleez stop it with the comments, jokes, and jibes about people facing each other praying to each other. They are an insult to our intelligence and to those who have taken prayer and the spiritual journey most seriously since the earliest church. Have these people not spent just five minutes visiting a monastery, or seen this illustrated? How do monastics, who devote their whole life to prayer, pray? They face each other.


This post can be seen as another in architecture reflections on this site.

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41 thoughts on “Priest back to the people”

  1. Well said, Bosco. I always appreciate your considered thoughts on liturgy. I do think, however, that some people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about details. It is, of course, a wonderful distraction from actual worship, or even actual practice of the Sermon on the Mount.

    And it’s not only monastics that pray in a circle facing each other. When we have small group prayer meetings and Bible studies in homes, they are invariably shaped in circles. Should we all stand and turn to face one direction to pray in these meetings?

  2. Call me a naive low church evangelical but I thought the priest in some understandings is the icon of Christ and the meal is a reenactment of the last supper. I wouldn’t expect Christ to turn his back on me at the supper table.

    As you rightly point out, meals are circular affairs, around the table!

  3. I must admit, I too am interested in the iconic aspect of the congregation as the body of Christ. I do not know if there is a history to this notion, (but I cannot see this as a selfie! OED now recognizes this term but not my spell checker). I think though that when I had to celebrate the Eucharist in rural Turkey, (and I am not ordained so you can chastise me if you like), we paid no attention to orientation.

  4. Daniel John Susan

    I take no issue with your proposal of a replacement for “versus populum” but I would further propose that we replace “ad Orientum” with “ad Deum.”

  5. I think the whole debate is straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Both are fine.

    In both cases he’s facing the Eucharist, and theologically, the Real Christ is at least as much in those people as in that crucifix. Both congregation and crucifix are icons of Christ.

  6. When I lived in France we made the distinction between mass ‘face au peuple’ and mass ‘fesse au peuple’.

  7. Yes it does make more sense to orientate the church population towards the actions lead by the priest. This way you know to follow the movements of the one who is showing us how to praise and pray. This concept also works in small choral groups where you are not only singing to the audience but worshiping the Lord by facing each other in a half circle. It helps promote the correct way to glorify our Lord without making a mockery of an established liturgical protocol.

    1. Peace! Christ is present to us in multiple ways. Where two or three are gathered in my name I am in their midst. Jesus, the Word of God, is present to us in the scriptures proclaimed. Jesus is present in the Eucharist, the bread broken and the cup shared when we do these things in memory of him. All these elements are true from the Last Supper to how we celebrate today. As another commentator indicated, we are not facing each other, we are surrounding the presence of the Lord in the Word, the Altar, gathering together in his name making him alive in our midst. While I can understand the Ad Orientum devotees, it misplaces the role of the priest as the presider within the community, leading prayer, proclaiming the Word to that of an intermediary between an unworthy people and Christ. As Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, serve one another just as I have served you proclaiming the salvation , breaking the bread, sharing the cup all in memory of Him.

  8. I think you’re missing a fundamental theological point in the Ad Orientem argument – it’s not the priest facing the crucifix – it’s the priest AND the people looking to the East for the return of Christ – hence the name “Ad Orientem” instead of “Ad Deum”.

    Your opinion is what happens when the Sacrifice of Calvary (AKA The Catholic Mass) is reduced to a mere meal or “communal celebration”. Msgr Klaus Gamber lamented this break with Tradition in his book “The Reform of The Roman Liturgy”.

    This information is history, and it has deep theological roots – one shouldn’t presume to change it for logistical reasons – you lose all sense of the mystical or the theological!

    1. Thanks, for your comment, Lucas, and I am very happy to have you as part of the community here. All opinions are welcome. But have you actually read the post, or are you merely adding your comment without even reading what I say?

      Nowhere have I said ad orientem is “the priest facing the crucifix”.

      I have stressed, put in capitals and bold type that “ALL faced East to pray”.

      There is no reduction of anything to a mere something. Please feel free to actually read what I said, and then I look forward to a response to what I actually wrote.


  9. At the time when people started believing it was crucial to “face” East, they also believed the sun “rose” in the East. We’ve moved on to a heliocentric view of the solar system. As we mature (hopefully) we also don’t think of God as “up” in the heavens or on a mountain top or as only able (willing?) to hear our prayers from one direction (or another).

    When we pray we should “orient” our hearts. And if praying in a Church, I too am grateful for an architecture which helps us do just that.

    1. I was reading this a couple times and kept thinking, the sun DOES rise in the East! Where do you think it rises?

      Then I finally got it. And disagree. The sun still rises from the East, even though we know more about how the physics of that is complicated. And Christ is still returning from the East — maybe He will make a circle of the entire globe. It is written that it will be like lightening.

  10. The reason for Ad Orientem has nothing to do with the early Church, it has to do with the Mass being the fulfillment of the Old Testament Priesthood, who, in the Holy of Holies, faced East in their supplications to the Lord of Hosts. So your argument and chastisement is unwarranted and in error. The Mass is the fulfillment of the Old Testament temple worship, the Catholic Altar is the Holy of Holies fulfilled, but it is increasingly difficult for people to see that visually with the table Altar. In addition, the table Altar was first instituted by the Lutherans, it was only later taken up illicitly by the Catholic prelates who instituted Vatican II. Incidently, there is nothing in the Vatican II documents citing that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should be either said facing the people, or should be said in the vernacular. This was done by those who instituted it, was inspired by Protestantism, and Traditional minded Catholics have been chastised, shamed and ridiculed just as you are doing ever since for being uncomfortable with it. Are you a Lutheran or a Catholic ? If you are a Catholic then shame on you for going around tsk tsk tsking the Traditional Catholic mind.
    In fact, in the Vatican today, there can be seen every day numerous Tridentine Masses being offered, and Pope Francis has not tried to stop this in any way. The Moto Proprio still stands, and the Tridentine Mass should be offered in every Diocese for anyone who would feel more comfortable worshiping in this (more solidly Biblical) way. :~D Peace !

    1. Brilliant, Marie! Except you are completely and absolutely incorrect. Spend a few seconds actually looking at a diagram of the Temple and the Holy of Holies. It won’t take you long to realise… the High Priest,… in the Holy of Holies… actually faced West. Sorry. When people passionately believe something and cannot think of a reason why, it is often quicker to make up a reason, obviously incorrect though it be. You are, nonetheless, very welcome here. Being correct is not a requirement for having comments pass moderation 🙂 Blessings.

  11. Bosco,

    I too have seen this pic on FB. My take is that the upper picture is consistent with a sacerdotal view of the priesthood where the priest acts as mediator; consistent with the theology of the Eucharist where the Priest offers a sacrifice.
    Whereas the lower picture is more consistent with the view that the priest acts as a minister who is ministering to the people by distributing the Lord’s Supper, is not acting as a mediator and is not offering a sacrifice.

    My understanding is that the reason Reformed Anglicans stood at the north end of the Lord’s table was due to the fact that they did not want to convey the former and due to the Lord’s table facing east, they could not stand behind it.

    1. Thanks, Joshua. You and I will have to agree to disagree. I think your division of the two approaches oversimplifies to the point where it makes no connection for me. And the BCP rubric about standing at the North side (Note: not your “north end“) is better explained by the altar being placed between the choir stalls than your construction which seems to me, respectfully, to just be made up. Blessings.

      1. Ouch! Oversimplifying and ‘just made up’.

        Respectfully I do not think my construction is made. Reformed Evangelical Clergy have big problems with the theology of the above picture:
        1. The sacerdotal role of the priest
        2. The offering of a sacrifice
        3. Even the crucifix

        I believe the Anglican view of the Eucharist is that it is a Sanctifying Sacrament – Justification has been granted by grace through faith in Christ. We need grace to grow in Christ, not saving grace (which we have already have received). Holy Communion sanctifies us.

        The upper picture conveys the Roman Catholic view I think, the view that one can receive saving grace through the Sacrament, as the RCC position is that salvation is a process (which I think comes out of misunderstanding of the difference between Old Cov & and New Cov worship.

        Grace and peace

        1. Sorry for the ouch, Joshua. The made up refers to the origin of the BCP rubric to “stand at the north side” – I stand by my explanation as given in the link I provided. You had “the lower picture is more consistent with the view that the priest acts as a minister who is ministering to the people by distributing the Lord’s Supper, is not acting as a mediator and is not offering a sacrifice.” You now insist that it is the upper picture that “conveys the Roman Catholic view” – while I would contend in actual fact it is the lower picture that is the majority way Roman Catholics actually preside by far. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it is much easier to find Anglicans presiding as per the upper picture than Roman Catholics. And would be willing to bet on it if I added the word “proportionately”. Blessings.

  12. “Heaven is My throne,
    And earth is My footstool.
    Where is the house that you will build Me?
    And where is the place of My rest?
    2 For all those things My hand has made,
    And all those things exist,”
    Says the Lord.
    “But on this one will I look:
    On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,
    And who trembles at My word.

  13. When we start worrying about what we will do, we start taking from the sacrament itself. We begin to take ownership of the sacrament, this is from God, not from man. When I walk into a parish, to celebrate I don’t worry about the position of the Altar, I worry is my heart in the right place. Will I be able to allow the meaning of the sacrament flow through me unabated. We have bigger fish to fry than this red herring. My two cents. By the way, I really appreciate your blog and facebook page.

    1. Thanks, Anthony. You are blessed to be able to walk into a parish church and celebrate as you find it. I live in a city in which most of the church buildings have been destroyed and we need to think seriously about how church buildings should be in the 21st century. Blessings.

  14. And to add to my previous , this time RSV

    The Lord said:
    Because these people draw near with their mouths
    and honour me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
    and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;

  15. In the Orthodox Church, there’s a clear distinction between things said facing east, and things said facing west. Any time something is said west, it is cueing the congregation, a dialogue between two or three people (priest, [deacon], and reader), or a blessing by a priest or bishop. To see the priest or deacon turn around is a clear signal that we’re being spoken to.

    1. http://www.episcopalnet.org/TRACTS/priestesses.html

      “To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East – he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God.”

      – C.S. Lewis

      Which asks me: does the Roman Rite prayed ‘ad orientem’ actually not contain portions where the priest faces the people to speak for God? If the Orthodox rite does and the English rite traditionally did, that would surprise me…

  16. «Memento, Domine, famulorum, famularumque tuarum N et N, et omnium circumstantium, quorum tibi fides cognita est…»

    So, it’s about «all who stand in circle».

    Yes, but «in curcuitu altaris» = the president being «ad Orientem», if the church is oriented.

    If you take an early Byzantine church (still kept by the Novogorod style), you’ll see that in the nave (including the so-called sanctuary) congregation is U-ey. On the Eastern side, you’ll have the altar. The bishop would be at the Western side, look towards East, turning his back to the narthex (catechumens). The lecterns are also looking towards East, but in the middle on the nave. The worshippers are on both other sides, North and South, turning their backs to the wall, and their faces to the lectern or altar.

    Now, the problem appears if the congregants see nothing of what happens on the altar, especially if there is a closed altar-screen.

    The modern shape of churches, where altars are like a teacher’s desk springs of a bad theological understanding, because it sets the president ABOVE the congregation, not as part of it. The bishop and his priests are themselves members of the people of God (in this meaning, they are lay people too), and in no case above the people of God. Likewise, the lecterns should still be incorporated in the midst of the congregation, because it’s the Church that has shaped and canonized the holy Writ, not the opposite.

    If you look all around the Christian world and rites, from Ethiopia to Iceland, from the Celtic lands to India, you’ll see the orientation of the congregation (ministers included), as the norm.

    Indeed, some churches are occidented, rather than oriented. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, there are plain air altars, where ministers are oriented, while the congregation prefers to go “on the other side”, to see what’s up.Examples here, here, there.

    But those are exceptions.

    If people are able to see what’s happening on the altar, if they can duly participate in the worship, the orientation of the inside of the church should be the norm.

    Now look how ugly an “updating” can be:

  17. When priest and people face the altar together, in the same direction, the priest ceases to be a “presider” or “moderator” (some would add, “talk show host”!) and functions AS a priest, as an intermediary, first facing the altar, then turning to face the people, etc. The priest stands not BETWEEN God and the people, but as one symbolically leading the people TO God.

    The last person to comment before me said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I IN THE MIDST – not behind or in front, but IN THE MIDST!”

    This is true, Christ is in our midst when we gather in His name, but why then have a liturgy at all? Why have a Eucharist? A Mass? Because these things manifest His presence among us in a SPECIAL way, in the context of liturgy, and liturgy – ritual of any kind – has form.To symbolically see God on the altar for the purpose of liturgy- to face Him in unison – does not negate His being “everywhere”. We accord such focus to monarchs and presidents. Why not Christ?

    1. Thanks, Nicholas.

      I’m struggling to follow the mixing of your images.

      You would have a priest “as an intermediary” – but “not BETWEEN”.

      I have never seen anyone advocating for a priest’s ministry to resemble a “talk show host” – could you reference, please, examples of those who are proponents of such a model?

      And can you clarify, are you suggesting all facing “in the same direction” – as I describe with all turning their back on the pope when he presides in St Peter’s facing the congregation east on the west side of the altar? Or are you suggesting, as I do, that all face “the altar together” – wherever they are, north, south, east, or west of the altar – in circuitu altaris.

      This latter, it seems to me, is precisely the image you present focusing “to monarchs and presidents”. We are around a monarch or president – not in parallel rows, cinema-like, all facing the monarch or president as if they were the cinema’s screen.

      I must admit to being surprised at your penultimate question. We have a liturgy, a Eucharist, a Mass precisely because this is the way that Christ gave to “gather in His name”. We are not merely gathering. In the Eucharist we gather in his name.


  18. A major problem with this is that the view of the Eucharist as a sacrifice celebrated on an eastward-facing altar is not relegated merely to the Roman Church. It is a universal, as anyone who has ever been inside a Greek, Armenian, Coptic, or Malankara church would know. It is not merely some kind of ‘tradition of men’ imposed by Rome; it is a worldwide historical fact. No Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Malankara, Coptic, or Armenian church celebrates the Eucharist facing the people, and none of them certainly separate the notion of Sacrifice from Sacrament. To reduce the Holy Communion merely to a memorial meal with Jesus is nothing short of profane- and no other tradition in Christianity outside of Zwinglian-influenced Protestantism would dare do such a thing. To pretend the Early Christians viewed the Holy Eucharist as simply a sacred community gathering around a table is to be completely ignorant of Christian history. It is a Communion with God himself in a mystical and heavenly way, a foretaste of the Banquet of the Lamb, the anamnesis of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ (and therefore, sacrificial), and the offering of the entirety of creation to God, as represented by bread and wine. The position of the presbyter should emphasise completely all the aspects of the Eucharist, not just one or the other. And seeing as the mass of Christianity up until the Reformation was guided by the Holy Spirit to do this facing the same direction, this should be the ideal once more. However, I have a slight adjustment to be suggested- that the altar be moved closer to the people, but still be celebrated facing the same direction. That way, the people could be brought up to the rail or even just a few feet behind the priest to better symbolise the people of God gathered facing the risen Christ right in front of them, rather than one on a distant altar.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I do not see anyone “pretending the Early Christians viewed the Holy Eucharist as simply a sacred community gathering around a table”. Maranatha.

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