Editor’s note: Here at Anglican Pastor, we feature content from low church to high church, as long as it’s written with both clarity and charity. Even if you would never consider an “ad orientem” Holy Communion in your own church, I invite you to read about how and why Fr. Ben Jefferies has made the switch in his parish.
It comes as a shock to many Anglicans to find out that, prior to the 1950s, Anglicans never stood behind the altar to face the people for Holy Communion.
In fact, architecturally, it would have been impossible to get behind most altars, because almost all altars were placed up against the far wall of the sanctuary—usually the eastern wall.
[Note/UPDATE: The author recognizes the inaccuracies of these statements, and has moderated them in the comments below. He apologizes, and confesses it was not his intent to deceive]
Well, churches have traditionally been built on an east-west axis. This was already an old tradition in the late 4th Century. The liturgical “reason why” was given by St. Basil to be:
“Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East” (On the Holy Spirit, 27.66).
One other common interpretation is that, in facing the direction of the rising sun, we recall to mind the natural symbol that the prophet Malachi speaks of as picturing Christ’s coming again, as “the sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2).
Whatever the mystical meaning may be, the eastern orientation remains a prevalent fact of church architecture throughout the centuries. In situations where it was not possible to build a church on an east-west axis, the far wall of the sanctuary is nevertheless still referred to as the “east wall”, it being the “liturgical east” even if the compass wouldn’t say so.
Which way should we face?
In the 1950s, some liturgical scholars theorized that, in the ancient church, the celebrant would have stood behind the table, facing the people (Latin: versus populum) in a way that resembles how most Anglican priests now celebrate today.
In the wake of Vatican II, the idea caught on like wild-fire among Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Churches everywhere slid their altars out from the far wall, and priests stood behind them to celebrate Communion.
The felt gain from this new liturgical positioning was that it made the Eucharist feel more friendly and communal—the priest was not some distant figure “over there,” but was one of the people, standing in a circle, resembling a head-of-household at the head of the table. The old, east-facing way (latin: ad orientem) was sneered at, derisively referred to as “worshiping with your back to the people.” Thus, the new way became the new norm.
Now, to be clear, facing the altar vs. facing the people is certainly a secondary issue one way or another. That is, it’s one of the ritual things that the Church in every era and time has authority to determine on. It’s non-essential to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, my point is that the decision to face the people instead of the altar was not a win-win. For while something was gained, much was lost.
My personal experience.
I have been serving the Church as a priest for five years, and with every passing year, one of the things that kept nagging at my mind more and more when I was celebrating the Eucharist was: Why am I facing the people? I am praying to God the Father, why am I looking at the church? The people are supposed to be joining in my prayer to God, why are they looking at me?
Standing behind the altar, facing them, started to feel more and more odd as a posture of prayer.
In addition, with the ups and downs of life and ministry, on Sundays when I was feeling less than brilliant, I felt the strange need to emotionally rise to the occasion, to present myself in a certain way during the Eucharist. After all, all eyes were on me.
The thought occurred to me that, although this versus populum position was supposed to be less “clericalist,” I actually felt like the “spotlight” was shining very brightly on me.
If instead I were facing the cross on the altar, the people wouldn’t see my face and every expression, and I would be free to focus on the task at hand: praying.
So, I started to do a little reading on the subject of ad orientem celebration of Communion, and I learned that the claims of the liturgical scholars about what was the norm in the early church stood on very shaky and contested ground.
I learned that, at first-century tables, all the guests reclined on the same side of the table, while the servants came to the other side to serve. Thus, at the Last Supper, Jesus was shoulder to shoulder with the Apostles as he instituted Holy Communion (Da Vinci was right!).
In addition, I learned that many examples in both archaeology and liturgical texts indicate that an east-facing position was almost certainly the norm for Eucharistic celebrations in the early church. At the very least, it was the norm for the 1500 years prior to 1950, revealing that the mind of the Church clearly thought there was something to it.
I therefore decided to try out the ancient way, virtually lost since 1950, of celebrating east-facing. I pushed the altar-table up against the wall, and began to celebrate facing it. I did this as a trial period, accepting the feedback of the congregation I serve.
To my surprise, there was no sustained objection to my trying it, and indeed, it has “stuck” as a practice. It is now the norm for us at the church I serve.
The experience of celebrating Holy Communion in the east-facing position has confirmed in real life what I had read about in theory in the liturgical books.
4 reasons I now celebrate Communion facing the altar, not the people.
I would like to share four tremendous advantages that have made me a life-long fan of this return to the old-ways. I commend ad orientem to the consideration of all priests who, like me, have until now never known anything other than a versus populum celebration.
1. It is much less clericalist.
The spotlight is no longer on you, as a person, and the experience you are or are not having. Rather, you become subordinate to the role you are there to fulfill: the role of priest.
In addition, spatially and visually, it is much clearer that you the priest are merely one of the people of God, who has stepped forward about 8ft further than the congregation, to offer prayers on their behalf. Especially following a procession, to emerge from out of the midst of the congregation, standing just a few feet ahead of them, offering prayer to God — it is clear that you are not on some totally different plane of existence, that in fact, you all face God the same way, praying together.
2. It is much more prayerful.
For me, being able to look at the altar-cross, and not at the faces of the people, profoundly impacted the prayerful nature of what is supposed to be a prayer: The Eucharistic prayer.
It enabled me as a priest to focus on talking to Almighty God, rather than accidentally slipping into talking to the people, or, worse still, as if somehow the Eucharist was merely a re-enactment of the past, that I was “performing.”
Instead, I can speak in the reverent, prayerful tones that I am accustomed to speaking in when I pray to my Father in secret. I can invite the congregation to join with me in that intimate prayer.
3. It is much more priestly.
The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, describes a priest in his perennial classic The Christian Priest Today as an appointed one who stands before God at the Altar, with the people in his heart.
The priest is supposed to be an intercessor for the people—pleading for mercy and help from God for them. The ad orientem position makes this relationship visually much clearer.
In the pulpit I am to preach God’s Word to the people. But in the Eucharistic prayers, I am to take the people’s spiritual needs to God, as an appointed intercessor. My sense of connection and ministration to the people in the prayers dramatically increased in this way, because I wasn’t looking at them, but looking to God with them.
4. It tacitly communicates a more robust theology of worship.
Ad orientem Eucharists in their very shape implicitly teach a robust theology of worship.
That is, the aspect of offering spiritual sacrifice to God is made much clearer. As the priest, I am presenting things to God, to please him. This is the essential definition of worship.
But what is pleasing to God? What can we present to him, that he will find acceptable? Certainly not our merits or works or anything from us, or even, anything in the created world whatsoever.
The only offering that is pleasing to God is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross at Golgotha. That was the one pleasing, propitiatory sacrifice. The only acceptable oblation to God the Father. The only act of true and acceptable worship.
Therefore, how dare we bring before Almighty God anything of less value! Therefore, the best (and only!) thing we can offer is a memorial of that one sacrifice on the cross. A remembrance to God, that we spiritually lift up before him, asking for him to accept in our place. We ask God the Father to accept the oblation of Jesus on our behalf, and in a mysterious way, we make this plea through the celebration of Holy Communion.
The only thing that we can offer to God of ourselves is our gratitude: Our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (to use the words of the Eucharistic prayer). And besides that, our whole selves, which we also offer in the prayer.
But even as we offer ourselves, it is not as ourselves that we render ourselves to the Father. Rather, as the Body of Christ, as part of Christ, we the Church present our lives, body and soul, to God, as part of Christ’s own offering of himself to God.
This is a great mystery, but it’s one that I (and others in the congregation) are beginning to peer into a little further, thanks to the more offering-like shape of a priest facing east, facing an altar and a cross, with bread and wine in his hands, praying to God.
Sure, but is it “missional”?
While switching to an ancient, unfamiliar way of celebrating the liturgy might not seem to be that mission-minded, it is perhaps worth noting that the rate of congregational growth we have experienced has increased since making the switch.
I have received many comments, both from long-time Anglicans and brand-new Baptist visitors, to the effect of:
- “I just love how much the priest is not front and center.”
- “I feel like I am able to really encounter God in the service, without the things of man getting in the way.”
- “I feel like I am re-learning reverence in worship.”
These are just a few of the sentiments I have heard. They have profoundly affirmed my theorizing and personal experience on the matter. I can say confidently that I shall celebrate facing east for the rest of my ministry.
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.