Growing up during the Cold War, I could not imagine a day when the communist Soviet Union and its client states in eastern Europe would ever be a fading memory. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the unimaginable has become the new normal.
Coming into Anglican Christianity via the Episcopal Church, I could not have imagined a day when celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem — presider and people all facing “liturgical east” during the eucharistic prayer — would be considered cutting edge, nouveau, très chic. But, judging from responses in social media to recent remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah, that day is upon us.
There is no urgency to add my voice, as the bishop of a backwater diocese in a backwater church, to what has indeed become, arguably, a fray. All things being equal, I would advocate versus populum as a norm, rather than ad orientem. I cut my liturgical theology teeth on the currents of thought that set the table for versus populum celebration: A.G. Hebert’s Liturgy and Society (1935), the Parish Communion movement, the early work of Associated Parishes for Liturgy & Mission, and eventually Dom Gregory Dix’s magisterial (if now academically undermined) The Shape of the Liturgy (1945) — all supported by the rediscovery of such ancient documents as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, and operating in informal tandem with the Second Vatican Council and developments in the Roman Catholic Church. I arrived in the Episcopal Church and imprinted on all this material just at the moment the wave was cresting. It was exciting, and I thought myself part of a sea change in liturgical thinking and practice.
Nonetheless, I am neither offended nor scandalized by ad orientem celebrations. In the diocese under my care, there are three churches where the furniture and the architecture permit no other style, and I have no plans to harass those congregations into renovating their sanctuaries.
In 1994, I became the rector of a parish where both the main altar and the two side altars were snugly against the east wall. Only after ten years there did I feel like I had the political capital to make any changes. (Still, five years later, my 28-year-old successor put everything back the way it had been!) I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the 3,000 or so Masses I have celebrated during the course of my ministry, the majority of them have been ad orientem, and I can’t think of one, even the funerals, that wasn’t a happy occasion, the Eucharist being what it is and all.
Ah … the Eucharist being what it is. There’s where I want to make a simple but substantive point. All sacramental actions are sacralized versions of common actions — taking a bath, sharing a meal, embracing, therapeutic touching, and the like — though sacraments carry rich and polyvalent layers of meaning that transcend their common antecedents. Repeated “performance” over decades and centuries of any of the sacraments, but particularly the Eucharist, cannot help but gather all manner of accreted details of execution. There is nothing inherently wrong with these secondary developments; indeed, they can be quite lovely and wholesome.
But they are secondary. And when secondary developments are allowed to become the tail that wags the liturgical dog, we have a problem. While a sacramental action is undeniably more than its common cognate, it cannot ever be allowed to become less. Sacramental minimalism — mere validity — ought not to be something we happily settle for.
(I once witnessed a baptism where the candidate was not quite a toddler, but old enough to be headstrong and squirmy. The officiant, a retired bishop, assured the parents that if even one drop of water made it somewhere onto the child’s body, all would be well.)
Sound sacramental theology requires us to make the connection between the common and the holy as clear and robust as we can. Baptism is more than a bath, but it is at least a bath. The Eucharist is more than a meal, but it is at least a meal. The phenomenon of liturgical practice — what the event looks like and feels like to a participant — must not obscure that connection.
A meal is an event where people gather around a table. That is its phenomenology. The Eucharist is a meal. So, a celebration of the Eucharist should somehow look like that and feel like that. Versus populum celebration — placing the celebrant and, quite often, assisting ministers, ordained and lay across a table from the congregation — is the simplest and most direct way of maintaining this connection.
Either style of celebration, like all liturgy, requires careful planning and prayerful preparation. One could assume that an ad orientem Eucharist is necessarily stodgy and disconnected from the real lives of real people. It certainly has that capacity, but I have been present at such liturgies that were so spiritually vibrant that I thought the whole place was going to be assumed into God’s nearer presence. Similarly, one can assume that a versus populum Eucharist is necessarily informal, lacking in reverence, and oblivious to the sacrificial character of the act. It certainly can be, but by no means has to be.
Snarky comparisons of a versus populum celebrant to a bartender, or the altar to a lunch counter, are unworthy of those who offer them. The truth is, such celebrations can be done poorly — with minimal reverence, with an egotistical celebrant who doesn’t understand that prayers are directed toward God and not the congregation, with poorly planned and poorly executed choreography. They can also be done very well — emphasizing the numinous transcendence of God, drawing the people of God up into the courts of Heaven itself.
In the midst of so many and great conflicts that polarize Christians these days, including Anglican Christians, my hope is that the issue of the position of the presider at the Eucharist can be one on which we agree to disagree, not merely charitably, but downright amicably. Rather than take cheap shots at one another through infographic memes, is it too much to hope that we might affirmatively build one another up in love, no matter the side of the altar we do so from?
The featured image of Cardinal Sarah celebrating Mass at the Brompton Oratory comes via Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP, and is licensed under Creative Commons.
For an argument for ad orientem, see Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver’s post from exactly one year ago: “The orientation of preparation.”