Editor’s note: Here at Covenant, at The Living Church, and at Instagram, we hope to curate some material from our rich archives, such as articles, photos, and advertisements, which go back to 1878. Consider this piece from the April 28, 1968, issue of The Living Church an initial foray. This piece gives a sense of the state of play in the Episcopal Church nearly 50 years ago, as well as how little the discussion has moved on. We’re grateful to Richard Mammana for his archival work, and especially for this transcript.
“The Eastward Position: A Defense”
By Francis W. Read
The growing trend towards celebrating the Holy Eucharist facing the people calls for a re-examination of the rationale and implications of the traditional eastward position. It is time, I think, that someone spoke up in defense of the eastward position, and this I intend to do in the face of the present trend toward its abandonment and the devoted scholarship of the leaders of the present-day liturgical movement.
It cannot be denied that the westward position has far older historical precedent and that for the bishop or other officiant to face the people across the altar was the unvarying practice in the early Christian Church. This fact, in and of itself, does not, however, carry decisive weight. Ecclesiastical vestments such as we know today, organ music, choir processions, and even fixed liturgies enforced by canon law were not in the early Christian tradition. The fact that they were all later developments does not necessarily mean that we should dispense with them and revert to the original pattern of the primitive Church in our worship. The very fact that we are experimenting with new liturgical vehicles, such as the Folk Mass and the Rock Mass, is evidence that we dare not be merely antiquarians. The old is not necessarily the best merely because it is old. The Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has been led into many new paths during her long and involved history. May not the adoption of the eastward posture for the Eucharist have been one of them?
The eastward posture developed almost accidentally over a period of several centuries. Commencing somewhere around the fourth or fifth century (one cannot be too sure of the dates), various local churches began to enshrine the remains (or reputed remains) of martyrs or other saintly persons in proximity to the altar or communion table, and in a position where these reliquaries could be seen by the people. Gradually they came to be placed up against the east side of the table where the celebrant normally stood. In order to find a place from which to minister, the celebrant had to come around to the west side of the table, and he had a tendency to face the table itself as he had done from the other side. Over a period of several centuries both practices coexisted—the eastward position where there were reliquaries and the westward position where they did not exist. But in time almost all churches had reliquaries, and in those which did not, a tabernacle for the reserved sacrament was often placed at the east of the altar. By the 11th century (again one cannot be too certain of dates) the eastward position was the catholic norm. Basilicas and similar churches constituted rare exceptions.
At the English Reformation a communion table on an east-west axis replaced the traditional altar. It is only in the light of this fact that the “north end” rubric in the English Prayer Book makes sense. Archbishop Laud later restored the traditional catholic altar on its north-south axis, and the heated controversies over the position of the celebrant which ensued for several centuries thereafter resulted from trying to apply Cranmerian rubrics to Laudian altars. These controversies finally were resolved in the late 19th century, when, after numerous clergy were deprived of their livings or sent to jail for their convictions, the eastward position was declared legal. As a result, the eastward position became the Anglican norm (except in Ireland) and has so continued until the craze for the westward position set in. It is ironic that while the 19th-century English “Ritualists” were accused of “aping Rome” in adopting the eastward position, the present trend toward celebrations facing the people began in the Roman Catholic Church and it is now the people who think of themselves as moderates who are “aping Rome.” But enough of history. Granted that the historical considerations which led to the general adoption of the eastward position hardly represented the most enlightened view of the Eucharist, is it not possible that in the long run a better rationale of the eucharistic ministry is shown forth therein than in the westward posture?
Before going any further, two misconceptions (or should I say falsifications, for those who advance them really know better?) should be cleared up. First, the priest is not praying to “a God in the east wall.” It is doubtful if any instructed Christian ever thought he was. Second, the priest is not being rude to the people by turning his back to them. He is, instead, identifying with them in the closest way possible, facing the same way they are, and becoming one of them. The rationale of the eastward position is that the priest, in his dual capacity as God’s representative to man and man’s representative to God, identifies at each stage of the eucharistic action in the role he is performing. When he reads the Epistle and Gospel and pronounces absolution and blessing, and when he distributes the consecrated bread and wine to the congregation, he is acting in his capacity of God’s representative to man, and thus faces the people, speaking for God. But when he offers prayers and makes on behalf of the people the offering of bread and wine as their sacrifice he is acting as man’s representative before God and thus faces the same way as the people, identifying himself with them. This rationale is clearly spelled out in the pronouncement of the English bishops at the Savoy Conference in 1661 when the Puritans wanted the minister to face the people during the whole Communion Service. In view of the then liturgical situation in England it is possible that by the words “face another way” the bishops may have been referring to a stance at the north end of the altar, but they made it clear that when speaking to God as the people’s representative the minister did not appropriately face the people.
As Gore, Moberly, and others have pointed out, Christian priesthood is a ministerial and representative office. It is ministerial in the sense that the priest is ordained to minister to man on God’s behalf and to mediate to man His word and sacraments. It is representative in that although Christians are a priestly people, their priesthood must be exercised by duly constituted authorities acting on behalf of the whole body. Being both ministerial and representative, there are two distinct movements within the priestly office. There is the movement from God man-ward, characterized by preaching and administering the sacraments. And there is the movement from man Godward, characterized by his functions as intercessor and spokesman for his flock. All this is brought out in the whole process by which a man becomes a priest. He is chosen by the Church through her canonical structures as a fit and proper person to exercise the representative priesthood. He is then ordained by God the Holy Spirit and endowed by Him with ministerial authority to mediate the word and sacraments. The processes of commissioning by the Church to act on its behalf and of consecration by God the Holy Ghost conferring priestly character are so intertwined in the Ordinal that it is impossible to separate the two. Ordination is both commissioning by the Church and consecration by God and thus confers on the priest the dual character of God’s representative to man and man’s representative before God. However accidentally it may have come about, the eastward position emphasizes this dual aspect of the priesthood and graphically illustrates both the God-manward and the man-Godward movements in the Eucharist. The westward posture, on the other hand, creates confusion of roles and is subject to misinterpretation in two opposite ways.
The Roman Catholic concept of priesthood virtually ignores the representative aspect of the priest’s role. The traditional Roman view of priesthood (in popular piety and as generally understood at least, even though perhaps not a part of the Church’s official teaching) is that it is something superimposed on the Church, and in a sense, lord over the Church. The priest, according to this popular piety at least (which is not discouraged by official pronouncements), is almost restricted to this ministration from God manward, and the movement from man Godward is minimized. He is seldom thought of as the people’s representative before God. Given this general view of the priest’s office, it is perfectly natural to assume that at the altar he is acting solely as God’s representative to man. If this rationale of the priestly office which has characterized Roman Catholic piety is thus assumed, it was illogical in the Roman rite for the priest ever to face any other way than toward the people. The very fact that the modern revival of the westward position is of Roman Catholic origin should alert us to the possibility that it carries overtones of the Roman concept of the priesthood which in practice if not in theory denies the priest’s representative capacity as the people’s spokesman and makes it unnecessary for him to identify with them.
According to Anglican theological understanding, it is Christ himself who is the true celebrant of every Eucharist and the priest is merely His spokesman. It is Christ who is Himself the Host at the eucharistic meal. The position at the head of the table, facing the people, is actually Christ’s. For the celebrating priest to assume this position is in fact a usurpation of Christ’s rightful place. Here, again, the westward position shows the thinking of Roman theology, for the Roman priesthood has never been backward about assuming all the prerogatives of Christ. However inconsistent the north-end thinking in the Church of England may be in trying to apply Cranmerian rubrics to Laudian altars, it at least shows a becoming modesty in stepping aside and refusing to take Christ’s place at the head of the table, standing to one side to emphasize the presence of the unseen Host.
But the westward position is capable of an ultra-protestant and anti-catholic as well as a Romeward slant. Protestantism rejected the ministerial, mediatorial priesthood while retaining the representative aspect of the ministry, so that in most protestant Communions the process of ordination is thought of as commissioning by the Church only and not as consecration to any priestly office or the conferring of character. The historical result was that preaching became the normal act of protestant worship and this act, of course, requires facing the people. Ministers continued to face the people as they prayed, creating the impression, if one analyzes it, that they were not praying for the people as one of them but rather to them or at them. Viewed from the protestant perspective, a priest facing the people and saying the eucharistic prayer of consecration is not so much offering a prayer on their behalf or offering to God their sacrifices as he is performing the visible and outward acts in imitation of our Lord’s Last Supper as a special for them to behold. For them to see him break the bread is apparently more important than the fact that he is offering their sacrifices to God as one of them. It almost appears that he is offering their gifts of bread and wine to them instead of to God and is reciting the prayer of consecration to them or at them as one of them and on their behalf to the Heavenly Father.
The westward position, then, is susceptible to either extreme Roman or extreme protestant interpretation, and negates the Anglican understanding of what the priest is doing in celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The eastward position, on the other hand, emphasizes the dual movement of priesthood in the eucharistic action.
In still another respect the eastward position emphasizes with far greater clarity what the westward position is supposed to bring about. The unity of priesthood and laity in the Body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers is supposedly brought out by the westward position but is in fact denied. In the eastward position priest and people stand on the same side of the altar, and the fact that they are sinners together seeking reconciliation, and that the laity have a ministry with the priest as their spokesman, is made plain. In the westward position, on the other hand, the altar stands as a barrier between priest and people and the priest is placed as somehow apart from them, and the fact that the altar looms up between them is an implicit denial of the priesthood of the laity. From the standpoint of the meaning of worship the eastward position is far superior in that priest and people worship together, their identity being emphasized by facing the same way, whereas in the westward position the priest appears as a schoolmaster, a lecturer, and a presiding officer, somehow set over and above the people. Eucharistic worship is a common action, and a lecture, schoolroom, or business meeting orientation of the priest vis-à-vis the people is a denial of its corporate aspect.
And then, of course, there is the matter of aesthetics. A priest standing behind the altar is somehow reminiscent of a merchant behind the counter hawking his wares. Someone has said that the priest appears to be auctioning off the candlesticks. It may sound irreverent, but a priest behind the altar fussing with cups of wine and a plate of bread always makes me think of a bartender standing up behind his bar setting up the drinks.
We should, I believe, give the rationale, theological implications, and even the aesthetics of the eastward position careful study before generally abandoning this practice for the latest thing they are doing in the Church of Rome.
 Vicar of St. Columba’s Church, Inverness, California. The Living Church, April 28, 1968, pp. 2-3.
 Editor’s note: this is no longer considered a clear point.
Interesting article, this! At first, I thought it might be a rationale for reviving the “eastward” position for the Presider at Mass. But I saw that it was written in 1968! How well I remember those days: I was in seminary then (Berkeley/New Haven) and we always had a “west-facing” Eucharist in our stark, but beautiful, chapel, a former stable. Fieldwork parishes we worked in often had altars up against the “east” wall and we were taught in our senior “Mass Class” to be ready for anything when we were new curates (I turned out to be a rector): east,… Read more »