Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
This article appeared in somewhat different form in The Anglican Catholic, Volume XV (Summer 2003), and in the newsletter of Saint Paul's Church, K Street, The Epistle.
One of the more contentious issues of liturgical reform in the last third of the last century concerned the position and posture of the priest and people in relation to the altar. Many exponents of the Liturgical Movement, both in the Roman and Anglican communions, encouraged the erection of free-standing altars in new churches (the ravages of World War II in France and Germany gave ample opportunity for this) and the relocation of altars (or where impractical, their supplementation through installation of new altars). Historical and liturgical arguments were invoked in favor of the move towards free-standing altars and celebration in which the priest and people faced each other over and across them. It was commonly asserted that this was a recovery of ancient tradition, which fostered a greater sense of the church as a gathered community empowered for mission. In this paper I will join a number of historians and liturgists who are finding it prudent to reexamine these claims.
The part of this literal “liturgical movement” connected with the furniture had a sound historical basis: altars had, for the most part, been freestanding, based on the scant evidence of the earliest house churches, to the well-documented basilicas, and on through the renaissance — and the placement of the altar as a massive sideboard against the eastern wall of the apse was a fairly late development. Note, however, that even these high altars of the baroque era, though they appear to be up against the wall due to the elaboration of gradine and reredos, almost without exception have passageways behind them to allow the circumambulation required by rubric at their dedication. (Anson 1948, 76.) (This technical compliance with the rubric reminds one of the creasing of hosts with the edge of the paten which conscientious anglo-catholic clergy used to do in deference to the “lesser fraction” rubric, saving the complete breaking of the bread for the point at which they knew it to be proper!) So at least as far as historical precedent for the position of the altar goes, the leaders of the Liturgical Movement had some foundation.
Along with the restoration of the freestanding altar, the celebration of the eucharist with the priest facing the people (technically called “versus populum,” henceforth “VP”) was also encouraged, in the earnest belief that this was the ancient position for the celebrant, whether bishop or priest. However, even during the height of the Liturgical Movement and the Vatican II reform cautionary voices were raised. Few scholars felt the freestanding altar required or implied a VP Eucharist, and the primary impetus appears to have been the enthusiasm generated in the excitement of rearranging the furniture. A calm and careful look at the historical evidence since the heady days of the 60s and 70s has led many to reexamine and rethink the matter.
What the evidence shows is that, with very few exceptions, the celebrant at the eucharist rarely faced the congregation across the altar, at least during the eucharistic prayer. It appears that the position of the bishop’s chair behind the altar in the early basilica may have been the source of the confusion. Since the bishop faced the people during the liturgy of the word it was wrongly assumed that he continued to do so at the prayers or at the liturgy of the table. However, the early church was not concerned about whether the bishop faced the people or not, but about the direction all worshipers faced for prayer. Prayer, above all the eucharistic prayer, was addressed, not to the assembly, but to God. The traditional direction for prayer was towards the east, towards the rising of the sun that symbolized the coming of Christ. This meant that in churches that were “oriented” with the apse in the east, the bishop would come around the altar and join the congregation, leading their prayer as they all faced east together.
In the city of Rome, however, basilicas were often if not always “portal oriented” — that is, their entry door faced east, and the altar was in the western end. In this case the bishop was already facing east for prayer, and the congregation would join him, not turning their backs on him but turning to face east with him, leaving the altar behind them. This may seem odd to us, but in this early period the medieval concern with “seeing the consecration” had not yet evolved. Indeed, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, visibility was never a primary issue, as the whole people of God, clergy and laity, were quite happy to pray together and in the same direction whether they could see each other or not. (Jungmann 137f; Bouyer 175) As Louis Bouyer notes:
The notion that the arrangement of the Roman basilica is ideal for a Christian church because it enables priests and faithful to face each other during the celebration of Mass is really a misconstruction. It is certainly the last thing which the early Christians would have considered, and is actually contrary to the way in which the sacred functions were carried out in connection with this arrangement. (175)
There is no need here to rehearse the process by which the basilican freestanding altar evolved into the magnificent sideboard of the middle ages, though Jungmann suggests (138) that the impracticality of the people turning away from the altar (in the Roman portal-oriented layout) led to the development of “altar orientation,” the eventual notion of a “liturgical east,” the movement of the altar deeper into the apse, and the adoption of the “eastward position” (EP) in which the celebrant turns to join and lead the people, in facing the same way together with them.
It is fair to say that this practical change was accompanied, but not driven, by an emerging theology of sacrifice. It was largely in reaction to this theology of sacrifice, and a desire to introduce a resemblance to the “Lord’s Supper” that the Reformers transformed the altar into a table around which the assembly gathered — though here too their intent had little historical authority, even if the eucharist had ever been conceived of simply as a recreation of the Last Supper. For in a classical banquet all those partaking, host and guests alike, sat or reclined on the same side of the table or tables— an image preserved in countless (even late) representations of the Last Supper. (Ratzinger 78)
Many of the newly designed freestanding altars of the Roman Catholic tradition in the middle of the last century still required an EP celebration. A number of photographs of these grand but now rather dated “modern” liturgical spaces (even in texts such as Hammond’s, that argue for VP) reveal the limitations upon the VP posture, due to the tabernacle and candlesticks still present on the mensa. It was only with Vatican II that the Roman Catholic Church, by banishing the tabernacle and candlesticks (admittedly late additions) from the altar, made VP celebration almost universally possible, though as some Roman Catholic liturgists are now emphasizing (as they reconsider the wisdom of this change), the rubrics do not require this posture. It has also been pointed out that even at Saint Peter’s, where the pope has stood opposite the people since the basilica was constructed, it was not in order to face them: indeed, in the long period from the Baroque until Vatican II in which tabernacles reigned, the celebrating pope could no more see the people than they him.
On this side of the Tiber (and the Atlantic), our own Book of Common Prayer rubrics still expect the EP posture, and the rubric at the end of the dialogue leading to the preface states, “Then, facing the holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds...” (BCP 361, etc. Note, however, that this rubric has uncountably disappeared from the Spanish version of our Prayer Book!) Bonnell Spencer, writing in 1965, noted that the rationale for the introduction of VP in the Roman church provided a means of improved visual participation in a church which at that time conducted much of its liturgy in a low voice and the Latin language, but that the Anglican tradition had less need of such visual rearrangements because it had long since dealt with the verbal accessibility of its liturgy. Joint prayer of the people and priest together, he noted, “is a far superior form of corporate participation than merely watching the celebrant.” (161)
Yet, in spite of the specious foundation for the historical argument for VP, i.e., that it represents a recovery of the ancient tradition of the church, this has become the dominant Roman Catholic liturgical fashion, and is now prevalent among Anglicans.
There are times when historical justification is less significant than present need — tradition should inform, but not bind the church in its efforts to serve. However, while we need not be dominated by our history, we should at least be well informed concerning it, particularly if we are going to argue from it. Liturgists in particular seem to fall prey to a kind of historical nostalgia, whether for the apostolic, patristic, or some other golden era. But it is no good picking up one feature of some past liturgical customary (always assuming that scholars and fashion-setters have it right— which it seems many didn’t with VP) and simply patching it onto our contemporary situation. New wineskins really are needed for new wine, and there has been a lot of water under the Milvian Bridge.
So, is there a compelling rationale for VP — or a return to EP — on some other basis than the historical. When making liturgical changes (whether one sees them as a recovery or a development) it is important to consider the whole context of the world as it is today, and what different meanings a gesture from the fourth century may have for us, and what effects. We really ought to be saying what we intend.
My conclusion is that while VP has its place in certain limited and specialized environments (closed communities such as convents or schools, or informal private gatherings) it raises a number of practical and pastoral problems, and what is worse, has had and will continue to have deleterious effects on the parish, the wider church, and its understanding of ministry.
Far from encouraging a growth in the sense of community, as texts from the Liturgical and Parish Communion Movements too numerous to list insist, the dominance of VP has sometimes led on the contrary to a new and more insidious form of clericalism. How so?
Take, for example, Peter Hammond’s critique of EP and his insistence that VP not only will bring about greater liturgical participation, but spur the laity on to apostolic mission in the world. (Note as well his acknowledgment that the foundation for VP is ideological rather than historical, or as he says “missionary rather than antiquarian.”)
Preoccupations which have already brought about a widespread restoration of the ancient ceremonies connected with the offertory, and the celebration of the eucharist versus populum have all been missionary rather than antiquarian. So long as the layman in church remains a passive spectator of something done on his behalf by professional actors, it is likely that he will be equally passive in regard to what is done out of church. (168)
Just think about the logical and historical problems with this assertion. The historical assumption concerning the VP itself has been addressed above. Here it is more important to note that the church’s great missionary efforts in previous ages managed to survive without the benefit of VP quite nicely, and many laity, Roman and Anglican alike, have gone forth from churches with baroque or gothic furnishings and truly antique ceremonial, nourished with a sense of mission and outreach, of which I have not noted an incredible resurgence since the adoption of VP as a virtual norm. One need only cite Jesuit mission and Jesuit architecture to see the fallacy in Hammond’s assertion.
More problematical is the second sentence in Hammond’s analysis. I have actually been a professional actor, having appeared on Broadway and off for a period of fifteen years before I entered full-time church work, and the one thing professional actors are above all eager to avoid is turning away from the audience. While it is certainly true that some priests who used the EP may from time to time have thought of themselves as performers, and some congregants who worshiped in their churches may also have felt themselves reduced to spectator status, that clearly has nothing to do with the professional theater, and any actors who habitually “upstaged” themselves would soon find themselves out of work! Actors quite normally face their audiences, and while there is one time in the liturgy where a certain element of performance craft is not out of place — the sermon — in general any semblance of “performing” should be restrained.
Sadly, and contrary to Hammond’s assertion, VP enforces the “performance” mode, most particularly in the eucharistic celebration, where the celebrant becomes a kind of ecclesiastical Julia Child confecting the eucharist, or worse, acting out the Last Supper (the Reformers have had their way after all!). How many times have we had to endure clergy “stretching out their arms upon the cross” or similarly pantomiming the surmised actions of Christ at the table in the upper room? Far from avoiding performance mode, the VP has virtually set it in stone, as the altar becomes a barrier as substantial as any rood screen, and as definitive and divisive of the liturgical space as any proscenium is of the theatrical. This has burdened many clergy with the task (in many cases far beyond their talents) of performing for, rather than praying with their congregation. It is, in short, a less subtle and more demanding form of clericalism. As Bonnell Spencer pointed out, “Far from being eliminated, the idea that the priest is celebrating for the people is made more explicit. They can watch him do it.” (162) Of course, this model of the priest as alter Christus par excellence fits quite nicely into the Roman Catholic conceptualization of church hierarchy, as an essentially papal model of eucharistic celebration became the norm for every parish (as the suggestions in the General Instructions on the Roman Missal of the 1960s came more and more to be interpreted as rules in the 1990s). If one wishes to emphasize hierarchy there are few more effective ways of doing it than dividing the people from the celebrant. For the Roman hierarchy, it is also a way to emphasize the all-male priesthood. Note this 1993 instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments:
The celebration of the Eucharist versus populum requires of the priest a greater and more sincere expression of his ministerial conscience: his gestures, his prayer, his facial expression must reveal to the assembly in a more direct way the principal actor, the Lord Jesus. One does not improvise this; one acquires it with some technique. Only a profound sense of the proper priestly identity in spiritu et veritate is able to attain this. (12:1)
In my experience, clergy more often attain to the level of talent show MCs or nightclub performers; the burden of being a performer is more than most can bear. I will address below at greater length the even greater burden of “revealing to the assembly in a more direct way... the Lord Jesus.”
Another problem with VP is the confusion of exactly to whom the various parts of the eucharistic prayer are addressed. EP made it very easy to distinguish those portions of the prayer addressed to the assembly from those in which the presiding minister turned to lead the assembly in addressing God, normally symbolized (or at least given liturgical focus) through the cross above and to the east of the altar. With VP, the celebrant finds him or herself either looking into thin air, a rose window, lowering the eyes to concentrate on the altar book or the chalice and paten, or looking at the congregation (thereby giving the impression that the eucharistic prayer is addressed to them). And what does the congregation have to look at? Again, the smiling or somber priest must naturally become the focus of attention. After all, isn’t it rude not to look at someone who appears to be speaking to you? The liturgy comes to be more and more about the celebrant.
On the mission and ministry front, the widespread adoption of VP has led, not to greater lay involvement in church mission either for Romans or for Anglicans, but to a proliferation of lay participation in roles on the “other side of the rail” even in broad and low churches, and greater lay involvement in “speaking roles” for the Roman Catholics. (The anglo-catholic parish always had lots of things for people to do “on the altar.”) How many times have you heard “participation” limited to being a reader, an acolyte, a chalice administrant, or intercessor, all of them formerly ministries not of the laity but of the “minor orders,” and many of them once the reserve of the deacon (and of the many forces working against a revived and flourishing diaconate in our time this is one of the most insidious)? Often greater lay participation on the “other side of the footlights” (facing the congregation) has precisely the opposite effect, as in the dismal failure of the Roman Catholic ministry of “song leader” — which sometimes has the effect of rendering congregations completely silent as they are “led” by someone who appears to them to be more of a nightclub performer than a cantor.
Ultimately, no amount of such “participation” will have an impact on what people do in the world unless while assembled in church they have been fed with the bread from heaven and transformed in their hearts to become what they behold. Theater on a proscenium stage, or a three-quarter thrust, or in the round, will always have its actors and its spectators, and if what you think you are doing in church is theater, then it really doesn’t matter which way you face.
The contemptuous way in which the ideologues of last century’s VP movement commonly described EP, as the priest “turning his back on the people” (Lowrie 158), also indicates the essentially clericalist focus of their concerns. No one ever suggested that the people in the front pews had turned their backs on the people behind them. It is the priest who matters, and who he or she is facing. But though it may be true that many clergy who have used the EP think in terms of who they are turning from, I think many more rightly focus on whom they are turning toward as they join their congregations to face the same direction together. Liturgy is primarily an essentially plural enterprise in which the many focus on the One in holiness and adoration, and that mutual focus draws them together. If the priest usurps the focus by becoming the actor, or the people become the focus for the priest who has nothing else to look at, the center of worship becomes the worshipers themselves.
VP and EP simply represent two very different models for the church, one focused inward primarily on itself and its concerns, the other looking outward and onward; one emphasizing the gathered community, the other the transcendent presence of God. What we have in these two models is, in short, the circle or the procession. Both have their place, but there is a clear question as to which better truly builds community. As mentioned above, there are situations in which the circular arrangement for the eucharist makes a good deal of sense: a permanently or situationally closed community (a convent or school). But in these cases the strong sense of community already exists; in fact, the stronger this sort of community, the harder it is for an outsider to feel welcome — it is very hard to break into a circle, but it is wonderfully easy to slip in at the end of a procession. Community is far more easily built by adding a sense of common direction and mission, rather than focusing on the membership itself. This is particularly true when the VP is circular in name only, for example, when a gothic church’s high altar is moved forward by about a third or less, with the celebrant on one side and the congregation on the other. This has all of the weaknesses of both models, to my way of thinking, and I will reflect at greater length below on how this setup, far from creating an aura of equality, is even more clericalizing in its effects than the most distant high altar of the old tradition.
Let me also note at this point that I have seen and experienced worship in modern churches that embrace the circular model with far greater success: balancing the aspects of leadership of and membership in the body, without losing a sense of direction. For example, Saint Matthew and Saint Timothy’s in New York, while providing an intimate and almost womb-like gathering place for the assembly (entered via a long corridor that echoes the sacred caves and catacombs of antiquity), manages to preserve a marvelous sense of the transcendent, as the central altar is bathed in light from the atrium above, and the liturgical direction becomes up. The priest in this case is clearly leading the liturgy, but is also clearly a member of the circle, directing the attention of the whole assembly with word and gesture but also joining with them in raising their hearts on high together.
That sense of a community joined in a common direction is at the heart of the liturgy. C.S. Lewis once described the difference between friendship and love as a matter of focus: that lovers look at each other, and friends stand side by side looking towards some common goal. Clearly, the church is called to be a loving community, but isn’t the church’s love based at least in part on the sense of God as the ultimate lover, towards whom all our attention ultimately turns, and from whom we gain our life and power to love others, most especially those not already part of our inner circle? If we become fixated on each other in the liturgical assembly, rather then turning our attention to God, where will we get the emotional and spiritual energy to carry our love for God out into the world, instead of spending it all on ourselves?
And if the priest must become the “stand in” for Christ, does that not place upon him (or her) an intolerable need both to “deliver” and to receive the displaced love of the whole congregation, rather than leading and guiding that love towards the transcendent One who is before us, beyond us, above us and yet at the same time with us? Seeking to reveal Christ through one’s own “gestures, prayer and facial expression” (as the Congregation on Divine Worship recommended) strikes me as the cult of the personality verging on idolatry: and any priest who succeeded in doing so would likely be a great danger to his (so the Roman Catholics would have it) flock and to himself. I am reminded of that wonderful short story from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in which a shape-shifting Martian becomes the object of the inmost need of each person he encounters (including a priest, who sees him as the crucified Christ). Ultimately the conflicting needs of the people destroy the poor empathetic alien. Is there any connection between what I have said here and the cases of clerical misconduct and burnout that seem to have become so common? I wonder.
I am more secure in saying that the processional form for the liturgy provides a responsible and at the same time less debilitating model for leadership and mission. First of all, there is a clear sense of direction, implying motion, or at least an expectancy of motion, a sense of a yet-to-be-realized eschaton, reminding us that even our Eucharist is a type and shadow of the glory that shall be, and not its full accomplishment. Secondly, the goal and focus is not within the community, but beyond it. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the priest is the leader but not the goal.
Finally, to mention the deacon again: how much more powerful is the dismissal as a sending forth in a particular direction, than as the mere dispersal of a circle. I have more than once heard the traditional oblong church model described dismissively as an “airplane.” Well, at least airplanes go somewhere.
Now, I realize in all of this that I risk being catalogued as the worst kind of retrograde reactionary. And I admit that I am a bit uncomfortable to find that I share any opinion at all with Josef Cardinal Ratzinger. (I was quite amazed when his Splendor of the Liturgy appeared, decrying the great “mistakes” of Vatican II, in which I can only say I felt as if he’d been reading my mind, if not my journal notes!)
But I am heartened to find that my thoughts on this matter were presaged by the likes of Fathers Bonnell Spencer and Josef Jungmann, and today are echoed by numerous younger clergy and laity. Moreover, my practical experience has also shown me that a balanced eucharistic liturgy, with elements of the liturgy of the word (particularly the readings and the sermon) executed in an engaging, lively, and personable manner, coupled with a liturgy of the table that brings with it notes of transcendence, solemnity, and purpose, has provided the congregations which I have served with a real sense of renewal. In both parishes I have served my predecessors had abandoned the old “high altar” and introduced freestanding altars, and in both I made the decision to abandon this liturgical novelty in favor of the manner of worship which has been predominant for most of Christian history — not because of the historical reality, but because people are hungry for transcendence in a world that so aggressively confronts them or performs for them, rather than accompanying them and leading them.
Simply rearranging the furniture is not an answer to church growth or mission in itself. Nor is simply changing the posture of the clergy in relation to the laity. What the church needs now is a complete attitude adjustment and recovery of what it means to worship the One who is the object of our prayer, and the source of our life. Let us mean what we say, do what we intend, and become what we behold.
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Anson, Peter F. Fashions in Church Furnishings: 1840-1940. Second edition. (London: Studio Vista Ltd, 1965)
Bouyer, Louis. Rite & Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy. (Notre Dame, Ind.:University of Notre Dame Press, 1963).
Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. “Praying Ad Orientem Versus,” in Notitiae 332, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1993, pp. 245-249.
Gamber, Klaus. Reform of the Roman Liturgy : Its Problems and Background. (Roman Catholic Books, 1993).
Hammond, Peter. Liturgy and Architecture. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).
Jungmann, Josef A., S.J. The Early Liturgy. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press,
Lowrie, Walter. Action in the Liturgy. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953).
Ratzinger, Josef. Spirit of the Liturgy. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000)/
Spencer, Bonnell, OHC. Sacrifice of Thanksgiving. (West Park, N.Y.: Holy Cross Publications,