February 3, 2014

East is East

Over on Facebook, soon-to-be-bishop Matt Gunter has shared a link to my essay on the Eastward Position. The comment stream reminded me of a few of the reasons I prefer that position (except in certain circumstances) both as a celebrant and member of an assembly. One reason is the extent to which the EP tends to downplay any (or most) eccentricities the celebrant might have. I'm particularly reminded of a comment of the late great Canon Richard Norris, with whom I was working at the time the article originally appeared. He smiled in his dear curmudgeonly way, and in a warmly gruff smoker's voice intoned, "Ah Tobias. I'm so tired of looking at smiling priests!" I've learned to save my smiles for sermons and announcements.

Down the years I've collected mental notes about some of the eccentricities I've observed when the celebrant faces the people across the altar, à la Julia Child. I recall in particular a bishop (God rest him) who used to do "The Magic Chalice" — he would hold his hands over the chalice at the words of institution and at the end suddenly pull them back as if some small explosion had gone off. It was rather like the stoner's "blow my mind" gesture, and about as edifying.

Then there was the priest who performed long and laborious ablutions facing the people, ending with what always looked like an attempt to screw the chalice into his face. No, thank you.

Also etched in my memory is the priest who would present the consecrated gifts with a look of astonished eagerness, as if he'd just realized what had happened for the first time; you could almost see the exclamation point after "The Gifts of God!" pulsing over his head in comic-book style. But there was more to come, as he would then give the congregation a startled look and pivot his head from side to side at all present, with eyebrows raised to his hairline, as if also just realizing that they were, in actual fact, and for the first and only time, "the People of God!" Admittedly, this is one place where the celebrant is obviously intended to face the people, but it really shouldn't come as a surprise.

Nor is the Eastward position a refuge from peculiar gestures that to the congregation amount to no more than the rustling of silk and satin vestments in the assault on Dix's aunt's crab let loose from the tabernacle, nor from the sepulchral tones of "sanctuary voice" — I've got a few of these in my catalogue of things to avoid as well. 

In short, anything that calls excessive attention to the celebrant, rather than to what is being celebrated, is wisely to be avoided. 

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


G said...

I have seen a few celebrations which might have been more edifying if the celebrant had gotten stoned first.

Rev. Kurt Huber said...

Best words ever. All seminarians should learn it (heck, some Bishops need to learn them):

"In short, anything that calls excessive attention to the celebrant, rather than to what is being celebrated, is wisely to be avoided."


JCF said...


First thoughts: "Tobias, I would let this go---my intense hatred of the "Kiss My ***" position---if you would just stop promoting it.

Second thoughts: Is this a Myers-Briggs, and/or genetic type thing? [Good Lord, another innate "orientation", if you will???]


I feel like it's my innate orientation (occidentation?) to want my priest FACING me, when consecrating the elements. [Perhaps a feeling like, there's too much separation, too much secrecy, between priest and people As It Is? That consecrating w/ your back to me inflames all my hermeneutic-of-suspicion that the priest is trying to Get Away With [ ]? [NB: gotta stop watching EWTN "Extraordinary Form" masses, as I did yesterday, where they're doing Ad Orientum in Latin!]

Bottomline: I'm never going to like this. Much as Vatican 2 Catholics must look upon the recent mass (in English) changes w/ alarm (much less Extraordinary Form!), as an Episcopal lifer who grew up w/ Ad Orientum, and then was liberated from it, I will always feel---rationalize "but it downplays eccentricities!" all you like---that this is going BACKWARDS, when the Holy Spirit is trying to lead us FORWARDS.


MarkBrunson said...

We're never going to agree on EP, Tobias. I still see echoes of "Forty Scenes of Pagan Splendor!" full of sound and fury and signifying absolutely nothing but an exclusion of the laity. What is wrong with joy in communion?

Honestly, the arguments I hear focus entirely on the priest, making him the center. It's a sort of passive-aggressive way of making the celebrant the center of everything.

I don't find *anything* edifying in EP.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks all. JCF, and Mark, clearly the traditional posture rubs you the wrong way, but when it comes to the "focus on the priest," it seems to me that this is your obsession, and in fact it seems that you are the ones who want to make the priest the center of [your] attention, as you are of hers. You want the priest to be facing you as if she were talking to you. I get that.

But the words of the Eucharistic Prayer are not addressed to the people. They are addressed to God. The versus populum position makes that far less clear, and in fact leads to the very feelings of which you speak... that it is something between you and the priest.

As I said in the initial essay, and repeated here, I have no trouble with a real circular celebration in which everyone is gathered around the altar. But most versus populum postures in fact lead to a lecture hall format or cooking show, where the priest in fact becomes the focus.

Ultimately it comes down to taste. I have no belief that one posture or the other is going to become the only form possible. Many churches use both from time to time. So, yes, we're never going to agree on this as to which we prefer, and in what setting. Maybe it is a Myers-Briggs thing. I don't know, I'm an extravert, but I also know that the eucharist isn't about me, so I feel no need to face the congregation when celebrating. I am leading the prayer, joined with them facing East, not lecturing them or singing at them like a Roman Catholic Song Leader (another sure fire way to quell real participation!)

And, finally, I will say that my congregation in the Bronx is quite joyous, and does not in the least feel excluded from the celebration of the Eucharist.

Murdoch Matthew said...

Isn't the assembly supposed to be worshiping God? If the celebrant faces east, then the whole congregation is united in looking beyond the assembly. If the celebrant faces the people, the assembly forms a circle with, presumably, God in the midst. But God is beyond and among. Both symbols can be appreciated.

John Julian said...

Please, people, it really is possible to recognize some value/worth in either position.

Tobias, it would help to stop ridiculing people who disagree with you—I could equal your stories from the other side (who was it? Dorothy Sayers? who said her aunt thought the celebrant was chasing crabs around the altar top).

I can give you paragraphs of support for either position and further paragraphs debasing and ridiculing either position.

I would not celebrate EP unless there were no alternative—although I would have no qualms if that were the case. nor do I question your theology or liturgiology, respected and beloved friend Tobias.

But we must stop sneering at and ridiculing the "other way".

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so, Murdoch. As I stated in the original article, when the building allows for a circular model it can work very well, as a real sense of gathering around the table. However, when the altar is at a remove, and the celebrant raised up to face the congregation across it, that sense of immanence is reduced, and the quality of performance is accentuated.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr John-Julian, I do not think I am ridiculing the VP position. In fact I've acknowledged there are times and places where it is fully appropriate, unlike some commenters here who are in fact deprecating the traditional posture in all circumstances (or so it seems).

The critique I've made in the post above is about certain bad habits (one of which has nothing to do with the VP, as it happens at the presentation of the gifts to the people); to my mind these things happened just as I describe them, and in the case of the screwing in of the chalice reduced a whole row of worshippers to convulsed suppressed laughter -- so I am not alone in my assessment. These are affectations or eccentricities that call undue attention to the celebrant, represent a skewed focus on a portion of the liturgy that is best minimized (the ablutions), or stem from a misguided effort to dramatize that which needs no additional drama to adorn it. I think it is fair, for the good of decorum and right worship, to note, and advise against, such eccentric personal practices.

It is also important to note that I have in fact addressed the excesses and misdeeds in celebrants' styles from the Eastward position, even citing in this post the story of Dix's aunt's crab, which I take it you missed. If a celebrant begins to think of the eucharist as a private matter, she has quite missed the boat, and neglected the congregation.

I have also, once again, not declared that the EP is the only way things should be done, and have explicitly noted (in the original essay) that in monastic settings the VP is fully appropriate, as it is in other churches such as SS Matthew and Timothy in NYC where the altar is in a more central position. In a standard gothic building with an altar at most budged a few feet forward from the East, the celebrant cannot help but become the center of attention. If people want a central celebration, than make it central.

So I will leave it at that, unless others want to chime in.

G said...

I have to wonder how many of those convinced that EP makes the priest the focus of attention would say the same thing about the officiant at the offices sitting in the front pew, facing in the same direction as the rest of the congregation, as an EP celebrant does at Mass.

Conversely, my mother is quite frank about preferring VP because it allows her to concentrate on the celebrating priest, in contrast with those who jump through linguistic hoops to make VP out as being somehow _less_ clerical! (I like your quote from Fr Spencer OHC in that respect, and not just because I am an associate of his order!)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Geoff; a good analogy. Sometimes the officiant is seated behind the rest of the worshippers (at least on the same side of the choir). I don't think it possible to say one wants the celebrant to face the congregation is there isn't something about the celebrant that is receiving the focus.

I wonder if folks feel the same way about organists or orchestra conductors? Surely the point is the music, not the musican's face.