18 November 2015

Versus Orientem versus Versus Populum

I do not criticise in any way the admirable piece at New Liturgical Movement. But I will point out that its list of commended articles omits the first modern article on this subject, which destroyed the superstition that "The Early Church" had celebration versus populum. This was by the Anglican liturgist Fr Michael Moreton. The spadework, indeed, had all been done by the Anglo-Catholic generation of the 1860s. This important discovery deserves not to be kidnapped by modern RC traddidom.

In my last Anglican Church, S Thomas the Martyr, a member of the congregation in the nineteenth century had been one John Hayward, Blessed John Henry Newman's Scout (who did not follow him into the Catholic Church). Hayward had been so well catechised by my Tractarian predecessor, Canon Thomas Chamberlain, on the importance of versus Orientem, that, when very old and very infirm, he always loudly insisted, on those days when one of the clergy was going to be bringing him the Blessed Sacrament, that the table prepared for that purpose had to be arranged so that the priest would be ... facing East!

And I will mention that sometimes you have to face the people if you want to face East: not only in Roman Basilicas but also, for example, in the two biggest Catholic Churches in Oxford, S Aloysius and Blackfriars. If you don't believe me, visit Oxford and bring a compass.

Commenters who write in (this has happened to me before) with the bizarre claim that, in such cases, facing West is facing East (or that "spiritually" Eastwards is Westwards), will not find their offerings enabled. I have enough trouble coping with the real world without engaging with fictional contralogical alternative universes as well.

25 comments:

Joshua said...

Jeremy Taylor wrote thus about all this, in his On the Reverence due to the Altar:

This worshipping, or adoration in Churches was not so indefinite, but that it was instantly limited to be towards the East, or the place of the Altar, insomuch that amongst the first blossomes of Heresyes, that of the Osseni [Elchasaites] as reckoned by Epiphanius, of whom Alxai [Elchasai] the false Jew was a Coryphæus, prohibit enim (saith the father) orare ad orientes, asserens non oportere sic intendere, saying we ought not addresse our devotions, or adorations that way. That was his hæresy; for that thither our adorations are to be directed is an Apostolicall tradition, if we will believe as authentick records, as any we have extant. Justin Martyr in Resp. ad Qu: 118 ad Orthodoxos, having sayd that the Church hath received order for the place, and manner of prayer from the Apostles (as S. Clement sayd we had from Christ) addes, ideo Christianos omnes precum tempore spectare ad Orientem: quia ortus tamquam mundi pars honoratior, adorationi Dei destinatus est. Marke that; the East is the determin’d place for adoration: and this by the practise of all Christians, and this taught from the Apostles. The certainty of this derivation from the Apostles is further to be seen in Origen Homil. 5. in Numer: in Tertullian cap. 16 Apologet: S. Gregory Nyssen in lib. de Oratione: Athanasius Quæst:14. de plurimus et necessariis quæst: and divers others.

The reasons of this determination of Christian worship are diversly given by the Fathers according to their various Conceptions, all thereof, or the most were postnate to the thing, and are to be seene in S. German’s Theorica rerum Ecclesiast: and Damascen: lib. 4. orthod: fid: cap. 13. where he sayes this addresse of our adoration is studiose observanda, Christum scil: cum in cruce penderet ad occasum prospexisse, eumque nomine ita adoramus, ut eum obtueamur. The true reason I know not, I meane that which was truly introductive of the practise, for postnate there are enough, but this I know, that our adoration thitherward, and the placing of the Altar there were coætaneous for ought appears, and if I may have leave to conjecture, I think that this was the truer reason of the addresse of our worship, even because the Altar was Positum in Oriente; my reason is this;

1. Because I find in antiquity προσκυνειν προς άνατολας [‘to worship toward the east’], and έμπροσθεν του θυσιαστηριου [‘in front of the altar’] used promiscuously, and, 2ndly, because I find in antiquity the prærogative of holinesse not given to the orientall part of heaven, but to the site of the Altar in the Church I doe: which two things put together methinks say, that therefore the adoration was alwayes that way, because the Altar or Holy Table (for the difference is but nominall) being alwayes like the tree of Paradise planted in the East, and being more Holy than the other parts of the Church, I meane by a relative holinesse, did best determine our worship, as having God there the most presentiall. And if I be not mistaken, Walafridus Strabus shall confirme it; for when he had reckoned three Altars, one at Jerusalem, one in the Pantheon at Rome, the other in S. Peters that were not set in the East as examples of singular exception from the Common rule addes, Usus tamen frequentior et rationi vicinior habet in Orientem Orantes converti. Though these Altars were not in the East, yet the most common use is for worshippers to turne to the East when they pray. As if their addresse to the East was onely because of the Altar’s being there placed.

Unknown said...

Do you have a link to the article you mention ?

Wunderbar said...

I think that in those cases people should be facing eastwards too. Just an idea...

Little Black Sambo said...

Should not the congregation be facing east as well as the priest? I read somewhere that that is what they used to do at vital moments.

KaeseEs said...

I cannot add anything to the discussion but I must applaud your post title, Fr., and I wonder if another 'versus' could be snuck in there somehow.

Richard Duncan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fr John Hunwicke said...

I am sorry, G*******, not to enable your piece. But I did warn that I would not enable comments which argued that in some wonderful supernatural way East can mean West and West can mean East. You see, as far as I understand both language and moral philosophy, to say "Thou shalt face East" means something. But if you add to it (as in Alice in Wonderland) " ... and words mean what we want them to mean so that YOU can decide what East means, and if it is convenient to you you can face in a direction which the compass claims to be West, or, for that matter, North or South", then the command is emptied of all substance. "You can face any way you like and when you do so you should call it East" does not seem to me what the Patristic evidence relayed by Joshua is saying.

The problem which has arisen is that we modern traddies have discovered the first millennium evidence for facing East and have raised a great Hooray; but (1) we then discover that a lot of Catholic Churches, especially those built since the eighteenth century, are not oriented thus; and (2) we want to use the "Face East" tradition as back-up for our other great desire, which is to return to facing in the same direction as the people. So we think up wondrous inventions like "liturgical East".

I am not going to shift from my view that such antics are ridiculous until someone shows me first millennium evidence for someone facing West, North, or South, combined with the claim "Ah but this is LITURGICALLY or SPIRITUALLY or MYSTICALLY (or whatever) East."

More generally, as we liberate ourselves from the man-made anti-traditional shibboleths of that vile decade the 1960s (such as "You must always face the people"), I think it is a shame if we traddies then encumber ourselves with new opposing superstitions of our own making which are just as dubiously based; such as "You must always have your back to the people".

That's nonsense, too.

Timothy Graham said...

In a church on, or close to, an east-west axis this is fine because one could celebrate facing either way at a free-standing altar. But what if the church is exactly on a north-south axis? And what if the church has a high altar with central tabernacle, facing west?

Kathleen1031 said...

This makes my brain itch.

Melinda said...

The Sacred Architecture Journal has an article about ancient convoluted altar-people-door arrangements somewhere in its archives. http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/issues/

Gillineau said...

Fr H, No probs with the comment - it was for your delectation. I don't really count myself a traddie or even profess a singular preference for east-facing Mass, but I was for a while active in church architecture, and over the course of about 5 years dealt with a very great number of older churches. Further I wrote about it at the beginning of my academic life, and again more recently on post-war churches.

Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane is instructive; the analysis in this is interesting too: http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/the_eschatological_dimension_of_church_architecture/

Church space is different, because God space is.


Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Brian M

Thank you; but I must ask your forgiveness for declining to follow you down the path of the "Liturgical East", unless you can show some evidence for the use of this phrase in the first millennium; or in Magisterial documents.

I suspect the building of unoriented churches began when it was a matter of trying to fit a church building into small irregular spaces in cluttered cities.

Incidentally, I referred to Oxford. The large North-South road called St Giles has three churches on its West side. The two RC ones put their high altars, for practical reasons, at the extreme West of the rectangular space; the Anglican one, Pusey House, put its altar at the extreme East, and added a sort of enclosed cloister or passageway so that the congregation could get to the West end of the rectangle and then ... turn and face East.

It's just a question of whether people bothered.

Although I favour versus Orientem where it is possible, that is, in an old-fashioned oriented church, my view about churches that are not oriented is that people should do what is most seemly given the architecture and the local circumstances. I just wish they would not decide (probably for good reasons)to face West and THEN claim to be celebrating versus Orientem and quote all the patristic stuff in support of what they're doing!

Joshua said...

I believe it is claimed that, during the Middle Ages, at least some churches were oriented so that the rising sun, on each such church's patronal feast, the sun rose directly in line with the nave, so that light through the east window(s) would fall straight toward the west end of the building. (How unfortunate that the slow shift of the Julian Calendar, combined with its correction in the 16th C., probably puts such mediæval design features out of place these days.) This would imply that churches would point between NE and SE, roughly speaking, depending on the time of year that their patronal festival fell at the time of their construction, and their exact latitude north of the equator.

It thus seems that a church at Nidaros (the modern Trondheim), approx. 63½ degrees N, could be oriented between NNE, if dedicated to St John Baptist (since there the sun rises at an azimuth of N 23 degrees E on the 24th of June, near enough to nor'-nor'-east), but if dedicated to St John Evangelist, it could be oriented almost SSE (since on the 26th of December, the sun rises there at an azimuth of S 31 degrees E, a little less than SSE).

There really is no excuse for churches not to be oriented...

Christopher Boegel said...

When we say facing east, is that a Catholic concept from the Church in Europe, meaning we in the west face east? Or is it intended to mean all Catholics throughout the world face east? That is - is the intention that we are all oriented toward Jerusalem, or is it rather, that we are all oriented to the horizon of sun rise?

My sense is that it is toward Jerusalem...but I haven't seen anything explicit on the question.

Joshua said...

From all I've read, it is toward the Orient, that is, the direction of sunrise, as we look to the return of the Sun of Justice, Christ our God. We do not face toward the earthly Jerusalem, but toward the true and mystical and eternal Jerusalem, the City of God whose lamp is the Lamb, towards whose City and towards whom we ever tend.

We look not to Mecca, nor Jerusalem, but to Christ, the true East, for the Orient is his Name.

John F H H said...

@ Joshua: There are a number of churches (in the UK anyway)where the longitudinal axis of chancel is 'out' compared with that of the nave. I'm sorry I cannot remember whether this inclination is further north or south, or occurs to either direction, and that I have not time at the moment to research further.

@ Christopher Boegel: Obviously, to the west of Jerusalem, facing the rising sun and Jerusalem meant similar orientation (pardon the pun!). But there are (or were until the present troubles) plenty of very early churches east of Jerusalem, and in India, so it should not be too difficult to discover what early practice was; and whether it was consistent.

William Tighe said...


"My sense is that it is toward Jerusalem...but I haven't seen anything explicit on the question."

No, NOT towards Jerusalem, which is the traditional Jewish practice, but towards the East, period. See, among many other possibilities, the article by the late Fr. Prof. Michael J. Moreton to which Fr. Hunwicke has referred recently on this blog. (Ancient Christian churches in the Transjordan, for instance, were all so constructed that the celebrant and congregation faced East, which in that case meant with their posterior parts towards Jerusalem.)

Jesse said...

Father, your moderation about working intelligently with buildings as they are (and not pretending that West is East) reminds me of the welcome sanity of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger on such questions: we should do our best to understand history (and theology-in-history) and to discern what are the true principles that it reveals. Then it's a matter of finding how best to adhere to those principles in the settings where we find ourselves (e.g. the "Benedictine" altar arrangement).

The seminary where I teach rejoices in a neo-gothic Giles Gilbert Scott chapel (that architect's last commission, I'm told). It is aligned on a north-south axis, with a sober stone altar and striking reredos and tryptic of the Trinity at the south end. I expect that this was because of topographical constraints. But reading your piece made me realize that at our high altar a priest could be following the Prayer Book to the letter, standing on the north side of the table, while still looking for all the world like a popish massing-priest. Given that there is an Evangelical college across the road from us that was founded to shield seminarians from such horrors, I can't help but think that this was, if not deliberate, at least appreciated. Of course, at our Canadian latitudes, it is also the case that the sun streams through the lovely south windows for most of the year.

Padraig Shortt said...

The fine Neo Gothic church (St Kevin's church, Harrington St, Dublin) where I hear Mass doesn't face east, I think the site forced it to face south, I think. The now closed Anglican church (also elegant Victorian neo-Gothic albeit in red brick, now an office, same name if a nearby premises is a guide) has the tradition alignment. It would be weird if the priest had to face east as only the transept is east-west. He would be sideways to the people! A liturgical east is definitely employed there. The altar is smashing, beautiful details in paint, wood and stone, and was lovingly restored. It did help that it did not suffer the full V2 Star Trek altar treatment. It was merely dilapidated. The New Mass is said on a table that is wheeled out.

William Tighe said...


Somehow, when reading Jesse's comment, Toronto comes to mind, and I recall an old story. Wycliffe Hall there, the one-time Anglican Evangelical theological college, boasted in its chapel an altarpiece - should I perhaps write "tablepiece?" - consisting of a painting of the Ascension with the inscription at the bottom "He is not here, He is risen." Across the street was the "rival" Trinity/St. Hilda's, and on at least one occasion students from the latter entered the chapel of the former, leaving a sign or placard reading "He is not here, he is across the street reserved at St. Hilda's."

Such unseemly displays of party animus are now, however, happily in the past, and both institutions are now united by, among other things, their common happy acceptance of the ministrations - or should I write "haruspications?" - of priestesses upon their respective mensae.

Pete said...

I've always assume that Liverpool Cathedral is as yet unfinished and merely contain two VERY large transepts as they face North and South.

Jesse said...

Well spotted, Professor Tighe! Relations between Trinity and Wycliffe can be strained from time to time nowadays, but not on the old divides of Churchpersonship. One joke nowadays is that Trinity students look across the road at Wycliffe and wonder, "Are they really Anglicans?" while at Wycliffe they look across the road at Trinity and wonder, "Are they even Christians?" Another is , "Why does Toronto have two Anglican seminaries?" "Because we couldn't afford three."

Peregrinus Toronto said...

@ Dr. Tighe: A couple of clarifications: It is Wycliffe College (not 'Hall' ) on the south side of Hoskin Avenue, Toronto

As to the story: "He is not here . . ." the version of this apocryphal story common in my day (1970s) had the punch line: "He is across the street!" St. Hilda's has never had the sacrament reserved, to my knowledge. "Snildas," as it was known, was until recently a 'ladies' residence. The Chapel of St. Simon and St, Jude, as it was originally consecrated, I believe, i.e. Trinity College Chapel is where the sacrament was reserved in the Lady Chapel; though the aubrey appeared to be empty when I last visited. That fact may, in itself, tells us the truth about both sides of Hoskin Avenue.

BTW, if memory serves, the Wycliffe Chapel "Holy Table" required the Minister to face north i.e. towards Trinity College. I'm sure that has changed. Oh well, the Muslims originally faced Jerusalem to pray before switching to face Mecca.

Peregrinus Toronto said...

Last try . . . sorry for the typo, it should be "aumbrey" - damned spell check.

@ Dr. Tighe: A couple of clarifications: It is Wycliffe College (not 'Hall' ) on the south side of Hoskin Avenue, Toronto

As to the story: "He is not here . . ." the version of this apocryphal story common in my day (1970s) had the punch line: "He is across the street!" St. Hilda's has never had the sacrament reserved, to my knowledge. "Snildas," as it was known, was until recently a 'ladies' residence. The Chapel of St. Simon and St, Jude, as it was originally consecrated, I believe, i.e. Trinity College Chapel is where the sacrament was reserved in the Lady Chapel; though the aumbrey appeared to be empty when I last visited. That fact may, in itself, tells us the truth about both sides of Hoskin Avenue.

BTW, if memory serves, the Wycliffe Chapel "Holy Table" required the Minister to face north i.e. towards Trinity College. I'm sure that has changed. Oh well, the Muslims originally faced Jerusalem to pray before switching to face Mecca.

Jesse said...

Ah, but, Peregrinus, Lady Chapel is dedicated to Our Lady and St. Hilda! How did I ever miss the original dedication of the main chapel?