20 September 2009


The other day Pam and I walked up the Thames to Eynsham and - how nice to find a RC church unlocked - looked in S Peter's, built on the site of Eynsham Abbey. It was begun in 1940, but because of WW2 only the sanctuary was completed; the rest of the church was just a wooden hut. And that sanctuary was a nice apse in a pared-down Romanesque style, at the East end of the site, thus maintaining the old tradition of Orientation.

Fr Lopes, the priest responsible, was a resolute man, and was determined that the church should be completed to its original design; a good egg; One Of Us, you might say. So it wasn't until after his death that a scaled down version was built; consecrated in 1968.

By then, of course, the Smoke of Satan etc. etc.. So a new sanctuary was constructed at the West End with a free-standing Altar so that the priest would stand behind it (thus facing East) facing his people who would thus be facing West. In fact, just as in Roman basilicas such as S Peter's. The old apse at the East was converted into a baptistry.

Fast-forward to 2009. We have been taught, originally by Anglican liturgists such as Fr Michael Moreton but more recently by RCs such as Dr Lang , that 'Towards the East' is the proper thing. And so it is. There are heaps of patristic evidence for celebrating towards the East, from where we expect the Dayspring; the returning Saviour and Judge; because, as Origen put it, it is from the East that Redemption comes. But this has, in practice, mutated into something subtly different: a belief in the importance of celebrating versus apsidem; facing the sanctuary wall, facing away from the people and in the same direction as them. Much has been written to justify this.

But what are we to make of a church like S Peter's Eynsham? If you face East, you will be facing the people. If you celebrate 'with your back to the people', you will be facing West. Just imagine that one of the splendid new brand of High Church RC priests were appointed to Eynsham; let's call him, for convenience, Fr Theophilus Finegan (because the English RC Church is in dire need of as many Finegans as it can get). Should he get a local carpenter to make him a portable gradine so that when he says an EF Mass, he can pop it onto his altar and celebrate facing away from the people? Or should he face East, even at the cost of his face being visible to the laity, and use the rubrics in the EF Missal which give clear directions about how to use the Old Rite while facing the people (many people tend to forget that S Pius V gave careful instructions how to do this; he had to, didn't he, because he was Bishop of Rome and so many Roman basilicas are thus arranged).

Frankly, if my name were Finegan, I'd face (the real) East. (And if I were Fr T Finegan Cong Or I would feel a bit of a bias towards saying my Masses at that superb - real Italian Baroque - Lady Altar at Brompton which does face East.) But I bet a lot of you out there think - despite the insistance of the Fathers on facing East - that facing away from the people is the most important thing.

(Don't bother to write in with the obvious suggestion of getting the masons in and swinging the church round. And if anyone points out that several times a week I say Mass in S Thomas's at the Holy Rood Altar, which faces North, I shall delete the contribution unless it comes from one of my particular favourites.)


Michael McDonough said...

What! Not a word about the sic dicta "Benedictine arrangement", as a kind of "mini-iconostasis"?

From personal experience, so I do not know when it commmenced, the "Benedictine arrangement" was the "traditional" way of dressing the altar in the Roman basilicas, and in oratories given permission to emulate that direction of the priest/people, long before Vat II. Perhaps I have inferred too much?

A beautiful word verification this time: "everesse".

Woody said...

Well, Father, one is tempted to launch into "not back to the people, but facing toward the Lord [in the Tabernacle]", etc., but actually this discussion reminds of a photo I saw in a book that brings in some of the early French personalists. The photo shows a priest, who was, I think, I leader of the Catholic Scouts, celebrating in 1939 or 1940 or so, what could only be a TLM for a large crowd in one of those settings where the celebrant is under a canopy but everyone else is in the open, and the point is that this man, who was identified as being a right-winger, was facing toward the people. The book is by Prof. John Hellman, entitled "The Knight-Monks of Vichy France" about the Ecole des Cadres at Uriage, in what evidently was the early, kinder and gentler Vichy. For your discernment, I suppose.

Rubricarius said...

Crosses on altars are quite late in the scheme of things whilst celebrating ad Orientem is an ancient practice.

There is no doubt that the practice got mixed up with the idea of facing, or not facing, the congregation. There is a famous image of Pius VII in 1782 at St. Stephen's Vienna (first pointed out to me by the learned Robin Ward). The high altar has been boarded up and a table altar installed mid-sanctuary, set up to be facing the nave. It would suggest that it was considered that the Roman basilican arrangement was interpreted as celebrating VP at the papal altars.

Woody, there are quite a lot of photographs of VP celebrations from France, Italy and parts of the USA from the 1940s and 50s - quite a vulgar fashion of the times that sadly is still around.

Sir Watkin said...

Dare one (with fear and trembling) mention that if Fr Hunwicke were to celebrate at the "north end" (as it were) of his altar of the Holy Rood he would then be facing the geographical east??

Rubricarius said...

Oops, sorry for the typo above. Read Pius VI, not VII!

Unknown said...

I would just face in the same direction as the congregation. Lots of Churches do not face east (often they face north or south). What matters is where liturgical east is.

Little Black Sambo said...

If the priest at Eynsham faces east, are there not points in the liturgy when the congregation should be facing east as well, i.e. away from the altar?

Fr. Martin Flatman said...

I am new to this game so I may have already posted something like this! As the priest in charge of St Peter's, Eynsham I am glad Fr. Hunwicke reproduced part of my little guide to the Church so carefully. I am an ex-Anglican so I was rather amused by his comments on us which certainly don't apply to me, although if he came to Mass on a weekday he would find me facing west away from the people since that altar just happens to be against the wall!!

johnf said...

We have a Church in Weymouth whose axis is North - South. It was built in the 30's and the plot of land did not allow any other design.

I wonder was it necessary to get special permission from the Bishop.

So in a Novus Ordo Mass the priest is presumably versus septentrionem