20 December 2020

The LORD will come from the East

Auctoritas, I believe, has more pull with a Traditional mind than mere Power. So I am going to ask:

How can one apply the the principle of auctoritas to the question of whether or not the eucharistic celebrant should face the people ... or deliberately not do so? I feel there are particular principles which have to be taken together.

The celebrant should face the East. This has enormous auctoritas, both in the archaeological evidence for the 'Orientation' [Eastfacingness] of church buildings and in early Christian writings. I will refrain from mentioning the enormous amount of learned 'Patrimony' literature establishing this, from the time when our 'Ritualists' were arguing for the 'Eastward Position' as against the then fashionable 'North End' custom. More recently, liturgists such as Michael 'Patrimony' Moreton re-established this truth, followed by Roman Catholics such as Cardinal Ratzinger and Dr Lang.

What I find very weakly evidenced - if it is at all - is the idea that it is important for priest and people to face in the same direction. 'Traddies' often overlook the fact that facing in the same direction is is not necessarily the same as facing East. Because ...
(1) some buildings, notably but not only the Roman basilicas, are specifically designed so that, by facing East, the celebrant thereby faces where the congregation has gathered. The rules of the Missal of S Pius V explicitly provide for what the priest does in such circumstances. The immemorial usage of the Urbs itself has great auctoritas, and so does the traditional praxis to which the Missal of S Pius V bears witness.
(2) some churches, particularly when built in confined urban spaces, are not built along an East-West axis.
Some 'traddies' try to get round the problem by cheerfully referring to something they are pleased to term 'the ritual East', as though it is at our disposal to pretend that East is wherever it is convenient for us to pretend that it is. I regard this as wholly frivolous. More important: early writers who emphasise the need to face East write about the need to face the Lord who comes to us from the East, and about the rising sun as his great Ikon. I do not think they would be impressed by a notion that East is wherever my whimsy takes me. The notion subverts any possibility of words meaning anything. Was it the Red Queen in Alice who said that she could make words mean whatever she wished them to mean? Just as many 'trendies' have what seems to me a sad fetich for always facing the people, some 'traddies' seem to me to have an equally unfortunate fetich for invariably having their backs to the people. I suspect that neither fetich would have been comprehensible, either to Easterners or Westerners, in the first Christian millennium.

But, unlike Kevin and Sharon, they did know where the EAST was.

Another principle with great auctoritas is the idea of the One Altar. Byzantine churches by prescriptive custom only have one altar (although they can consult practicality by adding parekklesiai; I regard the side altars in the side chapels of Latin churches as in effect parekklesiai too). This principle is bound up with important concepts such as the unity of God's people round his one altar celebrating his one sacrifice. To have an (unused) old altar up against the East wall, and another for actual use in front of it for the priest to stand behind, I regard as profoundly wrong, for theological as well as aesthetic reasons.

Where a church is Eastward facing and has an altar at the East end, the matter is perfectly clear. It is quite improper to move it or stand behind it. If the old altar has been shifted forward, it should be moved back. If an altar for versus populum has been placed in front of it, it should be got rid of. If it was made of wood, a parish bonfire would be a reverent way of disposing of a piece of furniture which has, remember, known the August Sacrifice.

Where a church is designed so that the sanctuary is at the West end, and the architect has structured the sanctuary so that the priest can thereby face East only by facing the people, my own view, which is not going to make me universally popular, is that he should do just that. I think not only of the Roman basilicas but, for example, of the Oratory and Blackfriars Churches in Oxford. As I mentioned, the ritus servandus in the Missal of S Pius V provides very explicitly for the celebration of Mass versus populum, and in my view ... not that anyone is likely to ask for it! ... this is what auctoritas suggests should be done. Versus Orientem rules OK.

But what about the Blackfriars' Church in Oxford? There the principle of One Altar is disastrously vitiated; a small modern table stands in front of the old majestic High Altar. Dunno. What do you think? My own gut feeling is ... go with the flow of the building as it is actually built; remove the little modern table, celebrate facing West, with the congregation facing West too ... although I would have to admit that the ancient Fathers would have had paroxysms if they could have seen both priest and people with their backs all turned in unison away from the East, away from the direction from which the Lord promises his Epiphany.

As regards churches built to face neither East nor West ... such as the Brompton Orsatory and Westminster Cathedral ... again, dunno. I am sure that the principle of One Altar should apply, so dump any coffee tables. Thank the Lord that the Brompton Fathers never messed around with their sanctuary and that Vin has restored the One Altar at Westminster. Again, my own, purely personal but quite strong, gut instinct is to go with the flow of the building as it was actually designed, and to celebrate with ones back to the people. But this is not facing East and does not have a great weight of auctoritas behind it.


Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

Actually it was Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. It is an important principle used by the High Court of Australia in tax matters. It is known as Humptydumptyism.

Rubricarius said...

I do not think it quite correct that the Brompton Fathers never messed with their sanctuary. A friend recalled a 'coffee table' on some form of wheels that did make an appearance. As Provost Fr Michael Napier, with characteristic wisdom, decided there was a danger that it might damage the Duchess of Argyll's floor so it was dispensed with.

The same friend told me there was similar wheeled contraption at the Cathedral and that it would appear in different parts of the nave until it too was never seen again.

Ben of the Bayou said...


Thank you for your thoughts. In arguing that facing East must (ought to) be facing the compass point, how do you deal with the arguments of Ratzinger in Spirit of the Liturgy that, already in the 1st millennium, the Cross became the sign of the East? As such, facing the Cross became the equivalent to facing East, and so church could be built even in places where building an eastward-facing structure was either not possible or inconvenient.

Terry said...

It's a good job Galileo did not worry unduly about auctoritas and tradition. (I am told he said "In science the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual…”)

Without Galileo we would not have had Newton's laws of motion; without Newton's laws of motion we would no have had post-Enligthenment physics; without post-Enligthenment physics we would not have had digital electronics; and without digital electronics we would not have had blogs – like this one:-)

I take this opportunity to send you, Father Hunwicke, and all the readers of your blog my best wishes for Christmas.

Terry Loane

Neill said...

Isn't this a bit Eurocentric? For Europeans the Lord will come from the East, but if you are living in the Middle East the Mount of Olives could well be in the West or North-West or even North or South. I think it was Cyril Pocknee (in The Christian Altar, my copy of which is lost) who wrote that early churches in the region were oriented towards Jerusalem and not the rising of the sun. When Islam came along centuries later the early Muslims first prayed towards Jerusalem too, then changed to Mecca as their ideas developed, which would seem to indicate that the practice of facing Jerusalem in prayer was in vogue at the time.

Matthew said...

"If the old altar has been shifted forward, it should be moved back." I wonder whether the good Fathers of Downside (soon to abandon their Somerset home) and Buckfast would be able to afford the necessary work? At the former the quire and sanctuary changed places, the altar being reduced in length to sit more happily in its new, freestanding, position; at the latter the equally large and solid stone altar was shifted forward and the ornate paving around it relaid.

Theodore Amherst said...

In my humble view, the Tabernacle must be taken into account in the West (and in Eastern Catholic churches that have adopted it). Clearly the best setup is with the Tabernacle at the eastern end with the altar in front of it (either against the wall or not; we are flexible). Where the church is not built to face the east, the Tabernacle should take precedence, I think. He may come from the east on the last day, and the Sun may be His ikon, but He is always in that Box. Conversi ergo ad Dominum vere! If the Tabernacle has been displaced in some church, it should be replaced (I doubt the alternative of rotating that church's movable altar to face the east, no matter how awkwardly, would have much appeal).

William Tighe said...

In response to Neill, I have just read Chapter 5 of my copy of Cyril Pocknee's The Christian Altar ("Orientation at Prayer and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar," pp. 88-100) and can report that Pocknee never states in it that churches in the Middle East were ever "oriented towards Jerusalem and not the rising of the sun;" rather, he states that always and everywhere, including in Palestine and Syria, they were oriented towards the East. What Neill appear to be recalling is a brief paragraph on p. 89 of the book in which Pocknee writes of the "orientation" of Palestinian synagogues towards Jerusalem: "... in Galilee the buildings faced south, those in trans-Jordan faced west, and western synagogues faced towards the east."

As I recall, the Early Christian notion was that the Lord would come from the East and (perhaps) alight on the Mount of Olives, but early Christians were never summoned to "Look towards Jerusalem" (or "... to the Mount of Olives") but, as in the proclamation of the deacon in the Coptic Liturgy just as the Anaphora is about to begin, and after summoning those who were sitting to stand, Eis anatolas blepsate, "Look towards the East."

Ignatius, Cornwall said...

Father, the historical discussion may be vastly interesting for some, BUT the urgency of the moment, THIS moment is undoing the present crises in the Protestantisation of the beliefs of many, even a majority, of practicing Catholics.

Since the Second Vatican Council, apart from poor catechesis, the Novus Ordo Missae, especially due to HOW it is celebrated in most Catholic churches, has directly changed the actual beliefs of so many who are practising Catholics; they have become de facto Cato-Prots. They seem to now see the Sunday morning Mass as a Communion Service addressed to them; it's become a hymn-singing religious entertainment, with a feel-good homily and where everyone goes to a standing and in-the-hand Communion.
(US Pew Research Center August 5, 2019 Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ. SEE: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/)
This may well be the same in the UK—and maybe everywhere!

Up until the Novus Ordo became universal, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass had an all-so-obviously Sacrificial nature: Jesus' Real Presence at the moment the words of Consecration were spoken was a CLEAR reality. The UN-bloody RE-presentation of Calvary, was at the heart of the whole thing.
From the moment of the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, the Mass was open to misinterpretation—on purpose!!

May I suggest reading:

cyrus83 said...

In the event, the local TLM church is oriented so that a line from nave to altar points slightly West of South. The parish is shared with Novus Ordo people, so there is a (movable) table altar in front of the high altar which is sometimes re-arranged to be in front of a side altar, along with the other sanctuary re-arrangements that take place in between every shift of missal being used.

Peter said...

Father, may I ask you to explain what you mean by auctoritas? I take it to mean authority based on tradition rather than on some formal declaration. So if Pope Benedict in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” explains why we would pray towards the rising sun we would say that his learning means that we should not casually reject his argument even if it is not a formal instruction.

vetusta ecclesia said...

I am sure I read somewhere that in the occidented Roman basilicas both celebrant and congregation faced East for the Canon / Consecration

William Tighe said...

"I am sure I read somewhere that in the occidented Roman basilicas both celebrant and congregation faced East for the Canon / Consecration."

That is but one theory among many. A better one, IMO, is that the congregation stood in the sides of these basilicas, so that they could look towards the East without turning their backs to the altar. Nobody really knows, though.

Those interested in the subject might wish to read Fr. Uwe Michael Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (Ignatius Press, 2005, 2008). Relatively inexpensive copies can usually be found at Abebooks or Amazon.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

There can be a distinction between geographical east and liturgical east.

Galileo was made to look a fool by the Michelson-Morley and the and the Michelson-Pearson-Gale experiments - which should come as no surprise, as he was a fool. And physics as we understand it may well have come into being as a distinct branch of the sciences even absent Galileo.


Michael Leahy said...

AvB, as Einstein demonstrated with Relativity, the difference between Ptolomy and Copernicus was merely a matter of coordinates and the very same physics could be extracted from both.

What Einstein didn't face was the result of Michelson-Morley, which demonstrated that the Earth was not moving in space. Instead he devised a fudge which spared his having to abandon Copernicism.