The Relative Positions of the Presider, Table, and Assembly at Communion Part I

When, in John’s Gospel, Jesus meets with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, she comments on the disagreement between Samaritans and Jews regarding where God had appointed sacrifices to be offered — Mount Gerizim or Zion. Jesus replies,

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. (John 4:21-23[1])

Jesus explains that physical location is indifferent to worship as such; God regards the orientation of the heart (in the scriptural sense, the whole inner person). In this paper I consider the question of the relative positions of the presider, table, and assembly in the Communion liturgy. This question sometimes provokes fierce controversy among Christians, and Anglicans in particular, which I do not wish to do here. As I proceed, therefore, I aim to keep Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman foremost in mind.

The question under consideration is generally regarded as adiaphora.[2] In Christian theology, that means more than simply “indifferent” full-stop; rather, it means “indifferent to salvation.” Christians need not all agree on these questions. It does not, however, mean “of no importance whatsoever.” The scriptures abundantly indicate that posture and gesture are not irrelevant to worship; for example, “O come, let us worship and fall down : and kneel before the Lord our Maker.” (Psalm 95:6);[3] “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense : and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice;” (Psalm 141:2), “Praise him in the cymbals and dances : praise him upon the strings and pipe;” (Psalm 150:4); “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father” (Ephesians 3:14).

The bible, of course, does not prescribe where the presider should stand relative to the table and the assembly at the Lord’s Supper. The Prayer Book summarizes what the scriptures require for Holy Communion — repentance, faith, and charity towards each other and our neighbors, that we take and eat in remembrance of Christ Jesus, and, thereby, proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.[4] Included within these broad categories are what Gordon Lathrop rightly calls “more urgent orientations” than the orientation of participants and the placement of furniture within liturgy.[5] Nevertheless, Paul also instructed the troubled Corinthian church — urgently in need of correction concerning how to treat one another and use their resources in a way that honors God — “Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14.40).

The “decently and in order” principle concludes Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 on the priority of edification (as the Prayer Book and KJV translate the word) or upbuilding (as the NRSV has it). “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort,”[6] Paul explains. “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” In the public assemblies of the church, individual spiritual experiences must take second place to general edification.

This passage had particular importance to the English Reformers; it motivated and guided Cranmer in preparing the first two editions of the prayer book. “Of Ceremonies”[7] explains why some medieval customs were abolished and some retained. Cranmer identifies the principles (1 Cor. 14) that governed the decision to abolish some medieval ceremonies and retains others. Regarding those retained, he writes,

Although they have been devised by man, yet it is thought good to reserve them still, as well for a decent order in the Church, (for the which they were first devised) as because they pertain to edification, whereunto all things done in the Church (as the Apostle teacheth) ought to be referred.

Orderliness aims to ensure what is done in worship serves to edify, which Cranmer defines as “to stir up the dull mind of man, to the remembrance of his duty to God” (p. 12). The prayer book reflects the priority of edification not only in its use of the vernacular, but in rubrics prescribing how to lead the liturgy: “the Minister shall read with a loud voice” (p. 41); “Then the Minister, Clerks, and people shall say the Lord’s Prayer with a loud voice” (p. 52); “Then shall the Priest, turning to the people, rehearse distinctly” (p. 286); “When the Priest, standing before the Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the Bread before the people” (p. 304). In these ways, the liturgy is made truly common. Nothing is done or said in secret, but the whole assembly lifts up its praises together, hears God’s word together, and offers their prayers together. These common prayer principles continue to serve as the foundation for Anglican liturgy today.

Since ceremonial communicates something about the meaning of the liturgy, matters of posture, gesture, and vesture are not entirely indifferent, an insight on which the twentieth-century liturgical movement placed renewed emphasis.[8] From the first edition, the Prayer Book aimed to bring the actions of the liturgy in line with the words and spirit of the liturgy, which ultimately derive from scripture. Ceremonies should be “neither dark nor dumb,” the opposites of which are, of course, clear sight and speech; in other words, “that every man may understand what they do mean, and to what use they do serve.” What is said and done in church services should be said and done so that the whole assembly may participate — hear, see, understand, and thereby be edified, that is, rooted and built up in Christ, and established in the faith, abounding with thanksgiving (Col. 2.7).

With these Prayer Book principles in mind, I turn to an exploration of the relative position of the presider, table, and assembly at the Lord’s Supper. Three positions are known among Anglicans today: facing the people (versus populum), facing east (ad orientem), and standing at the north side of the table (ad septentrionale latus — since the others have latin tags, why not?). Though these names focus on the placement of the priest, as we shall see, the overall effect of these three positions of the presider varies a great deal depending on where the table is placed and the people assemble within the worship space. In what follows, I present each of the three positions on its own terms, briefly identifying (so far as possible) its historical origins, and then identify the strengths and draw-backs of the position.

Facing the People

By far the most common position in the West today for Protestants and Roman Catholics alike is for the presider to stand behind the table or altar, facing the assembly from across it. The free-standing table is usually situated in the front of the room with one of its long sides facing out towards rows of forward-facing seats or pews. For Anglicans, this position did not become common until very late in the twentieth century. Neither the 1979 US nor the 1962 Canadian prayer books were written with versus populum in mind as the norm; they both provide explicit instruction for the presider to turn towards the people at certain points, which would not be needed were the presbyter already facing the assembly the whole time. Buchanan notes that the “westward position” (not an ideal designation — the point of this arrangement is that the presider and assembly should face each other, not that the presider should face the west) has, since the 1960s, “proved a reconciling force within Anglican usage.”[9]

Part of the argument for this position is historical. Fourth-century Roman basilicas were built with the front entrance at the east-facing end and a free-standing altar or table towards the west end.[10] In this arrangement, the presider faces towards the people from across the table during the consecration; so, it is argued, this is the more ancient practice. The architectural arrangement of these ancient churches is undisputed, but the interpretation of that evidence has been challenged.[11] In the basilican arrangement, the presider faces the east; that the assembly also stands[12] toward the east may be merely incidental. In other words, it does not seem that the priest faces that direction because the assembly is there, but because of the symbolism attached to the eastern direction (on which more in Part II). There is, in fact, evidence that people turned towards the east as well: in some ancient liturgies, the deacon instructs the assembly to turn towards the east at various points.[13] If that is the case then in the ancient basilican arrangement, the priest stood behind the assembly, and the whole assembly — including the presider — faced the direction of the rising sun. But, of course, we cannot reconstruct the historical situation with certainty.[14]

By the high middle ages, European churches were almost always built with a stone altar in the east end either very close or affixed to a wall and ad orientem celebration was universal practice. The meal association was obscured while the association with sacrifice became paramount.[15] Indeed, the mass was understood to be a propitiatory sacrifice offered for the living and the dead. The language of the liturgy was unknown to most of the laity. The sanctuary had become a seperate room altogether, belonging to the clergy.[16] The people were expected to receive the sacrament only once a year and then were only allowed to receive “in one kind” — the cup was kept from them. As Louis Weil observes, the elevation of (first) the bread and (later) the cup, (which began in the thirteenth century) became “the chief focus of lay participation.”[17] Adoration of the elevated “host” — rather than reception — was the pinnacle and point of the service for the laity, so much so that it was not uncommon for some people to show up only for that moment of the service, cued by the ringing of bells.[18]

The sixteenth-century reformers repudiated this understanding in the strongest possible terms. Luther thought the doctrinal correction should be accompanied by liturgical correction; in his 1526 instructions The German Mass and Order of Divine Service he makes the earliest explicit argument for versus populum celebration: “in the true Mass, among sincere Christians, the altar should not be retained, and the priest should always turn himself towards the people as, without doubt, Christ did at the Last Supper. That, however, must bide its time.”[19] The claim that Jesus faced his disciples across the table at the Last Supper has been made by recent advocates of versus populum as well; but it is probably anachronistic. It seems likely that Jesus and his disciples reposed on the same side of the table, as was the common custom at ancient banquets, to allow servers to approach the table from the other side. While this objection is sometimes raised to dismantle the rationale for versus populum, that counter-argument misses the point, which isn’t to recreate the exact conditions of the Last Supper, but to communicate the idea of a shared meal. In any case, Luther thought versus populum was the more primitive and preferable practice, but he also expected that a full embrace of these liturgical reforms would take some time. Lutherans generally retained stone altars and ad orientem celebration (until the twentieth century) despite rejecting the understanding of the sacrament as propitiatory.

By contrast, Protestants of the Reformed tradition insisted on more radical liturgical reform. They replaced stone altars with free-standing wooden tables around which the people gathered. The presiding minister, then, faced some people but not others. Facing the people was not primarily the point. Calvin explains,

[T]he Levitical priests were ordered to typify the sacrifice which Christ was to accomplish; a victim was placed to act as a substitute for Christ himself; an altar was erected on which it was to be sacrificed; the whole, in short, was so conducted as to bring under the eye an image of the sacrifice which was to be offered to God in expiation. But now that the sacrifice has been performed, the Lord has prescribed a different method to us—viz. to transmit the benefit of the sacrifice offered to him by his Son to his believing people. The Lord, therefore, has given us a table at which we may feast, not an altar on which a victim may be offered; he has not consecrated priests to sacrifice, but ministers to distribute a sacred feast. The more sublime and holy this mystery is, the more religiously and reverently ought it to be treated. Nothing, therefore, is safer than to banish all the boldness of human sense, and adhere solely to what Scripture delivers.[20]

When reformers began to advocate for Communion versus populum[21] in the sixteenth century, then, it is clear that historical precedent was part of the rationale but not the only or even primary rationale. The other reasons are based in theology and liturgical principles. If not a propitiatory sacrifice mediated by a priest,[22] then the position of the presiding minister should not suggest this view. And, if the central action of the rite is accipite et manducate (“take and eat”) rather than ecce et adoramus (“behold and adore”), then the assembly of the faithful should not be kept away from the consecrated elements, but rather “draw near.” The liturgical arrangement should communicate that the people belong at the table as invited guests, they do not belong in another room beholding what is done on their behalf through holes in a screen. The prayer book reflects these concerns, and versus populum addresses them. Since the Second Vatican Council, even Roman Catholics no longer dispute the advantage of intelligibility, visibility, audibility, but have fully embraced these reformed liturgical principles.[23]

The Reformation-era debates show that the relative positions of the presider, table, and assembly serve as a synecdoche for a much larger set of theological matters, which helps to explain why proposals to alter these positions excites intense feeling. This was true in the twentieth century as well, when a great number of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican liturgiologists began to argue for versus populum. These arguments tend to emphasize establishing a sense of community and a welcoming environment. The concerns now generally encapsulated by the word “community” are likely present in the background of the Reformed emphasis on Communion as a shared meal, but they have come more to the forefront of twentieth-century arguments for versus populum. As Haller notes, the idea that the presider should never “turn his back on the people” is often heard.[24] Further, many hold that a versus populum eucharist, by creating a sense of genuine community and belonging, might also spur the church to missional activity, a ceremonial rationale not unlike Cranmer’s — “stir up the dull mind of man, to the remembrance of his duty to God” (p. 12).

What are the disadvantages of this position? First among these is a potential confusion of focus. In an ad orientem service, the table is the focal point of the liturgical space. The presider turns to face the assembly when the words are addressed to them, but turns to face the east (or, the table, “the liturgical east” — more on this below) when praying. This turn communicates the shift in focus. What is to the east of the presider — towards which he turns with the rest of the assembly — appears to matter more than the presider. When the presider stands behind the table facing the people, the presider becomes the visual focal point of the room; the table frames the view of the presider from the nave. Symbolically, this arrangement aims to convey the sense of presiding at a banquet; however, it may also have the effect of drawing too much attention to the presider. Many have experienced confusion or awkwardness in a versus populum service when the presider prays while looking out at the faces in the congregation. This is, admittedly, less a concern with the position as such and more a concern with implementation. Most clergy avoid looking at the people when praying, instead looking above the heads of the people and/or down at the prayer book. Nevertheless, the presider is the visual focal point of the room. Haller warned of the potential danger,

If the priest must become the “stand in” for Christ, does that not place upon him (or her)[25] 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.[26]

Similarly, John Stott worried that “westward position,” though, in his view, much preferable to the eastward position, could foster “a false and exaggerated view of the Christian ministry.”[27]

At the same time, for the presider, the assembly becomes the focus. Because of the emphasis on the people — the presider must make them feel welcome and never turn away from them — this position has the potential to slip into democentricism as well. It is all too easy, in this arrangement, for the presider to feel like a performer on a stage entertaining an audience. The danger for both presider and people, then, is that each might become the focus of the other; as Ratzinger put it “a self-enclosed circle… no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.”[28] Nevertheless, I must emphasize, there is nothing inherently wrong or necessarily incorrect with this arrangement. These are only potential tendencies to which it is wise to be alert, not inherent implications. I only suggest that this position is more susceptible than the other two positions to this sort of confusion.

  1. Biblical quotations from AV unless otherwise noted.
  2. Donald K. McKim, The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014), p. 4.
  3. Quotations from the Psalter are taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
  4. These requirements, derived primarily from I Cor. 11:17-34, are summarized in the Communion exhortations as well as in the catechism.
  5. Quoted from Stephen R. Shaver, “O Oriens: Reassessing Eastward Eucharistic Celebration for Renewed Liturgy.” Anglican Theological Review, 2012, 94(3): 456. Retrieved from
  6. “Comfort” here has its older sense, “strengthening.”
  7. “Of Ceremonies” was an afterword in the 1549, moved up to a prefatory position in 1552, where it stayed in 1559, 1604, and 1662.
  8. Shaver, “O Oriens,” 455. Dom Lambert Beauduin’s 1901 address “The Full Prayer of the Church” given at the National Congress of Catholic Action in Malines, Belgium is often regarded as the commencement of the movement, though the ideas had been percolating in monastic communities and among liturgical scholars for more than a half century before. The two core ideas of the movement are that the liturgy is not something done on behalf of the laity, but that it actively involves them and that liturgy embodies doctrine, in other words, what we do in worship expresses what we believe. While the movement influenced virtually all Western Christian traditions, its greatest effect was the transformation of Roman Catholic worship.
  9. Colin Buchanan, Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism, Second Edition (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015): 217.
  10. the first surfaces on which the blessing of the bread and wine took place were domestic tables; in the earliest centuries this surface was always called a “table” rather than an “altar.” P. F. Anson, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1948): 60. The 1549 prayer book uses “altar” and “table” interchangeably in rubrics, but only “table” in text read aloud to the assembly; the second edition (1552) drops the word “altar” entirely in favor of the exclusive use of “table.” The 1552 usage is followed in all subsequent revisions until the US 1979 edition, which returns to interchangeable usage.
  11. Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014): 78; J. F. Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008): 80.
  12. Seats in the nave is an early modern development.
  13. Uwe Michael Lang, Ever Directed Towards the Lord: The Love of God in the Liturgy of the Eucharist Past, Present, and Hoped For (London: T&T Clark, 2007): 95; U. M. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004): 49; Tobias Haller, “People, look east” (January 2013). Retrieved from
  14. Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy, 111.
  15. Peter Hammond, Liturgy and Architecture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961): 31.
  16. Hammond, Liturgy and Architecture, 138; Anson, Churches, 132.
  17. Louis Weil, “The Shape of Liturgical Formation: Vertical/Horizontal, Horizontal/Vertical,” Sewanee Theological Review, 52 (1): 40.
  18. Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (London, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1914): 339-342.
  19. Robert E. Van Voorst, Readings in Christianity, Third Edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage, 2014): 186.
  20. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.18.12. Henry Beveridge, tr. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008): 941.
  21. A convenient but, as should now be clear, somewhat misleading label for the liturgical re-arrangement imagined by reformers.
  22. Latin sacerdos, hence the word “sacerdotal” which is often used to describe this view of the sacrament and the priesthood.
  23. Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy.
  24. Haller, “People, look east.”
  25. Editor’s Note: The North American Anglican has strict editorial standards surrounding the issue of Women’s Ordination. As such, we denote any instances where a text diverges from these standards.
  26. Haller, “People, look east.”
  27. John R. W. Stott, “Why I Value the North Side Position” Church Pastoral-Aid Society (1963). Retrieved from; compare also Shaver, “O Oriens,” 458-9.
  28. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 80. To minimize this potential, Ratzinger recommends a cross be placed on the table between the presider and people, so both can orient themselves towards the cross (80).


Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at

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