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

Find part 1 here.

Facing East

Praying ad orientem, facing the east, is a wide-spread, ancient, pre-Christian custom: because the east is the direction of the rising sun, it naturally inspires and expresses hope for the future.[1] For ancient Christians, orientation (in the original sense, “towards the Orient”) also expressed expectation for the second advent of Christ, “the dayspring from on high.” In this arrangement, the priest and people face the same direction when praying, the advantage of which is captured well by Ratzinger:

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.[2]

Neither the presider nor the people are the focal point. The priest only turns towards the assembly, and draws their attention to himself, when addressing them. When the presider turns away from them, he directs his gaze towards that which is beyond them both — physically and symbolically — which clarifies the focus of the liturgy. This arrangement has the potential to subdue both mirrored clerical centric and democentric tendency of versus populum.

It must be noted here that few churches are now constructed with the chancel facing east. For ancient Christians, the east had priority over the building. Origen wrote,

Of the four directions, the North, South, East, and West, who would not at once admit that the East clearly indicates the duty of praying with the face turned towards it with the symbolic suggestion that the soul is looking upon the dawn of the true light? Should anyone, however, prefer to direct his intercessions according to the aperture of the house, whichever way the doors of the house may face, saying that the sight of heaven appeals to one with a certain attraction greater than the view of the wall, and the eastward part of the house having no opening, we may say to him that since it is by human arrangement that houses are open in this or that direction but by nature that the East is preferred to all the other directions, the natural is to be set before the artificial. Besides, on that view why should one who wished to pray when in the open country pray to the East in preference to the West? If, in the one case it is reasonable to prefer the East, why should the same not be done in every case? Enough on that subject.[3]

For Origen and other early Christian writers, facing the rising sun seems to be the essential element in this symbolic practice, regardless of the direction of the building or placement of the table. By contrast, in later modern practice, ad orientem, really means facing the table (sometimes this is explained as facing the cross on or behind the table, or a ciborium in which reserved sacrament is kept) what is called the “liturgical east,” whether or not this means facing the east as such.

Jaimie Lara suggests that, to the modern mind, the east may lack the symbolic potency it once had.[4] Indeed, the modern notion of the “liturgical east” divorced from the actual compass point perhaps provides evidence of that. But, the symbolism of the sunrise seems to have remained strong through the Reformation and Enlightenment. Despite great concern over potentially idolatrous practices and rejection of ad orientem, English Protestants of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, such as the Lady Anne Clifford, were wont to offer their private morning prayers at a window while facing the dawn.[5] English churches built in the “rationalist” Georgian period also testify to this continuing potency. Like James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, they commonly feature large clear-glass windows at the east end, behind the communion table, to allow morning light to pour in. (Incidentally, these east-end windows show the value of the Anglican practice of north-side presidency — discussed in Part III — quite well, as the figure of the priest does not block the sunlight.) But, these examples are pre-industrial, in cultures only beginning to be formed by modern science. Perhaps in our own world of computers and screens the natural symbolism is diminished. Anecdotally, however, I know a good many people who find waking up early to see the sunrise a spiritually stirring experience. It seems likely to me that, even to modern eyes, the dawn continues to communicate hope.

Presiding ad orientem, or facing the (liturgical) east, was revived within Anglicanism by the second generation of Anglo-Catholics in the late nineteenth century. In the US it was prescribed by the 1928 revision of the prayer book. Incidentally, a sermon by Augustine became a locus of debate in the ritualist controversies. Augustine preached “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east, whence the heaven rises.”[6] But he quickly clarifies, “not as if God also were dwelling there” or “had forsaken the other parts of the world,” and that we must learn to “seek Him in the soul rather than in a celestial body.”[7] Ritualists cited it as authority for the eastward position, while their opponents, like Harrison, highlighted that Augustine himself recognized the danger that the practice could be misunderstood.[8]

Three significant problems arise vis-a-vis the eastward position and common prayer principles. First, facing away from the people hinders audibility, especially if the table is removed a great distance from the nave and separated by a screen (as it came to be in medieval churches), though with a loud voice, good acoustics, and/or microphones this problem is not insurmountable.

Visibility is likewise hindered. Because the presider stands between the assembly and the table, the people cannot see the ritual actions that accompany the consecration, so those actions cannot edify. Both in terms of hearing and seeing, ad orientem tends to distance the laity. This distance — both physically, in terms of relative positions, and figuratively, in terms of eucharistic theology — gradually increased during the medieval era, as discussed above. Weil explains, “once the eastward direction had become the norm, with the priest’s back to the people, the inferior status of the laity within the liturgical context became even more deeply engrained.”[9] Ad orientem seems to possess, as Shaver put it, “a built-in risk of clericalism.”[10] Although Shaver argues for (a modified) ad orientem, he warns “[t]he priestly people of God are not well served by a presider who seems to be turning his or her back on the congregation to do mysterious things to which they are uninvited.”[11] This is a different kind of clericalism than that discussed in relation to facing the people. In a versus populum arrangement, the presider must avoid seeming to usurp the role of the true Host at the Lord’s Supper; while, in an ad orientem arrangement, the presider must avoid seeming to usurp the role of the High Priest, our only mediator and advocate. To the Reformers, eastward-facing celebration was so strongly associated with sacerdotal doctrine — the idea that the mass is a repeated propitiatory sacrifice offered by a mediatorial priest on a true altar for the sins of the living and the dead[12] — that the rejection of the one necessitated the rejection of the other.

When the nineteenth-century English and American ritualists began to promote a restoration of ad orientem, it was often not only accompanied by, but a vehicle for, sacerdotal theology.[13] That is why Bishop Ryle, for example, opposed it so vigorously: “The harm of the ‘Eastward position’ consists in this, that it is the outward and visible sign of an unscriptural, mischievous, and soul-injuring doctrine.”[14] More recently, however, the position has been promoted by Anglicans without such doctrines (for example, Haller, Shaver, and others), noting that the eastward position is older than these medieval errors. Shaver argues that, with careful implementation, ad orientem can be entirely consistent with the goals of the liturgical renewal movement.[15] Nevertheless, others — both advocates and critics — continue to see this position tied up with a sacrificial understanding. Lang, for example, believes “the common direction in liturgical prayer is closely linked to the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice” which, for him, is an argument in its favor.[16] While for modern critics, like Stott, the sacerdotal association of the eastward position remains strong and deeply problematic.[17]

  1. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord, 35.
  2. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 80.
  3. De Oratione III.32.1. John Joseph O’Meara, ed. and tr. (New York: Newman Press, 1954): 136.
  4. Shaver, “O Oriens,” 455-456.
  5. Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 162.
  6. De Sermone Domini in Monte. Quoted from Matthew Levering, ed., On Prayer and Contemplation: Classic and Contemporary Texts (Oxford: Sheed & Ward, 2005): 42.
  7. Levering, ed., On Prayer, 42.
  8. John Harrison, The Eastward Position Unscriptural and Not Primitive and Catholic: Including a Reply to the Rev. M. Shaw’s Letter on the Position of the Celebrant at the Holy Communion (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1876): 84-85.
  9. Weil, “The Shape of Liturgical Formation,” 40.
  10. Shaver, “O Oriens,” 463.
  11. Shaver, “O Oriens,” 473.
  12. See The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent Session XXII, Chapter 2 (,_Concilium_Tridentinum,_Canons_And_Decrees,_EN.pdf). For a succinct discussion of eucharistic sacrifice, particularly as it relates to contemporary dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, see C. Buchanan, Did the Anglicans and Roman Catholics Agree on the Eucharist? : A Revisit of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s Agreed Statements of 1971 and Related Documents (La Vergne: Wipf and Stock, 2018): 148-149.
  13. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord, 112; Buchanan, Dictionary, 217; Buchanan, “The Position of the President Revisited: Exploring an Historical Anglican Bypath” Studia Liturgica 35(1) 2005: 122.
  14. Church Association Tract 136. Retrieved from
  15. Shaver, “O Oriens,” 453.
  16. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord, 109-115.
  17. See, for example, Adam C. Young, “Why I Support Celebrating From the North Side” (October 2014). Retrieved from

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

'The Relative Positions of the Presider, Table, and Assembly at Communion Part II' has 1 comment

  1. November 19, 2020 @ 12:19 pm Ryan Clevenger

    I think that autocorrect changed Origen to origin.


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