Presiding from the North Side of the Table
The 1662 Prayer Book prescribes that the priest preside from the north side of the table. Though it was the universal Anglican practice from the Restoration until the mid-nineteenth century, north side presidency is little known among Anglicans today. Considering its general obscurity, I will explore the origins of this arrangement in a bit more depth than in the previous two sections, considering its advantages and disadvantages.
I previously observed that, although Luther preferred ceremonial reforms that reflect the dominical institution of the sacrament in the context of a meal and avoid sacerdotal associations, he was reluctant to impose such reforms. By contrast, Zwingli, the earliest leader of what became the Reformed tradition within Protestantism, immediately implemented such reforms in Zurich. For the first reformed Communion service in Zurich, in 1525, the people sat at long tables placed lengthwise in the nave of the old Minster. When the time came to receive the sacrament, the assembly all knelt down at the tables; communicants tore off a piece from loaves that were brought around to them on a large wooden platter, after which wooden cups were passed around. Later some Reformed divines, like John Knox, vigorously opposed kneeling on the grounds that the New Testament did not prescribe it and that it encouraged adoration of the consecrated elements. Sitting around the Communion table became the most common practice in the Reformed tradition.
In the Church of England, Archbishop Cranmer implemented a policy of gradual liturgical reform. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549) retained stone altars and the ad orientem position, while moving decisively in a reformed direction in other ways. The 1549 Book uses altar and table interchangeably in the rubrics, but only uses the table in text read aloud to the assembly. In the Communion liturgy, the assembly were instructed to enter the chancel during the offertory to deposit their alms; those who intended to receive communion were to remain there kneeling near the table for the Communion proper, while those not intended or not prepared to communicate exited the service. Rather than watching from a distance through the screen, the assembly gathered in the chancel near the table and presider (there was no rail to seperate them), a radical shift in the position of the laity relative to the table. The first Prayer Book did not prescribe kneeling to receive communion, but permitted kneeling, standing, and sitting. Elevation of the consecrated elements was explicitly prohibited and the prescribed ceremonial was dramatically reduced. 1549 visitation articles ordered that “no minister do counterfeit the popish mass” — after listing a number of the ceremonies that accompanied the old service, it encapsulates the order by proscribing any other “ceremonies than are appointed in the King’s Book of Common Prayers.” Communion in both kinds was now required. The new English text of the prayer of consecration aligned with the implicit meaning of the change in the relative positions of the assembly and table, emphasizing reception of the sacrament as the climax of the ritual.
In the second Edwardine Prayer Book (1552), the rubrics called for something that looked more like that first reformed Communion in Zurich. In 1550 the Privy Council ordered the removal of stone altars, which were to be replaced with wooden tables. The 1552 rubrics prescribed that the table be placed either in the middle of the chancel or nave (the “north side” requirement implies a lengthwise orientation, with the two ends of the table pointing east-west, though the other orientation was not unknown).
After the Prayer for the Church Militant (removed from its old position in the Canon of the Mass to a new position in Ante-Communion), before the Confession of Sin, laity who intended to communicate gathered around the table, kneeling, while non-communicants exited. Unlike in the first Prayer Book, the 1552 prescribed kneeling around the table. The rubric instructed the minister to preside from the north side of the table (the two ends of the table pointed east-west). The assembly surrounded the table on all four sides (there was no rail, so they could gather quite close to it). The minister’s position vis-a-vis the laity was incidental — some were behind him, some to either side of him, some faced him from across the table — the point was that they gathered together around the same table. The distribution was made to immediately follow the verba domini, the words of institution, and the rubric specified the bread was to be delivered “to the people in their hands,” so as to follow Christ’s instruction, take and eat. During the distribution, the laity remain kneeling around the table, while the presider brings the bread and the cup to each one of them, as seen in this 1578 woodcut from Richard Day’s A Booke of Christian Prayers.
This prescription to preside from the north side is unique to the English Prayer Book, raising the question, why was it specified? I have found no earlier reference to it than Hamon L’Estrange’s in The Alliance of the Divine Office (1659), which merely says “this seemeth to avoid the fashion of the priest’s standing with his face towards the east, as in the popish practice.” But, this would also be the case if the minister stood on the east side of the table facing west, the common Reformed practice elsewhere. Unfortunately, neither Cranmer nor the other English Reformers wrote a rationale for this unique position, though its most obvious effect is to move the presider off to one side, so that he is no longer the visual focal point, nor is he in the position of host. I suspect that was precisely the point. Traditionally the host of a banquet sits at the head or end of a long dining table. Positioning the minister off to the side, rather than at the end of the table, signals that he is not the host.
After the brief restoration of Roman liturgy under Queen Mary, Elizabeth restored the second Prayer Book of her half-brother Edward VI; however, in her Chapel Royal, the table was kept against the east wall (in the manner of the first Edwardine Prayer Book). Elizabeth ordered (in the Injunctions of 1559) that when the communion table was not in use for a service, it should be moved back against the back against the eastern wall of the chancel. Only when there was a Communion service was it to be moved into the midst of the chancel or nave, “as thereby the Minister might be more conveniently heard of the communicants in his prayer and ministration, and the communicants also more conveniently and in more number communicate with the said Minister.” Buchanan has raised an interesting question about how these rules were applied on a typical Sunday morning when there was no Communion. Was the table moved or not? Would the minister officiate Ante-Communion from the table left up against the east wall or would it have been read from the reading desk or pulpit? It seems likely the practice varied; it also seems likely that some clergy read Ante-Communion from the north end of the table set altar-wise (that is, in the position against the east wall where the stone altar had formerly been).
The 1559 Injunctions inadvertently set the stage for a new model of north side presidency (different from that prescribed in the Prayer Book). In 1590, as Vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate, Lancelot Andrewes ridiculed the typical Elizabethan communion table as “an oyster board.” He became the leading critic of the Prayer Book arrangement and proponent of a grander and more elaborate ceremonial (which, as Bishop of Winchester, he implemented in his private chapel). The new ceremonialists (who looked to Andrewes as their forerunner) preferred to keep the table in the altar-wise position rather than move it for Communion, arguing that the Injunctions (and later the 1604 Canons, Canon 82) only require the table to be moved if the altar-wise position of the table made it difficult for the people to hear or conveniently gather near it to receive. Therefore, they reasoned, so long as the consecration prayer was audible and the table accessible, the table could remain against the eastern wall. Advancing this argument from permission to preference, some, like Bishop Pierce, argued keeping the table at the east end in fact increased both audibility and visibility. In 1616, Dean William Laud (a protege of Andrewes) implemented these ceremonialist principles in Gloucester Cathedral, moving the table permanently to the east wall in the altar-wise position and erecting a rail around it. The Bishop of Gloucester, Miles Smith, was so incensed that he never again set foot in the cathedral of his diocese. In 1640, as Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, Laud ordered the implementation of this policy throughout England, which, of course, contributed to the outbreak of civil war. Though rails were already known in some churches, they were now required for all, which, it was argued, kept dogs away and prevented irreverent behavior, such placing hats and coats on the table.
In many churches pews had been situated against the east wall, which had to be removed, so that the table could be permanently situated there. The table was usually placed altar-wise, as Laud envisioned, but in some places it was situated against the wall lengthwise, perhaps as a quiet protest that nevertheless conformed to the letter of the new Caroline Canons. But, whether crosswise or lengthwise, the minister presided from the north side, a requirement that was entirely uncontroversial. The people continued to come forward into the chancel before the confession of sin, but with the new placement of the table, could now only gather on three sides of the table or (depending on space constraints) just one side, instead of all four, and the rail kept a bit of distance between them and the table. Moreover, rather than the presider walking through the assembly to bring the consecrated bread and wine to each communicant, now each communicant had to come to the rail to receive. This was a significant alteration to the way in which the Communion had been conducted in the typical parish church for more than a generation, and it stirred up more than a little conflict.
While several of the bishops who returned with Charles II after the Interregnum were staunch ceremonialists, they were not unaware of the fragility of their Restoration. It was the 1604 Canons rather than the ill-fated (and probably illegal) 1640 Canons that were re-authorized and the 1662 Prayer Book restored the rubric “The Table… shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel,” rather than attempting to impose the 1637 rubric the table to stand “in the uppermost part of the Chancel or Church.” Long after the Restoration both models of north side presidency — the old model prescribed by the Prayer Book, and the Laudian model, promoted by Anthony Sparrow’s (1655) Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer and, later, Charles Wheatley’s highly influential A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (which went through more than twenty editions from 1710 to 1890) — were known (and sometimes stirred-up conflict). The woodcuts reproduced below illustrate the two north-side models: first, the frontispiece to The Understanding Christians Duty shows a table set lengthwise in the chancel, sans rails, the assembly gathered around the table, with the priest on one side facing opposite a clerk or deacon. Next, the frontispiece to Wheatley’s Prayer Book commentary (reproduced below) shows the Laudian model: the priest stands at the north end of the table set altar-wise at the east end behind a rail, with the people gathered near in the chancel. The difference between these two models of north side presidency highlights the limitation of a designation that refers only to the position of the president relative to the Holy Table, but indicates nothing of the position of the table relative to the room and the assembly relative to the table and presider.
Some modern Anglicans are troubled by the oddity of north side presidency, but from the Restoration until the 1850s (when the second generation of the Anglo-Catholics began to promote ad orientem) there was no controversy over north-side presidency and no embarrassment with its uniqueness. Indeed, quite the contrary, many argued for the superiority of this position. The frontispiece to Jeremy Taylor’s The Worthy Communicant (reproduced below) depicts the holy table as the Arc of the Covenant, a popular Laudian analogy, with the cherubim in the positions that would be occupied by the priest (north end) and clerk (south end).
Later high-churchmen pointed to Leviticus 1:10-11 as the basis for the model, “If your gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, your offering shall be a male without blemish. It shall be slaughtered on the north side of the altar before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar” (NRSV). The frontispiece to Wheatly’s Prayer Book commentary (reproduced above) illustrates this view. Drawing together associations suggested by Hebrews 8:1-10:18, it depicts a minister in surplice and hood presiding at Communion from the north side of the table (flush against the eastern wall), while above, in a cloud, Christ is depicted as the high priest, presiding at a heavenly altar resembling that from the ancient tabernacle. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Leviticus 1:11 motivated Cranmer to prescribe presiding from the north side. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that the position of the priest in the tabernacle would have influenced the Prayer Book rubric, given the Reformers’ rejection of any sacerdotalism. Wheatly’s frontispiece reflects a later high-church interest in the sacrificial aspect of Communion.
Given the fierce debate between ad orientem and versus populum, it seems worth asking if the now relatively obscure practice of presiding from the north side of the table presents a useful third alternative. I think it does. North side presidency (in both the Prayer Book model, and the Laudian model) combines some of the advantages of the other arrangements, while avoiding their potential difficulties. Like versus populum, it prioritizes the involvement of the assembly both in terms of audibility and visibility, but without making the presider the visual focal point of the room and the people the presider’s focus. Like ad orientem, it makes the table (with all its associations) the visual focal point of both presider and assembly — whether they are all gathered around a free-standing table or facing a table set at the east end of the chancel — but, by having the presider off to one side rather than between people and table, it discourages viewing the presider as mediator.
Symbolically speaking, the position of the minister off to the side of the table expresses the servanthood of the minister, illustrating the dominical saying:
[W]whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:26b-28)
Thus J. R. W. Stott argues “A proper symbolism places [the minister] at the north side, where, at the right hand of his Master, he is administering on His behalf, or rather, his Master is administering through him.” Thus the presider illustrates the saying of John Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). North side presidency so effectively depicts the meaning of ordained ministry, that it seems to me not only worth commending to my fellow Anglicans but worth commending to the consideration of all Christians, especially those responsible for planning liturgies. The debate between facing east and facing the people will undoubtedly continue for a long time; however, the historic Anglican position offers not only a third option but a solution to the potential problems presented by the other two arrangements.
I return again to the Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman, “true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” True worship may be and is offered in a variety of liturgical arrangements, regardless of the relative positions of the presider, table, and assembly at Communion. Nevertheless, different spatial arrangements influence the attitudes and affections of participants. A person may have a reverent attitude, for example, without kneeling, but kneeling both expresses reverence more eloquently than any words and prompts the attitude within the person assuming the position. While ceremonial is ultimately adiaphora, it is not insignificant. Indeed, the silent suggestions of position, posture, and gesture communicate so clearly that ceremonial debates often function as a synecdoche for creedal battles, battles over core identity.
Given the seriousness of approaching the Most Highest in worship, it is not surprising that such discussions often wax hot. If we wish to minimize the likelihood that healthy debate will devolve into un-edifying fights we must each be fair, generous, and precise in how we examine, describe, and discuss these different arrangements. Learning to appreciate the real strengths and weaknesses of each is all the more important now, since I do not think we will ever again see the degree of uniformity that previously prevailed. Those who bear the responsibility for planning liturgies (to say nothing of those who design the buildings) must give serious thought to these concerns and ought to consider the real possibility of unintended messages that may cause unnecessary trouble.
The arrangement of the liturgical space and the relative positions of the participants should align with the common words of the liturgy, which express the common doctrines of the body. Ceremonial can express meaning clearly, yes, but it does so less precisely than words. So, for instance, sixteenth-century Protestants and twentieth-century Roman Catholics have both argued for an arrangement in which the presider and assembly face each other, but the eucharistic doctrine of these groups differs considerably. So, the liturgical arrangements described here cannot be absolutely tied to particular doctrinal positions. Nevertheless, different positions present us with different sets of potential tendencies. It is my hope that this exploration of the different liturgical arrangements for Communion has been even-handed and avoids the imbroglio into which such discussions too often fall, and, perhaps, advances the conversation in edifying directions.
- Buchanan notes it “remained a distinctive requisite use of the Church of Ireland and, despite a century of heavy pressure toward the eastward position, it was sustained in the practice of some evangelical provinces, dioceses, and parishes around the Anglican Communion until the 1960s, and in some cases beyond” (Dictionary, 217). Also see Buchanan, “The Position of the President Revisited,” 111-126. North side presidency also continued for a time among Methodists after their separation from the Church of England. ↑
- B. B. Warfield, The Posture of the Recipients at the Lord’s Supper: A Footnote on the History of the Reformed Usages. Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 11(6), 1922: 218. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23323419. ↑
- In the Church of Scotland it was not until the early nineteenth century that “pew Communion” first began to be practiced; though it excited fierce opposition, eventually table Communion almost completely disappeared, though the long central communion table and benches can still be seen in some places, such as Howmore Church in South Uist, in the Hebrides. ↑
- For a further exploration of the liturgical instruction “draw near” see D. N. Keane, “Draw Near” North American Anglican (August, 2020) retrieved from https://northamanglican.com/draw-near/. ↑
- W. H. Frere and W. P. M. Kennedy (1910), Visitation Articles and Injunctions (London: Longmansp): 191-192. ↑
- For further exploration of this, see Buchanan, What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing? Grover Liturgical Study 7 (Nottingham: Grove Books, 1976), especially pages 16-20. Interestingly, this arrangement is similar to the modified ad orientem advocated by Shaver, “O Oriens,” 467. ↑
- The fact that kneeling for reception is prescribed in the 1552 liturgy when it was left open to individual discretion in 1549 may be read as indicative of the confidence Cranmer had that his new liturgical design closed the door for misunderstanding that 1549 left open (e.g., Bishop Gardener’s mis-reading). ↑
- Buchanan, “Position of the President Revisited,” p. 112-113. Buchanan speculates that more people would likely have sat on the south side of the chancel, which would mean that the presider faced most of them, but this is impossible to know. We know, for instance, that when pews began to be placed in the chancels in the Jacobean period, there were pews against the east wall (see below). The 1552 arrangement is similar to another suggestion made by Shaver, “O Oriens,” 471.. ↑
- Image courtesy of the Dunfermline Carnegie Library. Cranmer emphasizes this fact in his 7 Oct. 1552 letter to the Privy Council defending kneeling to receive communion against the opposition of Royal Chaplain John Knox. “My good Lords,” the Archbishop writes, “I pray you to consider that there been two prayers which go before the receiving of the Sacrament and two immediately follow all which time the people praying and receiving thanks, do kneel and what inconvenience there is, that it may not be thus ordered I know not. If the kneeling of the people should be discontinued for the time of the receiving of the sacrament so that at the receipt there of they should rise up and stand or sit, and then immediately kneel down again, it should rather import a contemptuous then a reverent receiving of the sacrament.” A digital copy of this letter may viewed here: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/the-english-reformation-c1527-1590/cranmer-on-religious-practice/ ↑
- Hamon L’Estrange, The alliance of divine offices, exhibiting all the liturgies of the Church of England since the Reformation (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1846): 245. Paul Marshall calls this the earliest work of critical liturgiology, Prayer Book Parallels (1989) p. 34. ↑
- In 1950 the historian J. E. Neale argued that the 1559 Settlement was very far from what the conservative settlement Elizabeth herself wanted. He argued that she hoped to restore Henrician Catholicism or at most the 1549 Prayer Book, but was thwarted by a well-organized proto-puritan party in the Commons. Although Geoffrey Elton, Norman Jones, W. S. Hudson, and Andrew Pettegree have effectively dismantled the evidence on which the hypothesis rests, it remains popular and is the picture of the Elizabethan Settlement presented by Christopher Haigh in his influential English Reformations (1993). Andrew Pettegree (1996) points out, “the evidence that the 1549 Prayer Book was even raised as a possibility in 1559 — still less discussed — is remarkably flimsy” (Marian Exiles: Six Studies, p. 133). The Queen’s personal religious views, as Diarmaid MacCulloch (1990) notes, are “exceedingly difficult to fathom” (The Later Reformation in England 1547-1603, p. 29). ↑
- For further discussion of this see Susan Doran and Christopher Durston, Princes, Pastors, and People: The Church and Religion in England, 1500-1700, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2003): 49. ↑
- Buchanan, “The Position of the President Revisited,” 116. ↑
- Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke, Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547-c.1700 (London: Oxford University Press, 2007): 161. ↑
- Reisner, N. (2007). Textual sacraments: Capturing the numinous in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. Renaissance Studies, 21(5), p. 664. See also Nicholas Tyacke’s “Lancelot Andrewes and the Myth of Anglicanism” in Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier’s (2000) Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church 1560-1660. ↑
- Peter Lake’s label for this minority movement, “avant-garde conformity” has really caught on, but it obscures the fact that many of their ceremonial preferences, which they began to enforce in the 1630s, altered the standard of conformity. Many old Jacobean conformists found themselves regarded as Caroline non-conformists, though their practices had not changed. As much as those they ridiculed as “puritan,” this movement actively sought to alter the status quo and did not scruple to break the letter of the law to advance what they viewed as the spirit of true religion. ↑
- J. T. Tomlinson, “The North Side of the Table.” Church Association Tracts No. 88. London: Church Association, 1887. Retrieved from http://archive.churchsociety.org/publications/documents/CAT088_NorthSide.pdf; also see Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden, 1848): 265. ↑
- John Campbell, “The Quarrel over the Communion Table.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 40(2), 1971: 173. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42973299. See also Fincham and Tyacke (2007), Altars Restored, p. 116. ↑
- Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts, Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Patrick Collinson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 197-201; Buchanan, “The Position of the President Revisited,” 117-118; Tomlinson, “The North Side of the Table.” ↑
- Elizabeth Williamson, The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama (New York: Routledge, 2016): 97; Buchanan, “The Position of the President Revisited,” 116; Peter Abraham, “The Use of Hierarchy in the Post-Reformation Church: Laudian Altar Policy in the Diocese of Winchester.” Anglican and Episcopal History, 72(2), 2003: 184. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42612315. ↑
- Calvin Lane, “Before Hooker: The Material Context of Elizabethan Prayer Book Worship.” Anglican and Episcopal History, 74(3), 2005: 351-352. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.libez.lib.georgiasouthern.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001578572. ↑
- Fincham and Tyacke (2007), Altars Restored, p. 107. ↑
- Ibid., p. 324. ↑
- The 1637 that Charles I attempted to promulgate in the Church of Scotland gives an indication of the kinds of changes the Caroline ceremonialists would like to have made to the Jacobean Prayer Book of 1604. See Fincham and Tyacke (2007), Altars Restored, p. 157. ↑
- Both images taken from Early English Books Online, ProQuest LLC. ↑
- Image taken from Early English Books Online, ProQuest. ↑
- Lang, Turning Towards the Lord, 110. ↑
- Stott, “Why I Value the North Side Position.” ↑