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It is often said that priests who continue celebrating the Eucharist on an eastward-facing altar are doing so "back to the people" - as if his motivation was to "re-clericalise" the Mass and remove it from the people. Why would a priest ever want to do that?

This little article does not have any pretense to being a scholarly piece of work or even original. There are many fine works written over the years, in particular Zum Herrn hin (turned to the Lord) by the late Monsignor Klaus Gamber and warmly recommended by the present Pope. Here, our purpose is to give brief introduction to the subject for those who have never gone into it, and who might go on to studying the matter in greater depth.

Establishing the question from a different angle, most Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have installed a freestanding altar or a table to stand in front of the hitherto disused high altar or to replace it altogether. This was to be the new and definitive arrangement of churches to allow popular participation in the Eucharist from the 1960's and 70's, and it led to many highly regrettable re-orderings and "wreckovations" of fine medieval, baroque and Victorian church buildings. The proponents of Mass facing the people would claim that this was the practice of the early Church of before medieval clericalism!

For us Anglicans, the eastward position was one of the six points claimed by the Ritualists in the mid 19th century. From the 16th century, the Ornaments Rubric in the Prayer Book was dead letter, and the altars were replaced by wooden tables. When the Eucharist was celebrated, the table (or God's Board) would be carried from the place where the old altar had stood, and was placed in the choir so that its ends followed the east-west axis of the church. Those few faithful who wished to receive Communion would draw near with faith and gather on the south side of the table. The priest would occupy the north side. He faced the communicants across the table. This way of doing things prevailed until about the time of Charles II and the Restoration of the 1660's. From then on, the table was left in place with a three-sided communion rail around it, and the north side became the north end, since the table was no longer moved. Outside service times, the table had the appearance of an altar, especially when it was covered with a cloth. The communicants would no longer approach the table, but would stop at the communion rail placed between the choir and the altar. The Anglo-Catholics of the 19th century needed to do nothing to the church or its furniture. They simply stood on the west side of the altar facing eastwards like the pre-Reformation priests at the original stone altar.

There is an aesthetic consideration concerning the position of the altar and the modification of an old church, but the most important thing is the theological and spiritual dimension. The altar and its position in the building are highly symbolic. Liturgical objects, gestures and texts have profound spiritual meaning and express the belief of Christians. Change the outward expression and you change the belief and spiritual life of the people.

First of all, even if the priest is physically facing away from the people, he is not doing so to exclude them. He is leading the people in prayer to God who is the priest's God as much as the people's. The eastward-facing Eucharist is universal in the western and eastern Churches. According to the work of scholars like Jungmann, Gamber and Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), the eastward-facing Eucharist goes right back to the beginning of the Church's history. The Roman basilicas are westward-facing, and on account of this, the celebrant faces east and the people at the same time. In ancient times, the people turned away from the altar for prayer, so they had their back to the altar! Few people know this, and even scholars were once induced in this way to think that Mass facing the people was an ancient practice. It is not.

Why face east? Is not God everywhere? The east is associated with the coming of Christ, using the image of the rising sun. In Matthew 24,27 Jesus says, For as the lightning [the light of the sun - not thunderbolts] cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Christians pray facing the east because they await the Lord's coming - in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and in the Last Judgement. The Jews pray towards the Temple of Jerusalem and the Muslims pray in the direction of their sacred shrine at Mecca. Through God is everywhere, man has a need for a symbol of place and direction. Turning towards the Lord is a symbol of conversion (in the etymological meaning of that word), and acknowledging that God chose to dwell in a place - the Holy of Holies of the Temple in the Old Testament. The repentance that ended the exile of Israel was turning toward the Temple, ultimately the living temple that is Jesus. In the traditional posture of priest and people facing the same direction, the eastward position, we are offering our prayer through Jesus, the New Temple, to the Father who is in heaven.

Saying that the priest has his back to the people betrays ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding of liturgical symbolism. Journalists and secular-minded Christians thus betray their failure to understand that heaven is the true goal of Christian life, and that doing good for other people is but a consequence of our devotion to God.

Looking at the question from another point of view, the practice of facing the people over an altar placed in the middle of the church has not only created eyesores in once-harmonious buildings, it has the tendency of making of the Christian community a self-worshipping circle! What is even more blatant was not only the position of the priest at the altar but pushing the cross or crucifix to one side. In the 1960's and 70's, the priest would become an entertainer, a talk-show host. It is the ultimate in clericalism: the president, or whatever he is called, becomes the new object of worship! As a youth, I always had the impression of seeing Buddha or one of those Hindu deities on his altar when seeing a Eucharist celebrated in the new (facing the people) fashion!

Now, everything depends on the priest. The notion of participation is no longer spiritual, but in the manner of a variety show on television. They talk of creativity, and the church has become like the market place, with secularised Christians chattering and putting God out of the picture. The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle in the words of Pope Benedict XVI writing when he was still a Vatican Cardinal. The eastward-facing liturgy leaves the church as a sacred space, inspiring us to silence and prayer.

The Mass must not be a "circle" but open to God. It is not a mere human creation, even though it was indeed written and organised by men of the Church - but over centuries and acting according to a notion of revered Tradition. The liturgy was devised for man, for God does not need it, but it helps man to respond to God by prayer and acts of religion. The liturgy that best does this is one that has centuries of tradition behind it, making us aware that we are not alone in time and space, but members of a Universal Church.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, a well-known Dominican priest and theologian, wrote that the re-enchantment of the Catholic Liturgy is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time. We need to rediscover a sense of wonder and awe in the liturgy that alone can shake us out of spiritual sleep and indifference. My own experience has always been, since my boyhood in the 1960's and 70's, that the Eucharist has to be celebrated facing the east on the traditional altar to impress me. The Mass facing the people (with the casual modern language and mediocre music) bored me to tears !!!

We are grateful that the question of liturgical orientation is discussed in the mainstream of the Catholic Church, and that the once-assumed permanence of the altar or table facing the people is being questioned. More and more churches are returning to the eastward position or at least adopting the "Benedictine arrangement" - two or six candlesticks arranged symmetrically on a westward-facing altar with a central cross, in order to reintroduce the notion of liturgical orientation to the faithful gradually and without causing conflict or other disturbances. We in the TAC and other Continuing Anglican Churches always use the eastward position even though we use a diversity of rites for the Eucharist.

Progress is being made, and this fundamental symbol will certainly do more than anything else to restore the traditional notion of the Church and the Christian religion.