Paradoxes of our ecclesiae: altars, women, and ad orientem

A wonderful thing about our increasingly frequent ecumenical conversations is learning from each other what is held commonly and what is held in particularity to the practice, doctrine, and ethos of our individual traditions. And then there is that third rail, when a phrase, or concept, or practice has the same name but results from and into very different understandings. Example: ad orientem presiding. The practice may look similar (and is similar) in different ecclesial communities, but the impetus and advocacy shape the conversation for and against in very different ways.

Many of us know the historical, theological, and ministerial assumptions that can accompany the conversation in Roman Catholic circles – and with those – strongly held opinions that make ad orientem presiding the tip of a political iceberg. But the same historical practice in Anglicanism (and here outside of the US, let’s say Canada) often carries a theological neutrality. There is the reality of many small older church buildings where limits of space, as well as money for renovation, make an altar against the wall the only possible reality – a continuity of practicality, not theology. And, unlike the US, the Anglican Church of Canada still has two distinct official eucharistic rites, the Book of Common Prayer (1962, closely linked to the 1662), and the 1985 Book of Alternative Services. The former rite belongs to the particularity of Anglican rites and often continues an eastward celebration as part of the ritual ‘package’, the latter belongs to the commonality of the ecumenical liturgical movement of the 20th century and, if a spatial choice is available, is generally celebrated versus populum.

This may be sufficient introduction to background reflection on several conversations regarding east-facing eucharistic celebrations and gender issues, prompted by conversations and shared experiences with students over the last year. First was the desire on the part of several presiders and other liturgical ministers for the presider to “get out of the way.” This is exacerbated in smaller buildings in which the tendency (arising from sight lines, audibility issues, or a general cluelessness) of some presiders to stand front and centre facing the community gives the impression that the singing, the creed, and the intercessory prayers are actually directed to the presider. Joined to the renewed focus in liturgical theology on God acting on us in liturgy, rather than the liturgy as something that we alone ‘do,’ the challenges of the placement of the one presiding throughout the liturgy have been increasingly questioned. In addition, the simultaneous reality that we offer “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” not only through Christ but with Christ as ‘the Body’ has raised questions of what the whole of the gathering of the baptized offering praise and thanksgiving together actually looks like.

Several recent articles have added to a breadth of theologies about what might be the advantages and disadvantages of ad orientem liturgy, particularly Anglican Stephen Shaver’s “O Oriens: Reassessing Eastward Eucharistic Celebration for Renewed Liturgy” in ATR 94:3 (2012). Shaver argues from outward expressions of Christology, baptismal ecclesiology, and eschatology in which he sees the unified directionality of the whole worshipping community as together (the ecclesiology) facing the East with its multiplicity of Christological associations, and countering the “vacuity of the myth of triumphalism that can accompany a too-realized eschatology” (455) through the open-ended east side of the community worshipping what they are not, God, and acknowledging the ‘not yet’ of the heavenly banquet.

Shaver’s contribution is particularly interesting when read together with the earlier work of systematic theologian Sarah Coakley, whose 2004 article “The Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?” (ATR 86:1, 75-93) readily subverted the assumptions of many on the nature of priesthood and traditional gender language of altar and church when the priest is a woman. In reflecting on her writing, Jason Fout writes that her turn toward theology as itself liminal in academic dialogue and pastoral application is linked to her reflection on the liminality of “the eucharistic celebrant, specifically as a woman standing on the threshold that is the altar.” (ATR 94:2, 2012,332)

It is that limina – the altar, together with the several theologies above, that fascinated our small group of worshippers with east-facing eucharistic presidency. Yes, the cult of personality, magnified in smaller spaces, was diminished, and the unity of directionality and theology of the east were emphasized in a series of evening eucharistic liturgies. But it was the elusive dualities of gender – undone by our triune God, and the duality of imminence and transcendence – undone by divine action, that were allowed to come to the centre. In the seeming duality of eucharistic leader as both presider (leading people before God) and celebrant (mediating God to the gathered assembly) – actually undone by the priest as “beater of the liminal bounds between the divine and the human”, the subversive, countercultural nature of the Eucharist, offering to God what is God’s – bread, wine, ourselves “our souls and bodies”, was embodied but not fixed. What emerged in a paradoxical way was the reality that the mystery of the sacrament is uncontrolled, as much real absence as real presence, seen and unseen, realized yet not fulfilled. These were not vehicles to the worship of God that come only with east-facing altars and women presiders, but for many of us in this weekly celebration there was a glimpse through the contradictory practices of a dynamism in the divine human encounter because of the unexpected juxtapositions.

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