From Greek Orthodoxy: Priest Facing the People across the Altar

The site Mystagogy reports on the celebration, with the approval of the local Greek bishop, of the Divine Liturgy of Sarapion (4th century Egyptian bishop) in a revival of a historical rite.

Greek 1

The first surprise, of course, is that the priest is facing the people, using an altar set up in front of the iconostasis. Here are some other photos of the liturgy:

Greek 2

Greek 3

Greek 4

Greek 5

I’m told that there is a tendency in Greece to resurrect ancient liturgies such as those of Jame, Sarapion, Mark, or Gregory the Theologian, along with some liturgical experimentation. This can mean the priest faces the people, or Communion is given separately rather than by intinction.

No doubt these experimental events are efforts to bring people closer to the liturgy. There is a populist streak to all this, for such events are popular and attract crowds. So versus populum isn’t just a post-Vatican II Roman thing.




  1. I wonder if we have (archeological? textual?) evidence that 4th century liturgy in Egypt was celebrated versus populum and this was done for historical authenticity, or whether it was done for pastoral reasons unrelated to the provenance of the liturgy.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2:
        This is very interesting. Do you know if the liturgy was in koine or modern greek?

        Also, do the people who advocate such practices disparage and seek to stamp out the standard practice of the Orthodox Church?

      2. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #10:
        One could do something (in part) because it draws a crowd without disparaging something else. I don’t see the problem or understand your question.

      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #14:
        Oh I wasn’t accusing anyone of disparaging ad orientem, I was only wondering whether or not those in the East who advocate versus populum also disparage ad orientem which is generally how it has been in the west. I’ve attended byzantine liturgies celebrated versus populum and thought that it worked very well, I only have a problem with people arguing that the two postures are incompatible.
        As for my question about the crowds, you seemed imply in your comment #2 that these versus populum celebrations draw crowds and that this is the motivation behind the practice. I was just curious as to whether you have any information concerning whether or not this is indeed why there are crowds at these events. (E.g. Patriarch Bartholomew has celebrated Divine Liturgy versus populum on numerous occasions and there were large crowds at these liturgies, but I think it more likely that people showed up at those events because it was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and an important festival, rather than that it was a chance to have liturgy versus populum.)

  2. The question is, however, whether they would have adopted this setup if Vatican II never happened. Highly unlikely IMHO. So I don’t think you can divorce this liturgical experimentation from our post-Vatican II context.

  3. Metropolitan Seraphim was one of the two bishops who sent Pope Francis the letter informing him of heresy last April. His diocese, indeed the whole Church of Greece, is generally very conservative and generally very anti-ecumenical. With respect to the priest facing the people, I don’t think it’s likely that it is an instance of Vatican II influencing pastoral decision making (or even influencing the mindset and desires of the flock). Indeed, I would imagine that for Metropolitan Seraphim, if he’s ever motivated to act in light of Western practices, he would in principle adopt the opposite practice, just to be safe.

    What I find interesting is that in a post on the celebration of a (long) defunct liturgy, the very idea of resurrecting such a thing went without comment. Aren’t we supposed to be concerned that the Divine Liturgy of St. Serapion of Thmuis isn’t speaking to these modern men and women? 😉

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #5:

      I’ve seen photos of several Greek Orthodox and a Romanian Orthodox church using the six candles in a row on the altar. Also, there is a video on You Tube of a Greek Orthodox bishop in Jerusalem pontificating at a celebration of the liturgy of St. James and he’s facing the people. This practice isn’t one just recently introduced either.

      Wasn’t the whole idea of the eucharist facing the people from Luther’s time for pedagogic reasons? He saw the Lord’s Supper as an extension of the gospel that had just been delivered facing the people from the pulpit.

  4. I don’t think this is all that new….the Greek Orthodox for quite a few years all around the world have used practices like versus populum and even Communion in the hand ( though usually in non-parish settings like monasteries) when celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. James, once or twice in the year. I’m not sure though whether it is so much for the people or a differing interpretation of certain rubrics. I have been in a couple of settings in the Holy Land, where the clergy seem anything but pastorally motivated (not meaning this to be an indictment of ALL the clergy who celebrate the rite – only that particular circumstance)

  5. Notice that these positions are used for liturgies other than the official ones of the Greek Church.

    Remember what happened when a bishop used the demotike a few years ago for the lections? Lots of pushing and shoving and murmuring. Imagine their reaction to serious changes!

  6. It looks very reform-of-the-reform (and I have friends who tend to liken ROTR Masses to eastern liturgies). I don’t dislike liturgy that faces the people, though I don’t think it is superior in any way. I would hope that if the Greek Orthodox made it more common they would learn from the Latin Rite’s mistakes in regard to implementing the practice.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #17:
      I think he’s either the cantor standing at the microphone singing or George Filias, the professor of liturgical theology in Athens explaining the liturgy.

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