The Anglican Tradition and Ad Orientem

by Cody Maynus

Most Pray Tell readers are likely aware of the recent kerfuffle over the celebration of the Eucharist ad oreintam. Cardinal Sarah of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments pledged his support, seemingly suggesting that all priests should reorient their liturgical posture. Cardinal Nichols of London contradicted his brother bishop and suggested that priest continue to celebrate versus populum (with support from the Jesuit Father Antoni Spodaro by way of several tweets.)

The recent discussion about the orientation of the liturgy is not reserved only for Roman Catholics. Anglicans, too, are taking their part in the conversation. Although Cardinal Sarah and his preferences do not having juridical bearing on Anglicans, our shared participation in the Eucharist makes this conversation an important one for us also.

My point of entry into the conversation comes by way of the Covenant, which is the blog affiliated with the Living Church Foundation, a consortium of Episcopalians who identify as “communion-minded and –committed Anglicans from several nations, devoted to seeking and serving the full visible unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

Prompted by Cardinal Sarah’s request, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield (Ill.) penned a defense of the liturgy versus populum titled “Facing into the Eucharist.” He begins by acknowledging that he “could not have imagined he day when celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem…would be considered cutting edge, nouveau, très chic.”

The Rev. Dr. Matthew S.C. Olver, who teaches liturgy and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wis., offered a counter-point at the Covenant titled “Further Facing into the Eucharist: A Friendly Response to Bishop Martins,” which incidentally is an update of “The Orientation of Preparation,” an article he wrote exactly one year previously.

 “Sound sacramental theology requires us to make the connection between the common and the holy as clear and robust as we can,” writes Bishop Martins. “Eucharist is more than a meal, but it is at least a meal. The phenomenon of liturgical practice – what the event looks like and feels like to a participant – must not obscure that connection.” To this argument, Fr. Olver responds, “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.

The arguments made by Bishop Martins and Fr. Olver are not new, nor would they surprise most Roman Catholics. They are important, however, because they highlight that dialogue in one tradition impacts and is impacted by the dialogue in other traditions. While neither Cardinal Sarah nor Cardinal Nichols have anything officially to do with the way the Episcopal Church celebrates the Eucharist, their conversation matters. Anglicans and Roman Catholics do not yet share perfect communion, but what we do share is the centrality of the Eucharist in our lives in community and our lives in Christ.

It’s clear that there are a number of great (and not a few awful) arguments about our posture during the liturgy. I remain hopeful in spite of – perhaps even because of – these arguments. They reveal to me that, while Anglicans and Roman Catholics are not united in perfect communion, we both hold the Eucharist as central to our lives in community and our lives in Christ. Since the Eucharist is central, it follows that the way we celebrate Eucharist matters. Whether our priests are facing the altar or the people, what matters is that we are making the conscience choice to keep facing God in the Eucharist who, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “is the rising sun of history.”

Cody Maynus is an M.A. in Monastic Studies student in Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary.


  1. If I may place cat in the pigeon coop. The Book of Common Prayer quite specifically directs : “The Table at the Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel, where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said. And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table shall say the Lord’s Prayer with the Collect following, the people kneeling.” All other rubrics following that one.

    Some illustrations of the Book of Common Prayer, show the northern orientation of the celebrant with the faithful gathered at the south, a sort of semi east and semi versus – is that not the redoubtable Anglican compromise at its most liturgical?

    And as post script, the frescoes within the 4th century San Clemente, commissioned in the 11th century, show St Clement, in a famous scene, celebrating Eucharist – behind him the ministers and before him, across the altar, the faithful.

    1. @Martin Badenhorst OP:
      The language you quote is from traditional Anglican books (ex., the 1928 American BCP). The 1979 American book states (p. 406) “The Holy Table is spread with a clean white cloth during the celebration,” and makes no mention of orientation. The 2004 Irish book simply states that “The priest stands at the Lord’s Table. The people kneel.”

      1. @John Schuster-Craig:

        Right-ish. The 1928 American BCP just reads, “At the Communion time the Holy Table shall have upon it a fair white linen cloth, and the Priest, standing reverently before the Holy Table…” The American BCPs did read “North side” until 1833, when it was replaced with “right side,” whatever that means. Correct side? Epistle side? I’d have to dig,

        The proposed 1928 English Prayerbook, which did not pass Parliament (ha!), also reads, “At the Communion-time the Holy Table shall have upon it a fair
        white linen cloth. And the Priest, standing reverently before the Holy

        My sense of it is it was on the way out as the Oxford movement started and was mostly killed off by the Cambridge movement later in the 1800s.

    2. @Martin Badenhorst OP:
      You are quite right when it comes to the “English” Prayer Book, but the American BCP which both Bishop Dan Martins and I are bound to use has different rubrics. Before the Susum corda, they read, “The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest, faces them [the People] and sings or says…” Then, after the third response, the rubrics read, “Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds.” There is no mention of the north end in American BCPs after 1833, after which is speaks of the “right side” of the Altar in the opening rubric; in 1928, the rubrics are changed significantly so that it now says, “t the Communion time the Holy Table shall have upon it a fair white linen cloth, and the Priest, standing reverently before the Holy Table…” The rubrics in 1928 at the time of the Eucharistic Prayer itself are clear that the Priest turns to the people for the exchange and then back to the Altar for the Preface and all that follows.

  2. Has the historical “north end” posture of an Anglican priest when celebrating the Eucharist influenced current Anglican perspectives on liturgical theology and the practical aspects of posture?

  3. To continue the cat in the pigeon coop – Fr. Olver, IMO, completely ignores VII’s liturgical statements about the *table of the Lord* – he all but dismisses it. Also, neither makes any connection to their ecclesiology from which their Eucharistic understanding would come out of.
    Finally, given all of the more recent studies and publications about the nature of *sacrifice* – would suggest that Fr. Olver’s emphasis on sacrifice misses the point. Suggest that he study Rev. Daly, SJ or Kilmartin’s work.

    Edward J. Kilmartin, S.J. The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology. Edited by Robert J. Daly, S.J. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, A Pueblo Book. 1998. In his posthumously published account of The Eucharist in the West, Edward Kilmartin asserts that “what can be described as the modern average Catholic theology of eucharistic sacrifice is, in general, a weak synthesis without a future.”

    Robert J. Daly, S.J. Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice

    Key concept: The biblical and liturgical renewal in all of the Churches has helped all Christians grow in sacramental awareness. Through this lens of sacrament we can understand the eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice. And the meal the sacramental sign of the sacrifice. We no longer need to argue about “meal / sacrifice?

    The core of the eucharistic liturgy is love: unity of Christians in Christ and with one another in the Spirit of Christ who is the soul of the Church. This unity is the essential presupposition of the possibility of the authentic eucharistic celebration and not merely an effect of the reception of the eucharistic flesh and blood. (Kilmartin, 24)

  4. My copy of an older Church of Ireland ceremonial provides guidance for north end celebrations but does warn that they are awkward. It also offers rules for the traditional sacred ministers at such services.

    I’ve seen pics of a very elegant north end service from Bangor Cathedral in which the sacred ministers wore copes. The pics can be found on line.

    The scholarly Bishop Peter Robinson of the UEC knows far more about these practices than I since he has experience celebrating at the north end in churches in Ireland and England.

  5. Speaking of +Nichols, it’s truly sad to see him perpetuating the falsehood that the GIRM prefers versus populum, despite it’s clarification some time ago, as well as the idea that priests who face the direction that Latin rite priests have faced for most of our history are somehow abusing their personal preferences.

  6. I’ve always thought it odd that I never hear it mentioned that 20th-century Episcopalians (with centuries of controversy and legislation about the “position” of the celebrant) and Lutherans (who had, so far as I know, never dreamed of anything but the “ad orientem” stance) changed soon after Catholics did. At least many, if not most, of them did.

    1. @Roger Evans:
      Remember that Luther himself advocated that Mass be celebrated “versus populum” in his 1526 Deutsche Messe, and that some Lutheran churches were being built which would have allowed this in the early 20th century, that is, before the now much debated 1964 Inter Oecumenici. Further, both Lutherans and Anglicans are today products not only of the same Liturgical Movement as Roman Catholics but of similar influential movements within their communions. Liturgical scholarship among Anglicans, for example (cf. the Alcuin Club Collections and the products of the Henry Bradshaw Society, both of which are still going strong) was going on for a long time in parallel to what was taking place in Benedictine houses on the continent, just as Lutheranism was experiencing a “confessional” movement in Bavaria and elsewhere. Together with developments in the Church of South India there is no question that liturgical influence went in several directions at the same time. Who can doubt, for another example, the influence, for good or ill, of Gregory Dix’s ‘Shape of the Liturgy’ (1945) which is even partly enshrined in the GIRM?

  7. Roger Evans : I’ve always thought it odd that I never hear it mentioned that 20th-century Episcopalians … and Lutherans … changed soon after Catholics did. At least many, if not most, of them did.

    Many Protestants recognized the value of the careful work of Vatican 2, including the three-year Lectionary cycle. We lament that the common texts developed by ICET/ICEL are no longer shared due to RM3.

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