By Father Ted

“Why don’t you preside from the other side of the altar?”

It’s the most common question I’ve been asked over the last few weeks, and I have answered it in a few different ways. In truth, I have enjoyed answering the question because it means that, for so many of you, the way we celebrate the Eucharist really matters.

The question comes from a place of curiosity, but usually from the perspective that the current set-up isn’t quite right, that a small adjustment one way or another would improve our worship. And it’s true that we could adjust the room; nothing is nailed down. However, there’s give-and-take in every liturgical decision, and while there are some drawbacks to the current set-up, there are also some wonderful opportunities.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have worshipped in buildings of all shapes and sizes: from small house-churches to large basilicas, and from clap-board meeting houses to enormous arenas. The living Body of Christ changes all the time, and so do its needs, preferences, and resources. As our houses of worship have changed, so have our liturgical practices. But two things that have never gone away are the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. The use of fonts and altars has endured since the earliest days of the Church.

However, our beliefs and rituals around these two sacraments have gone through near-constant periods of reformation, reclamation, and renewal. Like the king on a chess board, altars and fonts have slowly moved from place to place in our churches. And as the altar would move, the position of the minister who presided over the Eucharist would move, too. (1) There were times when the altar was firmly fixed on the east wall, and the presider said the prayers of consecration with his back toward the entire assembly. (2) There have been times when the altar was pulled away from the east wall, and the presider stands behind it, facing the assembly. (3) There were times when a table was brought into the middle of the assembly, and the priest presided from the midst of the people. (4) And there was even a time when the altar was set sideways in the aisle, and the presider said the prayers from the north side of the table. If you are someone that likes to visit different kinds of churches, you can find congregations that worship in all of those configurations today.

In the nave and sanctuary at Transfiguration, we worship in that second style, with the altar removed a few feet from the east wall, and the priest presiding versus populum, meaning, toward the people. It is the style that best fits our beliefs (our baptismal ecclesiology and our theology of the Eucharist) and our building. It is usually contrasted with the first style, with the altar is fixed to the wall and the priest presiding ad orientem, meaning, to the east. Those who prefer ad orientem celebration cherish the symbol of priest and people all moving in the same direction, toward God, but it can too easily turn the mass into a spectator sport, where the mass is celebrated for the people instead of by the people.

But back to Roper Hall.

As I wrote two weeks ago, Roper Hall is a great fellowship hall, but it was not built to host our weekly worship services. We considered arranging the room to worship versus populum, which fits our theology, but there was no elegant way to arrange the room without reducing the seating capacity. To be honest, we didn’t really work on an ad orientem arrangement because it because it doesn’t speak well to our baptismal ecclesiology, and our theology of the Eucharist is too high to do that weird, sideways, north side of the altar thing. (I’d explain that in more detail, but this article is already too long…)

Instead of problems, we saw opportunities, and we put the altar in the middle of the room. Instead of the priest celebrating ad orientem or versus populum, the entire congregation is celebrating ad centrum: toward the center. (Full disclosure: I made that term up.) It works with the room, which is a big box without a focal point, and it reflects our theology, which says that the Eucharist is properly celebrated by the entire assembly of baptized Christians.

But back to the question: Why don’t you preside from the other side of the altar? Well, here are a couple of thoughts:

  • It provides consistency with our Saturday service, where no one is seated in the conference room areas.
  • If the presider faced the other way, they would be staring right into that divider wall, which would be less than ideal.
  • The main part of the hall holds 152 people while the conference rooms hold only 97, so this way, fewer people are actually behind the clergy.

If you are still a bit unsure about who is facing where, I’d like to offer one final perspective: The chairs and pews are arranged so that when you are seated, as you are for the sermon, you have the most comfortable view of the ambo. It is harder to twist your body when you are sitting down in a chair. But when we celebrate the Eucharist, we stand, and we don’t have to face the same direction as the furniture. Remember way back to 4 weeks ago: how our bodies naturally turned toward the gospel book when it was read from the middle of the nave? Very few people have ever been concerned about the fact that the gospeler’s back was toward them during the gospel reading. Perhaps this perspective can help you choose where you would like to sit this weekend.

Our greatest hope is that you find a place on Saturday evening or Sunday morning where you can worship God with your entire body, mind, and soul. We want you to feel comfortable and welcomed. We want you to be nourished from the riches of God’s grace, and we want to you be in community with one another. One day, we will return to the nave and sanctuary, and we’ll tell the next generation of parishioners about how we had to worship in Roper Hall for six months. But when we move back to the church, I hope we hold onto the good things that we gained in this in-between time: a sense of closeness, the joy of seeing parishioners faces instead of only the backs of their heads, and the understanding that it takes all of us to celebrate the mysteries of Holy Communion.

Father Ted+

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