Project Canterbury

From The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Volume 6),
edited by B. Talbot Rogers, New York: Longmans, Green, 1914, pp. 26-34

Plain Suggestions for a Reverent Celebration of the Holy Communion

by Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton


Chapter VI

The Eastward Position

Our churches, according to an old custom, usually stood east and west, with the chancel turned toward the east. It is no longer possible in cities to observe this custom. But in consequence of it, the chancel end is often technically called the east end, no matter in what point of the compass it stands.

The altar now ordinarily stands at the farther end of the chancel, and close to the wall, or its reredos, which rises behind it.

To stand before the long side of the altar, and to face the reredos, is what is called the eastward position.

That the priest is to stand while saying the consecration prayer has never been questioned. But it has been questioned whether he should stand not only when consecrating, but when he receives the communion. The rubric says that the priest shall first receive the communion in both kinds himself, and after that proceed to deliver the same to the people, into their hands, "all devoutly kneeling." The "all" who are here bidden to kneel surely does not include the priest. For if the "all kneeling" in the rubric applied to the priest, it would force him to go round the chancel delivering the sacrament on his knees. It, then, applies only to the people. Concerning himself, the rubric has told him to stand before the altar when he is consecrating, and gives him no direction to kneel when he receives. It leaves him in a standing position. To many who have been accustomed to kneel it may seem the more reverent way. But standing is as sacred a position in prayer as kneeling, and in receiving as well as offering the priest is acting, not as an individual, but in an official capacity. He officially completes the great transaction by partaking of the sacrifice he has offered. And this growing practice among us of receiving standing appears to have the sanction of the House of Bishops. In the direction given by them, in 1832, the priest, on account of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, is always to stand, save where he is expressly bidden to kneel. According to this direction, he will therefore kneel only at the confession and the prayer of humble access. He will not kneel at the silent prayer of preparation at the beginning of the service, nor at the prayer for Christ’s Church militant, nor when receiving the sacred elements. But as no one would wish to check reverence and devotion, the two ideas might well be combined by the priest, after receiving each kind in his official standing position, kneeling down for a brief moment for his own private prayer and act of homage.

The next point, where the priest is to stand at the time of the consecration, is one of more difficulty. The Reformers of the sixteenth century placed no direction in the Prayer-Book concerning it. But it led to great confusion and bitter contest in the times of Laud and the Stuarts, when party feeling ran high; and in the time of the Puritan Commonwealth, Dr. Wren was accused and tried for consecrating in the midst of the altar, which he contended was the place where he, being short of stature, and so not able without awkwardness to reach over from the north end to the elements, could with more readiness and decency break the bread before the people.

When, in 1662, he, with others, had the opportunity and power given them to determine this matter, they did it by placing in the Prayer-Book our present rubric. The traditional interpretation of this rubric in America, affected, perhaps, by the Scottish custom, has been to place the priest in the eastward position. It has not been considered much of a party matter. There have been differences, but this eastward position has been the more common practice. Some few clergyman have gone behind the altar and faced the people, which is the position we take in our pulpits when preaching to them. Some have gone to one end of the altar and thus separated themselves from the people by taking an attitude toward the altar different from them. Now and then this north-end position has been defended by very high Churchmen, who have adopted it, as liturgically correct, because it was at the north end of the altar, in the Jewish rite, that the victim was slain. But most commonly the priest has been content to take the same position toward the altar that the people take toward it, and to stand, as they do, before it. To the objection that the priest is thus standing with his back toward the people, it is a sufficient answer that he is doing not otherwise than the priest in the front pew is doing to the priest in the pew behind him; for all the baptized and confirmed are sharers, in their degree, in the priesthood. Our church people have accepted the eastward position as the common-sense construction of the rubric. So it has come to pass that what is called the eastward position has been commonly adopted in America.

But it is well to note that this position is in strict conformity with the directions of the rubric. The object of the new rubric was to settle the old dispute and determine the exact position of the clergyman at this point of the service. Consequently the rubric must be strictly construed in conformity with that intention. It declares that the priest is to stand "before the table."

Now the phrase "before the table" may have two meanings. First, it may mean "in the presence of." Let us suppose, for the sake of the investigation, that is has this sense. What follows? Every square or oblong table has four sides. If the words "before the table" means "in the presence of," then the directions of the rubric would be fulfilled at whichever one of the four sides of the table the priest may stand. At any side he would be in the presence of the table. But this would not be to construe the rubric in accordance with its intention and purpose. On the contrary, it would destroy its force as giving a precise direction as to position. It would allow every clergyman to do as he pleased. "Before the table" must therefore mean some one side of the table. This, we think, must be admitted. Which side, then, is it? Behind the table, or at one of the ends, or in front of it?

The Prayer-Book determines this by using the term "before" a second time in the same rubric. The priest must also stand "before the people," as well as "before the table." This gives us the clue to the true construction of the rubric. For, according to the rules of legal construction, a technical term in one clause of the law or rubric must have the same signification given to it as in any other part of the same rubric or law. In the latter use of the term, therefore, it cannot, any more than in the former use of it, mean "in the presence of" or "in the sight of the people." Here, as previously, it must be construed to designate the side where he is to stand. Regarding the people, as the rubric does, as a body of worshippers in the church, it cannot mean by the term "before" in their presence or sight, but must mean here, as it did when the term was previously used, at some one side of the people. If at some one side, three sides are excluded. Which are the three excluded sides?

Let us see. Clearly "before the people" does not mean behind or in the rear of the people, or at either end or on one of the flanks, but "before" here means, and can only mean, standing out in advance or in front of them. Seeing, then, that "before" means one side, it must here mean the side in front of the people.

Now let us go back to the first phrase, "before the table," and apply to it what we have learned. By the law of legal construction, similar words in the same rubric must mean the same thing. Consequently "before the table" must mean what we have seen "before the people" means. Since the latter means in front of the people, so the former must mean in front of the table. Is it asked, Which is the front of the table? The rubric has provided an answer. According to the rubric, the people and the table are the two sole objects by which the priest’s position is to be determined. These were put in the rubric for that purpose. Now these two objects face each other. The people face the table, and the table faces the people. The people front toward the table; the front of the table is that side which is toward the people. The priest must therefore so stand before the table as to be before the people, and before the people as to be before the table. The rubric orders him to stand "before the people," i.e., in front of it as it faces the people. It puts him between the two.

We can imagine an objector standing at one end of the table, claiming to be in front of the people. So far, so good. But in this case he is not before or in front of the table. To fulfil the rubric, he must be both at the same time. He might argue, and probably a good many honest-minded men do, that the table fronts him. Granted; but he, by his action, is not to determine which is the front. This is to place himself above the Church, and not make himself, as both bishop and priest are bound to do, the Church’s humble and obedient servant. This is not to seek for and be governed by the mind of the Church, as a loyal Anglican Churchman should, but to seek to force his mind and ways upon her. No matter how low a Churchman, he ought to feel that the Church is wiser than himself; and no matter how high a Churchman, that the Church he has sworn to be obedient to is higher than he. For any one to say, when he stands at the so-called north end or south end, that he faces the altar, and the altar faces him, may be granted. But he, by his own action, is not to determine which is the front of the altar. This were to make his action control the rubric, not the rubric control and direct him. The Church, by the rubric, orders the priest where he is to stand; and the two and only objects by which the rubric determines the priest’s position are the table and the people. They front each other; and the priest is ordered to stand "before the people," i.e., as they face the table, and "before the table," as it faces the people.

So far, then, as our examination of the rubric has gone, it places the priest between these two objects. This is the result of an honest and loyal attempt to know what the rubric means, irrespective of any theological or party considerations. But thus far the rubric does not say how the priest, standing between the two, is to face. It does not force him to face the people or the table. It merely, by an honest construction, puts him between the two. Nor does it determine whether he is to stand nearer the table or nearer to the people. These two further points are yet to be determined.

But the framers of the rubric of 1662 had been through a terrible and painful experience in this matter, and were not likely to omit any direction needful for the complete determination of the priest’s position. They therefore so worded the rubric as to force the priest to stand near the table, and to face it, by commanding him so to arrange or order the bread and wine that he may with more readiness break the bread and take the cup into his hands. These directions place him close to the altar, and with his back to the people. They, moreover, used the words with which Wren had defended himself before the Puritans, and declared that in this position he could with "more readiness and decency break the bread before the people." There is nothing in the history of the time or in the rubric to give colour to the absurd notion that "before the people" meant that the people should be able to see the manual actions, or than any one ever supposed that it was important that they should do so. The ancient way of standing was, in the mind of those who finally revised the Prayer-Book, the "decent" way.

Thus carefully and thoughtfully was a rubric framed by the Reformers in 1662, after their sad experience with the Puritans, who used to move the holy table about in divine service to suit their own sacrilegious notions – a rubric which, by determining the priest’s position, not by an easily avoided reference to the points of the compass, or by designating by name any side of the table, but by fixing the priest’s position solely by reference to the table and the people, placed the priest between the two, near the holy table, with his back to the people, and so secured, however the table might be turned or placed, the ancient position of the priest at the time of the consecration.

Surely every minister loyal to the Anglican communion, believing in the continuity of our Church, will take this position, in obedience to the Church’s order, in the furtherance of unity among ourselves, and as one assertion of our ancient heritage, and so far a protest against the exclusive claims of Rome.

return to Project Canterbury