This simple question is, quite often, an invitation for heated debate and argument. The gist of all the various opinions and arguments is found in the invocation of one little single-syllable word: should.
We’ll get into the complications provided by that little word shortly. Firstly, however, I would like to give as basic and direct an answer to the initial question as I can.
What matters in the performance of our liturgy? We are Episcopalians, so what matters is the use of The 1979 Book of Common Prayer and its affiliated approved resources (such as The Book of Occasional Services, the 1982 Hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing II, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, etc.). These matter because they are the product of faithful people called by God and empowered by the Christians of the Episcopal Church, working faithfully to produce them. And then they are accepted as part of our church by way of (hopefully*) prayerful voting and reception.
These matter because they are the resources that define us and give us a common language and identity. Most especially The Book of Common Prayer, which is—for us—the book that applies the words of scripture to day-to-day Christian living.
And the use of that book expects adherence to the rubrics—those italicized stage directions—found therein. Not only do the words by themselves matter, but so do the enactments of those words.
Are we still Christians if we don’t use those words? In most cases, yes. But we cease to be Episcopalians if we use different words. That is why we have a book of “common prayer.” It provides the “grammar” for the kind of Christians we Episcopalians are.
Now, let’s talk about “should,”
Things get complicated by that little word because it is, quite often, a subjective word. The only things we Episcopalians should do is worship Jesus Christ in the manner prescribed by The Book of Common Prayer. That’s it.
But we take that little “should” word and apply to all sorts of little things.
To take a page from a debate happening in the Roman Catholic Church (and one that will no doubt gain steam in The Episcopal Church in coming years, if my peers are any indication), we’ll talk about which direction the priest should face during Holy Communion.
Right now there is a considerable amount of dialogue and discussion going on among Roman Catholics about what is known as ad orientum celebration of the Mass. This is a Latin word that refers to everyone being oriented the same way—in simpler words, the priest says Mass with his back toward the people.
For various reasons leading all the way back through the Protestant Reformation, there was a push for Holy Communion to be celebrated with the minister facing the people (the Latin term for this is versus populum). This took a long time to find acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church, but was common among many Protestants and among Anglicans/Episcopalians beginning in the 16th century. It wasn’t until 1963 that Rome permitted the use of versus populum celebration, following the Second Vatican Council.
Now, in the Episcopal Church, there has long been an element known as “the Anglo-Catholic movement” that prefers the Tridentine Mass and has adapted The Book of Common Prayer to be used in such a context, with the altar “against the wall” and the priest celebrating ad orientem. And you will find many Episcopalians (a growing number among the millennial demographic, which is a surprise to many others) saying that “east-facing” (i.e. the aforementioned ad orientem) celebration is the way it should be.
Opposite of that, you will find many Episcopalians who think that the priest should face toward the congregation. Or even that the altar should be in the center of the church. This, of course, is added to the ideas that the priest should wear all the vestments or should wear few vestments; should chant more or should never chant; that we should sing only hymnody or we should sing only contemporary praise and worship songs. I could go on.
What happens quite often is that should gets confused with “I prefer.” The word should implies an objective standard. But, when we dig into the rubrics of the Prayer Book, we find that the objective standard permits a fair degree of variation.
Again, what matters—what we should be doing—is the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Much of the rest is a matter of preference.
But because it is a matter of preference does not mean it is arbitrary. On the contrary. That the Book of Common Prayer allows for such variation is a provision for opportunity. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” the Psalmist sings. Now, beauty is a broad concept.
As a priest—specifically the rector of a parish—I am the chief liturgist of my congregation. This means that it is my calling, my work, to share with God’s people something beautiful.
In my mind, the most beautiful form of worship is the Divine Liturgy of a Greek or Russian Orthodox Church. The deep chants filling the room, surrounded by icons, the place effused with incense, the gilded vestments, and the deep other-worldliness of the event always makes me feel as though I’m in the heavenly realm. This is my preference. As a priest, it is my responsibility to temper my preferences of beauty with what my congregation finds beautiful. It is not my job to impose my ideas of beauty. But it is my job to challenge them and to stretch them and their notions of beauty.
Getting back to the location of the altar for a moment, let’s consider this: every configuration has its own merits.
The east-facing altar is intended to orient the entire gathered congregation into a common posture of prayer. We all face toward the cross, toward Jerusalem, toward the Risen Savior. The priest is a leader from among the people, presiding and gathering the offerings of God’s people and placing them upon the altar with the full support and force of the people’s prayers moving behind her/him.
The west-facing altar is a welcome table. The people of God see their gifts placed upon that table and bear witness to the miracle of the Mass with their own eyes. The priest (who is often quick to deny this assertion) is serving as an icon of Christ at the Last Supper—concelebrating** with Him and actively remembering Him, His words and actions, for the benefit of God’s people. And, finally, the priest points to The Risen and Deathless One found in the bread and wine, inviting them to come and eat.
The altar placed in the center of the room is the one that most profoundly recalls the actions of the Last Supper, where Jesus instituted the sacred meal of the Mass. It recalls and proclaims the words of the Savior “when two or three are gathered together, I will be in their midst” and “the Kingdom of God is among you.” It bridges the theologies inherent in both east- and west-facing altars in that, like the east-facing Mass, the actions of the table are the common and universal focal point of God’s people and, like the west-facing Mass, this work happens before the eyes of God’s people.
When we can see the merits and beauty of each of these configurations, we can see the utter obliteration of should.
What matters is the competent and careful execution of the liturgy as found in the Prayer Book. The configuration and context of each parish will provide different emphases and different lights on our common prayer and worship.
In this understanding we begin to see that there is no should. Instead it reveals to us that there is an abundance of what is true and beautiful. And that, no matter what, we offer to God our worship. And God is pleased to receive it.
*I say “hopefully” here as a caveat. Because, human as we are, our liturgical formulations are not without particular agendas that may or may not be directed by the Spirit. The universal standard by which all Christians are expected to adhere is the Nicene Creed. If the language of our liturgies and the theology implied by that language goes beyond what is outlined in the Creed, then not only has it ceased to be “Episcopalian,” it has also ceased to be Christian. We must always be careful with the responsibility given us in this regard.
**Concelebration is a term that refers, in liturgical theology circles, to when two or more priests are at the altar for the Mass. In practice, the primary celebrant says the eucharistic prayer, while the concelebrating clergy mouth the words of that prayer and share in a few key sacramental actions. In truth, however, all priests are concelebrants with Christ, who offers to us His body and blood as bread and wine. Indeed, clergy would be well to recognize that the west-facing posture nearly overtly recalls the most common depictions of Jesus at the Last Supper. For some, this is seen as problematic. In truth, it needs to be seen as an opportunity for humility. The priest is an icon of Jesus in order for all Christians to recognize, in their own contexts, the ways in which they are icons of Jesus for the world.