A Priest leading a service with his back to the congregation may seem odd, if not rude. At St. Salvador’s, this is the usual way we conduct our liturgy. Why?
Since ancient times, Christians faced the direction of the sunrise to worship, mindful of Christ “the Sun of Righteousness” whose dawning brought light and salvation, and whose Resurrection from the dead took place just as the sun was rising on the first Easter Day. It was also a long-standing tradition that Christ would return in glory at the end of time from the east.
Jews faced Jerusalem when they prayed; Muslims faced Mecca. Christians turned in a direction that suggested Christ to them. This was the practise for a millennium, until the Protestant Reformation. Catholics in the Anglican tradition fought hard to restore the Priest to the eastward position in worship. They succeeded. However, after Vatican II even Roman Catholics shifted their Priests to face westward, from behind the altar.
Is the eastward position a liturgical emphasis worth preserving, especially when, by and large, most Christians now seek to reproduce the more cosy aspect of early worship, when believers faced each other across a table?
At St. Salvador’s we think the eastward position still has value.
We retain the eastward position because it emphasises that liturgy is not all about us, but is an encounter with God: when addressing us, the Priest faces us, and when addressing God, the Priest turns away. The eastward position tends to emphasise the transcendence of God and a Church moving Godward, actually getting somewhere.
We believe that the Priest should face the same way as his people, because he is no better when facing God than everyone else. And when the Priest faces us, we don’t want gimmicks. Pious expressions, uplifted eyes, and seraphic smiles should not be theatricalities employed to heighten Christian devotion before God. Old, young, devout, bored, nervous, confident, handsome, plain, tired, perky: what the Priest looks and acts like shouldn’t intrude into worship. He is merely a facilitator. Facing eastward masks the individuality of the Priest; facing westward places an undue amount of focus on the Priest’s appearance and manner.