Is Our Priest Being Rude?

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.





Words in Worship

All religions have some form of sacred language. In most religions, this consists either of an archaic form of a modern language, or, in others, of another language altogether.


Christianity is no exception. In the early days, most Christians spoke Greek or Latin. A few retained Aramaic, the language of the Holy Land. As Christianity expanded, if the original languages were not used, new languages were added that soon developed their own liturgical form. The most widespread liturgical language up to modern times was Latin. After the Reformation, even the Protestants who rejected Latin in worship soon evolved their own kind of “Church-speak”. In the Anglican world, the language commonly used was that of Shakespeare.


Among Western countries in the 1960’s, there was a movement among many Christians to bring their language of religion “up to date”. When this cult of the “modern language” began, we were told three things: that it would assist in evangelization; that it reflected the original language of the Bible itself; that it was only natural to use “ordinary language”.


Few can deny that the replacement of traditional liturgical language in the Church since the 1960’s has coincided with a dramatic decline in membership and in attendance at services worldwide. To be fair, there must have been other factors at work. However, it is also fair to say that the hopes of modernisation as an aid to evangelism have not been realised. As an argument for using modern over traditional language in liturgy, it is no longer persuasive.


The language of the Bible itself is complex. It contains traces of a variety of languages and forms. The language of the Old Testament was already archaic by the time of Our Lord’s ministry, and yet He quoted it and taught from it. In New Testament times, the language of the Christian texts contained so many Hebraicised Greek words and concepts that they would not have been at all straightforward and clear to the average person in the street. It is a myth that the language of the Bible was ever a purely contemporary language.


It is of course natural to use “ordinary language” for ordinary activities, but worship is no “ordinary” activity: it is nothing less than an encounter with Almighty God. Is it appropriate to use “ordinary language” for such a meeting between God and human beings?  If it is considered appropriate, how then does one retain the right sense of the beauty, majesty, and mystery of God? If God can indeed be found in our neighbour, how do we avoid reducing Him to the image of our neighbour by addressing Him as we would anyone we come across in daily activity? A pint-sized, ordinary God is of little use to the empty quart of ordinary human need.


God can be discovered in the ordinary, but He is not only there. We may find also Him in what is beautiful, grand, and mysterious, addressing Him with appropriate reverence and beauty in a language special for such a meeting.