Robbie Low performs a volte face

Forty years ago, the Western Church began a voyage of discovery with its liturgy. Vatican II was mining the walls of Tridentine certainty and laying the foundations for the Protestant displacement of the universal language. Shortly thereafter, in Anglicanism, the advance guard of the parish communion movement was being enthused by similar excitements. The dusty and arcane complexities of the Book of Common Prayer were to be augmented (replaced) by a rolling programme of new services. Liberal scholars, neophiliacs and convicts of ‘salvation by relevance’ queued up to drag their parishes kicking and screaming into the brave new world of doctrinal, ethical and devotional reductionism, all to be reflected in a glory-less worship.

Having consumed a hugely disproportionate amount of church time and energy in this liturgical quest, you might think it would be time to pause and take stock of what we have done. Simple questions come to mind like, ‘What has it achieved?’ and, more fundamental, ‘Was it right?’ No such momentary humility seems to have afflicted the governing bodies of our own Church.

All change?

The disordered sanctuaries and increasingly banal liturgies have gone hand in hand with precipitous decline in church attendance – the very thing they were intended to halt. The reins of power remain in the hands of relentless modernizers and, like the candidates in the increasingly ludicrous Conservative Party leadership race, they repeat the mantra. ‘We must change if we are to be popular’. But change to what? And why have the changes of the last forty years so obviously failed?

The Alternative Service Book 1980, the intended heir of the BCP, is dead and buried. Its successor, Common Worship (a name which is so misleading as to make it liable to the Trades Descriptions Act), has signed its own death warrant in the accompanying sales blurb. This asserted that new services were needed because liturgy changes with the times. An unhappy mixture of bad English, emotional cant and exhausting verbosity, CW. is already in trouble. Its awkward homage to the BCP has upset the modernists, its nursery rhyme responses have grated with all but the recently lobotomized and its interminable initiation rite should have a health warning for any priest with a congregation. Created to satisfy feminists outraged by the sexist ASB, it allies itself to an unacceptable version of the scriptures (NRSV) wholly in thrall to that particular cult. Publishers should earmark 2020 for their next bonanza. The next generation of liturgists can begin now.

But Common Worship is simply the latest and most comprehensive attack on real common worship. Priests have not said common offices, those that still do, for years. ASB, BCP, Breviary, Franciscan are but a few of the many choices. But CW ensures that a priest need never celebrate the same Communion on any two Sundays between now and his retirement, so infinite are the possible combinations. A church I visited recently proudly showed me a series of file boxes each containing a different order of service for each Sunday of the year. The Warden told me, with no little pride, that they had been warmly congratulated by the Archdeacon for this considerable feat!

But at least this is orderly disorder. We are all too familiar with calls for even greater changes to our services from the highest quarters. The recipe is usually an unappetizing portion of misunderstood youth culture. The prospect of a jarring melange of S Club Seven, Blue Peter and Thought for the Day should be enough to evict the remaining young people from our Church. When the Church tries to compete with popular culture, it will always lose. It has neither the expertise nor the resources to win. More to the point, that is not its job. Its task is to lead man to worship God. While the Church vainly attempts to entertain man (the role of popular culture), popular culture itself is successfully filling the vacuum by providing fabulous and extravagant vehicles for the worship of its own human idols, as any spectator at a football match or pop concert will tell you. No reductionism, apology or half-heartedness there. Every moment is an orchestrated ritual of music, response, movement and emotion dedicated to adoration, identification and commitment.

Volte face

It is a pity that, with the greatest language ever breathed into the ear of man, the most glorious music ever to well from man’s heart, the most beautiful and artistic settings for our homage and devotion, so little of our modern worship seems to lift us to the courts of heaven. But then, I would want to argue that, in addition to all the problems outlined above, we are going about it the wrong way. We are, quite literally, turning our backs on part of the solution and that very act has massive consequences upon our whole act of worship.

Among the many other reforms from the 1960s onward none was more dramatic or traumatic than the reordering of the sanctuaries of Western Christendom. Altars were pulled from the eastern wall or replaced by tea trolleys or school desks at the head of the nave. Traditional vestments were burnt and their sacred imagery replaced by hanks of dyed sacking with incomprehensible scribble motifs. Choirs were evicted, organists unhoused, art boarded up, marbled sledge- hammered, tabernacles decentralized, Victorian statues sold or put in the loft, triumphal banners of glorious embroidery proclaiming the mysteries of the faith replaced by something the Sunday school did earlier etc etc etc. The sanctuary became less a place to worship God than the apotheosis of 1960s man’s homage to G-Plan furnishing and his own immanence.

Apart from the economic cost (it would cost half a million pounds to begin to restore what was done to my parish Church in the 1960s) and the aesthetic cost (hard to know where to begin) there was the human cost. Like a puritan wave the new ecclesiastical brutalists swept away not only fixtures and fittings but also many of the faithful. Some felt it instinctively to be wrong. Others were simply baffled and hurt. Many walked away never to return. The same, or much of it, was true of the Roman experience. The ‘new truth’ brooked no argument and the great mysterium was replaced by churning triviality and an ‘in your face’ informality. It was caricatured, at the time, as the change from, ‘ God Almighty’ to ‘God all matey’. It forgot that Peter knelt before the revelation of Christ and the soldiers in the garden fell back before the self-proclaiming ‘I am’. The ‘new truth’ proclaimed itself to be historically based, faithful to the early Church and therefore unarguable.

Curiously, nowhere in Vatican II can you find a mandate for the fundamental and decisive switch on which all else hinges – the position of the altar and the direction of prayer. That is the addition of later enthusiasts using the memory of Pope John XXIII to implement their own agenda. Vatican II did not mention turning towards the people because it is, in fact, historical nonsense, the fruit of a misunderstanding of the topography of St Peter’s itself, the tomb of the martyr and the siting of the episcopal chair.

Those who have spent half a lifetime in evangelizing this error (along with the unconvinced who have got used to it, however reluctantly, and don’t want any more trouble) will be tempted to stop reading here. Does it really matter? they will cry in exasperation. I believe it does and I believe it is at the heart of our profound liturgical dissatisfaction.


Church buildings have gone through many developments and changes externally and internally but praying towards the East goes back to the beginning. Like the Jew before him and the Muslim after him, the Christian acknowledges the central place of revelation for his faith. He turns towards the event where time and eternity meet, where history discloses the transcendent in the immanent and sinful man kneels in penitence and rises by God’s grace alone. We look to Jerusalem and to the Jerusalem which is above. Coincidentally and providentially we turn to the Lux Mundi where the natural light of the world breaks on our mortal eyes. Churches are built on an East – West axis for precisely this reason. The neophyte enters from the darkness, passes through the waters and begins his pilgrimage to become part of the eternal worship of heaven. From the font to the altar. Tupperware bowls ‘at the front’ next to kitchen tables do serious violence to our mystical comprehension.

The position of the altar and the priest in all this is critical. The priest as Ikon Christi proclaims the word of God manward (facing west, facing the people, bringing light to the farthest darkness). He leads the holy people of God in prayer Godward (facing East, away from his people, entering the sanctuary on their behalf, leading like an eastern shepherd, his breast plate, like Aaron’s, bearing his people on his heart). It is, in the midst of the immense universality of God, an expression of the particularity of his relationship with us in history, in eternity and now, and our relationship with him.

If these are the great positives for facing East – and there are many more – the negatives of the modern westward facing position behind altar need to be recorded too. First of all, in most re-ordered churches such arrangements simply shout at the architecture designed for traditional worship. At the very least this is a distraction and annoyance. Second, the priest, where the altar is just away from the East wall, has no real room for his own devotions to the sacrament and reverence of the altar. Where there is a ‘proper ‘ nave altar, the elevations and his subsequent genuflections involve him in a preposterous and unseemly game of hide and seek with the congregation. But third, and most important, is that the celebration becomes, by default, utterly centred on the priest. The sight lines stop at him, centre on his person, competence, visage, voice, mannerisms, personality – uplifting or unbearable alike. It elevates the priest above the Sacrament, the servant above the Master, the man above the Messiah.

Passover sacrifice

The primary reason given for this reversal was that the Holy Communion was to reflect the meal, the Passover, the Last Supper. The ‘supper’ model of the Mass was to replace the ‘sacrifice’ model. Those who opposed the new model referred to the priest as performing a sort of counter service in a cafeteria. Though this was unkind, it was not all that wide of the mark. For one thing the new ‘supper’ model did not do was bear any relation to the Last Supper. However close the altars were shoved towards the people (and they usually moved further back as a measure of sympathy and reverence), it still reflected a western dining model. The Squire (Priest, Jesus) up by the candelabra, the rest of us below the salt. Nothing could have been further from the Eastern model. As the great liturgical writer, Louis Bouyer, confirms,

‘Nowhere in antiquity could have arisen the idea of having to ‘face the people’ to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table’.

Everyone was round the outside of a C-shaped table, sitting or reclining. The ‘President’ (awful governmental term) of post-1960s liturgiology is a fanciful fiction.

Furthermore to reduce the Holy Communion (which is, after all, what it says) to a mere meal would be an offence to all but the most benighted Protestant. It begins in the context of the Passover meal, true. But the Passover celebration itself has, to this day, the ‘now and then and always’ aspect of it, Jewish history and Jewish future hovering in the present. The Mass transforms the Temple worship with the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Its grid references are the Calvary, the Holy Sepulchre and the Bethany road. Thereby our little time is drawn into eternity, our mortal into his risen life, our frail humanity into his divinity. Anyone grimly holding a piece of bread and trying hard to ‘remember’ Jesus has rather missed the point.

The westward-facing altar has had to dispense with the centrality of the Cross lest it obscure the ‘president’, so many priests put a flat cross on the altar. This may be devotionally helpful for them. It is invisible to the congregation. In displacing the Cross of Christ, the final detachment of the nature of the sacrifice is made. Yet, Catholic or Protestant, if it is not sacrifice, once, only once and once for all, re-presented by the power of the Holy Ghost at each successive celebration, then it is not a celebration of the Resurrection, it is not the bread of life or the cup of salvation. Not only does Western facing celebration play havoc with man’s sense of the numinous but it endangers the very intention and understanding of our central act of worship.

For enthusiasts of westward-facing liturgy it was normal to refer to opponents as people who liked ‘facing the wall’. In my lighter moments on this subject I would not be unhappy to call it ‘ facing the engine’ – if God will forgive my familiarity. It is precisely my complaint that too much modern liturgy, supremely focused by this debate, is about man rather than God. Westward-facing is priest-dependent liturgy of a peculiar and unattractive kind. The priest is the key reference, our responses are too easily to him rather than the Almighty. Too much is riding on his mood, his emotional creativity. In order to balance this tyranny modern masses are often awash with other pointed lay involvement. Marvellous if done Godward, another appalling distraction from the central task if not. I am not convinced that the masses where the congregation simply says ‘Amen’, makes confession and joins in the Lord’s Prayer and, for the rest of the time is silent led by the single voice of one unimportant priest, all our eyes and hearts upon the altar, are less powerful than ‘full participation’ modern rites. (It is not a bad discipline anyway for a generation terrified of inner silence and in danger of entertaining itself to death).

Include me out

But that is far from all. For westward-facing does another profound disservice to our true common worship. It tells a serious lie about who we are and what we’re doing. By facing west, standing behind the altar, not only does the priest shout at the architecture and its symbolic purpose but he closes the circle of the faithful in his own person. The apparent attempt at inclusivity becomes dangerously exclusive. I have noticed this on my last few visits to retreat houses where priests and their groups have utterly evacuated the sanctuary leaving the heavenly space and abandoned and turned their backs on the sign of the eternal presence. They have preferred a closed circle in the body of the chapel (with or without a small table/ altar) enclosed upon themselves. Few symbols could be more depressing to the Church or more grossly ignorant of the mystery they purport to celebrate. The ‘ enclosure ‘ model is an ikon of the modern church’s self-absorption. It does not look out or forward or up – it looks relentlessly at itself. Its body language is firmly exclusive. You are part of a club. The circle is both complete in itself, yet wholly inadequate.

Restore the sanctuary, turn the priest around and by that simple change your spiritual awareness of the divine reality is enhanced. Two or three, two or three hundred, you are not simply a small, beleaguered congregation in an indifferent world. You, in company with the Church throughout the world, are a pilgrim people, part of a huge procession of prayer moving Godward. Led by our priests, our shepherds, the Church Universal sets out for O Oriens, the Christ who comes to us in the mystery of the Holy Communion. And not only that. As we make that journey, ‘facing the engine’, the divine power behind all that is, we do so, coming to the altar rail, the symbolic border of heaven and earth, and become part of that greater worship which is the Church Triumphant in heaven. We hold out our hands to receive a foretaste of the blessed life in the eternal presence. ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven’, we sing. The front row of the Church Militant and the back row of the Church Triumphant merge and I, for one, would like to be facing the right way.

Pastoral Note: Do not thrust this article in your priest’s face and demand an emergency PCC on the subject. Let him read it, vilify me and prepare to discuss it with your next incumbent. The next generation may be better at spotting our errors and, if we can save one small church from making the western mistake, I shall be happy.

Editorial note: The above article does not necessarily represent the views of the Board or of Forward in Faith and is a purely personal provocation to his fellow clergy by the author.

Robbie Low is the parish priest of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath.