I recently read an article on the distinctive way in which the Church of England has historically served communion. It opened:
For three hundred years the Church of England was unique among all other churches across the world in relation to where the minister was to stand. The Book of Common Prayer rubric from 1552 onwards has stated that “The Table at Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel, where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said. And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table, shall say the Lord’s Prayer with the Collect following, the people kneeling.” It is important to notice a few things here. Firstly, there is no such thing as an ‘altar’ in Classical Anglicanism. The word ‘altar’ – which implies by definition a place of sacrifice – was purposefully stricken from existence because it lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic error concerning the theology of the Lord’s Supper and indeed the ministry of the Priesthood. Secondly, the Table that replaced the ‘altar’ is moveable and could be in a number of places depending on where it was most convenient to place it. Thirdly, and concerning what this article is about – the Priest is to stand at the ‘north side of the Table.’Adam Charles Young, Why I support celebrating from the North Side.
The ‘North Side’ is then to the side of the table given a Church typically faces East. This means the minister actually stands to the side of the table rather than behind or before, like in the Reformed or Roman Catholic tradition respectively.
The other thing worth noting is that traditionally the table was also positioned in the midst of the people. The reason for this being, the author of the article states:
North side also protects against priestcraft where the minister is, to use an analogy, the ‘actor’ and the people are the ‘audience’ or where the minister is the man at the McDonalds checkout which people must approach to receive their grace and communion. A.M. Stibbs rightly remarks that “by refusing to put [the minister] into a Westward position facing the people from behind a crosswise table, it made plain that Christian ministers are not a presiding hierarchy, on which the laity are dependent for sacramental grace.” (Ibid. p12) North side places the minister as a servant not a master, being the people’s delegate. Being ‘side on’ to the people the chances of seeing the minister as presiding in the place of Jesus Himself – who is the true President – is reduced. As Motyer says “this ‘half-ways’ position, is one of our great legacies of the Church, the Ministry, the Sacraments, and the Atonement, and a thing concerning which we ought to pray that we may be careful guardians.” (Ibid. p24) The North side is discreet whilst the Westward is too prominent such that it may promote an unhealthy and exaggerated view of the ministry and role of the minister in the Sacrament. It is the Lord’s Supper, and it is the Lord’s Table – so why do we make the minister and not the Lord the most prominent part of it by having him placed at the centre of what is going on? Far better to have the minister at the right hand of the Master as His underling (1 Cor 4:1) than usurping His rightful position in the centre.Adam Charles Young, Why I support celebrating from the North Side.
So this is openly not about trying to recreate some ‘lost’ practice of the Apostolic age but about trying to communicate that whilst we do believe we partake of Christ’s body and blood in the act of communion it is not by the invocation of the minister but by faith. Regarding the liberty to determine the means by which we partake Augustine wrote:
There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.Augustine of Hippo, Letter 54: To Januarius
For me personally, I have only ever received communion from a West facing position. This is perhaps indicative of the decline the North facing administration has experienced in recent years. People can make good arguments to face any direction when administering communion but I do not think it an issue worth fighting over as if it is work we do rather than something Christ does in us. I wouldn’t kick up a fuss if I ended up somewhere that did it differently. Yet I think as someone from an Anglican background there is something good to found and praised in administration from the Northside. It says “Christ is here, in the midst of us and we are his body of which he is the head”.
Applying This To My Own Church
Having read the entry, and the supporting essays on the topic, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like if my Church was reorientated to administer from the North side. If I could redesign it how would I? Below is a rough plan of my Church to date:
My Church was built in the 18th century and could seat in its current arrangement potentially 250-300 people. To help the imagination its windows are stained glass with depictions of the patriarchs and apostles with the East facing window depicting the Angelic choirs announcing the birth of Our Lord to the Shepherds. The walls are otherwise whitewashed with occasional memoria of those who have gone before. I won’t try and explain or necessarily justify every aspect of the arrangement in the image above but hopefully it gives some idea of where its starting from. Now below is what I’d be interested to see:
I’ll break out some of the major changes as follows:
Perhaps the most obvious change is placing the table (A) in the centre of the Church. I’d also ideally see it remain a table but be a more permanent fixture – this is partly because I’d like to see weekly communion.
One of the big problems, ironically, of doing this seems to have been the table became ‘too’ accessible which was one of the reasons which led to the instalment of rails around many of them. An example of this can be seen in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford although I’d be keen to avoid the instalment of these if possible.
The next big change is the alignment of the seating or aisles (E). The pews were taking out before my time so the advantage of having chairs is that this wouldn’t be difficult to do, at least practically. The movement is in response to the movement of the table and having it be the central point-of-focus for the church. It also reinforces the aforementioned breakdown of the actor/audience distinction and allows the congregation to ‘gather round’ from their seats alongside the minister during communion. The placement of the preaching lectern (B) sits a little way away to lend greater visibility to the minister whilst preaching but would ideally be more central and closer to the table.
I’m also a massive fan of the approach to singing you see in something like the Sacred Harp tradition within some US Baptist churches where the congregation faces each other and this change is a step towards capturing that dynamic of intimacy and togetherness.
The Baptismal pool sits by the entrance to the church being a subtle nod to the fact that baptism is the means by which we enter the church. Currently both the font and the pool sit above ground but the idea would be to combine the two and potentially sink them into the ground in a manner resplendent of some earlier baptismal pools that imitate the old Jewish mikvah baths.
Having to walk past the water in order to enter the church would be a powerful reminder of ones baptism as one goes to take a seat at the table before communion.
These are just some of my thoughts. I can imagine reasons why people would object to any number of the changes here, especially those from other traditions, but I would be fascinated to see how a Church like this would potentially function in contrast to the current arrangement. What difference would this make to the people using the space? Does it make more sense than the current arrangement? I’d tentatively offer that it does.
If you want to read more on the topic of celebrating communion from the North Side you can do so using the links below: