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Is the Eucharistic Prayer Theatre?

“You don’t look out at the audience much,” a member of my congregation told me once. I was baffled and asked him to repeat his remark. He was describing my manner of celebrating — praying — the Great Thanksgiving, specifically at our free-standing altar. I was nonplussed until I realized that, for some Episcopalians, what occurs during the Eucharistic Prayer is a show, something to be watched. In his perception and likely the perception of many others, a perception cultivated through decades as an Episcopalian, the congregation is “the audience” for the Eucharistic Prayer.

The irony, of course, is that a major concern of reformers in both the 16th century and the 20th century was greater participation in this act of prayer, coupled with an emphatic rejection of any conception that the priest was doing something on his own and potentially a spectacle. This man, this long-time Episcopalian, did not come to this understanding (again one diametrically at odds with both the reformation movements of the 16th century and the ressourcement movements of the 20th) on his own.  He got it from somewhere. He had been indirectly catechized for decades to think this way.

Does the 1979 prayer book itself prevent any of this? Why, yes it does! And it has nothing to do with the arrangement of the altar or communion table, but rather with the celebrating minister.

We are not lacking in conversations — historical, practical, theological, and not a few absurd — about the history of arranging the Communion table (or altar) in the Anglican tradition. This essay, though, is not about where the table sits or how it is oriented. Rather, I would like to highlight a small rubric that describes the posture of the priest, which helps us better understand what we are all doing when we approach the Great Thanksgiving (to use the language of the 1979 prayer book).

I say again to underline: this essay is not advocating east-end tables or free-standing tables. That misses the point.

Starting with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the priest is instructed, by rubric, to turn to the people for the salutation and sursum corda. This is a dialogue the priest has with the gathered assembly of believers. The minister is gathering the kingdom of priests together for our collective Eucharistic Prayer. In the salutation we come to an agreement (it is right, we say in response) that we’re all praying together.

And then — here’s the payoff — the rubric instructs the priest to “face the Lord’s Table.” The priest uses the language We in the prayer. And from here on, the priest is no longer speaking to the assembled congregation, but rather speaking as the corporate voice on behalf of the assembled congregation in our collective prayer to God.

This rubric, which reveals a shift from speaking to the people in the salutation and sursum corda to speaking to God, underscores that the eucharistic prayer is our collective prayer but articulated by one ordained minister. And this sensibility has held from the 1662 BCP through all successive editions of the prayer book to the American BCP 1979.

Here is the catch. Everything I have just written could be said for any arrangement of the table, the celebrating priest, and the congregation in the history of the tradition.

Table against the wall? The point remains.

Free-standing table with the priest facing across it? The point remains.

Table arranged in any way, even turned with narrow ends pointing east-west, and the minister, in low-church fashion, standing on the north side? The point still remains.

What matters is the deep sense, engrained in the prayer book tradition and informing Anglican eucharistic theology across the spectrum of high to low, of shifting to prayer at this moment. In the prayer book tradition — again, across the spectrum — in the salutation and sursum corda we all agree that we’re all going to talk to God now (“It is right to give him thanks and praise,” we say) and then, with a subtle change, we actually talk to God.

What we all agree on, as Anglicans, is that the priest is talking to God, and to be clear, talking to God on our behalf. The priest is simply set apart to make our corporate prayer. In the priesthood of all believers, one person is nevertheless set apart to lead us all in prayer.

So, let’s talk about our fear of giving the wrong perception, that is, the way the arrangements of our worship can indirectly catechize and lead to bad theology. The principal concern is privatization — the idea that the priest is doing something individually and the congregation is an audience of spectators.

On the one hand, there remains among us a deep (and not unreasonable) phobia against “hocus pocus,” a visceral distaste for the priest not facing the people. Fair enough. We pulled altars away from the east wall. This understandable and continuing phobia seems to be the result of a combination of Protestant sensibilities and Boomer feelings about collective experience.

But how rare today are east-end altars? I’ll wager there are many cradle Episcopalians now in their 50s who have never even seen an east-end altar or participated in a Eucharist in which the priest did not celebrate at a free-standing table. As a rather comic indicator of how passionate this conviction about moving altars became in the 20th century, one finds small Episcopal churches where the priest can barely (and only absurdly) squeeze between the altar and the Communion rail because the altar was relocated from the wall sometime in the past few decades. This push was de rigueur and ubiquitous, and my purpose here is not to challenge it.

But on the other hand, there are the telling words of my parishioner, “you don’t look out at the audience much.”  Are we right back to where we began?

I say again, my purpose in this essay is not to argue for a return to east-end altars. Hardly.

Instead, I want to highlight that our important concern — our fear, our phobia — of giving the perception that the priest is doing something private has not been fully addressed, but rather only set aside. Instead of hocus pocus, we now have theater – the Eucharistic Prayer has become for some a drama performed by the priest, who play-acts Jesus, especially in the rehearsal of the dominical words.

This can all be corrected, I believe, by simply living into the rubric that has been printed before all our eyes since the 17th century. Do we understand the simple but powerful meaning of those words that instruct the minister to face the table, regardless of how the table is situated? Do we understand how that simple rubric means we are all praying together to the divine audience? And, especially for those of us who do have the privilege and burden of speaking the words, do we live out, in our manner of praying, the blessed reality that during this prayer we are leading others in a prayer of thanksgiving to Almighty God? Indeed, this is all packaged in a simple rubric.

5 COMMENTS

  1. This is the church (in the photo) where I work as rector – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. I’m not sure where you got this photo, and you’re welcome to use it, but if you could cite us in the caption, I would appreciate it.

  2. I was surprised at anyone thinking of the the congregation being the audience ! At almost 88, of course I grew up with the practice of facing east for the Holy Communion, turning to the people when the 1662 BCP directs, or occasionally
    celebrating from the north end, so that the priest was not at the centre at all. And I continued to do the same through to my final post as rector for 22 years of a middle-of-the-road 1662 BCP parish in the otherwise liturgically hardly Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Although still an active hospital chaplain, I have rarely
    celebrated in church, something no longer even possible, and of course in informal settings at home or in rare hospital eucharists I have naturally faced the others present, but in church it would preferably always be with others beside me – today, 22.12.23, for example, in our hospital Christmas Communion, concelebrating with two pentecostal Christians, one a lay-woman, one a male minister ! There are Roman Catholic and other scholars who agree with me in all this. I think that taking the westward position has led not only to disturbances in the architectural order of some churches, but to an over-emphasis on the celebrant (who sometimes becomes an MC, hence I suppose the idea of an audience). As one humorous verse once concluded, “when I see the vicar’s face, I cannot think of God”. And in this matter, I think we should think again !

  3. Also priest put on chasuble when at Altar, to more clearly represent the people and hide his person.How boring in the 1960’s to just look at East wall. At 93 and being a priest for over 60 years, I’ve seen us move from a vocation to “work” “job” and many others labels. Latin word occupare and vocare are relevant. Occupation is to occupy 12 by 12 inches on ground. Vocation is to know and believe God has called you to occupy that piece of ground. Seminary taught me to celebrate like it is my first Mass and my last Mass.

  4. My only quibble with this otherwise commendable piece is this. If we use the word “theatre” or “drama” for the liturgy it all depends on who is the audience. It’s all very dramatic, and its outward form should be carefully curated. But we are “before God” when all of us take part in the theatre. That sensibility is hard to sustain, much less easily slip into in our rather narcissistic and secular culture. We can hardly experience that we are NOT looking at ourselves.

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