Saturday, 4 October 2014

Why I believe North Side celebration to be important.

Why I support celebrating from the North Side.

It may seem a small and trivial thing where the minister stands when presiding at the Lord's Supper - but often it is  the small things that most impact what happens in a service and how people understand what exactly is happening.  I personally believe that faithfulness in small things is indicative in faithfulness in large things - faithfulness in small practical details generally entails faithfulness to large theological principles.  This is true in what ministers wear, what rituals they use, and indeed where they stand at the time of Holy Communion.

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.' 

[*for my definition of 'Classical Anglicanism as the historical Anglicanism of the Pre-Caroline times see the following essay:  whilst technically 'Classical Anglicanism' is a merely historical phenomenon it is also something that a number of current Anglicans both aspire to re-create and see as the 'anglicanism' most true to the Historic Formularies they profess to be their confession]

               The exact meaning of 'north side' only really came into question with the rise of the second generation Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society who, wishing to celebrate like the Roman Catholic Church, wanted to stand with their backs to the people facing East.  When it became obvious that the rubrics would not legally allow this they began to promote frankly ridiculous arguments to try and re-interpret the rubric to mean the northern part of the table when facing East.  Suffice it to say that this argument was indeed ridiculed, largely abandoned, and legally condemned as nonsense.  Even the likes of Pusey and Newman didn't buy into such ideas.  Instead the Ritualists came up with the idea that historically the table was UNIVERSALLY placed with the short 'ends' East and West and thus, because the tables were then placed up against the East wall of the Church there was no 'north side'.   This argument is now common even among low church ministers for justifying Westward facing celebration.  However, historically it has little credence. 

               In this article I want firstly to look at the historical reality of the placement of the table and the historical interpretation of the rubric.  Secondly I shall consider if the tradition handed down to us is important today or if the Westward facing celebration accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics is to be preferred over traditional North Side. 

               Due to Laud there are in fact two traditions of 'north side' in the church of England resting upon either the Table being in the midst of the congregation with the people gathered all around it or the Table being up against the East wall with the congregation separated from it until reception.  The two dynamics of service here are radically different and both will be considered in turn.

               Firstly, it is now universally accepted that 'north side' means nothing more than "stood to the north of the Table"  Regardless of the shape of the table or its orientation this is all that 'north side' means.   As Dr. Stephens in his Notes on the Book of Common Prayer says "No form of table  has been prescribed by the statue, and therefore it may be square or any other rectilinear figure, or even circular, where of course you cannot have any 'side'... The meaning of 'at the north side' therefore seems really to be simply 'to the north' of the table"  Legally this was supported in the Folkestone Ritual Case by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 1876.  Indeed, historical evidence points towards Edwardian tables - those at the time of the rubric - being made increasingly square (mockingly called 'oyster boards') that they might look even less like the destroyed 'altars' they replaced.

               But many tables remained oblong with what we might customarily call two longer 'sides' and two shorter 'ends'.  How were these tables placed in the body of the church or chancel before the advent of Laud?  Remember that before Laud the people were generally much more gathered around the Tale which was not usually cordoned off by railings.  Those who want to claim that Westward facing is the natural outworking of the rubric claim that they were near universally placed lengthwise - that is with the short ends at the East and West.   In this case the set up would look much like the following diagram.

However, as shown by the extensive research of J.T. Tomlinson  - one of the greatest and most knowledgeable writers on the English Reformation to ever live - that this set up was universal or indeed even originally the most usual is completely unsupported by evidence.  For full details as to why I would encourage you to read the two tracts on 'north side' that he wrote for the Church Association which can be found in volume one of his Collected Tracts on Ritual

In his first tract (C.A. tract No.88) he notes how none of the reformers placed any emphasis or meaning into whether the table is to be placed lengthwise or alternatively 'altarwise/crosswise' (that is with the 'ends' North and South').  It was the growth in popularity of pews and designated seating during the reigns of James I and Charles I which led to the 'lengthwise' set up with the table down the middle aisle in the nave becoming most common (and indeed the tables becoming very, very, long and slender so they would fit).  Tomlinson concludes his tract by saying that "Until the reign of Charles I [coming of Laud] no one attached any importance to the length wise, or crosswise arrangement of the table; and at the Restoration, as we have seen, the word 'side' was retained with the deliberate intention of leaving that point entirely free."  In his second tract on the issue of north side celebration Tomlinson considers further extensive evidence about the placing of the tables.  Included in this is how the table of the Langely Chapel in Shropshire - famous by its use to support 'lengthwise' placement - is actually drawn differently in different books - lengthwise in the Anastatic Society's Report and 'crosswise' in Bloxam's Companion to Gothic Church Architecture. 

Overall the compelling evidence is that the Reformers had no intention as to lengthwise or crosswise and such use was arranged locally depending on church shape and the personal preference of the minister.  To claim that lengthwise was the instituted norm is simply ahistorical.  What is certain is that at the time of Laud the moving of the Table to where the altars once stood, up against the East wall, and having them fenced off was the final evolution of the placement.  The reason for the placement was partly ritualistic and partly practical - many people were unhappy that the congregation were putting their hats and coats on the table during services and moving it away ensured this couldn't happen!  With the moving of the table celebrating from the North at the short 'end' became the more common practice though we know that a number of churches continued to have their tables lengthwise with the short 'end' being up against the wall.  Again, local discretion was the watchword and there was no real uniformity across the land. 

Having laid out how historically neither lengthwise nor crosswise can claim authoritative approval it is worth considering why Cranmer would have the minister stand to the North of the table in the first place.  This was not the practice among the continental Reformers who celebrated much as we do today with the table (often) separated from the people, arranged crosswise, and with the minister facing West (the basilican tradition as it is known).  Cranmer was relentless in pursuing pan-Protestant unity, especially in relation to the Lord's Supper, so why would he do something so radically different that clearly marked the Church of England out as distinct from their continental brethren?  As J. A. Motyer said in his essay on why he supported north side celebration over the then innovative westward facing method "The one thing that seems certain, amid all the uncertainties that surround this important question, is that Reformers were moved by some purpose and not by lack of purpose or mere negativism... The man who thus wrote Of Ceremonies [Cranmer] had his eye on divine truth and positive human edification.  We owe too much to Cranmer to call him a fool in this one respect." (Why I Value the North Side Position. pp.20-21)  John Stott in the same volume backs this up stating that "although [the Reformers] undoubtedly knew that the Westward position was primitive, and was being  chosen by their fellow reformers on the Continent, they yet declined to adopt it themselves, and invented the North side position instead.  They have left no record of their reason, so far as I know, but they must have had theological objections to their early tradition, which made it unacceptable to them." (Ibid. p27)

I personally believe that there was a good reason for this unique and distinctive move to North side over and against not only the Eastward facing Mass but also against the even more ancient and continentally accepted Westward facing.    My hypothesis (and it is nothing more than speculative but seems the only plausible and possible rational reason for ushc a move) would be that it is all to do with the perception of space and holiness.  The Eastward facing position of the Mass creates a sense of holiness moving up the church.  In the West you have the least holy part where the congregation are, moving onwards you have the Chancel which is clearly demarcated off and is usually far more richly ornate (increasingly a sense of holiness further)  and this is where the minister, clearly holier than the people, sits apart from them to conduct his business - when a chancel screen or rood screen exists the minister is likely so holy that he couldn't even be seen by the people!  Moving even further up the building you have at the extreme East steps leading up to the holy altar where the body of the Lord Jesus resides and the sanctity of the Eucharist is expressed (where the sacrifice of the mass takes place).  This altar area is even more ornate than the chancel and is again ring-fenced off.  The whole tenor of such a building is one of ascending holiness from West to East.  We have the Cambridge Camden Society to thank for the fact that virtually all Anglican Churches are now once again laid out like this and such a theology was explicitly behind their activism and revolutionary intentions.  Even if the minister stands facing West this sense of ascending holiness continues and the emphasis of separation from the people remains - the role of the minister as presiding over and above the people is there to be seen and understood regardless of the ministers intentions.  

Placing the minister to the North of the table and placing the people around the table seriously upsets this sense of ascending holiness (or even just having the minister off to one side as in post-Laud times).  The minister is now in among the people, the chancel is no longer the place of the holy minister and the table is amongst the people along with the Priest who stands or kneels around it just like everyone else.  The reason that the table was sometimes kept in the chancel was in order to stop the superstitious tradition of 'hearing mass' - if you were not to actually receive the Lord's Supper then you were not welcome at the table or to stay and hear that part of the service (as seen by the 1549 rubrics, the 1552-9 exhortation and the countless writings of various bishops).  The chancels were at times co-opted for this purpose of separating out the different parts of the service.  Alternatively, the chancel became the primary place of worship because the small congregation allowed this - again something that really overturns the normal understanding of an ascending holiness.    Ultimately, placing the minister to the North of the table helps to defend against superstitious ritualism and a false understanding of the separateness of the minister and the people - especially if as intended the table is brought in to the body of the church and the people stand around, or the people come and stand around it in the chancel.  Indeed churches such as those of Wren which were the first to really be built, rather than merely adapted, to BCP principles were square auditoriums with no chancel at all. The emphasis was on visibility and audibility - getting the maximum number of people to both see (hence the rubric 'with more readiness and decency break the bread before the people in the BCP Communion Service before the prayer of consecration) and hear (hence the references in the BCP to saying with a loud voice) what is happening at the Lord's Supper.

The best possible thing that a minister today could do is return to Cranmer's intention and at the time of communion place the table in the midst of the people (a good excuse to get rid of pews!) as this re-emphasises the fellowship aspect of the meal and the collegiality of the people with the minister whilst de-mystifying all that happens.  But how is it best to place the table?  Lengthwise or crosswise?  With an eye to both visibility and audibility I personally believe, and feel experience has confirmed, that crosswise is superior for these criteria - though this is of course a subjective preference.  Look again at the diagram of the lengthwise placement above and note the number of people behind the minister who cannot see what is happening or besides the minister whose sight lines would be impaired and how these people are also less well placed to hear by nature of being either besides or behind the minister.  Now look at this diagram of the table set up crosswise and consider the same issues - less people are behind or beside the minister, more people can both see and easily hear what is happening and as an added bonus the minister can see more people too.  Even if no one is placed behind the minister the truth holds.  Yet so long as the table is amongst the people as Cranmer intended and to avoid an ascending holiness or progressing hierarchy the minister stands to the North of the table as our Formularies command then we should not be divided over the adiaphora of the orientation of the Table.

However, the sad reality is that because of the overwhelming success of the Cambridge Camden Society the vast majority of English Churches simply cannot carry out Cranmer's vision regardless of whether the table is placed lengthwise or crosswise.  Thanks to Laud and the CCS we are stuck with a table which is separated from the people, arranged crosswise, and of which it is practically impossible to gather the people around due to architecture or local tradition.  In such a setting should we just follow the now common Westward facing position or should we follow what Laud started and remained the unbroken tradition of the Church of England till relatively recently and celebrate on the short 'North end'?  Personally, I think making sure that despite the table being taken away from the people Laud's keeping the minister to the North of the table was pretty much his one redeeming feature - it was a stroke of genius which we should not so easily abandon. When faced with this situation I believe that this potentially should not be considered  minor adiaphora and something completely 'indifferent' but is rather something that portrays important theological principles over and against Eastward or Westward positions.   But why would I think this?  There are a number of reasons of which I will list some here.

-        The Westward facing position whilst not irrevocably tied to a sacerdotal view of priesthood and the Eucharist  is certainly able to be read this way.  That both Roman Catholics with their very sacerdotal view of ministry and Presbyterians can accept it should make us consider if it is helpful or just confusing - conformity which dilutes didactic teaching and doctrine is an unhelpful conformity, it is a conformity in merely word and deed and not in doctrine, it is essentially thus an instrument of deception.   As John Stott said "This phenomenon, that the Westward position is acceptable to both ends of the theological spectrum, make it immediately attractive to some.  Ought it not rather for this very reason to be somewhat suspect?... It is evident, therefore, that the Westward position itself does not clearly symbolize, and for this reason cannot definitely secure a proper doctrine of the Holy Communion." (Ibid. p32) If our views of the Priesthood are so radically different to that of Rome (and they are, the Roman Catholic Church holding that Anglican orders are 'absolutely null and void' due to 'a deficiency in intention' - as the Papal Bull Apostolicae Curae tells us - that is to say Anglican do not believe that the minister is a sacrificing priest or that kind of mediator at all.) surely this should appear evident in our practice as well as our theory? 

-        North side protects against the people mistakenly feeling that the presence of Christ is localised in the bread and wine rather than in their hearts upon reception.  Again the Westward facing position does not need to lead to this but over time and given the inclination of the human heart to superstition and idolatry it likely will.  The placing of the table at the centre of worship by having it between the minister and the people leads to a sacramental focus of the service and the presence of God.  North side helps to avoid this by rejecting an ascending holiness view of the church and also a centralising holiness in the elements. 

-        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.

These points contain a lot of 'may be seen' or 'could be understood' things.  And that is at the core of the issue.  The Church of England has a long tradition in matters where things could or are likely to be understood wrongly and thus promote unhealthy and unbiblical views of God, ministry, worship, Sacraments, or the Christian life, of doing all it can to obliterate them.  Thus the Church of England was explicitly (and still is according to its formularies) iconoclastic - the very danger of using images in church, especially of Christ and the saints, is that the human heart is prone to idolatry and thus it is better to not put temptation before it.  Likewise, the risk of making church and Sacrament 'mystical' and promoting a pagan view of prayer led to the banning of candles on the Holy Table or as prayer aids by the church - the same goes for incense.  The flamboyant robes of the Roman Catholic Church (or indeed for that matter the Eastern Orthodox) were soundly rejected and burnt or cut into pieces not just for their historic theology but because of the very tenor they give to the service and the role of the minister they exaggerate - better to have ministers garbed simply in largely plain and academic clothing which portrays a proper and biblical view of ministry.  One need only look at the state and form of spirituality in modern Anglo-Catholic churches or indeed Broad Churches to see how influential the revival of these things has been.  The views of the sacrament, of the ministry, of the role of the congregation, of the importance of space, of prayer, or worship are all not only completely at odds with Classical Anglicanism but at odds with the whole Reformation and indeed, arguably, the Biblical vision of Church.  

Individual ministers may use some or all of these things with the best intentions and a right theology of it in their own hearts and minds but so did those who first used images and the bishops who said it was OK just for teaching.  Suffice it to say that history proves that the best intentions of ministers never outlast them and quickly become warped and twisted in the hearts of the less theologically astute (and even at times in their own hearts!).  In this vein, celebrating from the North of the table, be it with the people gathered around (preferably like this) or as Laud would have it, gives the best protection and actively presents to soundest theology.  The Eastward view actively ensures poor theology (regardless of the intentions of the minister), the Westward makes it possible (regardless of the intentions of the minister), the Southward most effectively heads them off (regardless of the intentions of the minister).

Let us be proud of our heritage, of the genius of Cranmer and his fellow reformers, let us hold fast to our unique and distinctive - and right - tradition of North side for it alone is the most secure way of ensuring rightful worship and truthful doctrine.  As A.M Stibbs concluded:

"we venture to assert that for the minister to stand at the North side of the Table is not an antiquated eccentricity to be abandoned as soon as Westward position can be properly authorized; but a relevant and significant use by which, rather than by adopting the Westward position, we may as ministers visibly demonstrate both that we disown misplaced sacerdotal and hierarchical claims, and that we are in the service of Holy Communion one with our brethren in Christ as dependent recipients of His saving grace, and as grateful guests at His bountiful Table." (Ibid. p13)

Or in the words of the ever indomitable John Stott:

"Our concern should be first and foremost to embrace for ourselves, and commend to others a New Testament theology of grace, ministry and sacraments, and then to put the officiating minister at the Lord's Supper into a position which plainly and incontrovertibly exemplifies this theology.  It is for this reason supremely that I, for one, far from wishing to abandon it, welcome the symbolism of the North side." (Ibid. p32)


  1. Fascinating - thank you. How would you see the distribution of the bread and wine when gathered around a table as you propose? And what if you had 200 present?

  2. Hi there Will, many thanks for the comment.

    We know that many of the more low-church 'puritan' Anglicans had people pass the bread and wine around themselves, but most ministers would have kept to the rubric and gone around themselves offering the bread (people broke off their own bits it was not given to them - hence 'take and eat' not 'receive and eat') and then the wine. When I have done this with congregations of up to 50 people we had people step back in to a large circle as we went around, if there were too many we went round with the bread and wine then those who received went back to their pews and those yet to receive formed the new circle.

    We know from bishop's writings around the reformation both before and after Mary that the Church of England was very strongly against non-communicating attendance, in cathedrals and larger churches the table was often in the 'choir' area or chancel separated from the main body of the church, only those intending to receive were welcome to come up to the Lord's table just around the time of the offertory. One presumes with larger numbers the space around the table was larger and they gathered in around and received much as I have done above. We really know very little about how communion looked in large churches and cathedrals both due to lack of records and images and also the fact that Holy Communion became more and more infrequent on Sundays.

  3. Thanks - really interesting. A friend distributes the bread to all and then they eat it all at the same time. Obviously with a common cup one cannot do that but has this any historical precedence?

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  5. This is the best explanation I have seen of the Northern End Adam; I will pass it along to members of our Anglican Orthodox Church for consideration. By the way, in later edition of our first US 1789 book, the term was changed to "right side" in 1833. "The Table, at the Communion-time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel. And the Minister, standing at the right side* of the Table,"

    1. that is very interesting about 'right side' -- I wonder why they made the change.

  6. Excellent. Bishop Dees actually advocated the north side of the Table for the officiant. I think we in the AOC may need to go back to that practice. One advantage is that there is no mysterious preparation of the elements not seen by the Communicants. Thanks for posting this, Adam+, and thank you, Mark+, for sharing.

    1. It is certainly a practice that I would recommend. Many thanks for the encouragement.


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