August 10, 2014

Ad Orientem or Versus Populum?

Liturgical variety can be a wonderful thing. It is proof that Christians are not a homogenous body of cultists, but the wonderfully varied Body of Christ, expressing their faith in a spectrum of languages, cultures, and rites.

That isn't to say that all variety is welcome or desired. I think any Christian would accept that while variety can be good, it is necessary to strive for purposeful and meaningful variety. In worship, we don't usually do things arbitrarily or at random, because randomness cannot serve the purpose of the gospel—or any purpose.

During the WELS Worship Conference this summer, I had the opportunity to see one particular aspect of liturgical ritual put into practice. Though the altar was freestanding, the altarpiece that I designed for the Festival of Transfiguration made it impossible for the liturgist to stand behind the altar and face the congregation (versus populum). Apparently, not all parties involved were aware of that practical necessity until the night before, and I took some heat for it. But regardless, it was decided that the liturgist would have to do parts of the liturgy ad orientem (facing liturgical East), which has been almost universal church practice for centuries.

(Just to paint a clearer picture, the chapel at Carthage is a cruciform, central-plan church, with the four wings radiating out from the chancel area. The wing "behind" the chancel was occupied by the organ and an empty balcony, with the other three wings housing the congregation. The chancel was comprised only of a raised, square platform, and furnished with portable ambo, font, and altar.)

It isn't my intent to tell Christians that this is how the liturgy must be done, or that they should get rid of their freestanding altars and build high altars. But every action of the priest/pastor, every liturgical response, every symbol is a teaching opportunity. So I'm only advocating that we take the opportunity to ensure that the orientation of the pastor isn't an arbitrary decision (i.e., well, that's how it was always done in my church), but one with meaning.

For instance, this was the first time that I became acutely aware of how appropriate it was for prayers that are addressing Christ to be made facing the altar and Christ. The symbolism is somewhat fractured when you have portions of the congregation facing in opposite directions, but imagine a church with a longitudinal nave. The pastor faces in the same direction as the congregation, because it is their prayers he is carrying to Christ.

It is sometimes said that ad orientem should only be used in conjunction with a wall altar, and versus populum should only be used in conjunction with a freestanding altar. I would advocate neither. Lutherans have often taken up the practice of facing the altar during the sacrificial portions of the service (prayers, canticles) and facing the people during the sacramental portions (the absolution, the words of institution, Scripture readings, benediction). This can be done whether using a high altar or a freestanding one. Again, consider the appropriateness in context: the minister says, "In the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." He does this facing the congregation, but standing between the congregation and the altar, representing his role as mediator and vicar of Christ.

I think it is an unfortunate development in the post-Vatican-II environment that the pastor feels obligated to always stand behind a freestanding altar and speak the entire service towards the congregation. On non-Communion Sundays, the altar serves little more purpose than a podium or hymnal stand. On Communion Sundays, it gets promoted to table.

Although the freestanding altar is something of a late innovation in the Lutheran church, Luther is often cited as the source of this practice. He writes,
Here we retain the vestments, altar, candles until they are used up or we are pleased to make a change. But we do not oppose anyone who would do otherwise. In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper. But let that await its own time (AE 53:69).
But the Lutheran church didn't take this opinion very seriously, it seems, because it retained wall altars and ad orientem as the norm in the intervening centuries. Perhaps it valued the symbolism of the priest facing the altar, or perhaps it thought that corporate worship in general should not strive to model itself after the informal meal atmosphere of the Last Supper. A third factor could have been that ministers in the Reformed churches spoke the Words of Institution versus populum with their backs to the elements, since they had no doctrine of the Real Presence. (Lutherans obviously would have wanted to distance themselves from those who didn't acknowledge the Real Presence.) But regardless, we can say without reservation that Luther was only human, and that his opinions were not meant to be made into rubrics, as Luther himself hints in the above quote.

Simply put, the Church's traditions are bigger than one person. Christ has given his members the freedom to make innovations to worship that are born from the gospel. Certain innovations have been weeded out over the centuries as being harmful and contrary to scripture (e.g. the agape meal, the Canon of the Mass). Others have been good, and our fellowship has kept them. Whatever your church practice is, I would only suggest that you strive for ritual that is meaningful. See that it communicates truthfully to your parishioners, and that they understand what is being done, and why. Finally, may Christ be glorified in all things! Amen.

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