The Altar

Many Episcopalians remember a time when the altars in most Episcopal churches were attached to the wall beyond the altar rail. The Celebrant at the Eucharist would turn to the altar and have his back – his back, never hers in those days – to the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer and the consecration of the bread and wine.

Over the course of the last forty years or so, a great many of those altars have either been removed and pulled out away from the wall or replaced by the kind of freestanding table-like altar we now use at St. Paul’s, Ivy. This was a response to the popular sentiment that the priest ought not turn his back to the people during the service; the perception was that this represented an insult to the laity and their centrality in worship. Thus developed today’s widespread practice in which the clergy stand behind the altar facing the people.

Unfortunately, we don’t always understand our own symbolism as well as we should, and in changing our Eucharistic practice we managed to substitute one misunderstanding for another. When the Celebrant faced the wall, we thought the laity were somehow excluded; now that the Celebrant faces the people, we are sometimes inclined to think that he or she is speaking to us, rather than to God.

In all our Eucharistic prayers – Prayers I and II in the Rite I service (beginning on pages 333 and 340, respectively), and Prayers A, B, C, and D in the Rite II service (pages 361, 367, 369, and 372) – the subject of the prayer is “We.” We proclaim, we celebrate, we ask, we pray, we give thanks, we who have been redeemed by him now bring before you these gifts, we acclaim you, holy Lord, glorious in power. The We is all the people, and the you is God. The Eucharistic prayer is voiced by the priest, but prayed by the whole congregation. The prayer goes from the people to God, not from the Celebrant to God, and certainly not from the Celebrant to the people. When the priest faced the wall, the intention was to represent the alignment of clergy and laity in our common prayer—we were all facing the same direction. In the current practice, the intention is to represent the whole family – clergy and laity – gathered around the table, focused on the bread and wine.

Either way, it’s not the orientation of the clergy in relation to the laity that’s important; it’s the orientation of all the people toward God. When we come to all the we’s and us’s in the Eucharistic Prayer, no matter what direction the priest is facing, we remember that it’s our prayer, from us to God, a prayer that we pray, not someone else’s prayer that we overhear.