When I was newly ordained, I was appointed by my bishop to serve in a parish with an altar against the wall. My initial response was close to horror. I could not believe I would begin my priesthood celebrating the Eucharist facing liturgical East! But after celebrating that way in that parish for over 4 years, I not only grew comfortable with it by virtue of familiarity; I also developed an appreciation for it. I came to understand from experience that when, after facing the congregation for the opening dialogue I then turned around to lead the Eucharistic prayer, I was not turning my back on my people. On the contrary, by turning to face in the same direction as they were facing, I was aligning myself with the congregation in solidarity with them and in order to lead prayer with them.
Initially I did not understand it, but by getting myself as the celebrant "out of the way" by turning to face the altar with my congregation, I was striking a blow against clericalism and affirming the "priesthood of all believers" in one of the actions that makes the Church what it most truly is: the Great Thanksgiving in which the prayer of the entire gathered assembly remembers and makes newly present the death and resurrection of our Lord.
After 4 plus years of celebrating the Holy Eucharist facing liturgical East, it's probably not surprising that it took me a while to get used to celebrating facing the people when I moved on to my next parish. While I've subsequently grown more or less accustomed to the change, it initially felt awkward, like I was on a stage in the spotlight to perform for a room full of people who were looking at me. Perhaps the most difficult thing to adjust to was something I did not expect: what do I do with my eyes? Do I make eye contact with the people during the Eucharistic Prayer? If so, when? And why?
Of course, that's not the only question a celebrant facing the people should confront. There are numerous others, and depending on how they get answered in the celebration, they can distract the focus away from prayer and reverence in the presence of God to the person of the celebrant. A focus on God in Christ can quickly collapse into the cult of personality. "Hey, look at me and what I'm doing and how groovy and connected to you I am right now!"
I mention the issue of what to do with one's gaze because I've noticed a number of different things happening with celebrating priests over the many years I've been in the Episcopal Church. I've seen some who stay glued to the missal throughout the Eucharistic Prayer. Depending on the expectations of the congregation, they perhaps do so at the risk of coming across as cold and distant. I remember one priest who always looked up and above the congregation's heads, as though she were addressing someone near the ceiling in the back of the nave. Some make eye contact with the congregation only during certain parts of the Eucharistic Prayer (why those particular parts and not others?). Others try to make as much eye contact with the congregation as possible throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, glancing down at the missal just long enough to soak in a few of the words in order to immediately look back up and recite them while scanning the faces of the gathered assembly. Besides increasing the likelihood that the celebrant will make errors in the wording or even lose his/her place in the prayer, this approach comes across rather like watching the ball go back and forth in a tennis match. And while I don't mean to be judgmental, I also think it runs the risk of flirting with the idolatry of praying to the people.
I note that none of these things are an issue when the celebrant faces the altar in solidarity with the gathered assembly.
With respect to eye contact, my approach to celebrating facing the people has changed slightly over the last few years. Initially, I would only look at the people in the congregation during the Institution Narrative. My rationale was that this is the only place within the Eucharistic Prayer that can conceivably be construed as actually addressing the people rather than God (perhaps one could include the mystery of faith).
Lately, I don't even do that. Instead, I keep my eyes focused on the bread and then on the wine as I elevate them during the recitation of Jesus' words of institution. I try to stay centered in the meaning of the words I'm reciting. And I often find myself longing for that solidarity with the people that comes from "getting myself out of the way" that I once experienced in a liturgical setting which I might not have initially chosen as a newly ordained priest, but which I am so grateful to have experienced.
Heretical as it sounds, I sometimes find myself longing for liturgical East.