Sunday, March 7, 2010

When the Celebrant Makes Eye Contact During the Eucharistic Prayer

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.

20 comments:

Tregonsee said...

Very respectfully, it says something that the direction you face is a big deal these days. I am a layman and have attended several churches over the past few decades, both Episcopal and now Anglican. Some priests face the congregation. Others face the altar out of conviction, or in one case the necessity imposed by an old church with a massive marble altar. It would have required significant, expensive work to put in even a "card table" altar to face the people. Somehow, it all gets done.

Personally, I feel we have priests for a reason, not just laity, and on the rare occasion I even consider it, think the better case is to face the Cross and God along with the rest of the worshipers.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Tregonsee. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the direction I face while celebrating is a particularly "big deal" for me these days. But it is something that I've thought about quite a bit since making the change from liturgical East to facing the people just over four years ago. I'll bet that not many priests my age or younger have even had one or two experiences of celebrating facing liturgical East, much less doing it Sunday after Sunday for 4 years. Having had the experience of both liturgical East and facing the people for roughly the same amount of time, I am grateful that I can compare and contrast the relative merits of each. I do not advocate for abolishing the practice of facing the people. But, based on my experience, I think we lose something very important with the disappearance of liturgical East.

My comments about what happens with eye contact during the Eucharistic Prayer go to a larger point: that what clergy do or don't do while officiating liturgy send messages and convey meaning, however subtly. We do well to think about what we're doing and why we're doing it, lest our actions convey messages we do not intend or that even contradict our basic theological convictions.

The Underground Pewster said...

Thank you for your thoughts. From the point of view of the pewsitter, there is a concern that my focus might shift to "watching the show" when the priest is facing the congregation.

My solution has been to close my eyes and bow my head and focus on the liturgy and prayers during this part of the service.

Bryan Owen said...

Good point about the dangers of those in the pews being distracted by the celebrant away from prayer, Underground Pewster. Whether I'm the celebrant, or assisting and standing with clergy colleagues at the altar, or attending another parish and am seated in the nave, I find it most helpful to stay prayerfully focused on the meaning words in the Eucharistic Prayer.

Mike said...

Bryan, you have raised, I think, an important issue. At least part of the celebrant's work and concern should be to help create an environment in which the celebrant and people both see and encounter God. The liturgy is not so much about meeting our needs (though they do get addressed) but about God. In this regard actions, gestures, movements all convey some meaning and we should at a minimum be intentional about what we do and why. Instead of choosing between facing east or facing the people maybe it could be (should be?) both. They both convey a particular and necessary teaching. I try to do this by facing liturgical east with the people at the hymn of praise, Nicene Creed, and confession. I face the people atthe Eucahristic Prayer and focus on the elements unless the words are directed to the people, e.g. sursum corda, invocation of Lord's prayer. I wonder how we might more fully incorporate both into the liturgy.

Peace, Mike+
http://interruptingthesilence.com

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts and sharing your experience, Mike. I'm intrigued by the idea of how to incorporate aspects of both liturgical East and facing the people in ways that allow them to work together. Each has something important to offer when done well. I'd love to read more of your thoughts on this.

BillyD said...

When I first started attending my current parish, I was a bit flummoxed by the ad orientem position, which was not what I was used to in an Episcopal setting. I deeply cherish it now, and actively dislike celebrations where the celebrant is behind the altar, facing the congregation. I doubly dislike it when the celebrant feels called to "relate" to the people somehow during the Eucharistic Prayer, whether that's an attempt at soulful eye contact or dramatic readings of the prayer itself.

Dave said...

I think, for me, that some of the tension of celebrating facing the folk comes from a not so subtle move that has been made in our Eucharistic theology as to the meaning of the altar.

With all the emphasis on "inclusion" (defined as making people comfortable) we seem to have moved from a "sacrificial altar" view to the famly dining room. Thus, the informality of that thought process leads to a casual hosting of the dinner (facing the folk).

I prefer Liturgical East, but when facing the congregation only make eye contact during the Sursum Corda and invitation to the Lord's prayer.

Besides, you don't need that much of my ADD to be easily distracted in celebrating the Eucharist if you look out and see children (or adults) second knuckle deep in nasal maintenance.

TLF+ said...

I was blessed to celebrate facing east for a few years early in my ordained ministry.

If it is done well, with attention to the moments when one faces the people to teach and to invite prayer, it can create that gathered people, turned as one in prayer to God.

TLF+ said...

And while I'm at it, let me suggest that even when we face the people to celebrate, we make it a point to face the same direction as the people during the confession of sin. That sends the message that our gathering is not sufficient in itself - it must look to God to make it holy.

1662 BCP said...

I have always followed the 1662 BCP and been a North-Ender.

Anonymous said...

Whe facing the congregation, I think it makes a difference if there are others standing around the altar focused on the "center". In my parish, the lay readers (who are vested) and acolytes join the priest and ceremonialist at the offertory in a half-circle. This seems to bring the congregation "in" rather than have the priest facing "out".
Patrick

Joe Rawls said...

I grew up in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church where ad orientem was automatically accepted. I never thought versus populum was especially irreverent. It all depends on the attitude of the priest and congregants. I think both ways are equally acceptable. I should point out that my church, a nice imitation Gothic number, has a very deep chancel and that the original altar is literally invisible from many places in the nave. Of course, this was not such a big problem in the old days when Morning Prayer was the main service most Sundays. The high altar is never used any more, which is sad.

Bryan Owen said...

Helpful and insightful comments all around, everyone. Thank you!

Kelso said...

I loved the "facing the east" posture...so much that I (and my money) left the church when we adopted the wretched new prayer book. I've been in love with the Episcopal Church all my life...but separated since 1979. I hope the train wreck that is now the Episcopal Church will survive to return to a better way and better days.

bob said...

What would happen to you if you faced the same way as everybody else(As you so sensibly point out)?
I can't believe there are many Episcopalians who would turn you in. Excellent observations, sensible nostalgia. About face!

David said...

The danger is, of course, liturgical fundamentalism- "this is the only way it should be done" and to forget that both orientations present the celebrant with challenge- and both require a celebrant self-aware enough not to become the focus of everyone’s attention. The elaborate dance of solemn high mass with three vested ministers- and with leadership getting tossed from organist/choir to celebrant to lector to acotlyes- and back and forth does this nicely… when it’s not self-conscious. This parish is mostly east facing- but when we use the free standing altar for the 9am, a couple of things are helpful. First- when not actually doing something with the elements, celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon stand a few steps back- out of the spot light as it were. The eye contact thing is a real question- and its really helpful to remember that we are praying, with Jesus to the Father- and that when we say the words of institution- we are holding the words and the elements before the Father as the sign of our redemption- not taking the role of host at the last supper. We’re a divided sacristy on the question of manual acts - I’m of the opinion that sharply reduced and simplified hand motions work best at an east facing altar, but a colleague whose wisdom I respect insists that the manual acts focus the congregation’s attention on the elements. A free standing altar is particularly helpful when it comes to the invitation. It seems most effective to me –that the elements be on the altar … with as little else as possible at that point- and the celebrant can gesture towards them, saying, “the gifts of God..” and then raise hands to gesture to the congregation ..”for the people of God”. Pointing to them rather than holding them up- underscores the fact that this is not something the celebrant offers.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, David. Very well said.

BTW, I love your parish website. Well done!

Jendi said...

Good arguments on both sides. Personally, I appreciate being able to see the elements when the priest blesses them. It's an important moment in the service when I feel close to Christ. This is easier if the priest faces the congregation. I'm too nearsighted to notice if she's making eye contact with us or not :)

krisjac1 said...

I agree with Jendi. My Priest today for the first time faced actual east with his back to the congregation.

I prefer the openness of the priest facing the congregation My focus during the prayer of consecration is not on the priest but on the bread and wine. The priest facing the east obscures the elements from the view of the congregation. I am separated from God view -- what hocus pocus is going on behind that curtain???