I’ve always considered the communion rubric for standing on the North Side of the table to be incredibly odd. It’s always very much a challenge to envision a northside celebration, especially when there are close to nil churches doing it. We either have the priest facing the people during the recitation of the canon, or the priest faces eastward. But what is ‘northside’?
The 1662 BCP rubric for communion says, “And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table shall say the Lord’s Prayer, with the Collect following, the people kneeling”. This starts the antecommunion and the rest of the liturgy is finished in the same way. The 1637 BCP says the same, but the 1928 somewhat simplifies things by omitting the rubric altogether.
While probably a dead letter, the motive behind ‘northside’ originally involved a desire to include the people in the prayers and blessings of the church. The Reformation of the Mass was, firstly, concerned about the liturgy being 1) audible, and, 2) visible to the people. If a priest stood ‘eastward’, then manual acts were naturally blocked from view. Moreover, unless the bread was elevated above the shoulders, its visibility was also obstructed. Celebration against the east wall, especially in cathedrals with long choir stalls, would likewise hinder audibility. Another commenter observed the priest on the north side with deacon on the south would have made washings difficult, and this was also probably an intent.
However, the Puritan movement during Edward VI and Elizabeth I solved this problem by replacing fixed altars with movable tables, relocating the latter in the front of the chancel (between the choir) or, more often, the middle of the nave. The priest then celebrated the eucharist from the northside of a table which was often oblong in shape, meaning the table was orientated parallel to nave’s length. Thus, the priest stood in the nave, faced northside, and had the length of the table before him. If this is very confusing, see this link: the Pre-tractarian Church.
Sacrament of the Altar not ‘the Desk’: When Laud restored the tables to their original Henrician position, plus forbidding their removal from the chancels, the northside position of the Puritans became untenable as the “north end” of a table was now fixed along the length of the ‘eastern’ wall. Especially in chapel sanctuaries, standing on the ‘north end’ would be awkward at best if not impossible. Practicality reasoned ‘north side’ simply meant the gospel side of the altar, and it appears this would conform to ancient practice. But the intent of the 1662’s rubric was to keep the recitation of the liturgy near the altar rather than below in reading desk or pulpit as low churchmen might have it. Bishop Cosin says regarding where the liturgy is pronounced:
“The Jews prayed standing, but only in the time of mourning; for then they prayed prostrate, or upon their knees. Formerly the Priest stood in the middle of the altar. Si ad aram Dei steteris. And the Writings of the Ancients abound with testimonies of the same thing. Again this Writer says with respect to standing at the Table: — which was the custom of the ancients, that all things which pertained to the celebration of the Lord’s-Supper should be said at the Altar. Now in this Celebration, there is hardly any difference between us and the Protestants in Germany, but that among us the Prayers are said by the Bishop or Minister at the Altar, but among them in the Desk: In which they do not agree with the ancients.” (Notes to Nicholls’ Book of Common Prayer, p. 38)
And the Rev. J.J. Blunt, (late Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.) observes: —
“Here the Rubric is express against a practice, not uncommon that of reading this Service, when there is no Communion, from the Desk. This, I say, is a clear infraction of the Rubric, which directs that “the Priest is to stand at the north side of the Table, and say, etc.. ( Duties of the Parish Priest, p. 325)
The Parson’s Handbook: The question still remains what would north-side celebration by the 1662 bcp look like? It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around. Evidently, there wasn’t a dominant or single interpretation of this rubric, so this complicates matters. However, the Anglican principle of hearing and seeing in worship should be kept in mind, calling the people to use their five wits with the clergy in liturgy. A good Anglican methodology when questions remain is to look back to prior practice. In his Parson’s Handbook, the Rev. Percy Dearmer rather successfully reconciles the earlier practice of eastward/altar facing as found in the 1549 BCP/Sarum with the 1662 ‘north side’ rubric. He says:
“In the editions of this Handbook preceding that of 1907 I deliberately left open the vexed question as to whether the priest should stand at the north, south, or middle of the altar. I have, however, now come to the conclusion that he should stand before the north part of the altar, mainly because more recent knowledge has resolved the doubt raised by the Lincoln Judgement, which, in a very thorough statement of the case, declared the eastward position a very thorough statement of the case, declared the eastward position throughout the service to be legal, but left the part of the altar undecided. Archbishop Benson took the following view:– The position of the Holy Table had, in 1662, been lawfully changed, but yet the revisers left the old rubric ‘standing at the north side’, although the Tables now stood altarwise, and had no north side in the sense of the rubric; therefore the words ‘at the north side’ are now ‘impossible of fulfillment in the sense originally intended’ (Lincoln Judgement, p. 44), and for the priest to stand at the northern part of the front ‘can be regarded only as an accommodation of the letter of the Rubric to the present position of the Table’ (ibid, p. 41).
Now it is not the case that the revisers of 1662 deprived the rubric of its meaning by leaving it unaltered to apply to the changed position of the altar. They seem rather indeed to have known what they were about, and to have left the words ‘standing at the north side’ (although the altars had been brought back to their proper position) because they knew that the words could still apply. The words ‘north side’ were, in fact, used to describe the ‘northern part of the front’ in pre-Reformation times; and there was therefore no reason to change them in 1662, when the altar stood as in those times. Here are some examples:– ‘Then I that was kneeling on the north side of the altar, at the right side of the crucifix’ (Revelation of the Monk of Evesham, 1482, cap. 12). In the Alphabetum Sacerdotum, the direction before the Gospel is ‘different missale ad aliud latus’. ‘How the priest after that with great reverenc doth begin the mass between deacon and subdeacon at the one side of the altar’ (Interpretacyon of the Masse, 1532, art. 5, qu. in Dat Becxhen, pp. xi, 142)
This position does in any case keep close to the letter of the rubric; and it was adopted by a good many after the Savoy Conference, when the Bishops declared in favor of the eastward position. The north end has never been authorized since, but the north part of the front was used at St. Paul’s in 1681, and in other ways is shown to have high sanction from 1674 to 1831. Nor was it an innovation to commence on the north side of the sanctuary: it was done at Westminster Abbey and by the Cluniacs before the Reformation, and is still the custom of the Carthusians.
Some have urged that the priest should stand at the south and not the north horn, on the ground that he began the service thus before the Reformation. This, however, is inexact. It is true that the Sarum Missal has ‘in dextro cornu‘” but at low Mass the priest vested at the north side of the altar, the chalic and paten lying in the middle and the book on the south side. He thus began Mass at the north side, and in this position he said amongst other things those very prayers which now begin our service, viz. the Paternoster and the Deus cui omne cor. Furthermore, to begin at the south is not even an accommodation of our rubric, and it has never been adopted under authority since the altars have been set back in their old position. Some have recommended the priest to stand ‘afore the midst of the altar’, because this was his position under the First Prayer Book; but this at least gives teh impression of disobeying our present rubric; and we have perhaps no right to imagine that the revisers of the 1662 meant the priest to revert to the custom of 1549 since they did not say so. They kept the words ‘north side’; and, as we have seen, ‘north side’ is good English for ‘sinistrum cornu‘.
The problem remains for Dearmer how the elements are made visible. Dearmer feels, though the priest stands on the north or gospel side, during the words of consecration, with the priest still facing eastwards, the bread ought be raised to “the level of the mouth” and the fraction thus made visible to the people behind. Meanwhile, the cup should remain on the table and the priest bow during that portion of the institution. This seems a bit odd to me, treating species differently, but Dearmer’s point is such satisfies the canon’s principle of visibility. I have to ask does this suggest a kind of concomitance– what is done to one kind is done to the other?
The 1892 BCP revision seems to imply precedent for Dearmer’s recommenda-tion. The third rubric at the beginning of the Holy Communion rite instructs, “And the minister, standing at the right side of the Table, or where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said, shall say the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect following, the People kneeling” (p. 243)
Liturgics of Minor Orders: Dearmer offers the best answer to the north side question. If anyone has ever found a youtube video showing north side, please share! My own preference would be to see Priests recognize the north side rubric despite its obsolesce since 1928. The 1928 BCP was an attempt to retrieve the 1549, and, ironically, the 1549 version has the priest turning to the choir to declare “the peace”, upon which the choir responds, “and with thy spirit”. This hearkens to the old Sarum where the Priest would actually begin the Pax with a kiss to the deacon or clerk, likewise turning north to do so. Calls and responses to choirsides might occur elsewhere in the liturgy, but traditionally the choir did have a more prominent role in the liturgy than today, singing introits and graduals. Liturgics today are very different from the Sarum. Minor orders are virtually dissolved into the “people”, and Anglican liturgy is conducted almost like a perpetual low mass. However, the 1549 and perhaps Dearmer’s northside retain the best of both eras.
The north side (gospel side) seems a distinctly Anglican ceremonial position. One advantage relevant for today might be the further de-emphasis that modern liturgics (both Vatican II Roman and neo-Anglican) tend to put upon laity in the attempt to democratize services and flatten ecclesiology. A sense of prelatial space might thus be engendered by giving choirs, clerks, and swornmen heightened roles as was done in olden days when the church was conceived as ordered society with ranks and hierarchies rather than as an undifferentiated mass of ‘equal’ priests?
Charles Bartlett lives and works in Northern California. He is a member-at-large in the UECNA, worshiping in the REC by bishopric dispensation. His blog, Anglican Rose, explores the nature of adiaphora in England’s Church beginning with late-Henrician standards.