Why I Value The North Side Position, Essay Three
8 min read
8 min read
The position of the minister at the Lord’s Supper is no trifling detail. It expresses more evidently than any other visible and external factor what doctrine of the Supper we hold. The old debate between the Eastward position and Northside has been modified in our day by the growing popularity of a third alternative, the Westward position. Many have welcomed it as a possible escape, and have suggested that it is a position to which former champions of the Northside and Eastward position can subscribe with a good conscience. It should be conceded at once that the Westward position is greatly preferable to the Eastward position. It should not, however, for that reason be uncritically adopted. The traditional arguments in favour of the Northside are still valid, and by some of them at least the Westward position may be tried and found wanting.
If the historical argument for an ecclesiastical practice is a question of its antiquity, then of the three positions of the minister under discussion, since it dates only from the sixteenth century, the Northside has the weakest case. The Westward position, on the other hand, is the earliest known position taken by the minister at the Holy Communion. At least from the time when churches came to be built, and the points of the compass had any meaning in the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the presiding minister adopted the Westward or ‘Basilican posture. That the position is primitive to this extent does not necessarily commend it, however, unless it can be shown that the reasons for its early adoption were good, and especially that it expressed a doctrine of the sacrament consonant with Scripture. This we shall examine in the next section. All that need be said here, from the historical viewpoint, is that our reformers did not embrace this position for the English Church. Although they were determined to abandon the Eastward position, because of its unavoidable associations with the sacrifice of the mass, and although they undoubtedly knew that the Westward position was primitive, and was being chosen by their fellow reformers on the Continent, they yet declined to adopt it themselves, and invented the Northside position instead. They have left no record of their reasons, so far as I know, but they must have had theological objections to this early tradition, which made it unacceptable to them.
It is on theological grounds chiefly that Cranmer chose, and evangelicals endorse, the Northside.
It is now claimed, however, that the theological arguments against the Eastward position are not applicable to the Westward position, and that the Westward position expresses wholesome doctrine as much and as clearly as the Northside. Let us examine this claim.
Two theological questions are involved in the position of the minister at the Lord’s Supper. They concern our view first of the sacrament itself, and secondly of the minister who administers it. We should desire to see the minister stand in a position which expresses a seemly, proper and Biblical view of both ministry and sacrament.
Let us take the sacrament first. Although I must agree with Mr. Stibbs’ dynamic view of the consecration as belonging to the administration itself, nevertheless the 1662 service separates them. If we allow that they may be separated, it is important to secure that both the actual consecrating of the elements and the use to which they are put after the consecration should accord with our view of the nature and purpose of the sacrament. At the consecration, common bread becomes holy bread, and common wine becomes holy wine, set apart for the sole purpose of exhibiting and signifying the body and blood of Christ. It is not that the substance of the elements is changed, but that their significance is altered. As Hugh Latimer expressed it during his last trial at Oxford, “the change is not in the nature, but in the dignity”. This setting apart of the elements is, therefore, a simple act, and should not be shrouded in mystery. Indeed, it is not an accident that “the breaking of bread” was an early name for the Lord’s Supper, for the breaking of the bread is separate from the eating of the bread and has its own importance. It commemorates the objective fact of the death of Christ, as the eating signifies our personal appropriation of its benefits. Now Jesus undoubtedly broke the loaf visibly, while surrounded by the apostles. Our reformers intended the minister to do the same, to “break the bread before the people”, as the rubric says; and the Lincoln Judgement, by requiring a minister who adopts the Eastward position to turn round and face the congregation for the manual acts, recognized that they are intended by our Prayer Book to be visible. This is certainly secured by the Westward position. Indeed, its most attractive feature is the lessening of the element of mystery associated with the elements themselves, and the increased visibility of everything which the minister does.
We turn now from the consecration of the elements to the use which is made of them. The mediaeval view was, of course, not only that the bread and wine were miraculously and substantially changed into the body and blood of Christ, but that Christ Himself, now thought to be present under the forms of bread and wine, was offered to God as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead. The doctrines of transubstantiation and of the sacrifice of the mass belonged inevitably to one another. The supposed change in the substance of the elements led to the unbloody sacrifice of Christ to God. Our reformers, however, repudiated both ideas. They insisted that the change in the bread and wine was only significant and not substantial (“ Figuratively He is in the bread and wine ”—Cranmer), and that the elements thus consecrated could properly be employed only as a sacrament administered to man, not as a sacrifice offered to God. They saw that the central movement in the Lord’s Supper was from God to man in grace, and not from man to God in sacrifice. Man’s sacrifice of himself, in soul and body, was not strictly part of the sacrament at all, but a final response to the grace signified in it and received by faith through it.
Where should the minister stand, in order clearly to express this manward movement of the sacrament? In the Eastward position, it is impossible; at the North side it is inevitable; in the Westward position, it is equivocal. Since the minister faces the people, he can think of himself as doing nothing but administering a sacrament to the congregation. But in the Westward position it is perfectly possible for him both to elevate the host and to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, and indeed to do so more visibly, and therefore more dramatically than if he were standing in the Eastward position. I cannot help wondering if the attraction of the Westward position to some contemporary churchmen is not the fact that both ideas, of godward sacrifice and of manward sacrament, can by it be combined. I still greatly prefer the Northside, because it makes the intended use of the consecrated elements plainly sacramental, and equally plainly not sacrificial.
The second theological doctrine involved in the minister’s position is that of the ministry. Our view of the minister, who he is and what he does in the sacrament, must govern where we put him. The crucial question in my mind concerns what the relation is in the ministry of word and sacrament between the visible minister and the invisible Lord. Do we think of the Lord as absent and of the minister as His substitute, speaking and acting for Him on earth? Is the minister doing today, at the Lord’s Supper, what Jesus did Himself at the Last Supper? Does the minister, in fact, stand in the place of an absent Christ?
If our answer to these questions is “yes”, I believe we hold a false and exaggerated view of the Christian ministry, with which the adoption of the Westward position, however, would be quite consistent. Is this not why the Pope continues to celebrate in St. Peter’s, Rome, from behind the High Altar, because he regards himself as the Vicar of Christ, able to dispense grace in His Name?
If, on the other hand, our answer to the questions posed above is “No”, and we do not regard the minister as a kind of substitute-Christ, then surely the North side of the Holy Table is the correct place for the minister to stand, because it is discreet, while the Westward position is improper because it is too prominent. In the ministry of both word and sacrament, the minister needs to make it plain that he regards himself only as an ‘agent through whom the living and present Christ works to elicit and confirm the people’s faith (see 1 Corinthians 3. 5). In the ministry of the word, we do not preach on our own authority, but acknowledge our subordination to the word we seek to expound. It is the word which is central, or rather the God whose word it is, not the minister who handles it. So in the sacrament of Holy Communion, it is still Jesus Christ who is the Chief Minister. If this is not so, why do we speak of the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Table? It is His Supper, not just because He instituted it, but also because He continues to preside at it from His own Table. Therefore, as Host, it is for Him to take the head of the Table. The “Westward position” is His, not ours. When people immediately object that this implies a dangerous localization of His presence, I do not agree. I do believe in the real presence of Christ in His Supper, but neither on His Table (under the forms of bread and wine), nor even necessarily at His Table. I have no wish to localize His presence substantially. Nevertheless, symbolically the head of the Table is His, and the minister should not occupy it.
Where, then, should the minister be? A proper symbolism places him at the Northside, where, at the right hand of his Master, he is administering on His behalf, or rather his Master is administering through him. The minister’s task is, in fact, the same as that of the disciples at the feeding of the five thousand: “Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down” (John 6. 11). This is the true position of the minister, not as a substitute for Christ, but as a servant of Christ. As I understand it, the Roman Catholic priest thinks of himself as having authority to dispense grace in the sacrament because of who and what he is. Among the Plymouth Brethren, at the other extreme, there is in their Breaking of Bread no one to give’; it is all’ taking’ by the congregation. But in the reformed churches, it is Christ who gives; and the minister administers on His behalf.
In their view of the sacrament, our reformers sought to preserve the unique glory of Christ. They rejected all views which seemed to them derogatory to His death and passion. Our view of the Christian minister must be governed by the same principle. By what we do and say in our ministry, we must make plain our conviction that Christ Himself is the chief Minister of word and sacrament, and that we in the ordained ministry are but His underlings’ (1 Corinthians 4. 1). We must not appear to usurp His position. An elevated pulpit is a perilous enough position for a minister to occupy; the central, presiding position at the Lord’s Table is not ours to take. It is He Who presides; it is for us to stand aside, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
While both Eastward position and Northside are regarded by some people as divisive, the Westward position has been welcomed as a unifying factor in schemes of union involving an Anglican church and non-episcopal churches. Many of the latter have preserved the Westward position. It has become popular in the Liturgical Movement. It seems to have been successfully adopted in the Church of South India. As has already been mentioned, the Pope celebrates from this position in St. Peter’s.
This phenomenon, that the Westward position is acceptable to both ends of the theological spectrum, makes it immediately attractive to some. Ought it not rather for this very reason to be somewhat suspect? The Pope and the ministers of many non-episcopal churches adopt the same position while ‘celebrating’, although they hold widely divergent views of the nature and purpose of the sacrament. It is evident, therefore, that the Westward position itself does not clearly symbolize, and for this reason cannot definitely secure a proper doctrine of the Holy Communion. I fear that enthusiasm for the Westward position on eirenical grounds may indicate a shallow quest for outward uniformity. Unity of word and deed, of liturgical form and ritual act, is of no great value, without an underlying unity of doctrine, to which they should be giving expression. Such external unity is misleading, and may even be dishonest, because the unity is apparent only without being real.
Our concern should be first and foremost to embrace for ourselves, and commend to others a New Testament theology of grace, ministry and sacraments, and then to put the officiating minister at the Lord’s Supper into a position which plainly and incontrovertibly exemplifies this theology. It is for this reason supremely that I, for one, far from wishing to abandon it, welcome the symbolism of the Northside.