Why I Value The North Side Position, Essay Two
14 min read
14 min read
The world undoubtedly stands amazed at the fact that Christians disagree and fall out with each other, but its amazement is increased a thousandfold when some of the actual points of disagreement emerge into daylight. What truly astonishing people Christians are! They fight not only over what a man wears, but even over where he stands! As though it mattered one whit in either case! While, however, the reactions of the world must never be taken as a norm for the Church, this simple’ approach to the question of ecclesiastical behaviour has its adherents within the Church also. Even such an authority as R. C. D. Jasper is prepared to commit himself to the opinion that “it would be most unfair to suggest in any way that the Eastward position or even the North-end position is wrong. No really fundamental eucharistic doctrines are at stake, whatever the position the celebrant might adopt.” And, of course, it is well known that many adopt this same attitude-many, that is, who are as little open to the accusation of being superficial as is the author quoted above.
Yet, on the other hand, many more, with whom I would number myself, find it impossible to describe this attitude without resorting to such apparently derogatory words as simple-minded’ and even ‘naïve’. We would agree broadly with J. H. Blunt that “it is of infinitely small importance, in itself, what costume the officiating minister wears, or in what particular place he stands; but when the inner meaning and reality of his work, and of his relation to God and the people, are taken into account, we at once see that only shallow thinkers, superficial observers, or persons indifferent to the truth or falsehood of outward appearances, can imagine that these things which are of small importance in themselves continue to be so when they are connected with a mystery so full of meaning “.
It was this reasoning which led Blunt to value Eastward position, and Eucharistic Vestments. He saw clearly that history had annexed doctrinal significance to these things, and he valued them as displaying that doctrine. However, the choice which is likely in the near future to face us Evangelicals is not between the North side or Eastward position, but between North and West. For this reason, the present paper, in its attempted appraisal of the Northside usage, gives a good deal of attention to Westward position: for this, as I see it, is the issue yet to be faced. But it must be faced from a standpoint of truth. It will not do simply to speak in terms of tradition, or in terms of uniformity-whether with Geneva or Rome. Ministerial vestures and attitudes involve doctrine, and every possible care must be taken so to order outward matters in the Church of God that the purity of the Gospel of God is truly safe.
In the matter of the position of the minister at the Lord’s Table, the Church of England preserved an unbroken tradition for three hundred years following the Reformation. There is some evidence of the use of Westward position in Canterbury Cathedral in the year 1565, but it appears to have been a temporary variant confined to that one place, and, as J. T. Tomlinson comments, “we are not to suppose that this ‘Canterbury Use’ obtained generally “.4 It is also well known that in 1640 and 1641 Bishops Wren and Cosin were accused of officiating “at the West side of the Holy Table”, that is, of taking Eastward position. They both hastened to absolve themselves from the charge, Wren pleading that his shortness of stature precluded him from reaching the Bread and Wine from the Northside, and that, nevertheless, he had only once thus deserted the North for the East; and Cosin replying that “he denieth that he did ever officiate with face purposely towards the east, but he constantly stood at the Northside”. To such an extent was Northside the unbroken Anglican custom that Bishop Charles Wordsworth could write in 1876: “ There was not a single Anglican writer upon the subject, so far as I could discover, from 1662 to 1843, who had taken the other side, except Scandret (1708) and John Johnson (1714)”.
This constant custom was gradually broken as the Tractarian Movement gathered impetus. It used to be fashionable with some to enter upon tortuous explanations of the Northside Rubric, in the interest of demonstrating that North, in fact, meant West and that Eastward position was the true mind of the Church of England. These arguments should be studied by those who wish to discover evidence that truth is stranger than fiction’, but against the weight of historical evidence, they cannot stand, and are now generally abandoned. However, it remains true that the Eastward position has gradually become accepted practice in the Church of England. Writing in 1851, Pusey recalled that, to the last, Newman had adopted the Northside; and even as late as the Purchas Judgment of 1871, which condemned Eastward position, Pusey himself had not adopted it, though, by then, it was widely prevalent. Bishop Moule recalls how the Archbishop conducted the Holy Communion from the Northside at the Coronation of Edward VII in the Abbey.? But these are by-gone features, and nowadays what was once the hallmark of extreme ritualistic innovators is universally accepted as the mark of the non-party man, and “ those who conform to the Book of Common Prayer are put on their defence, and treated as offenders against the established order”
The Church of England now faces another proposal, the Westward position, and those of us who had firmly chosen North as against East are now called to another decision. Is the North side so valuable, both in declaring truth and in rebutting error, that we must retain it, rather than adopt the Westward position with all its obvious attractiveness to the evangelical mind ?
We will address ourselves to this discussion by first asking a question which may seem remote from the issue itself: What value ought to be set on outward uniformity in the Christian Church ? This question is not, in fact, at a remove from our discussion, for one of the current reasons for opposing North side and urging Westward position is, as we shall see, that the one is a mere idiosyncrasy, and the other a visible unity, or at least uniformity, a custom which is at once primitive, protestant, and papal. Surely it is therefore necessary to ask whether an agreed practice is worth seeking? Is uniformity an end in itself ?
The answer of the New Testament is neither far to seek, nor hard to understand. Does the Acts of the Apostles, for example, lay down a clear, unassailable relationship between Baptism and the Laying-on of Hands so that one uniform practice is apparent for the guidance of the Church? Did the Council of Jerusalem appoint a liturgical commission and authorize forms of service? These are not shallow questions, for the apostles saw themselves as church-founders, and the council was convened to concern itself with a situation of potential disunity. Again, did Paul settle the disputes at Corinth in terms of uniform Church practice? Was it not rather on the basis of a broad requirement of ‘decency and order’ within which each local church might practice helpful individual variation? Indeed, it seems certain that Paul did not see himself as the imposer of Church uniformity. In the Epistle to the Galatians 2:11-14 he is clearly the opponent of an attempt to impose uniformity in a rigid fashion, where he saw it to threaten the truth of the Gospel. His attitude remained constant on this matter, as Philippians 3 shows. And in Philippians 1:15-18, lack of uniformity is no worry to him where Christ is truly proclaimed. Bishop Moule perceptively comments:
“And when, as here, he saw around him men, however misguided, who were aiding in the announcement of the Name … he thought more of the evangelization than of the breach incoherence… He is apparently quite unconscious of the thought that because he is the one apostle in Rome, grace can be conveyed only through him; that his authority and commission are necessary to authenticate teaching and make ordinances effectual. He would far rather have order, and he knows that he is its lawful centre. But the announcement of Christ’ is a thing even more momentous than order… If even a separatist propaganda will extend knowledge of Him, His servant can rejoice … Surely even in our own day, with its immemorial complications of the question of exterior order, it will tend more than anything else to straighten crooked places … if we look, from every side, on the glory of the blessed Name as our supreme and ruling interest.”
If further confirmation of Paul’s attitude is desired, the Pastoral Epistles, and 2 Timothy in particular, provide it. Every chapter of that epistle displays Timothy in a divided situation; there is no suggestion that he is to seek uniformity, other than such as springs automatically out of unanimity in apostolic doctrine.
In so far, then, as my decision between North and West rests on considerations of uniformity, I cannot find a pressing reason for making any change. Westward position, so it seems to me, in much of its current advocacy, is a mere uniformity. It is openly urged that those of varied doctrinal persuasions might at least have this in common, that their ministers preside at the Lord’s Supper over the Table ‘. Thus Jasper rejoices that “the fact that the basilican (i.e., Westward) position is one adopted by the majority of the Reformed Churches, and is also acceptable both in the Church of England and in the Church of Rome suffices to indicate that it is not tied to any particular doctrine of the Eucharist ” I would class this as an invitation to paper over cracks! Even if it is true that Westward position suggests no particular eucharistic doctrine, there are nonetheless many diversities of eucharistic doctrine among members of the Church of England. A uniformity, which inevitably suggests a unity, would only succeed in blurring vital distinctions, in suggesting that those who look alike are in fact alike, in making the unity of the Church an organizational and liturgical matter, and in demoting doctrine to a subordinate place things which evangelicals should be the first to resist. Basil Minchin inadvertently makes this situation clear: “ North End is just such a peculiar aberration . . . which we were suggesting that it is the bishop’s function to condemn because it cuts our church off, stresses the differences between it and every other part of the Universal Church of Christ. … North End provides no point of contact.” If we would not accept the view of Christian Unity implicit in this rejection of the Northside, ought we to be any more impressed when Westward position is offered as possessing the compensating advantages, namely that “by facing the people we are demonstrating a unity with more parts of the Church than we do by any other way … the Liturgical Movement is cutting across all the old party and even denominational alignments” ? Farewell, then, also to doctrinal distinctions!
Clearly such a uniformity was not to the liking of the Anglican Reformers, else they would never have selected the Northside. It will be observed from the quotation from Minchin just now given that he dismisses Northside as a mere singularity. Is uniqueness necessarily singularity? It is certain that the Reformers brought in a new thing, for the acknowledged practice of antiquity was the basilican or Westward position, and “no part of the Mass had ever been said at the Northside”.
Such an innovation is most remarkable for our Reformers, whose love of uniformity in other respects, and whose policy of continuity with earlier practice where possible, is proverbial. As regards the former, “ Cranmer alludes in his preface to … great diversity in saying and singing in Churches’, and mentions that some followed ‘Salisbury Use, some Hereford Use, and some the Use of Bangor, some of York, some of Lincoln’. All this was ended by the Act of Uniformity—’ Now from henceforth all the whole realm shall have but one Use.” As regards continuity, Burnet comments accurately on the Vestiarian Controversy, that “Cranmer and Ridley alleged, that traditions in matters of faith were justly rejected, but in matters of rites and ceremonies, custom was oft a good argument for the continuance of that which had been long used “. Why should such people now turn to be innovators?
The answer is frankly not known. Scudamore admits this openly, and then suggests the unlikely explanation that “among the Israelites the Priest was ordered to kill the victim ‘on the side of the Altar northward ‘”. Minchin urges that Northside was a compromise, adopted when the Reformers failed in their attempt to introduce Westward position. Here the wish seems to be father to the thought, for the writings, at least of the major Reformers, are innocent of any suggestion that Westward position was their primary choice, and histories of the Reformation hitherto consulted have failed to substantiate the notion. Even as careful a scholar as the late J. T. Tomlinson, whose documentation of his writings is a by word, though he permits himself the use of the word ‘ compromise’ in this connection, offers no substantiation. The oldest explanation of the position is the negative one, and it continues to be asserted. L’Estrange urged, in 1659, “ As for the priest standing at the North side of the table, this seemeth to avoid the fashion of the priest standing with his face toward the East, as is the popish practice” The Jesuit, Francis Clark, makes the same assertion in our own day: “The officiant was directed to stand at the North side of the communion table in order to avoid any appearance of a sacerdotal posture”.
This may or may not be true, or it may be part of the truth, but it certainly leaves a very large question open. Even if the Reformers wished to deny the sacerdotal doctrine of the Christian ministry—as they assuredly did they had a method of so doing which was both obvious and already practised: Westward position. From every point of common sense it seems obvious that in order to contradict the doctrines of Eastward position one ought to adopt Westward position. This is what the continental Reformed Churches did. The refusal of the English Reformers to follow suit is all the more curious in view of Cranmer’s known longing for a pan-protestant union, and his ready hearing of the opinions of continental leaders. John a Lasco, in point of fact, was, at this very time, using a liturgy involving Westward position in the Strangers’ Church in London. The one thing that seems certain, amid all the uncertainties that surround this important question, is that the Reformers were moved by some purpose, and not by lack of purpose, or mere negativism. The Preface, Of Ceremonies, possibly by Cranmer himself, states:
“And whereas in this our time, the minds of men are so diverse that some think it a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs; and again on the other side, some be so new-fangled, that they would innovate all things, and do despise the old, that nothing can like them, but that is new; it was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God, and profit them both.”
These are not the words of a crafty compromiser, a “skilful practitioner … of the art of devising formularies which would achieve his purposes while leaving a loophole for the consciences of conservatives and waverers”. The man who thus wrote Of Ceremonies had his eye on divine truth and positive human edification. We owe too much to Cranmer to call him a fool in this one respect.
At the same time, we do not know what positive motive led the reformers to this practice, and the following considerations, attempting to assess Northside, are not intended to put words into the mouths of those who reformed our Church, but offer an entirely personal appraisal. Four propositions suggest themselves: in the first place, Northside is a safeguard against a wrongly conceived priestly view of the Christian ministry. Basil Minchin implies that one of the advantages of Westward over Eastward position is that the minister “no longer comes between the people and the sacramental focus of the Presence of God. We all equally surround the holy table and the sacramental gifts, the priest on his side, and the laity on theirs” (my italics). The Westward position “ does not mean that the function of the priest is belittled … it is the priest who links what is done in that particular building with the Universal Church, and with what Christ did and is doing “. Now, this is exactly the doctrine of the Christian Ministry which led to the abandonment of Northside in the last century, and which has never been associated with Northside. In deference to the opinions of many nonconformists who would sternly repudiate such a sacerdotal view of ministry, we may not say that sacerdotalism is inseparable from Westward position. But, for ourselves, faced with the possibility of being asked to adopt Westward position, we must face candidly the doctrinal possibilities of placing the minister, facing the people from the architectural focal point of the church. Can sacerdotalism be excluded as a possibility, even if it is not inherent as a necessity? The Liturgy must not only express the truth; it must also bolt the door against error as far as possible.
Secondly, North side is a safeguard against the notion of the Lord’s presence as localized in the bread and wine. “ There is nothing,” says Minchin, “ between any of them and the table and the sacramental Presence.” The very fact of centralizing the Table, as Westward position does, and of thereby setting the outward signs emphatically at the centre, seems inevitably, sooner or later, at least to leave room for, but possibly also to promote such language as “the sacramental focus of the Presence of God”. There is need for some clarification at this point. Because the elements are appointed as effectual signs, there is a sense in which they must be a focal centre of interest while the sacrament is in process. But there is all the difference between a focus and a locus. It is the localization of the Lord’s presence which is always to be resisted, for:
“Christ is spiritually and by grace in His supper, as He is when two or three be gathered in His name, meaning that with both He is spiritually, and with neither corporally; and yet I say not that there is no difference. For this difference, there is, that with the one he is sacramentally, and with the other not sacramentally. . . . Nevertheless the self-same Christ is present in both, nourisheth and feedeth both, if the sacrament be rightly received. But that is only spiritually.”
Thus not even in the Supper is the Lord to be localized, other than in the hearts of His believing people, and, as our words of administration of the elements show, it is this heart-centred enjoyment of Christ which the participation of the sacrament is intended to excite. It would be unfair and untrue to the experience of Christians in Reformed Churches where Westward position is practised if we were to assert that they were inevitably involved in some localizing concept of the Lord’s Presence. However, continental Protestantism has not, since the Reformation, been faced, as we shall all be, by the potential dangers of the Westward position, if it becomes generally adopted by those whose views both of the ministry and the sacrament are not biblical and evangelical but hierarchical and sacerdotal. Against the possibilities of error involved here, the Westward position provides no safeguard. But the Northside does.
Thirdly, North side displays the true unity of the people of God. This is simply another way of insisting that North side positively excludes priestcraft. As Minchin envisages it, the unity which Westward position produces is a sort of dramatic unity of Actor (the minister), and Audience (the people). “ Children and adults, too, can see what is done “; “the opportunity of seeing what is happening at the altar is a most vivid experience for the laity”. In so far as visibility is an essential, it is secured by the Northside position, but in addition, Northside also secures a proper expression of the relationship between minister and people. Westward position, as stated just now by Minchin, shows the people as participating by watching, but the true brotherly equality of minister and people, the biblical view of the essential unity of God’s priestly people, which North side is more fitted to manifest, is not a priest for the people to God ward’, but a minister of the congregation, taking a servant’s place, performing what is their privilege, acting not in or for or by himself by virtue of inherent dignity or capacity, but as their delegate, the hands and voice of the Church, as it, in its oneness, obeys the dominical command to remember.
Fourthly, and finally, the North side allows the invisible but surely present Lord Jesus to preside at His own Table. Basil Minchin allows himself a slight smile at this assertion:
“The priest, standing half-ways to the people, is not at all naturally placed to preside at the Eucharistic Feast. This has been used as an argument in its favour, claiming that it reduced sacerdotalism to a minimum, showing that there is no president but the Lord. If this is true, it seems strange that Continental Protestantism and English non-conformity did not adopt such an admirable expression of their beliefs. But an argument along these lines falls to the ground when we consider that our Lord presided at the Last Supper, the Apostles presided at the Breaking of Bread, the bishop presided at the basilican Eucharist, and, although he had his back to them, the priest quite definitely presided at the Mediæval Mass, and again after the Reformation, the minister presided across the Table. That there should be no president at the Eucharist may fit some protestant theory, or more likely some reaction to a distortion of medieval symbolism, but it is not scriptural, apostolic, patristic, or according to any later tradition in the Church.”
These are strong and stern words, but nevertheless, a reply is not impossible. We would urge, that the fact that our Lord presided at the Last Supper makes the office of president His alone, and not any mere man’s; that there is no Biblical ground for saying that the apostles presided at the breaking of bread; that traditional forms of ritual, and the practice of ancient bishops may possibly be of antiquarian interest but are not in any way normative for our practice; that the failure of continental Protestantism to see the weaknesses of Westward position is its loss and not its gain, and must not be used as a stick with which to beat the backs of their more enlightened English contemporaries; and that the Northside position of the minister, which in fact does leave the presidency to Him whose right it is, this ‘half-ways’ position, is one of our great legacies from the past, a true perception of the doctrine of the Church, the Ministry, the Sacraments, and the Atonement, and a thing concerning which we ought to pray that we may be made careful guardians and trustees.