Why I Value The North Side Position, Introduction
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The three papers that follow are more than personal documents. They contain not only the views of the writers but a good deal of factual information which deserves to be more widely known. How many ministers, let alone laymen, have seriously considered what reasons led Cranmer to write his revolutionary Rubric at the start of our Communion Service: “The Priest, standing at the north side of the Table, shall say the Lord’s Prayer…”?
Evangelicals in the Church of England have been grateful for Cranmer’s insight, especially in comparatively recent times, when, in spite of it, Eastward position has been the done thing’. This Eastward position, with its clear imagery of a sacrificing priesthood mediating before an altar, has always been unacceptable to them; and it is with relief that they see signs of its present decay. No present critic of Eastward position can see its weakness and error more clearly than Evangelicals, who have steadily refused it (as, for example, they have similarly resisted the now almost universal use of the designation ‘altar’ for the Holy Table) from the beginning.
Westward position is another matter. It has been used by Reformed and Protestant Churches since the Reformation. It is not incompatible with the Scriptural doctrine of the sacrament in the way that Eastward position is incompatible. While all Evangelicals are united in their dislike of Eastward position, there is not always the same agreement about the value or otherwise of Westward position. But this is not to say that all those who are at present welcoming it are doing so for convincing reasons, or that the merits claimed for the position must make it the obvious choice of the future. After all, Cranmer was well aware of the antiquity of Westward position, and of its attractiveness to many of his own contemporaries, and yet he did not adopt it; the significance of this is mentioned in two of the following papers.
May it not be that Cranmer’s expressive language about ‘dark’ and ‘dumb ceremonies supplies us with a clue to his actions? For if Eastward position was evidently thought “worthy to be cut away, and clean rejected”, for the reason that it was one of those customs which had “much blinded the people, and obscured the glory of God”, is it not likely that Westward position was regarded by him as ‘dumb’ since it did not unmistakably symbolise and set forth his new conception of the sacrament? And is it not this equivocal nature of Westward position, as Mr. Stott suggests, which adds to its attraction in these days of ecumenicity, when clear definitions and precise meanings are unwelcome? It would be a mournful sign of the times if Westward position was widely advocated because of its ambiguity.
It now appears that there are many churchmen finding in Westward position a release from the mediaeval and unreformed symbolism of facing East, yet who have never stopped to ask whether this same release might not have been theirs long ago if Cranmer’s intentions had been observed. Evangelicals must be forgiven a twinkle in the eye as they see many faithful followers of Eastward position now moving to face the people, and deriding their former practice with the self-same arguments that another section of our Church has unchangingly adduced against it. And since ecclesiastical matters are notoriously subject to fashion, they must be allowed to ask whether what is now the latest fashion may not as quickly become out of date. Within a few generations, Eastward position in the Church of England may yet become a mere historical curiosity, leaving no mark on any of its official documents or formularies. Is it not conceivable that Westward position, almost unheard of in our Church until recently, may lapse as quickly into a similar obscurity? Though we would not be so addicted to an old custom that we can see no merit in change, we cannot but notice how many descendants there are of those people mentioned by Cranmer who “be so new-fangled, that they would innovate all things, and so despise the old, that nothing can like them, but that is new”.
In any case it must be said, however distasteful some may find it, that as matters are at the moment the Prayer Book rubric has binding force. No competent authority has yet declared the Westward position to be legal in our Church. Cranmer’s rubric is still a decisive statement on a matter of principle; and is on a different level from those matters of smaller importance, or differing circumstances, in which after three hundred years there may be legitimate liberty. It is this, surely, that makes it ironical that a minister is most likely to encounter irritated impatience, and sometimes official opposition, if he wishes to take the Northside position, and do as the Prayer Book requires him. Many men who take the Northside, out of personal conviction and loyalty to their ordination vows, are made to feel by their brethren (if not by their superiors) that they are the odd man out’. For this reason, it is to be hoped that these three short papers will be read by many who find the Northside position unfamiliar, or who have thought of it as an extraordinary whim of Cranmer’s which the Church was right to forget and to ignore when alternatives became available. The theme of these papers is entirely to the contrary. They seek to indicate not only the origins and meaning of the position, its essentially English character, and its proud position in the history of our Church, but also the weakness of suggested alternatives. It is easy to forget how recent are the innovations of Eastward as well as Westward position. Eastward position, for instance, was introduced into St. Paul’s Cathedral in the lifetime of men now living. Archbishop Frederick Temple never took other than the Northside, and William Temple was accustomed to the North side until he went to Repton. A return to the Northside is not, therefore, a running counter to the long stream of our Church’s history, but could be represented as a return to her historical reformed position after a brief aberration-Eastward position which seems itself already on the wane. It is the purpose of this booklet, and its authors’ hope, to exhibit anew to churchmen of today the real merits of one of the neglected rubrics of our Prayer Book.
It remains to ask what we are to say to those who tell us they regard with amazement these discussions and disagreements between churchmen about what is apparently so small a matter as the position of the celebrant at the service of Holy Communion. With such great possibilities and problems before the Christian Church, is it not fantastic, or at the least inappropriate, for us to give time and thought to these matters?
If by this we are to understand that faithfulness in the small things of our worship and ministry is unimportant, it would be necessary for every Christian to challenge any such assumption; on the contrary, it is just this lack of integrity over the lesser matters of ‘rites and ceremonies’ which can so easily lead to, if it does not already reveal, untrustworthiness in the weightier matters of the truth of the Gospel. But if our objector means to remind us that the greatest need of our Church today is not so much a return to the ways in which the Reformers applied their new-found beliefs (important and instructive as these are) but a widespread rediscovery of the great Scriptural doctrines as far-reaching and thorough as theirs, then we must be grateful for the reminder. Therefore, at the risk of stating the obvious, we may say, first, that if Evangelicals value the Northside position, it is only because they value supremely the vital principles which this rubric, in line with the composition of our whole Prayer Book, was intended to secure and protect. Secondly, if they are sad that this laudable practice’ has been neglected so widely and so long, they are far more distressed at the general departure from Scriptural standards and spiritual priorities which has caused the Church of our day to give to the nation such a feeble testimony to the power of Christ.
It is from this standpoint that the importance of the following papers must be assessed.