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The North Side Of The Altar: A Liturgical Essay – RICHARD FREDERICK LITTLEDALE, M.A., LL.D.

August 28, 2018

RFLRev. Dr.  Richard Littledale (1833–1890) was an Oxford Movement anglo-catholic.  He is probably best known for translating Come down, O Love divine, Let all mortal flesh keep silence and O Food of men wayfaring

He also wrote the office hymn The eternal gifts of Christ the King and Thou who leaving crown and throne but I first became aware of him this week, on the feast of the Assumption, when we sang his Arise O Ark of Christ the Lord to thy celestial station.

In his Lecture on Innovations, he calls the Reformers a set of miscreants, all utterly unredeemed villains. I find his arguments here specious and unconvincing.


In the Common Prayer Book by the words of the introductory Rubric, “ The priest standing at the North side of the Table, shall say,” &c., and also by the Rubrics prefixed to certain other portions of the office, which, however, depend for their

RFL 2interpretation upon the meaning of this preliminary one. It has been explained in two very different ways, and the consequent ritual is very unlike in various churches. On the one hand, the great majority of clergymen assume that “ North side ” and “ North end ” mean the same thing, and accordingly place themselves between the North wall of the Chancel and the Altar, looking South, and with the right shoulder turned towards the congregation. On the other, the ritual minority take their stand at the West side of the Altar, facing East, and turning their backs on the congregation, standing, however, at that part of the West side which is nearest to the North, in what would, in short, speaking in terms of the compass, be the N.W. by W. point.

A ritualist, for example, would not attach much importance to the omission of turning to the East at the Creed, if he found himself in a place of worship where the custom does not prevail, nor would an anti- ceremonialist, if not exceptionally scrupulous, hesitate to comply with so harmless a custom where he found it in use. But the matter of the position of the priest at the Altar is one in which neither will make concessions.

It is very seldom that an accomplished ritualist is permitted to celebrate in a non-ritual church, but every one has seen the manner in which strange celebrants, episcopal and others, deliberately ignore and set at naught the Use of some churches where they chance to officiate, how they drag the desk from its appointed place, and balance themselves painfully upon the narrow projection of the footpace at the North End, indifferent to the irritation they well know themselves to be exciting by their departure from local custom, so long as they can adhere to their cherished tradition.

In commencing, then, two facts must be carefully borne in mind. First, that the early Christian Liturgies, inclusive of the Petrine or Roman family, borrow largely, almost entirely, from Jewish prayers and ceremonies. Second, that the Anglican Prayer Book is a new edition of Roman Offices, not a new work.

RFL 4whether the Temple or the Synagogue formed the model of the Church, and, in the former case, whether the Altar of Burnt-offering, the Altar of Incense, or the Table of Shew-bread was the type of the Christian Altar. I do not propose to enter at present into this discussion, though I may record my own belief that the Temple and the AJtar of Incense are the true answers

The master of the household then, as now, certainly occupied the chief place, but that place neither was nor is what we call the “ head of the table.” It was that central place which we still see occupied at the high tables of colleges by the president of the day, and the Paschal dishes are laid in the middle of the table close to the host, and not at the end.* Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” supplies a familiar llustration. A plea may hence be derived for standing between the East wall and the Altar, facing the people, but none for going to the North End.

it should be observed that much ingenuity and cumbrous learning was employed in Laudian days to prove, on the High Church side, that the Altar was always close to the East Wall, and irremovable ; on the Puritan part, that it stood so as to admit of being surrounded, and even of being shifted if needful. Both sides were partially right, for we find two distinct types of churches co-existing from the earliest times, (a) the Catacumbal form, ( b ) the Basilican.

There is, in the primitive Liturgies, no hint whatsoever which can lead to the belief that the ends of the Altar were ever used ritually, while there are many rubrics and directions absolutely inconsistent with any such idea. The one exception, if it be an exception, of which I am aware, is found in the Ambrosian rite, according to which the deacon and sub-deacon may happen to be placed at the North and South ends, while the priest is invariably at the West side.

To begin then with Edward’s First Book of 1549: The Communion Office opens with that which is properly no part of the public Liturgy, but the priest’s private Preparation, and the Rubric runs “ The priest standing afore the midst of the Altar, shall say the Lord’s Prayer with this Collect,” [that for Purity]. This answers exactly to the first Hereford Rubric given above, where the celebrant at first stands before the Altar, i.e., in front of, and below, the footpace.

Then, as in the earlier Missals, he goes to the Altar (i.e., ascending the step, and passing up to the centre), for the Gloria in Excelsis. “ The priest, standing at God’s board shall begin, Glory be to God on high.”

The Book of 1552 is the first that mentions the North-side, which it does exactly in the words of the existing Rubric. The only other passages in that volume which affect the present question are the Rubrics before the Prayer of Humble Access and of

Consecration, which run simply as follows: “ Then shall the priest, kneeling down at God’s board, say,” &c., and “ Then the priest standing up shall say as followeth.” The Elizabethan Rubrics of 1559 are identical with these, and finally those of the last revision in 1062 introduce the following variations. 1. The priest is directed to turn to the people at the Decalogue. 2. He is to stand at the Collect where he did before the Decalogue. 3. At the Prayer of Consecration the Rubric runs “ When the priest standing before the Table, hath so ordered the bread and wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the bread before the people, and take the cup into his hands, he shall say the Prayer of Consecration, as followeth.”

RFL 3the Puritans availed themselves of the wording of the new Rubric, and following up Ridley’s violent attack upon Altars in 1550, substituted tables for them in many places, setting these tables with their short ends East and West, instead of North and South as we have them now. Then, for the first time, there were no East and West sides, but only a North and a South side, the ends being transposed in position. The Puritan celebrants then placed themselves in the same part of the chancel as their representatives do now, but they did not face the same part of the Holy Table, inasmuch as they stood at the centre of one of the long sides. They never dreamt of going to the end. Of course the Romanizing clergy, who clung to their old usages, kept to the same part of the table, even when it was thus shifted, because Canon law had obliged them to consecrate on the slab in the centre

very such vessel must, by rubric, be touched by the consecrating priest, but his position often makes the act of reaching them an unseemly physical struggle. No one would use the sideboard of a dining-room in such a fashion, unless desirous of forfeiting all character for ordinary good manners.

We know practically less of the details of Anglican ritual in the Georgian Era than we do of the Greek ceremonial in the time of Constantine die Great, but it may be remarked that in a very considerable number of churches built in the beginning and middle of the last century the Altars are so constructed with projecting pilasters or columns at their sides as to be inaccessible save from the West, particularly as they are often fastened to the East wall. It is simply impracticable to celebrate at the North end, and even in non-ritual days such a deliberate flying in face of a rubric enjoining the priest to go to the end is not to be looked for ; a tolerably clear proof that neither architects nor clergy were aware, any more than I am, of the existence of such an injunction in the English Church.

The First Oblation. “ The Archbishop goeth to the Altar, and puts on his cope, and standeth on the North side of it, . . . which being done, the Queen . . . goes down to the Altar, and kneeling upon the steps of it, makes her first oblations . . . delivers them to the Archbishop, and the Archbishop standing (in which posture he is to receive all other oblations) receives from her, … to be reverently laid upon the Altar.” Here it is plain that the Archbishop is not at the North end, because then he would be too far off from the kneeling Queen. But if at the North-West side, there he can, without change of posture, receive her offerings.

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