Saturday, February 20, 2016

The View from the North End

Quite a few years ago, someone was making a bit of a to-do about celebrating Holy Communion from the north end of the Communion Table claiming that it had not been done since before 1914. I pointed out that that situation was peculiar to the USA, and that, as it happened I had celebrated at the north end regularly in England, using the 1662 BCP, until moving the USA in 1999. I think you could say he was surprised to find out that there are still places where the north end was the norm!

The actual rubric in the 1552, 1559, and 1662 Books of Common Prayer says that the priest shall stand at the north side of the Table. Between 1560 and 1645, most parishes would have been able to take this literally as the Communion Table was placed down the length of the chancel, with the ends east and west, and the communicants knelt around it, often in the old choir stalls. This method of proceeding was recommended by Parker's 'Advertisements' of 1564, though the Chapel Royal and some cathedrals continued to use the Eastward position. However, from about 1615 onwards, the fashion grew for leaving the Communion Table at the east end of the chancel, with its ends north and south, and railing it off. This meant that the 'north side' rubric could not be obeyed as originally intended. Two solutions were adopted. A few adopted the custom of standing before the altar on the gospel side, facing east, and this arrangement can be seen in a Restoration era print, but seems to have faded out of use by shortly after 1700. More commonly, priests took to the north end of the Table and celebrated from there.

The Restoration Settlement reiterated both the Ornaments Rubric, and the 1604 Canons. This essentially led to a return of the situation that had obtained in the 1630s. Communion Tables were very generally arranged altar-wise at the east end, and when Communion was celebrated, the priest took his place at the north end of the Table after the sermon, if he were a Low Churchman, and at the beginning of the ante-communion, if he were a High Churchman. Communion Tables in those days were usually about 6 feet by 3 feet, and were placed inside a railed enclosure, and furnished with a 'Laudian' frontal that completely enveloped the altar, a white linen cloth for the communion, and an alms basin and a pair of candlesticks. Altar crosses were uncommon before about 1865, and candles were not lit unless required for the purpose of giving light. The Communion plate of those days consisted of a large paten - usually on a stem, a pair of chalices, and a flagon usually made of pewter or silver, though some fine old gold plate sets still exist.

On the whole the heyday of the North end was from 1660 through to about 1900-1920, when the Eastward position became generally acceptable. However, in Ireland, in the Free Church of England, and among Conservative Evangelicals the north end position remained the norm right down to the 1990s, and even today. In England today it is probably most commonly seen in the North, especially in the Yorkshire Bible Belt, but is probably unknown in Wales and Scotland. In Ireland, north ending is commoner in Ulster than in the other three provinces, mainly due to the North's Evangelicalism. Sodor and Man had a high proportion of north enders down to the 1990s, but the trend now is to bring the Table forwards and stand in a cramped space behind it.

In the USA
North end was the norm through the colonial period and down to the 1840s, though from 1831 the BCP rubric said "right side" not "north side." This somewhat ambiguous direction seems to be a reference to the position of the vestry behind the altar in many churches, a position that would make the "north" side the right-hand side of the altar. As with England the earliest cases of eastward facing celebration occur in the late 1840s with the innovators doubtless arguing the 'right' meant 'correct' in this context. However, the major change over to 'ad orientem' celebration seems to occur between 1890 and 1914 as the old Evangelical Movement collapses. Some REC churches maintained the use of the North End, but within PECUSA it was pretty much gone by 1925. Indeed, the "before the holy table" rubric in the 1928 American BCP implicitly forbids the North end position, so its use should really be confined to the English and Canadian books.

I am going to assume that the Church is arranged with the Communion Table in the usual position at the end of the chancel, with the ends north and south, and that there is a credence Table. The priest is assisted by a deacon, there is no music, and the rite is that of 1662.

Before the service, the sufficient bread and wine are placed in the paten and chalice for the anticipated number of communicants, and placed in the middle of the Holy Table and covered with a linen cloth. Alternatively, the elements are placed on the credence together, together with some additional bread, a cruet of wine, and the collection plate or alms basin. There are Prayer Books on stands at either end of the Table, one for the priest, the other for the deacon. The clergy will be vested in cassock, surplice, tippet, and possibly hood. The surplices will be long and full.

The priest and the deacon enter, go to the rail, and pause without bowing before entering the sanctuary. The priest goes to the north end, the deacon to the south. The priest reads the Lord's Prayer, and the Collect for Purity with his hands together in prayer facing south. He then takes the book and turns to the people to rehearse the Commandments with the response being said after each commandment, or after the 4th and the 10th only.

The priest then turns back to the Table and says 'Let us pray' and reads the Collect for the Queen, and the Collect of the Day again facing south. The deacon then takes his service book and faces the congregation and reads the Epistle. Alternatively, he may go down to the chancel gates or lectern and read from there. If the celebrant is preaching, he then goes to the pulpit to read the Gospel, as the deacon returns to the sanctuary and sits in his chair on the south side of the Holy Table. The Gospel is read from the pulpit, and is followed by the Creed, notices, and sermon. At the end of the sermon, the priest reads the offertory sentence, and then returns to the Holy Table whilst the sidesmen take the offering.

The alms are presented at the altar, the deacon having collected the alms basin from the Credence before handing it to the priest who puts it on the Epistle side of the Table. After this the celebrant removes the cloth from the elements, and assisted by the deacon makes any adjustment to the quantity of bread and wine that may be required. (If the paten and chalice containing the elements were placed on the credence, then the deacon brings them to the Holy Table at this point.) The priest goes to the north end, turns to the congregation, and says 'Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth.' He then reads the Prayer for the Church. The exhortations are usually omitted, and then priest will turn to the congregation and read "Ye that... meekly kneeling upon your knees" before kneeling and letting the deacon lead the people in the General Confession. The priest then stands and raises his hand without making the sign of the cross whilst he gives the absolution. The deacon reads the Comfortable Words, after which the priest says the dialogue beginning 'Lift up your hearts,' before turning to the Table at "It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty..." The congregation joins in at either "Therefore with angels and archangels" or at "Holy, holy, holy" and recite with the minister until the Amen at the end of the Sanctus. The minister then kneels for the Humble Access, which he usually reads alone. A brief pause then follows whilst the elements are transferred to the north end of the altar for consecration. The prayer of consecration is read somewhat carefully by the priest facing the Table (i.e. south) at the north end with only those manual acts mentioned in the 1662 BCP being performed. At the end of the prayer all say "Amen" and then the clergy receive communion, followed by the laity, the priest administering the bread, and the deacon the Cup. Very often communion is administered by tables with everyone remaining in place until the minister dismisses that rail/table with a verse of Scripture.

When all have received, the remaining elements are placed in the middle of the Table and covered with the linen cloth. The clergy return to the ends of the Table, and the priest leads everyone in the Lord's Prayer. He then reads the Prayer of Thanksgiving, before all join in the Gloria in Excelsis. Lastly he gives the blessing facing the congregation with his hand or hands raised. The remaining consecrated elements are consumed after the service.

There are quite a few variants, but that is the basic format of the north end celebration. When music is used, the most common sections to be sung are the responses to the Commandments, and the Sanctus. As for hymns - at the beginning, between the lessons, before the sermon and at the collection of alms, during communion, and at the end of the service were fairly common. Also, in Evangelical parishes, it was pretty common to start the Communion service at 'Ye that do truly...' when it follows Matins or Evensong.

Final Thoughts
The north end celebration sounds a little awkward, but in fact works very well. My own point of view is that it has the advantage of allowing the people to see the manual acts without awkwardness on the part of the celebrant. It also avoids placing the presbyter 'centre stage' as happens with celebration facing the people. It emphasizes the ministerial aspect of the presbyterate, with the clergyman standing to the side, and letting the action of the Eucharist be seen. The disadvantage is that it arose by accident, and is without ancient precedent, but when celebrating the 1662 BCP Communion office it represents a valuable, historic Evangelical alternative to facing the Holy Table.


  1. I know of a Sydney Anglican parish with an average Sunday attendance of over 800 ( which is largish by Australian standards for any denomination) that offers a 1662 BCP liturgy of Holy Communion that is celebrated from the north end of the holy table. It is done with reverence and dignity and attracts people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and across a wide range of ages.

    1. Which Sydney Anglican parish is this?

    2. Saint James' Turramurra which has planted Bobbin Head Anglican Church and Warrawee Anglican Church.

    3. Saint James' Turramurra which planted Bobbin Head Anglican Church and Warrawee Anglican as well.

  2. I worshipped at the Church of Ireland church in Sligo in 1970 for my first and last experience of a North End celebration. I remember it as being very much as described above. The Morning Service from the time of Elizabeth until the 1850's was Morning Prayer, the Litany,and Holy Communion read together as one service. If there were not sufficient communicants - typically in urban parishes on Sundays other than the first Sunday and in rural parishes other than at Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and late September or early October the service concluded with the Prayer for the Church (in England) or with a collect after the sermon (in America). Some of the English born clergy in colonial America complained about the American shortened service. In the cities the gentry went to the morning service. The servants who had stayed home to prepare the Sunday dinner went to Evening Prayer - commonly said at 3:00 PM in winter, at 5:00 PM in summer. The American House of Bishops opined in the 1850's that the services could be divided. The result was Holy Communion on first Sundays, with a hymn after the Prayer for the Church commonly called the Judas Hymn when those who did not plan to stay for communion left. On other Sundays the late service was Morning Prayer and Sermon followed by the collection and prayers at the altar. That continued into the 1980's in many parishes. In Anglo-Catholic parishes the late service was Mass, though the custom of everyone receiving communion did not become almost universal until after World War II.

  3. I assume it is still celebrated thus in Wadhurst parish Church, Sussex as when I popped in last year there were two missal stands, one on either end, at both high and South altar.

  4. Archbishop,

    In the 1662 English prayer book the initial instruction is for the minister to stand at the North Side however the rubric immediately before the consecration reads as follows;

    “When the Priest, standing before the Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with 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.”

    You mention in the 1928 BCP that the use of the "before the holy table" clause implicitly forbids the North side posture. The same phrase, albeit in a different place, has been generally accepted as not having that implicit prohibition. Is it not possible that the phraseology of the 1928 is in fact a license allowing either posture to be used rather than an implied prohibition against the North side?

    In My understanding the BCP tends to prohibit (or allow) certain things explicitly rather than implicitly.