Ad Orientem in Protestant Worship

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated Mass with the priest facing ad orientem (“to the east,” since almost all altars faced to the east), with his back to the congregation or facing God along with the congregation, depending on your perspective.  This, of course, was one of the practices that fueled the Protestant Reformation: priests muttered in Latin, facing away from the worshipers, which only exacerbated their ignorance of what was happening during the service.

(One of my favorite anecdotes from church history class is the source of the phrase “hocus pocus.”  During the high part of the Mass, the priest would say, in Latin, “Hoc est corpus meum” [“This is my body.”]  But the worshipers, who didn’t understand Latin and who couldn’t hear him anyway, took those words–which sounded like “hocus pocus”–as some magic incantation that changed the wine and bread into Jesus’ body and blood.)

Since the Reformation, and since the Second Vatican Council, Protestants and Catholics alike have been worshiping with priests and pastors facing toward the congregation.  And in many ways, this has been an improvement.  But as some Catholics have begun to recover the practice of ad orientem, I think we Protestants should recover the theological significance of ad orientem in our worship, too.

Too often, in Protestant worship services–especially “contemporary” worship services–the pastor is no longer the leader of the people in prayer, directing believers to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).  But too often the pastor becomes the star of the show, the performer of worship for the crowd’s enjoyment, the lecturer for the class in the pews, or, worst yet, the object of worship himself.  This mistake is only accentuated when musicians are positioned facing the “crowd,” as though they are singing to the people instead of God.

In one of my seminary internships, the pastor would walk among the congregation to gather up prayer requests before the pastoral prayer (or “prayers of the people”).  And then he would stand in the aisle, among the worshipers, and pray to the front of the sanctuary, on behalf of the people.  And the symbolism–of who was praying to whom–was both powerful and unmistakable.

Although we may have differing opinions on how worship should look and sound, we Protestants should pay more close attention to who is actually in the spotlight and who is receiving our praise, our glory, and our worship.


3 thoughts on “Ad Orientem in Protestant Worship

  1. Ray,

    Thank you for the message on Ad Orientem. Very good. I believe that Calvin, and perhaps other Reformers, led the prayers while kneeling at the table, though facing the people. Just as the pulpit is for preaching, so is the table for praying, with the people gathered around it, kneeling, heads bowed. I have known people who have done this in our own day.


  2. Thanks for this post. I’m a strong proponent of this posture in worship and i completely agree: it speaks decisively about what we are doing and what the prayer leader’s position is among the assembly.

    Moreover, it is important to note that this is a cosmic symbol that goes beyond a simple table. The table is fine, but it needs to take its place among God’s creation and as a piece of our ‘turning toward’ Him in prayer and expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. Besides, no matter if people and prayer leader are facing the table together, they are still facing each other and the circle is closed. Jesus turns us out toward the Father and so it is fitting that the circle of prayer open outward toward the Father as well.

    As St. Paul said, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). So it is that Augustine says that the Christian is another Christ in that he is called to imitate Jesus and be conformed to Him. And in prayer the one who leads us becomes another Christ so that, in and through Jesus, he turns us toward the Father in prayer. This is what the prayer leader does. In the Holy Spirit he focuses our prayer through Christ Jesus and to the Father. So, the symbolism of all facing the same direction (i.e. to the East), is Trinitarian in its foundations.

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