North End Celebration

It is quite surprising to encounter interesting things in old Anglo-Catholic literature like this chapter on the Eastward position from 1912. In it, we find many of the arguments used in the 1960’s (and before and afterwards) for reordering churches to make celebration facing the people possible. I have often defended the eastward position by referring to scholars like Monsignor Klaus Gamber, Louis Bouyer and the present Pope. Liturgical archaeology more strongly defends the eastern position than the idea of making the celebration more visible for pastoral reasons by facing the people.

Some conservative low-church Anglican clergy still use what is called north-end celebration. Here is a photo a reader sent me of one of the clergy of his ACA diocese somewhere in the USA.


Dressed in cassock, surplice, tippet and Canterbury cap, he is positioned at the side of what appears to be a solidly built wooden table (a through mortice and tenon joint is seen on the visible leg). The table is up against the wall of the room he is using for his church.

North-side celebration (sometimes called north-end celebration) is an application of the English legalist spirit to introduce the Eucharist facing the people, because the communicants (there were few of them in those days) had sat on the other side of the table, which was positioned in the middle of the choir in the lengthways axis of the church.

The Altar’s North Side and its comments are worth reading.

Since about the seventeenth century, the practice of moving the communion table from its place where the old altar stood and placing it in the choir of the church for a Communion Service fell into desuetude (as was even ordered by Archbishop Laud). The Prayer Book continued to direct the priest to stand at the north side (which had by now become the end). As the eastward position was an issue in the nineteenth century with the Ritualists, we can assume that the rule was north-end celebration until the eastward position became more or less accepted in the early twentieth century.

Here are some images of pre-Tractarian churches:




There are many more fine examples in England, and probably also in America. These two churches have their communion tables where the altar stood (assuming they were re-ordered pre-Reformation buildings, though I suspect that both are Georgian).

I have seen north-end celebration as late as the mid 1970’s at the parish church of St Thomas, Kendal, where I was baptised in October 1959. It is a strongly Evangelical parish, and the last time I visited this church, it had an altar table facing the people. In the 1970’s, the altar (wooden with solid panels in the front and sides) was still up against the east wall and had a plain brass cross and no candlesticks. On each end was a little reading desk, like a missal stand. The vicar would be at the north end, and the assistant curate of the parish knelt at the south end, as there was a kneeler for this purpose.

There are few churches in England still in their pre-Tractarian arrangement, but some remain like Hailes in Gloucestershire. That church has been re-ordered in a more Catholic direction, but older photos and plans show the table in position between the choir stalls, indicating the true meaning of north-side celebration for the sake of facing the people.

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16 Responses to North End Celebration

  1. Ian Westby says:

    Father – There was until recently a North End Communion service weekly in West Yorkshire, which I attended a few years back, and found it to be most movingly acceptable in approaching God`board on occassions. Not sure it is still celebrated these days though. Everything was done at the North end excepting the consecration prayer which was central facing East.

    • I remember a few of the smaller London City churches in the late 1970’s, some of which were using 1662. I can appreciate the taste for simplicity and sobriety. I favour the monastic style of liturgy – noble simplicity and all that. My problem is that I have experienced too many other things since those days! 😉

  2. Francis says:

    Thank you very much, Father. Was the Canterbury cap much in use? How much did people “participate” in cathedral services – i’m here reminded of Mr Slope’s lambasting of sung liturgy. I suppose i’m only a “cultural” christian, but the words of the prayer book and authorised version have a power to move me to higher thoughts and feelings. It always makes me think of Ferrar and Little Gidding, living a prayer book spirituality. I was also reading about the Non-jurors and the Four Usages. Here in Scotland, the Episcopal Church is interesting – I onced popped in a nearby church on a sunday and was surprised. Antependium, riddell post, etc to the colour of the season. The priest and ministers vested. It was versus populum though and lots of incense. The people crossed themselves and bowed a lot, and received communion kneeling. The order of service was probably romanising(post-conciliar) though they had the prayer of humble access. There were 1929 Scottish Prayer Books stacked in a corner but I wonder whether they’re used at all. They also chanted parts of the liturgy.

    BTW I practically got a liturgical “education” by reading sites like this one, the NLM, and the Saint Lawrence one.Thank you.

    • I never saw the Canterbury cap as a boy in York. Participation? I think it is perfectly possible to participate spiritually by listening to a choir and being moved by the music. In a way, we are all “cultural” Christians – and we now have to learn to live our faith in a cultural vacuum or a hostile culture.

      • ed pacht says:

        I don’t really know about the situation in Britain, but over here in Massachusetts until the 1840s or so, there wasn’t much participation in the Prayerbook services. The liturgy was a dialog between Minister and Clerk, often mumbled almost as indistinctly as the Latin at Low Mass. There was singing, not of the liturgy as such, but of metrical paraphrases. of the Psalms (Church of the Advent, Boston was soundly scolded by the bishop for using the scriptural versions as printed in the Prayer Book). Hymns were just then beginning to be heard in the Evangelical and Tractarian churches that were just beginning to emerge, but were heartily disliked by the great majority, including the bishop (Manton Eastburn, if I have his name correct).

        Some American dioceses were better than that, but the overall picture was rather dismal to my eye. However, done by those who truly care, the simplicity of the severely plain “northend” did serve to draw many into the presence of Christ, and that is what truly matters. Splendid liturgy can be performed as show without any of the deep devotion sometimes seen in such simplicity.

      • I have to admit that as a teenager, I felt awkward at Mass / Eucharist / Holy Communion and preferred the choir Offices of Mattins and Evensong, more music and less fuss! Of course, then, I didn’t know very much about anything doctrinal.

  3. Stephen K says:

    I have thoroughly appreciated reading both the 1912 article on the Eastward position and the comments and photographs you linked. I guess the question about liturgy is a little like language: any conglomeration of sounds can, in the mind of the speaker, stand for something potentially meaningful, but it will only be meaningful if there are others who know what the sounds mean for the speaker. In liturgical terms, custom and tradition become very important so that people are not constantly having to guess or ask ‘what is going on?’.

    Of course, originally, at some point, a rubric is devised. As one of the articles alluded to, rubrics can follow practicalities (i.e. as well as or rather than pure theology) and architecture plays a significant role in both supporting and determining the direction and character of liturgy.

    I liked the comment by Charles that “if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t”, notwithstanding that it puts a lot of responsibility on the degrees of individual taste. Nonetheless, I think it is fitting that the Mass and the Communion service both have different positions at different parts: those prayer parts aimed God-wards (introit, oblation, consecration) seem best when the minister faces “eastward”; those parts aimed at proclamation and agape (readings, communion) seem best when the minister faces people forming the “Lord’s gathering” and “supper circle”. To combine the two in the way I suggest requires some thoughtful design to the chancel/sanctuary or even church as a whole, whereas many churches compel one position or another. But I think it might be worth considering.

  4. Sandra McColl says:

    Without the headwear (a gentleman doesn’t wear a hat in church, after all), north side was the norm in the church of my childhood. And I’m not THAT old!

    • In the Roman rite, the biretta is worn when the clergy are coming in and going out, and when they sit. I would have thought it would be about the same with the Canterbury cap as a peculiarly English form of the biretta (the Spanish have theirs). Personally, I’m not really into headgear – in church or in life in general. When it gets really cold, a woollen cap can be helpful, but there I’m not talking about the liturgy.

      About north-side being a norm, it still is in some churches, but it is now rare in England, replaced by the eastward position in the 19th century and now generally facing the people. For my own childhood, I didn’t go to church very much until when I was 13 and then we had school chapel. There it was eastward position in surplice and tippet and then after one year, facing the people and the altar between the choir stalls became the thing, something I found ugly and unnecessary.

      Also, as an adolescent, my priorities were different. I stuck to churches with a choral tradition, either singing in the choir or playing the organ. That often implied a more middle to high churchmanship, so generally with the eastward position with or without vestments.

  5. Hugh Allen says:

    The Canterbury cap isn’t the only inauthentic thing in the (first) photo. Most Northenders would have considered a cross and candles on the communion table dangerously “popish”, preferring to give central place to the “decent bason” in which the people put their alms. And in front of it (in the middle of the table) would have been placed the vessels: the Cup (or Cups) and the Patten, together with the Flagon from which the Wine was poured into the Cup(s) during the words of institution. The priest occupied the north end for the whole service; at some point (after the Prayer of Humble Access, if I remember rightly) he moved the elements from the centre to just the other side of his bookrest.

    At the last such celebration I attended (in about 1974, at St George’s, Tiverton, one of the few Georgian churches in Devon; I can see its bell turret from where I sit) the south end was occupied by an elderly retired clergyman who assisted the much younger incumbent. Although the number of communicants was small (perhaps 30 or 35, in spite of it being Christmas midnight) two chalices had been charged. The full 1662 words of administration were said to a railful of communicants at a time, and the elderly assistant placed the first chalice in the hands of the first communicant, the second in the hands of the second, the first in the hands of the third, and so on. He became noticeably puffed as he progressed along the rail, and as no words were being said his heavy breathing was all one could hear. My other memory of that service is of the sermon, in which we were told that we were celebrating the birth of Jesus because he came into the world to die instead of us (just that).

    • Francis says:

      Thanks for all those details. Btw, was the fraction audible at the consecration – supposing the priest used wafers?

      • ed pacht says:

        I suppose it would be audible if sufficiently rigid wafers were used, but fidelity to the 1662 rubrics would have made that unlikely. The rubric (on p.261 of the printing I have) goes like this:

        And to take away all occasion of dissension, and superstition, which any person hath or might have concerning the Bread and Wine, it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten: but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be.gotten.

        Whatever one may think of the theology expressed or implied, it seems clear that it is ordinary bread that is intended, and it is my understanding (as I’ve read in various pieces of fiction from the period) that the usual way in the Northend parishes of 150 years and more ago was leavened loaf bread previously cut into small squares, one piece left large enough for the celebrant to break visibly.

  6. Hugh Allen says:

    The bread was standard supermarket white sliced cut into cubes (I once officiated at a church which had a thing like a chip-cutter for achieving this result speedily and uniformly, but it had been relegated to the back of the cupboard); scarcely the stuff envisaged in the rubric. In (Eastern) Orthodoxy real bread is always used, but the loaves are baked by members of the congregation, as they are in the Oriental (pre-Chalcedonian) churches. Here there is a little ceremony where the priest inspects the various loaves that people have brought (all of them flat and circular, and apparently identical) and chooses for consecration the one that seems to have the fewest flaws. I once went to communion in the Church of Ireland, where the cubed bread had been compressed before being brought to church in a tupperware container; appearance and taste were equally uninspiring.

    For a (perhaps dated) plea for the CofE to retain the use of leavened bread and realise much else in its Orthodox heritage see Too late, I fear.

  7. C. Wingate says:

    Old Saint Anne’s outside Middletown, Delaware has this arrangement, including the triple decker pulpit/lectern/reader’s desk arrangement, sounding board and all. I wish I could show you a picture of the interior, which is quite splendid and quite the colonial time capsule.

    The one time I experienced something like a north end celebration, it was something like fifteen years ago or so in our present parish, with a retired priest supplying.

  8. Rev Dan hesko says:

    I attended a north end celebration in Philadelphia Pa. Back in 1977. It was,a Reformed Episcopal church. No cross or candles on table, minister wore cassock, surplus and tippet. I knew I was watching something I’d probably never see again. I’m sure the R.E. church no longer keeps this practice.

    • Archbishop Peter Robinson wrote an article early this year: The View from the North End. In reality it was an early form of celebration facing the people, which is now almost universal in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. We use the “Eastward Position” in the Anglican Catholic Church. One of my favourite books on the subject is by Monsignor Klaus Gamber, Zum Herrn hin (turned to the Lord). I wrote a brief summary on The Eastward Position quite a long time ago.

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