Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ad orientem, worshiping to the East and English church ordering

A medieval English priest offers Mass according to the Sarum Use

Mass celebrated with priest and laypeople  facing the geographical east is really an English custom. In the 7th century, Catholic churches in England were built on the feast day of the saint on which the church when completed will be dedicated. The earliest churches in Rome had the sanctuary at the western end and the entrance at the eastern end due to peculiarities of Rome's geography. The priest thus celebrated mass ad orientem and versus populum.  A prime example is mass in St Peter's Basilica and St Paul's Outside the Walls. However,  the Apostolic Constitution of 472 mandated the worship of the True God to the east which later became universal in the Latin Church until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  In England where there was a pagan cult of the Sun, in 597 Pope St Gregory counselled St Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of that see to deal gently with these customs and henceforth the first Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all English churches be ordered with the altar at the east end and that the celebrant should be bathed in the full light of the morning sun through the East window. Since then this has been a feature of the English parish church.

A  defining feature of the English church is a square chancel which is often rounded in continental European medieval churches. In the medieval Slipper Chapel shown above which is now England's Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, we see the great East window and the square chancel. These medieval churches had their orientation to the East where the sun will rise at the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. How did the medieval masons figure this out?

Masons will patiently wait for sun to rise and with the use of a gnomon placed at the centre of the proposed church site, the shadow lines at dawn or dusk of the gnomon were marked off on a circle, giving a true east west axis. The resulting east and west points were used as centres marking off two circles that intersect forming a fish shape or vesica pisces. A line drawn between the vertices of the vesica pisces gives the true north south axis. The church plan can now be executed and the church built. Usually the chancel and choir are built first and consecrated

English medieval plan to orient a church
Even the Episcopal Church cathedral in Quezon City show traces of this English ordering of a square chancel and an East window although in this cathedral these are three small windows. The Cathedral of St Mary and St John is oriented to the geographical east like its predecessor in Ermita, Manila which was destroyed in World War II.

St Mary and St John Cathedral in Quezon City

Old St Mary and St John in Ermita, Manila (destroyed in WW 2)
Thus when some cradle Catholics (who have been habituated to versus populum masses) asked the Ordinariate Catholics why they insist on an ad orientem way of worshiping, the reason they gave is that this way is part of the Anglican patrimony which predates the Reformation. Thus it is authentically Roman Catholic.

Reference: Paul NP (1995) Enjoying Old Parish Churches. Vol. 1 Pentland Press, Durham, England.

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