East-facing celebrations of the Holy Eucharist have gotten a lot of grief for being uninviting and lacking in intimacy. After all, how inappropriate is it that the priest spends most of the time with his back to you? How rude! Yet research may indicate that this is actually far more intimate for both sexes than the celebration style in which the priest stands behind the altar facing the congregation.
In Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, a Christian book on male/female relationships, Dr. Eggerichs cites a work, Gender & Discourse by Deborah Tannen and explains a study in that work as follows:
“Research studies confirm the male preference for shoulder-to-shoulder communication with little or no talking. In one study, researchers performed a series of tests on males and females from four age groups: second graders, sixth graders, tenth graders, and twenty-five-year-olds. Instructions for each pair of females and each pair of males were exactly the same: enter a room, sit down on two chairs, and talk, if you wish.
“As the test proceeded, every pair of females, no matter what their ages, reacted the same way. They turned their chairs toward each other, or at least they turned toward each other, so they could be face to face, lean forward, and talk. The males reacted differently. They did not turn toward each other in any way. They sat side by side, shoulder to shoulder, looking straight ahead except for an occasional glance at each other.
“Because the females turned toward each other or literally turned their chairs to face one another for direct, face-to-face contact, the researchers assumed they would have the most intimate conversations. Actually, the most open and transparent of all the pairs, male or female, were the tenth-grade boys.”
Now this is really amazing research and indicates that what has often been derided as silly, insecure “Wallflower” behavior in teenage boys is actually quite bonding, like lining up in para-military organizations or monasteries or among altar boys. It is intimate, more intimate than the comparable female communication preferences.
One might quickly turn this to the debate as to how the Mass should be celebrated. We were likely informed, with the same sort of prejudiced, overconfident, psychoanalytic bravado as those conducting the above research, that “obviously” the priest facing the people from behind the altar would be more intimate, forgetting one minor detail: there is a piece of furniture between the priest and congregation. At the same time, the same sort of folks were telling teachers and bosses that they shouldn’t have the desk between themselves and their students and employees. Why? Because it made them authoritarian and cut down on open and frank communication, or so I’ve gathered. So which is it? Is having a priest standing high up and turning his back to the congregation authoritarian and distant or is having a desk/table between him and the congregation authoritarian and distant, or should we just get rid of the holy table/altar altogether?
Certainly the final option, removing the altar altogether, would be the most favored by some, but let us analyze the East-facing position for its value at providing intimate and meaningful worship for both sexes. First of all, the traditional setting with altar boys either ranging along the chancel or sanctuary walls or facing the altar along with the priest provides young men, at that critical age of second to tenth grade, the opportunity for extremely intimate bonding, an esprit de corps. The same is provided when the priest is flanked at the altar by deacon and subdeacon at certain points of the traditional Western mass. Second of all, the priest will turn around at certain points of the mass providing the female congregation face-to-face communication, without, I might add, a piece of furniture in the way. The men in the nave do have the opportunity to feel intimate with the rest of the congregation simply by standing next to them, shoulder-to-shoulder.
Nobody could doubt this when observing traditional liturgies, even in congregations where there is an iconostasis or chancel screen obstructing part or all of the "view". Nobody who has seen the Coptic Orthodox liturgy, with young men, sometimes as young as four or five, joined in worship with older men shoulder-to-shoulder in the chancel could think this lacking intimacy. Nobody can doubt this when watching the liturgies of the Malankara Orthodox with similar young men standing facing East with the priest in para-military formation. But in all of these Eastern rites, the priest is sure to have several intimate face-to-face communications with those in the nave. He will make an appearance from time to time, either to come to the King’s Doors to give a blessing or facing towards the people in gentle exchanges or loving exhortations.
Thus, despite what many have been spouting or assuming for years, the Ad Orientem celebration is, in fact, the most intimate possibility, providing the kind of communication styles for which both sexes desire and long. To place the priest behind the altar is to reduce the male-to-male bonding during the administration of the Eucharist and to place a barrier between the priest and the female congregation during open face-to-face communications, thus reducing the appeal for female worshipers as well. By this we can see that an East-facing celebration is the better used when trying to draw both sexes to the Holy Mass.
Fr. Peter Geromel is Assisting Priest at Church of the Incarnation and an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College. Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Hillsdale College, Reformed Episcopal Seminary and the University of Dallas, Fr. Peter has authored Sublime Duty: Its Emphasis in The Anglican Way, Christ & College: A Guide from The Anglican Way, and Frankincense & Mirth on High. He manages Traditional Anglican Resources.