Where Should the Priest Begin the Holy Communion? by Charles Chapman Grafton (1907)

To the Editor of The Living Church:[1]

I HAVE little or no interest in the ritual question raised by the Bishop of Marquette. In this time when men calling themselves Churchmen are, under the pretense of defending Christianity, undermining its very foundations, and in the presence of an apostasy unparalleled in the history of Christendom, this matter of ritual seems too trivial for consideration. We are living in an awful and most solemn time when the final anti-Christ is making his most subtly satanical attack on Christianity.

I do not care where one stands at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist. For forty years I have always begun at the Epistle side, and have seen most celebrations begun in that way. It is now the established custom in England and America of a very large number.

I have adopted it, as I suppose others have done, not because it is like the Roman way, but as the best interpretation which, as a lawyer trained, I could give a difficult rubric. The intention of the rubric, as a directory one, must be assumed to be the determination of the place where the priest shall stand. It must be interpreted, therefore, as designating that one place for him and not leaving him to make his own choice of position.

Which of the interpretations does this best?

The rubric reads: “Standing at the right hand of the table.” Does this mean the Epistle or Gospel side? Is the “right hand” to be determined by the table as facing the priest, or by the priest as facing the table?

The arguments in favor of the Gospel side are that in changing from the English rubric which placed the priest at the “north” side, our revisers probably meant to denote the same side without reference to the points of the compass, which, in the loss of the orientation of our buildings, was not advisable. We are, however, obliged, in considering a law, to derive its intention from the law or rubric itself, and not from the supposed purpose of its legislators. Obliged thus to interpret the rubric by itself, its construction must be governed by the intention to designate the position of the priest.

Contemporaneous exposition of a law may be referred to in cases where the law is ambiguous. Until the rubric is shown not to be clear by itself, contemporaneous exposition may not be appealed to. In this case, whatever was the usage in the early part of the last century, it was a continually changing usage and therefore can have little weight, legally considered, in understanding its meaning.

Whatever weight a judicial mind would give to these two reasons, there is this fact in the case which requires consideration: the table may, by the rubric, be moved about and placed in the body of the church. This was done in Puritan times and the rubric still allows it. It might be so placed that the smaller or Gospel end would be turned technically eastwards. In this case the “right side” would be what we now call the back of the altar. I have known clergymen taking that position. A table, therefore, that can be turned about and turned around, has no fixed portion which can be called its right side. The Bishop of Marquette also claims that the rubric would be complied with by the clergyman standing either in front of the Gospel side or by taking up an entirely different position both in respect to the people and the altar at the north or Gospel end. According, then, to this interpretation, no one position is designated to the exclusion of all others, and the clergyman is left to make a choice. This interpretation, therefore, is to be rejected because it defeats the intention and purpose of the rubric.

It seems, then, that it is more in accord with the rubric’s intent to define the right or left hand by the clergyman’s attitude to the table rather than by the table’s attitude to him.

In the marriage service the parties are placed, according to the rubric, “the man on the right hand and the woman on the left.” The Bishop of Marquette says this could not refer to the table because there is no reference to the table in the marriage service. I would respectfully call his attention to the fact that there is a reference to the table in the form given in the English Prayer Book. There “the minister, after the blessing, goes to the Lord’s table.” The Psalm ended, “the man and the woman kneel before the Lord’s table and the priest, standing at the table, shall say,” etc. The reason why the rubric that states that the minister shall go to the Lord’s table, etc., was left out of the American Prayer Book, was because there was ordinarily no recess chancel with a distinction between the nave and the sanctuary. The American usage assumed that the parties would present themselves before the priest standing at the table. Therefore, the direction that the man and woman shall stand on the right and left, while it may refer to each other, may also refer to the table. If it does refer to the parties themselves, anyway it places the man, who is said to be on the right hand, on the Epistle side of the altar. But it was not so much for this reason I have given, that I and others have been led to adopt our present practice.

Though I have, therefore, been led to think that when the priest is bidden to stand on the right hand of the table, the right hand is determined by the priest’s attitude as he faces the altar and not as the altar faces him, for this interpretation gives him no choice of position, while the other interpretation makes his position an indeterminate one which vacates the legal interpretation of the rubric.

But as I have said, it is not a matter in which I feel any concern, especially with the tremendous issues now before the Church, which should lead all conservatives to drop minor questions and rally to protect our Church from what seems to some an impending apostasy.

C. C. Fond du Lac.

Bishop’s House, Fond du Lac, Wis.


[1] The Living Church, March 9, 1907, p. 654. Grafton responds to a letter to the editor by Gershom Mott Williams (1857-1923, Bishop of the Diocese of Marquette from 1895-1919) in The Living Church, March 2, 1907. Three further letters on the subject of the position of the celebrant during Holy Communion followed on March 15, 1907, when the editor declared “The discussion of this subject is now at an end” (p. 691). Notwithstanding this statement, further letters on the topic continued on March 30, 1907 (pp. 768-769) and April 6, 1907 (p. 804).

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Filed under Anglo-Catholicism, Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church history, Liturgy

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