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Out of the question

by
09 January 2008

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

Your answers

I have always been led to believe that churches, when first erected, were planned and built to face the east. Is this true, and does it still apply?

Long before it was possible to erect churches, Christians attached importance to turning eastward for prayer — a custom that originally may have been influenced by the pagan practice of praying towards the rising sun, and the widespread notion that the orient was the realm of divine powers. Christianity naturally reinterpreted orientation to refer to Christ in his resurrection and the direction of his expected parousia (coming in glory).

This tradition finds mention in Tertullian (c.160-c.220), who remarked on facing “ad lucem”. Archaeological evidence confirms that, on eastern walls of what would have been the prayer room in some “house churches”, the sign of the cross was depicted. It is therefore not surprising that consistent with this outlook, churches (and Christian cemeteries) were normally sited and planned on an east-west axis. A typical church arrangement is graphically described in the Didascalia and its parallel document, the fourth-century second book of the liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions: “let the building be oblong, pointing towards the east . . . like a ship,” and “let all [the worshippers] stand at the same time and pray, looking towards the east” (Ap. Const. 2, 57-58).

Eastward alignment became the almost but never invariable rule. It was more strictly adhered to in medieval England, Scotland, and Ireland — as throughout the Eastern Church — than on the Continent of Western Europe. Even so, it was never considered absolutely essential, despite the array of symbolic explanations produced, such as that of the 13th-century canonist and allegorist Durandus of Mende in his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum.

Many modern church architects and builders completely neglect the principle of orientation, owing either to the practicalities of available building sites, or to a deliberate intention to explore liturgical space by fashioning centralised churches around a free-standing altar, irrespective of directions of the compass.
(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire

. . . The ideal orientation of post-Constantinian churches was towards the sunrise. But the sun rises in different places on different days; so it might be thought that the obvious orientation was towards sunrise on a theoretical horizon on 9 April, the probable date of the original Easter. This would never be due east. But immediate deviations are possible: the actual horizon visible from the site of the church might be that of a hill; so an orientation based on local observation would be different.

Furthermore, it became the practice to orient a church to face the rising sun on the day of the saint in whose name the church was dedicated. I have come across churches where this process was reversed, and a church that had lost its dedication in early Reformation years recovered it by checking which saint’s day fitted its alignment (it would, of course, be a choice of two days).

Some imperfect orientations are ascribed simply to medieval geometrical inaccuracy. And how can we define the axis of churches that are intentionally bent, such as Truro Cathedral, because the church plan represents the cross, and Christ’s head was inclined as he died?

In the late-17th and 18th centuries, Nonconformist chapels were frequently oriented roughly north-south, probably initially as a protest at Anglican practice. Later in the same period, the original Church Commissioners required newly built churches to face due east-west.

In the last century, concepts of orientation became more relaxed, and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral was built on a north-south axis because of the shape of the site and its adjoining cemetery. But a current guidebook nevertheless refers to “west doors” and the “the great east window” when they actually face north and south respectively. This follows the common practice of referring to the direction from the congregation to the main altar as “liturgical east”, no matter what the actual orientation might be.
Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

Your questions

In 1927, my church’s PCC discussed something called “The World Call”. What was this? P. L.

Between 1583 and 1752, did Roman Catholic recusants in the British Isles celebrate Christmas and Easter at the same time as their Protestant neighbours or 10/11 days earlier, depending on the century? If so, did this cause the same sort of problems as those described by Bede as prompting the Synod of Whitby? Do Russian Baptists and other Protestants now celebrate Christmas and Easter on the Eastern or Western dates? 

Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question, Church Times, 13-17 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PN.

Between 1583 and 1752, did Roman Catholic recusants in the British Isles celebrate Christmas and Easter at the same time as their Protestant neighbours or 10/11 days earlier, depending on the century? If so, did this cause the same sort of problems as those described by Bede as prompting the Synod of Whitby? Do Russian Baptists and other Protestants now celebrate Christmas and Easter on the Eastern or Western dates? 

Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question, Church Times, 13-17 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PN.

questions@churchtimes.co.uk

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