During the time of Christian persecution, Eucharist was celebrated on the top of a saint’s stone coffin. Following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, churches were built with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary towards the west end of the church replicating the orientation of Jerusalem’s Temple. The Celebrant faced east towards the entrance and the people. After about the six century, the contrary orientation prevailed with the entrance at the west end and the altar at the east end. In the middle ages, altars began to be permanently placed against the east wall, and with this orientation, the priest stood with his back towards the congregation. Despite this architectural innovation, most rubrics envisaged the altar as free-standing so that the officiating Bishop could “circle the altar” during a church’s consecration. Catholic rubrics declare a free-standing main altar to be “desirable wherever possible”. The Book of Common Prayer originally assumed a fixed altar, but more recent language does not assume any particular orientation. Curiously, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer does not mention the word “altar”, but instead “the Lord’s Table” is substituted to avoid any hint of Catholic transubstantiation at an altar.
~Dr. Gil Haas
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