There is a tradition or two when it comes to naming directions or positions of things in a church. Most of the time, front, back, left and right make sense if we keep the point of view of standing in the nave facing the main altar, but the church has developed its own directional glossary.
Traditionally, churches have been oriented with the altar at the east. There are some major churches of which this is not true (the high altar of the Vatican Basilica is at the west end), and some modern ones which have abandoned this convention. There are also a fair few that are not quite on an east-west axis.
Whatever the actual compass reading, we can call the altar end of the church ‘liturgical east’ and name the other cardinal directions from it. This is particularly helpful if a church has one or more secondary altars that are not oriented parallel with the main altar. Most of the ceremonial is carried out as if the altar were to the east.
Sometimes it is important to know where actual east is. At a time when most Catholic masses were said with the priest’s back to the congregation (ad orientem, ‘to the east’), the Vatican and other Roman churches with high altars at the actual west celebrated mass with the priest facing the congregation across the altar (versus populum, ‘opposite the people’) so that the priest could celebrate facing actual east. Now that most masses are celebrated versus populum, the Vatican arrangement appears less unusual.
Major architectural features are often known by their compass position: west window, south door, north transept. These tend to be used when the actual compass directions and the liturgical ones more or less align. If one knows the high altar is to the east, everything else is easy to locate.
Choir: decani and cantoris
In terms of choir singing and placement, the Latin terms decani and cantoris are used, often abbreviated to dec. and can.
Decani means ‘of the dean’ (decānī is the genitive singular of decānus) and refers to the liturgical south (congregational right) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s dean would normally be seated.
Cantoris means ‘of the cantor’ (cantōris is the genitive singular of cantor) and refers to the liturgical north (congregational left) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s precentor (‘foremost cantor’) would normally be seated.
Decani and cantoris are used even in churches that do not have deans or precentors, owing to the importance of cathedrals in sustaining choral music.
In Salisbury Cathedral, the dean and precentor are seated in the first return stall on their respective sides. These are the first, east-facing, stalls to each side on entering the quire from the crossing. As Sarum was the liturgical norm of pre-Reformation England and Wales, this arrangement was followed in cathedrals of the Old Foundation, which have deans and precentors as their senior clergy, and has become the standard elsewhere.
In the monastic cathedrals, where the senior cleric under the bishop was the prior, he often sat on the liturgical north (congregational left). Thus, some cathedrals of the New Foundation (those that were monasteries) seat the dean in the former prior’s stall, opposite to where the Sarum dean is placed, and decani and cantoris are reversed (this is true of Benedictine Durham and Augustinian Carlisle, and a couple of other places).
These terms are especially used in Anglican chant where the music is sung antiphonally, passed back and forth between the two sides of a choir. In antiphonal singing, decani generally sings first, answered by cantoris. In typical singing of the psalm at choral evensong to Anglican chant, the entire chant is sung in full (both decani and cantoris together in harmony) over what is usually the first two verse (in double chant). Then decani sings alone in harmony, and then cantoris sings alone in harmony, and so on, with Gloria Patri (‘Glory be to the Father …’) sung in full at the end. Some choirs will alternate the starting side, often every week.
Gospel and epistle sides
The other set of directional terms are ‘gospel’ and ‘epistle side’. The simple definition is that the epistle side is the liturgical south (congregational right, decani) and the gospel side is liturgical north (congregational left, cantoris).
There are all sorts of explanations for this. The simplest is that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place of honour, and, if we face God in prayer, that is our left. Thus, Jesus’ Good News, his Gospel, is preached from that side. Mediaeval churches often have the lectern built on the epistle side and the pulpit on the gospel side. This is so that the gospel could be proclaimed from the righthand side of the Father.
To reflect this, the priest at low mass would move the missal, from which all lessons are read, from the epistle side of the altar, after reading the epistle, to the gospel side, for reading the gospel.
Post-Vatican II liturgical thought has focused on a unified proclamation of the Word at the heart of the mass. Practically, this is often expressed by use of a central ambo (either fixed or movable) from which all lessons (including usually the responsorial psalm) are proclaimed. However, Pope Francis has begun using both an epistle-side and a gospel-side post in his outdoor masses, with the readings made at the epistle-side lectern and the gospel from the gospel side.
Terms such as epistle and gospel side are often used to describe positions in the sanctuary. For example, the paschal candle is placed on the gospel side of the sanctuary and the sedilia (or ministerial chairs) are on the epistle side.
These terms are also used to refer to the order of lighting and extinguishing altar candles. Candles on the epistle side are first lit, then those on the gospel side. In each case, if there are multiple candles on each side, those closest to the centre, to the cross, are lit first, moving outwards on that side before moving to the other. The extinguishing of candles is done in reverse order: gospel side, out to in, then epistle side, out to in. When the paschal candle stands in the sanctuary, it is at the gospel side and is lit before any altar candles and is the last extinguished. The story is that this is supposed to represent the spread of the light of the gospel moving from the Mediterranean south to the dark, barbaric north, and so southern candles are lit first. The story was probably invented spiritually to explain why a certain practice is followed. It is more likely to have come about because the right is the side of honour.
Right as the side of honour, but which right?
Traditionally, the right (dexter) is the side of honour, having higher importance than the left (sinister). Sorry, lefthanders.
This explains why the congregational right is where the dean is seated and the decani half of the choir sings first. It also explains why the candles are lit first on the congregational right of the altar and why the sedilia is also placed on that side.
The other right is the congregational left. It is the righthand side from the point of view of Christ on the altar cross, or of God in Trinity whom we address in prayer and praise. This is why the gospel is proclaimed from this righthand side and the paschal candle put there.
Thus, stripping aside all pious explanations, it seems that, throughout liturgical history, important things and people were placed on the right. However, seeing as both sides can be seen as right, some things follow the one convention and some the other.
A recorded instance of this flipping of viewpoint can be seen in the 1488 publication of a ceremonial by Augustine Patrizi, bishop of Pienza, near Siena. Whereas formerly the altar’s left and right side had been named from the congregational viewpoint (and that of the priest celebrating ad orientem), this new ceremonial insisted that the left and right hands of the outstretched corpus of the altar cross should determine directions, leading to their complete reversal. This was then accepted by Pope Pius V (excommunicator of Elizabeth I), entering the first standardised set of rubrics of the first ‘Tridentine’ missal of 1570.
The bishop’s throne (cathedra) is most traditionally set in the apse behind the high altar of the cathedral, facing west. The inconvenience of the position and the filling of apses with chapels and shrines led to a removal of the cathedra to the quire, where in many cases there was already a secondary throne. There it is usually placed on the south side, decani, as is the choir cathedra of Greek bishops, facing north. An alternative, often followed in more modern cathedrals, is to place the throne on the north side, the gospel side, of the sanctuary, facing south. In Anglican parish churches, a chair is often kept for the bishop when they visit. When in use, it is usually placed on the centre line of the church facing west. When not in use, it is traditionally placed on the gospel-side wall of the sanctuary facing south.
In English parish churches, I have seen the incumbent’s stall placed on either of the two rights, decani or the gospel side. In many places there are identical stalls on each side, the other being for the parish clerk, Reader or curate. It may be that the designated sides have swapped over time.
Which direction the priest faces: east, west or south
There are three traditions of the placement of the priest during the eucharistic consecration
- Versus populum, with the priest facing the people across the altar, an ancient positioning that became most usual after Vatican II
- Ad orientem, with the priest’s back to the people, between them and the altar, it is also ancient and was common before Vatican II
- North side, according to a rubric of the Book of Common Prayer, a peculiarly Anglican style
These different positions mean that the other positions might change in relation to the priest.
The liturgical deacon keeps to the celebrant’s righthand side, so will stand behind the altar on the gospel side if the eucharist is celebrated versus populum, but before the altar on the epistle side ad orientem.
Traditionally, the credence table is placed to the epistle side of the altar, but that is so it is to the priest’s right when celebrating ad orientem. Many churches have kept the credence on the epistle side even if the eucharist is now celebrated versus populum, while others have moved it to the gospel side so that it remains to the priest’s right.
In the first Prayer Book of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, of 1549, the priest was instructed to stand ‘humbly afore the middes of the Altar’, continuing the ad orientem tradition. Many reformers objected to the word ‘altar’ as well as hiding the congregation’s view of the communion elements behind the priest’s back.
The 1552 Prayer Book revised the rubric thus:
‘The table … shall stand in the body of the churche, or in the chauncell … And the priest standyng at the Northe syde of the table …’
Thus, a movable table replaced the old altars and were placed, presumably turned parallel to the length of the church, in either the nave or the midst of the chancel. At the north side, the priest then would still be at the long edge, with the congregation arrayed opposite, to the south, or in the round. It is unclear why north was chosen, but it is perhaps so the Lord’s supper is celebrated from the gospel side. Others have suggested it is so the Reformed rite is proclaimed towards the Catholic South. It is likely that many churches did not follow this rubric if they were so minded and could get away with it. Yet many carried it out with zeal, destroying the stone altar and using a turned table. The east wall of the chancel in these churches often then became a place for the pews of local dignitaries.
The Elizabethan Settlement moderated many of the reforming excesses. In 1559, an injunction ordered that whether stone altars or wooden tables as long as ‘the Sacrament be duly and reverently administered’ it was ‘no matter of great moment’. During the early 17th century, the great majority of churches having wooden communion tables not only placed them against the east wall when not in use, but used them there to celebrate communion.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer continues to direct the Communion to be said at ‘the north side of the Table’, recycling the rubric of 1552. Over time, most priest celebrated according to the 1549 rubric, in the midst of the altar facing east. However, the Low Church party continued to follow this rubric even though they too had moved their tables back to east wall. In a very few churches England (though still quite a few in the Church of Ireland), the north-side communion is still celebrated. In this, the priest is at the north, narrow end of the table, facing south, side on to the congregation. Usually, a chair, kneeler and bookstand are placed at the north end for the priest. Another set of chair, kneeler and bookstand is often set at the south end for the parish clerk or Reader to lead the responses. This style has been called various names from ‘lion and unicorn’ to ‘Bill and Ben’.
Ever agonizing over how to do Anglican Catholicism in an authentically English manner, Percy Dearmer directed priests to celebrate somewhat diagonally. This position was ad orientem, but sufficiently moved to the north along the footpace of the altar that the congregation could see the communion elements and the manual acts.
With newer rites, the Anglican churches have overwhelmingly adopted the Roman Catholic lead in celebrating versus populum.
I digress: boats, ballgames, board-treading & blazon
It is not surprising that the church has developed its own tradition for naming directions. Sailors have port and starboard so that the direction is not dependent on whether or not one faces the bow (port is left when facing the bow).
Sporting grounds often have their specific ‘ends’, like the Pavilion (south west) and Nursery (north east) ends at Lord’s Cricket Ground, or the Gwladys Street (north) and Park (south) ends of Goodison Park.
Likewise, actors talk of stage left and stage right, which are always respectively the left and right of the stage if facing out to the audience. Stage left is the same side as house right, the audience’s right, and stage right is house left. As actors look for their prompt from stage left, it is also the prompt side, making stage right ‘off prompt’. In French, this is particularly picturesque, with côté cour (‘court side’) corresponding to stage left and côté jardin (‘garden side’) for stage right (this dates from when the Comédie-Française was ensconced in the Salle des Machines of the Palais des Tuileries with a stage between the Cour du Carrousel and the Jardin des Tuileries).
In the fast-paced world of heraldry, there is a steep learning curve, mostly to do with the arcane language of blazon, used to describe heraldic arms. The Latin words dexter and sinister, meaning ‘right’ and ‘left’ respectively, are used to describe the vertical halves of the shield. However, they are the right and left according to a knight bearing the shield. Thus, dexter is the viewer’s left, even though it literally means ‘right’.
Addendum: Bride or Groom
I just remembered a ceremony-specific division of the church: the bride and groom’s side at a wedding. As they marry, the couple stand together with the bride on the northern side (gospel side or cantoris) and the groom on the southern side (epistle side or decani). Their respective families are traditionally then seated on the bride’s side (north) or groom’s side (south). Hence is the usher’s awkward greeting, ‘Bride or groom?’
I’m sure there are all sorts of folk tales about why this arrangement is so. I’ve heard things about leaving the groom’s sword arm free to defend his woman, which rings bells on my bovine-waste detector. It is more likely a patriarchal statement that the groom is on the right.