Facing the People
Peter Hammond reported in Liturgy and Architecture (1960) that
”In a growing number of churches during the last few years the altar has been brought forward away, from the east end of the church, and the ministers face the people across the altar. Such an arrangement of the sanctuary has been restored not simply because it is more primitive but because it embodies, as the medieval layout does not, a biblical understanding of what the Church is and what it does when it assemble on the Lord’s day”.
The new St Hilda’s was designed specifically with ‘facing the people’ in mind (although because of Fr Bunker’s move, St Michael’s, Byker was actually the first church in the Diocese to adopt it). At the old St Hilda’s Fr Bunker had not felt daring enough to do so.
In fact the eastward facing (‘back to the people’) position of the celebrant at the altar was itself relatively recent in the Church of England being one of the ‘ritualist’ practices that Anglo-Catholics had sought to ‘restore’. The 1662 Prayer Book directs (not unambiguously) the priest to stand at the ‘north side of the table’ at he Communion Service. This would mean at the short end of a conventionally placed altar (as would have been usual in 1662), which would mean he was sideways to the congregation. It is probable that the rubric (first introduced in the 1552 Prayer Book) referred to the earlier post-Reformation idea that altars should be replaced by tables placed lengthways in the chancel (which thus became a kind of communion-room) so that the north side would have been the long side. In any case the intention of the Anglican Fathers was that the actions of the priest at the altar should be visible to the congregation.
The westward facing position seems to have been ‘restored’ in some continental catholic churches influenced by the Liturgical Movement from the 1930s. It was sometimes argued that this was done on the precedent of the Roman basilicas (including St Peter’s), but recent studies have shown that the reason for their (literal) orientation was that they were designed so that the celebrant would face east rather than that he would face the people. Indeed it is argued that ‘facing the people’ as such was unknown in the early church.
The earliest place in the Church of England designed specifically for westward celebration appears to have been the chapel of Queen's College, Birmingham planned in 1937 but not finally completed (because of the war) until 1947. It was introduced at St Thomas's, Regent Street (where Peter Hammond was a curate) by 1951.
As Peter Hammond says, however, the primary reason for ‘facing the people’ is not antiquarian but missionary. “The eucharist creates the community. The surest way of bringing home to the laity that they are the Church – and not the passive recipients of spiritual consolation at the hands of a professional ministry – is to make plain the full implications of the eucharistic liturgy.”