Does it matter which way a church faces? The scripture readings this weekend were about the end of the world, and the second coming of the Son of Man. I chose to speak about the physical orientation of Christian churches: how it is an ancient tradition to build them on an east-west axis, so that you enter through the west door and face the sanctuary/altar at the east end. In this way you have a double symbolism: of Christ coming to meet you, like the rising sun, in the liturgy that you are celebrating; and Christ coming to meet you (soon, but not quite yet), at the end of time. So the sanctuary is a threshold that allows us to meet the divine now and to await the divine in the future.
This is all well-known, and doesn’t need blogging about. (See, for example, Part II, Chapter 3, of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.) What was interesting though was preaching about this in a church in Clerkenwell in the centre of London, with two medieval examples just a stone’s throw away. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral is of course not medieval, but I assume (please correct me) that it roughly follows the floor plan of the previous cathedral. It’s like an arrow on a huge compass at the centre of London, running perfectly east-west. Yes, it happens to sit tidily on the line of the river Thames at that point too; but it illustrates the way the geography of a Christian city can reflect the spiritual longings of the human soul – for a saviour, for God’s final Word to greet us at the end of our lives, and at the end of time.
The second example, just down the road from Clerkenwell, is St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in Holburn. This church does not sit at all tidily into its present environment. The east end faces the street, so there is no easy access, and you have to enter the church through a warren of corridors and steps. But once you are there, the same spiritual/geographical truth is apparent, that you enter from the west, from the darkness, and look towards the east, towards the hope of Christ’s coming – in this case represented by a glorious wall of stained-glass above the altar.
There will be hundreds of other examples. It was good to have these at hand on Sunday.