St Dunstan, who was born near Glastonbury in about the year 910, and who is remembered today in the Church’s calendar, was a reforming monk who became Archbishop of Canterbury. He is said to have prayed through much of the night and “at the first light of daybreak” he would begin work. An early biographer described it thus:
“to correct faulty books, erasing the errors of the scribes; or, giving judgement with a keen intelligence between individuals, to distinguish the true from the false; or by calm words to bring harmony and peace to all who were at enmity or quarrelling; or to benefit with his kind support, widows, orphans, pilgrims, strangers. etc. etc…..”
At this time of the year, his “first light of daybreak” would have had him very early at his tasks. This Thursday is Ascension Day, and the tradition in the team of churches is for a service to be held at 6.30 a.m. in St Nicholas’, where on a sunny day at this time of the year the early morning light is streaming straight through the east window, almost blinding the congregation. Has it been orientated this way for a thousand years for this very purpose?
Some time ago, it was in January 2008 to be precise, the Church Times published one of its “Readers’ Questions” which asked:
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?
Two people responded. A clergyman wrote from Wales and a parish reader from East Molesey. From them I learnt a number of things, including the fact that Liverpool Cathedral is, in fact, on a north-south axis, rather than east-west, due to the constrictions of the site, though they still speak of the ‘east end’ etc. referring to the liturgical east.
Canon Terry Palmer wrote:
“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)……
“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……
“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.”
Further interesting information was added by Christopher Haffner of East Molesey who wrote:
“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…….…”
I don’t suppose Dunstan or many of us alive today are very concerned over the alignment of churches, but, incidentally, I think that all four churches of the team are orientated east-west, as tradition dictates. Nor shall we be able to be blinded by the light of the early May sunshine on Thursday, as it streams through the east window and into St Nicholas’ on Ascension Day, for the church is closed. However, with the service moved to 8.00 a.m., Tony is conducting an early Ascension Day service by zoom. If you would like the link, do contact Tony and ask him for the invitation: email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The evening service, normally held in St Mary’s at 7.30 p.m., will be available via the website on Ascension Day as well.