The other day Pam and I walked up the Thames to Eynsham and - how nice to find a RC church unlocked - looked in S Peter's, built on the site of Eynsham Abbey. It was begun in 1940, but because of WW2 only the sanctuary was completed; the rest of the church was just a wooden hut. And that sanctuary was a nice apse in a pared-down Romanesque style, at the East end of the site, thus maintaining the old tradition of Orientation.
Fr Lopes, the priest responsible, was a resolute man, and was determined that the church should be completed to its original design; a good egg; One Of Us, you might say. So it wasn't until after his death that a scaled down version was built; consecrated in 1968.
By then, of course, the Smoke of Satan etc. etc.. So a new sanctuary was constructed at the West End with a free-standing Altar so that the priest would stand behind it (thus facing East) facing his people who would thus be facing West. In fact, just as in Roman basilicas such as S Peter's. The old apse at the East was converted into a baptistry.
Fast-forward to 2009. We have been taught, originally by Anglican liturgists such as Fr Michael Moreton but more recently by RCs such as Dr Lang , that 'Towards the East' is the proper thing. And so it is. There are heaps of patristic evidence for celebrating towards the East, from where we expect the Dayspring; the returning Saviour and Judge; because, as Origen put it, it is from the East that Redemption comes. But this has, in practice, mutated into something subtly different: a belief in the importance of celebrating versus apsidem; facing the sanctuary wall, facing away from the people and in the same direction as them. Much has been written to justify this.
But what are we to make of a church like S Peter's Eynsham? If you face East, you will be facing the people. If you celebrate 'with your back to the people', you will be facing West. Just imagine that one of the splendid new brand of High Church RC priests were appointed to Eynsham; let's call him, for convenience, Fr Theophilus Finegan (because the English RC Church is in dire need of as many Finegans as it can get). Should he get a local carpenter to make him a portable gradine so that when he says an EF Mass, he can pop it onto his altar and celebrate facing away from the people? Or should he face East, even at the cost of his face being visible to the laity, and use the rubrics in the EF Missal which give clear directions about how to use the Old Rite while facing the people (many people tend to forget that S Pius V gave careful instructions how to do this; he had to, didn't he, because he was Bishop of Rome and so many Roman basilicas are thus arranged).
Frankly, if my name were Finegan, I'd face (the real) East. (And if I were Fr T Finegan Cong Or I would feel a bit of a bias towards saying my Masses at that superb - real Italian Baroque - Lady Altar at Brompton which does face East.) But I bet a lot of you out there think - despite the insistance of the Fathers on facing East - that facing away from the people is the most important thing.
(Don't bother to write in with the obvious suggestion of getting the masons in and swinging the church round. And if anyone points out that several times a week I say Mass in S Thomas's at the Holy Rood Altar, which faces North, I shall delete the contribution unless it comes from one of my particular favourites.)