The term ‘president’ signifies an important shift in liturgical thinking. The words ‘priest’ and even ‘minister’, used in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, appear to have a perfectly clear and adequate meaning. But biblical understandings of priesthood encompassed ideas of a specially-selected person who might carry out functions on behalf of people from which they might even be excluded. The Holy of Holies of the Temple was reserved for the priesthood, who performed their functions largely in secret.
A president acts in the midst of a gathering of the people of God. The most ancient Christian churches are modelled on the spaces for civil gatherings of the Roman Empire. This is our model for the setting of the Eucharist.
Throughout Christian history, there has been a tension between the roles of priest (ministering on behalf of the people in a holy place) and president. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the norm for the Western Mass being the daily duty of clergy, priesthood was paramount, and presidency could virtually disappear.
The Reformation began a reversal. In the BCP, English is employed, and the priest must speak audibly. But Cranmer’s idea of a gathering around the holy table set lengthwise in the church with the president at the ‘north side’ soon lost its meaning when the tables were returned to the spaces formerly occupied by medieval stone altars.
For the Reformers there were few clear models of presidency at hand, and this meant that the BCP does not provide adequate guidance. The BCP Eucharist begins, not with an act of liturgical presidency, but with the private devotion of the priest. The priest alone says the Lord’s Prayer, and the people are not even invited to respond with the ‘Amen’. They respond only after the Collect for Purity. It seems as though the first task of the priest in this service is not presidency, but, once he has purified himself with his devotions, to admonish the people by reminding them of the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, the priest only turns to face the congregation at this point. What picture must go through his mind as he turns from the vision of saints in a sunlit east window to the people below in the nave? Is he Moses, coming down the mountain from his encounter with God to deliver the law to a disobedient crowd of golden calf worshippers?
Presidency is also not very evident at the beginning of the BCP Order for the Burial of the Dead. The priest intones a series of biblical texts as the coffin is brought into church, startling the congregation with a booming voice from the back declaring that ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. It isn’t a good presidential act. And Morning Prayer opens not with a greeting, but with the recollection of ‘the wicked man’. That glorious address to the congregation, ‘dearly beloved brethren’, is lost in what appears like a great deal of finger-wagging. The legacy of centuries of inadequate models of presidency enshrined in the texts of the BCP has given those called to minister a poor model of how to lead worship. What is more, the need to keep to a faithful adherence to the words of the Prayer Book, without additions, made it difficult to assert a presidential role.
Today the president at the Eucharist is bidden to address the people and greet them in the name of the Lord, inviting their response by establishing the entire body as a gathering for worship. This, critically, requires the use of modern English. The retention of ‘King James English’ at this point is disastrous because, whilst we might like to address our creator reverentially as ‘Thou’, for the congregation to use the same expression (and with thy spirit) when responding to the vicar sounds quite over the top. (The post Vatican 2 Spanish translation of the Latin Mass got it right when the people’s response was ‘Y con tu espiritu’ rather than the respectful address in the third person used when speaking deferentially to superiors.)
Fortunately Common Worship encourages flexibility in the opening greeting. The president may add other words of greeting, and may then, after the greeting, give further words of introduction in order to enable and enrich the participation of the entire gathering. The baptism party are acknowledged, and the candidate is named. Returned former parishioners can be welcomed, and significant visitors are pointed out. The president may introduce himself or herself and name others who will take a significant role in the service. The occasion for celebration is highlighted. In short, the president initiates ‘The Gathering’ of all who will share in worship and sets out the journey.
With this beginning, the congregation will look to the president to keep them on course throughout the service. The days when the liturgy proceeded without announcements, hymns were simply listed on the board, and the regular worshippers always knew what came next are over. That separation of ‘sheep’, who knew what would happen next, and ‘goats’, who were completely at sea, is unacceptable. The president realises the importance of including everyone so that they are able to participate; kneeling, sitting, standing, speaking without embarrassment. This has the advantage of allowing flexibility into the service without giving the impression that somehow things have gone wrong when the usual order is varied.
Some may object that they do not want what can appear like an unnecessary running commentary on a familiar service. But the newcomers must be invited in. Indeed, this idea is paramount in gospel stories which provide models for the Eucharist. At the feeding of the 5,000, when the disciples want to send the people away, Jesus gathers the crowd to sit on the grass to be present for the breaking of bread.
The presidential role of Jesus at the Last Supper, as Passover is celebrated, is clear in every depiction of the event. The risen Christ takes that role again, at Emmaus, and on the shores of Galilee when he invites the disciples to ‘come and have breakfast’. Jesus presides at the breaking of bread, and gives us the model for the Christian Eucharist. The mould, of the old priesthood at the Temple, is broken, for the veil of the Temple has been torn apart. It is not the business of the Christian priesthood today to try to put it back.