Thinking allowed

Liturgical presidency

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 priest might be alone, save for one server
  • He had his back to the people
  • Some of the pray­ers were silent, or even delib­er­ately secret
  • Lat­in, a reli­gious lan­guage used to address God, was used in pref­er­ence to the ver­nacu­lar used to address the people
  • The priest might be sep­ar­ated from the people by a screen, a choir formed of a reli­gious com­munity or both
  • Women were kept away from the altar, and only men would serve

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.


  • Rod Gillis says:

    Thanks so much for this art­icle. Re the com­ment ” … 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, …It isn’t a good pres­id­en­tial act.”

    I was trained this way, but early on put an end to this kind of thing, repla­cing the sen­tences with an open­ing pro­ces­sion­al hymn, then a wel­come to the bereaved and oth­ers, many of whom were not church goers, using a few of the more pas­tor­al sen­tences as short introit. 

    I’m going on recall here, but I think one of the earli­est texts we used here exper­i­ment­ally in Canada that named the “pres­id­ent” was Eng­lish Series III? 

    I like the con­clu­sion to the article, 
    “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.” Amen!

  • Geoff Jones says:

    “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” is pre­cisely the kind of 1970s reduc­tion­ist protestant/Vatican II atti­tude which has reduced an Anglic­an under­stand­ing of litur­gic­al pres­id­ency to what Aidan Kavanagh calls a “learn­ing exper­i­ence.” It is also symp­to­mat­ic of a now widely ques­tioned approach to the NT and the place of the Temple in the con­scious­ness of the NT writers and the first gen­er­a­tion of Chris­ti­ans (and I’m not just refer­ring to Mar­garet Bark­er, either). I have no exper­i­ence of Tom Ambrose’s mode of litur­gic­al pres­id­ency, so I have no right to com­ment on it. But, from what he writes, I would want to ask some more basic ques­tions about what he thinks wor­ship is ulti­mately all about. How do we know that the ‘new­comer’ needs a run­ning com­ment­ary? What if they have come because they want God, and want more of God, and are con­tent to be patient to allow the mean­ing and sym­bol­ism of the liturgy to unfold over time? Isn’t this why our cathed­rals are grow­ing and our par­ish churches are dying – because much par­ish church wor­ship is as Tom is espous­ing? If I had my way, I would declare a morator­i­um on the ordin­a­tion of all former teach­ers for ten years (espe­cially primary school teach­ers). The impact on the qual­ity of wor­ship could be considerable!

  • Rod Gillis says:

    @ Geoff Jones, “1970s reduc­tion­ist protestant/Vatican II atti­tude which has reduced an Anglic­an under­stand­ing of litur­gic­al presidency…” 

    Sev­er­al inter­est­ing assump­tions mixed togeth­er here. 1970s reduc­tion? In con­trast, I sup­pose to earli­er reduc­tions, like the so called “north end” com­mu­nion ser­vices, or the “Judas walk” prac­tices known well before the middle of the 20th cen­tury, when non-com­mu­nic­ants left wor­ship, on the hymn provided, before the invit­a­tion to con­fes­sion. With­in Anglic­an­ism, The 1970s is not the first place to look for reduction-ism. 

    And what’s wrong with either prot­est­ant or Vat­ic­an II litur­gic­al prac­tices (two dif­fer­ent things). The litur­gic­al reforms of Vat­ic­an II, and the sub­sequent more con­ser­vat­ive changes made since their intro­duc­tion, are con­tex­tu­al­ized by the notion of “the people of God”. One per­son’s reduc­tion­ism is another­’s minimalism. 

    The chal­lenge of find­ing a bal­ance in liturgy between com­munity (imman­ence) and tran­scend­ence is not lim­ited either to prot­est­ant wor­ship or the post Vat­ic­an Ii liturgy, or Anglic­an Euchar­ists inspired by the same. Counter-intu­it­ive though it may be, min­im­al­ism may be the bet­ter way to open up to tran­scend­ence. I’m doubt­ful that a new cler­ic­al­ism groun­ded in a hypo­thet­ic­al “temple con­scious­ness” mak­ing the pres­by­ter a sac­ri­fi­cing priest will give us a bet­ter win­dow on transcendence.

  • Geoff Jones says:

    “cler­ic­al­ism groun­ded in a hypo­thet­ic­al ‘temple con­scious­ness’ mak­ing the pres­by­ter a sac­ri­fi­cing priest will give us a bet­ter win­dow on tran­scend­ence.” Did I really say that? I think I was say­ing that we need to re-bal­ance the scales and that an under­stand­ing of the temple/sacrificial nature of priest­hood, in cre­at­ing places of encounter with the holy, is a way of doing this. I did not say it was the only way. Of course liturgy is always a fusion of imman­ence and tran­scend­ence (how could it be oth­er­wise for an incarn­a­tion­al faith?). But… to simply dis­miss the temple/sacrificial dimen­sion as hav­ing been abol­ished by the NT writers just will not do as an adequate theo­lo­gic­al stance in the light of recent schol­ar­ship. Equally, it will not do as a means of jus­ti­fy­ing an entirely anthro­po­centric focus for worship.

  • Rod Gillis says:

    @ Geoff Jones, “to simply dis­miss the temple/sacrificial dimen­sion as hav­ing been abol­ished by the NT writers just will not do …in the light of recent scholarship…” 

    I’ve spent the past four dec­ades read­ing a vari­ety of NT schol­ars use­ful in help­ing me preach the vari­ous NT Christs (pl.) I appre­ci­ate everything these schol­ars have to say; but notice the wide ran­ging opin­ions, the wildly diver­gent hypo­theses, based on the very same texts. Unless we dis­cov­er some wealth of new texts and/or val­id­at­ing archae­olo­gic­al research, I’m not sure we can get over the wall. There is also the ques­tion about NT schol­ar­ship as a source for norm­at­ive wor­ship prac­tices in the early church. Chris­ti­an wor­ship pre-dates the NT and oth­er non-canon­ic­al texts of the peri­od. It is a par­al­lel stream of tradition. 

    I appre­ci­ated your com­ment, and do not intend to put words in your mouth. How­ever one must be attent­ive to the polit­cal end game here. When one hears about the temple redis­covered one anti­cip­ates an end point where pres­by­ter becomes hier­us, offer­ing the “sac­ri­fice at my hands”, east­ward facing in a male only holy of holies. 

    In the end, liturgy is a cul­tur­al activ­ity. We cul­tiv­ate it and then ration­al­ize that against a norm, hypo­thet­ic­al or oth­er­wise. Is exuber­ant Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wor­ship any less tran­scend­ent than the Byrd Mass? Are the St. Louis Jesuits reduc­tion­ist com­pared to Lat­in plain­song? Is a said com­mu­nion ser­vice in a near empty coun­try church any less edi­fy­ing than show time at the Cathedral?

    Reduc­tion­ism is an odd argu­ment to levy against Anglic­ans, who by the 1970s had intro­duced a mul­ti­pli­city of new expans­ive litur­gic­al texts aimed at mov­ing bey­ond the norm of 1662 which has only words of insti­tu­tion (and not the NT text ver­sion exactly ) pre­faced with a polem­ic against the sac­ri­fice of the mass. 

  • Geoff Jones says:

    Thanks, Rod, this is all grist to the mill of a dis­cus­sion that is badly needed in my view. I would ques­tion wheth­er the pro­lif­er­a­tion of new texts (wheth­er in the 1970s or from the C of E’s Com­mon Wor­ship pro­ject) is, of itself, ever going to be effect­ive in improv­ing the qual­ity of wor­ship. Nor am I arguing for the kind of cler­ic­al­ism you have decided (on what basis?) that I espouse. Rather, I am say­ing that a more care­ful atten­tion to NT schol­ar­ship and temple con­scious­ness, even if the same texts are provid­ing dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions (what’s wrong with that?), could be effect­ive in enabling wor­ship to be a moment of epi­phany and encounter with the oth­er­ness of God; rather than an exclus­ively com­munit­ari­an fan­dango that has all but ban­ished any sense of cath­oli­city or the tran­scend­ent. Incul­tur­a­tion of the liturgy: abso­lutely right. And yet schol­ars such as Cha­pun­gco would argue that the Euchar­ist can nev­er be a purely ‘loc­al’ event. We are not only part of the whole oecu­mene, but we also stand on the threshold of etern­ity. Both these spheres should, surely, inform our attempts at inculturation?

  • Rod Gillis says:

    @ Geoff Jones ” Nor am I arguing for the kind of cler­ic­al­ism you have decided (on what basis?) that I espouse.”, I would not want to be under­stood as as say­ing that you per­son­ally are espous­ing cler­ic­al­ism. I simply wished to point to there is a polit­cal tra­ject­ory which heads in that sacer­dot­al dir­ec­tion. The ima­gin­at­ive recon­struc­tion of NT texts gen­er­ates momentum. 

    Pro­lif­er­a­tion of texts, or abund­ance of resources? It’s in the eye of the behold­er. Texts are found­a­tion­al; good texts are adapt­able to a vari­ety of expres­sions. The spec­trum of Euchar­ist­ic Pray­ers pro­duced in the last half cen­tury, while con­tain­ing both lem­ons and jew­els, have over­come the poverty of 1662. 

    Liturgy, like journ­al­ism, needs to reflect the cul­tur­al diversity of the com­munity it mir­rors back. Good liturgy is con­duc­ted with a vari­ety of roles, presbyter/celebrant, but also dea­cons, and laity. Both tran­scend­ence and imman­ence are impaired by extremes, by both the gong show free for all and sacer­dot­al cho­reo­graphy. It seems to me that one of the key points to keep in mind here is that named by Tom Ambrose (above) i.e., the nature and of the cel­eb­rant as pres­id­ent in col­lab­or­at­ive worship. 

    I find the insights of Bern­ard Loner­gan applic­able to liturgy, “Clas­sic­al cul­ture can­not be jet­tisoned without being replaced; and what it replaces can­not but run counter to clas­sic­al expect­a­tions. There is bound to be formed a sol­id right that is determ­ined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left cap­tiv­ated by now this, now that new pos­sib­il­ity. But what will count is a per­haps not numer­ous cen­ter, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstak­ing enough to work out one by one the trans­itions to be made, strong enough to refuse half-meas­ures and insist on com­plete solu­tions even though it has to wait.” (from, Dimen­sions of Mean­ing, in Intro­du­cing The Thought of Bern­ard Lonergan).

  • James Morgan says:

    Simon, you don’t seem to have any under­stand­ing of East­ern Liturgy, where most is under­stood, even if archa­ic Greek or Slavon­ic, and where at least every­one knows how to respond to the lit­an­ies with Lord have mercy! There is much more par­ti­cip­a­tion in all realms by a con­greg­a­tion of East­ern Chris­ti­ans, even if they don’t under­stand all the words that the priest pronounces.

  • jonathan macgillivray says:

    In my recent Min­is­teri­al Devel­op­ment Review as part of Com­mon Ten­ure I made the remark that I found it hard to go to Mass unless I was presid­ing, because so many clergy seem (to me) to get in the way of “the God stuff”. This was inten­ded for the Review­er alone and not for my dio­ces­an bish­op (who non­ethe­less got to to see it although he’d nev­er met me before­hand…). Too many idio­syn­crat­ic words, often redu­cing the Scrip­tures to a highly per­son­al­ised inter­pret­a­tion – espe­cially in lengthy intro­duc­tions to the Mass. Odd, ill-timed ges­tures. Silence and shape, simply but inclus­ively intro­duced allow the liturgy to speak bey­ond words. Com­mon Wor­ship et al have removed the 1662 straight­jack­et of lim­ited sea­son­al and con­tex­tu­al mater­i­al. But we should­n’t replace that with indi­vidu­al­ist­ic verbosity.

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