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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