Thinking allowed

Modelling Liturgical Presidency

A Tale of Two Con­trast­ing Consecrations

The ‘Octave’ from the feast of the Con­ver­sion of Paul (25 Janu­ary) to Candlemas (2 Feb­ru­ary) was an event­ful one for the Church of Eng­land. York Min­ster was the ven­ue for the two epis­copal ordin­a­tions (or con­sec­ra­tions) which were the focus of this event­ful­ness. It provided the Min­ster with a won­der­ful oppor­tun­ity to demon­strate why Eng­lish cathed­rals have exper­i­enced such growth over the past dec­ade. The fusion of space, music, move­ment and col­our merged to provide that elu­sive and indefin­able, but tan­gible, exper­i­ence we often describe as ‘trans­form­at­ive’. The bal­ance, pace (and tim­ing) left you with the crav­ing to come back for more.

Peter Moger, the Min­ster­’s Pre­cent­or, deserves buck­ets of sym­pathy and admir­a­tion in equal meas­ure. It requires a cer­tain degree of insight and exper­i­ence to craft acts of wor­ship such as these, where the over­all impact is mem­or­able – as opposed to being over­loaded and exhaust­ing. In a pre­vi­ous life, I was respons­ible for arran­ging sev­er­al con­sec­ra­tions in the south­ern province. I know the com­plic­ated ter­rain intim­ately: the recip­roc­al horse-trad­ing; the end­less tele­phone calls; the missed dead­lines; proof-read­ing in the wee small hours; man­aging con­flict­ing expect­a­tions; not to men­tion the sleep­less nights. These are all ines­cap­able in the build-up to these occa­sions. Des­pite the fail-safe rehears­al plan, there is always the poten­tial for ‘some­thing’ to go awry on the day – object­ors notwithstanding!

My con­cern is with the strik­ingly dif­fer­ent man­ner in which litur­gic­al pres­id­ency was mod­elled at the two con­sec­ra­tions. The pre­text for this dif­fer­ence is well known and hardly needs rehears­ing here. How­ever, it was more than appar­ent that, behind all the agon­ised exeges­is of the Five Guid­ing Prin­ciples and the desire to mod­el gen­er­ous restraint, some­thing vital was lost in the second of the two con­sec­ra­tions. The cohes­ive shape and flow of the liturgy felt as if it was creak­ing under the weight of unreal­ist­ic expect­a­tion – pre­cisely because the pres­id­en­tial mod­el­ling seemed disorientated.

The first of the two con­sec­ra­tions (Libby Lane’s) was a mod­el of how to order an epis­copal ordin­a­tion. Reac­tions to the ser­mon have been mixed; but there is no doubt about the theo­lo­gic­al, eccle­si­olo­gic­al and litur­gic­al assump­tions which under­girded the rite. A sense of cohe­sion was self-evid­ent in the Arch­bish­op’s pres­id­ency, com­ple­men­ted by the appro­pri­ate litur­gic­al min­istry of oth­ers. As the intro­duct­ory note to the Euchar­ist in Com­mon Wor­ship acknowledges:

The unity of the liturgy is served by the min­istry of the pres­id­ent who, in presid­ing over the whole ser­vice, holds word and sac­ra­ment togeth­er [my ital­ics] and draws the con­greg­a­tion into a wor­ship­ping com­munity. The pres­id­ent … expresses this min­istry by say­ing the open­ing Greet­ing, the Abso­lu­tion, the Col­lect, the Peace and the Bless­ing. The pres­id­ent must say the Euchar­ist­ic Pray­er, break the con­sec­rated bread and receive the sac­ra­ment on every occasion.

The Arch­bish­op’s mod­el­ling of this ideal felt organ­ic, innate and con­trib­uted to a sense that, as the con­greg­a­tion was car­ried by the peaks and troughs of the liturgy, as dif­fer­ent voices spoke, silences emerged, pro­ces­sions moved and music intens­i­fied the pray­ers and hopes those present, the unam­bigu­ous centre of grav­ity was the Arch­bish­op as litur­gic­al president.

In the second con­sec­ra­tion (Philip North’s) it was far less clear how the unity of the liturgy was being served. Some will say, inev­it­ably, that the lack of pres­id­en­tial cohe­sion exper­i­enced on this occa­sion was an all-too-real reflec­tion of the uncharted eccle­si­al, litur­gic­al and theo­lo­gic­al ter­rit­ory being nego­ti­ated. But need it have been so?

Quite often, it felt as if the fun­da­ment­al ques­tion of how pres­id­ency of the whole liturgy would be expressed to give unity and cohe­sion to a great cel­eb­ra­tion, sank under the accu­mu­la­tion of so many oth­er com­pet­ing demands. The leg­al and canon­ic­al rights of the Met­ro­pol­it­an were well emphas­ised, as were ques­tions of who would, and would not, lay hands on the can­did­ate; not to men­tion the per­il­ous pro­spect of tread­ing a safe path through all the media dis­cus­sion about pur­ity and taint. The (doubt­less unin­ten­ded) out­come was that the Archbishop’s stated desire to mod­el ‘gra­cious restraint’ was under­mined by the appar­ently ran­dom man­ner in which he seemed to appro­pri­ate aspects of the pres­id­en­tial role.

Instead of there being a centre of grav­ity in the liturgy, there was an impres­sion of two bish­ops com­pet­ing for the same space in a litur­gic­al game of music­al chairs. The one who greeted the con­greg­a­tion, absolved them and then blessed them at the con­clu­sion of the liturgy, did not recite the Euchar­ist­ic Pray­er, break the con­sec­rated bread, or invite the con­greg­a­tion to receive com­mu­nion. The notion of the unity of word and sac­ra­ment being embod­ied in the pres­id­ent was frac­tured. The focus of litur­gic­al unity was obscured.

I am left ask­ing why the Bish­op of Chichester could not have been gran­ted the Arch­bish­op of York’s com­mis­sion to preside over the whole rite. The Arch­bish­op was always going to be a vis­ible par­ti­cipant, exer­cising his min­istry at key moments (as preach­er and as Ordin­ary who received the oaths of due obed­i­ence). Such a litur­gic­al ges­ture of gra­cious restraint, and respect for theo­lo­gic­al con­vic­tion, would not require him to cede his author­ity as Met­ro­pol­it­an in his cathed­ral. But it would have enabled him to allow the unity of the liturgy to be served by the pres­id­ent, where the hold­ing togeth­er of word and sac­ra­ment is embod­ied in one bish­op, who is the centre of grav­ity for the wor­ship of the whole people of God.

At a less the­or­et­ic­al level, it is largely assumed that cathed­rals exem­pli­fy good prac­tice. And they do – York Min­ster included. But I have this awful feel­ing in the pit of my stom­ach that quite a num­ber of clergy, lay read­ers and oth­ers from the Black­burn Dio­cese (and fur­ther afield) will have come away from York Min­ster on Candlemas day think­ing that the mod­el of ‘pres­id­ency’ they wit­nessed at Philip North’s con­sec­ra­tion is a good thing (even down to wear­ing cum­ber­some copes instead of the tra­di­tion­al Euchar­ist­ic vest­ments usu­ally worn for the Euchar­ist in the Min­ster). ‘Let’s give it a try next Sunday,’ they will be thinking!

Much par­ish wor­ship in the Church of Eng­land is less than the trans­form­at­ive exper­i­ence it should be at present, pre­cisely because there is a lack of theo­lo­gic­al insight; a paucity of spa­tial and artist­ic ima­gin­a­tion; but most of all, con­fu­sion about what con­sti­tutes good pres­id­ency – and how good pres­id­ency enables the whole people of God to fully cel­eb­rate the mys­ter­ies of faith in the sac­ra­ment of unity. If this can be under­stood – and mod­elled prop­erly – before the next con­sec­ra­tion of a tra­di­tion­al­ist bish­op, it will be for the bet­ter health of the mis­sion of the entire Church of England.

Simon Reyn­olds is the author of Table Man­ners: Litur­gic­al Lead­er­ship for the Mis­sion of the Church (SCM, 2014).

Photo by Clive Lawrence, copy­right Dio­cese of Blackburn


  • RPNewark says:

    A very thought pro­vok­ing art­icle. Thanks for post­ing it.

  • Matthew Duckett says:

    A thought­ful and con­struct­ive art­icle. May I con­trib­ute the obser­va­tion that Monday’s con­sec­ra­tion was essen­tially a Mass “coram Pon­ti­fice”, that is a Mass cel­eb­rated by anoth­er priest in the pres­ence of a great­er pre­l­ate (who would often him­self have cel­eb­rated a private low Mass earli­er in the day). This used to be quite com­mon prac­tice and there is a chapter devoted to it in Fortes­cue’s “Cere­mon­ies of the Roman Rite”. The pre­l­ate would sit on a throne and per­form some func­tions such as giv­ing the bless­ing, a role that was even some­times described as “presid­ing”.

    Mass “coram Pon­ti­fice” is not often seen now that the euchar­ist­ic fast is relaxed, con­cel­eb­ra­tion is com­mon, cere­mon­ies are sim­pler and a pre­l­ate can preside at Mass without the MC hav­ing a nervous break­down. But a scribe trained for the King­dom brings out of the treas­ure house things both old and new, and per­haps this was an occa­sion where the old served a purpose.

  • William Richards says:

    I won­der if it is less Fortes­cue and more the kind of arrange­ment found in an evan­gel­ic­al church here in the centre of Cam­bridge, where one per­son (usu­ally a lay min­is­ter, or clergyper­son) ‘leads’ the first half of Holy Com­mu­nion (i.e. presides over the min­istry of the word). After the des­cent into chaos (euphemist­ic­ally described as ‘The Peace’) anoth­er priest, who has so far had no role in lead­ing the liturgy, walks on to preside at the holy table. It was a prac­tice often adop­ted in Rid­ley Hall (before Chris Cocks­worth’s time as prin­cip­al). I seem to remem­ber it pro­voked a heated dis­cus­sion after one Euchar­ist, shared by all the col­leges of the Cam­bridge Theo­lo­gic­al Fed­er­a­tion, when Rid­ley was respons­ible for the ‘pres­id­ency.’ The loudest cri­ti­cism came not so much from West­cott House (as you might have expec­ted!) as from the then-prin­cip­al of Wes­ley House (the Meth­od­ist Col­lege). He des­paired at the theo­lo­gic­al care­less­ness that was more con­cerned with cur­rent anxi­et­ies about shared min­istry than with the more vital neces­sity of the pres­id­ent sym­bol­ising the unity of word and sacrament.

  • James Mather says:

    Litur­gic­al Pres­id­ency. It is not good prac­tice to sit imme­di­ately in front of (i.e. obscur­ing) the altar. This is why at Nor­wich Cathed­ral (CofE) and per­haps oth­ers of which I’m not aware, in com­mon with most French Cathed­rals, the Pres­id­ent is seated suf­fi­ciently towards the front so as to clearly preside, but to one side so as not to obscure the altar. Indeed, it is usu­al to have the Bish­op’s chair and dea­cons’ chairs on one side, and a Pres­by­ter­al chair only in the cor­res­pond­ing place on the oth­er side for when a priest presides.

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