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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