The role of the presiding priest is to enable us all to be celebrants at the eucharist

Along with the decline in Anglican common prayer is confusion about liturgical leadership. All too often liturgical leadership is comparable to a Television presenter, the continuity person on a show, the interviewer on a chat show.

Add to this New Zealand’s tendency to divide the Eucharist into “two parts” – with the “first half” led by a lay person, the “second” led by a priest. Rather than enhancing lay ministry, this diminishes both lay and priestly ministry. Lay people appear to not be really fully participating in a eucharist unless they are “up the front” vested. Priestly ministry is reduced to that of a sort of magician who “absolves” and “consecrates”. Lay ministry as primarily out in the home, world, and workplace is completely lost.

The origin of this aberration which clericalises and devalues lay ministry is complex. It includes training of clergy at St John’s College – where those being trained, rather than practicing using “dry masses”, did everything they possibly could except that which absolutely required ordination. Having for a number of years seen few other models than this daily eucharistic leadership, they naturally translated this into their parishes. Furthermore, the 1966 NZ eucharist revision was specifically designed so that the Liturgy of the Word might be used independently for Morning or Evening Prayer, including on Sundays – led by a lay person. This leader was titled “the minister” – there was no overarching understanding of presiding and hence, following these 1966 rubrics meant a lay person could lead the Liturgy of the Word with the priest picking up in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In healthy common prayer there is actually surprisingly little for the presider to do. The greeting establishes the community, a collect concludes shared silent prayer. One of the saddest results of lay “co-piloting” a service is once robed and up the front they need “something to do” and the brief dynamic gathering of the community in preparation for the readings becomes a re-cluttered vestibule with prayers, sentences, commentary until the de-energised community is saved from further depletion by reducing the number of readings sometimes even to one. The bloated tail now wags a tiny miniscule Chihuahua.

Chapter 2 of Celebrating Eucharist attempts to give a better understanding of presiding. Should a shared leadership be sought for a service it recommends trying a priest and deacon model. But this is not the only way to have shared leadership with integrity. 

My recent participation in a monastery’s morning combination of Mass and Lauds (Mauds?) gives some ideas – not, obviously, to be cloned in quite different contexts (how often do I have to say the days of cookie-cutter liturgy are over?) – but as a paradigm, a model.

Monasteries have a Hebdomadary, the weekly leader of the Office (“Hebdomada” Latin for week), and a Cantor who starts intoning the hymns, psalms, and so on.

The Hebdomadary begins Lauds* - all join in, the Cantor then starts the Hymn – all join in, the presiding priest greets all (the Lord be with you…) all respond. The psalms of Lauds follow in the usual manner participated by all. The Gloria may be sung. The presiding priest bids all to pray and we pray in silence collected by the presider’s verbalised collect. Readings and psalm follow in the usual manner with different readers and all participating in the psalm. The presiding priest might reflect briefly on the readings. The Prayers of the faithful follow. The presiding priest leads the Great Thanksgiving. After communion the Benedictus is started by the Cantor and participated in by all. The presiding priest leads the prayer after communion, the blessing and dismissal. All conclude with a hymn.

The service flows with shared but clear leadership. Nothing has been added to the liturgy just to give a leader something to do – something to shine in. It is common worship – all are equal participants – all are celebrating together. In fact, one may not have noticed even the relatively recent addition to our cluttered vestibule of confession and absolution are not present.

The Church of England’s Alternative Service Book 1980 gave instructions on how to combine Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer with Holy Communion Rite A. Because of NZ’s history noted above, this was never included in our Prayer Book. Such an adaptation is still possible of course. My primary point, however, is to think through leadership principles carefully, to renew common worship in which ALL see themselves as fully participating and not needing to “be up the front” to have that perception, and not to clutter the service with inessentials and reduce the important aspects – as I cannot stress often enough – the best starting point for liturgy (even if it does not end up being the ending point) is “may use” means “leave it out”.

*I am aware that traditionally the Hebdomadary would normally preside at the convential mass, a lot more variety, flexibility, and local practice is now current.
For Camaldolese Benedictines, however, Fr. Robert Hale OSB Cam writes:
"At least for us Camaldolese Benedictines, the Hebdomadary's part is quite distinct from that of the priest presiding at Eucharist. The Hebdomadary, for us, offers the collect and prayers of the faithful and closing prayer at Vigils, Lauds, and Vespers. Then there is the Cantor, who intones the hymns and psalms, then the Reader, who, evidently, reads the first lesson at Eucharist, as well as all the readings at Vigils, Lauds, Vespers. Then the priest Presider for the Mass."

Some nickname the Hebdomadary the Head Dromedary :-)
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