“... to preside in the very deed that that so expands the life of creatures is a function of unquestionable beauty and dignity,” according to Robert Hovda
In the Byzantine rite of the fourth century, the patriarch or archbishop prays that the person whom God has “willed to undertake the rank of the presbyterate” will be filled with the Holy Spirit and so “be worthy to stand blamelessly at your altar”:
● to proclaim the gospel of your salvation;
● to exercise the sacred ministry of the word of your truth,
● to offer you gifts and spiritual sacrifices;
● and to renew your people by the baptism of regeneration.
The prayer that those who are ordained priests should “stand blamelessly” at the altar may not have resonances for those who have difficulties with the word altar. But the word altar refers to an encounter between God and humanity. The word Altar is liturgical shorthand for an environment of costly exchange, for a meeting place with the holiness of God; for a divine appointment before the One who, in the words of Isaac Watts the hymn-writer, demands my life, my soul, my all.
Many students are daunted by the task that lays ahead of leading congregational worship, and share common anxieties about whether or not they are being prepared properly for liturgical leadership.
I would like to think that these fears and anxieties are generated by the awesomeness of standing before God in that environment of costly exchange, in the meeting place between the people of God and the holiness of God, in fulfilling the tasks and roles described in that Byzantine rite.
But perhaps it is more mundane than that. Despite the training and preparation, the placements with rectors and parishes, there is still the natural human anxiety that could be expressed in a question like: “Will I get it all right when it comes to my turn?”
We give musicians, organists, choirs and choristers plenty of encouragement to rehearse. Indeed we often provide them with better, more attentive and more practical tuition for their role in public worship and liturgy than that we provide for those who are about to be ordained to the priesthood.
Most students preparing for ordination in the Church of Ireland have already had experience as either parish readers or diocesan readers, leading Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the Service of the Word.
In addition, students will have had some experience in supporting leadership at the Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Whether this involves reading the lessons, preaching, leading the intercessions, or assisting with sacramental administration, this experience gives students an opportunity to experience and even to evaluate different styles of liturgical leadership.
Useful thoughts that can lead to a fuller discussion of different approaches to liturgical leadership can be found in the Chapel Handbook of the Church of Ireland Theological College/Institute.
Although the emphasis in that handbook is primarily on the role of common, collective worship in the spiritual formation of ordinands, it many ways the underlying principles also apply to leading worship in a parish context too.
Leading and Celebrating
In liturgical language, we normally restrict the use of the words “celebration,” “celebrating, and “celebrating” and celebrant” to the act of presiding at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.
However, in the section in the chapel handbook on Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, I talk about “Celebrating the Offices” and “Playing with Prayer.” I use the word “celebrating” with intention. Rather than simply saying the office – out of a sense of mere obligation – we should think in terms of celebrating it: giving it a personality, making it come alive.
George Guiver writes of the Office as a way of “playing with God,” and within this context he sees the worship space as a “theatre” within which we act out the story of our redemption and bring to God the drama of our very lives.
Having sounded this “celebratory” or “playful” note, we should consider some practical points.
Preparing to lead worship
Leading worship requires careful preparation. When you are the officiant, you need to take care that you know what you are doing. Be careful to facilitate the prayers of others by leading the service in a worshipful manner, not racing through it in order to move on to the next activity.
Advance preparation means you will not be left juggling books or fumbling through pages.
Some practical pointers
Part of the preparation for any role in leading public worship will include prayer well in advance and long before leaving home. Ideally, one should arrive in plenty of time, preferably not less than 15 minutes before any service for which you have a role in. This allows for last-minute changes without panicking, checking that everything has been co-ordinated, allowing for last-minute changes, and allowing a time for quiet and stillness, including prayer, before everything starts.
Some helpful pointers to bear in mind when preparing to lead worship include:
Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the service you are going to lead. Read it to yourself and out loud long before you get to the church.
Mark your book(s) properly and clearly, including marks for the canticles, the collect and prefaces.
Be sure you know before hand exactly what role each liturgical leader is playing, that they know this in advance, and that you are confident about your role.
Be sure to check whether the day itself is a day of special observance. Is it a saint’s day? Is it a day within the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? There are many other examples.
Be sure to check the psalm(s), readings, and books being used for your service, even if you are not reading the lessons or leading the psalm.
In advance, carefully select the appropriate opening sentences of scripture and Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer the canticles. You may want to use sung versions of the psalms and canticles. If so, give preference to versions in the Irish Church Hymnal.
Give careful thought to any prayers, especially the place given to silence and open prayer, whether you are going to us a set intercessory form, or you are going to use prayers you may write. Remember too that we do not need to pray for all things at all services. And we need to pay attention to selecting prayers that facilitate the prayers of others and are not simply your own prayers said publicly.
Be aware of the tradition in the parish or church you are in when it comes to using the opening phrases of the Creed, canticles, and the Lord’s Prayer, i.e., “Our Father … Our Father.”
At Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, note the rubrics on Standing, Sitting, Kneeling, and other rubrics, such as those on Creeds and Canticles.
Check in advance whether the psalm(s) are more appropriate for saying by half-verse, by alternative verse, by alternating men’s and women’s voices alternatively.
Some helpful hints
Be certain … Make sure readings and other places are marked in advance.
Rehearse … If necessary, rehearse your role beforehand, ensuring your voice is well projected and that you are not reading too fast. Check for difficult words and pronunciations, and how to pronounce any unfamiliar names of people and places.
Be mindful … Keep in mind that you are not involved in a dramatic oration, captivating though that may be. Look up at the congregation occasionally, but not at every other phrase. Ensure there are distinct pauses between different sections of any liturgy or service.
Be welcoming … Remember that when you have visitors, extra instructions may be needed, i.e. page numbers, for those who are not familiar with the service being used.
Be simple … Keep introductions to Psalms, Hymns, Canticles, &c., brief and to the point, without unnecessary invocations to worship. For example: “Let us sing hymn 454,” as opposed to “Let us stand this morning and sing our praise to our beloved Lord by singing hymn 454, How Great Thou Art.” Do not announce things that follow automatically, such as The Apostles’ Creed.
Remember … Collects do not generally need to be announced, i.e. “The collect for the 40th Sunday after Trinity.” The rubrics assume that the officiant will pray the collects.
Mind your language … Modern liturgy employs language that is fully inclusive. Take seriously God's inclusive call to each one of us. Avoid exclusive language (for example, “for us men,” or “let us pray for all men according to their need,” or “mankind”). This is not about political correctness, but an honest acceptance that the meaning behind words changes over time.
The Book of Common Prayer 2004 is generally inclusive, but it would be overly convoluted to try to “inclusivise” much of the language inherited from 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Leading the intercessions
When praying for the Church you could make use of the Anglican Cycle of Prayer or the Diocesan Cycles of Prayer, which provide guidelines for intercessions for the Church’s witness and mission throughout the world. Remember to pray for those on any prayer list in use. But bear in mind that you do not need to pray for all things at all services. And remember that brevity and simplicity are important.
When you introduce a period of corporate silence, do not then eat into this silence by extending periods of spoken intercession or adding something into the office.
At the Eucharist, prayers that are thanksgivings should be used sparingly … the Eucharist itself is the Thanksgiving par excellence, and this should never be obscured by the content of the intercessions.
The intercessions at the Eucharist ought to reflect the Epistle and Gospel for the day and should be informed by “the needs of the world.” They normally include: prayers for: the universal Church; the nations of the world; the local community; those in need; and remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed. But each petition should be brief, and we should avoid making intercessions appear like a series of collects.
The petitions should be addressed directly to God, and not to the people. Phrases such as “Let us pray for ...” or “Let us ask God for ...” are wrong. “We pray to you for/We ask you ...” &c are correct. Remember that the intercessions are petitions for God’s grace and help in particular situations and circumstances.
Speak clearly, audibly and in a natural voice. Do not over-dramatise the liturgy or the readings. This draws attention to your voice and not to the message. Also, avoid the common tendency to over-emphasise certain words such as, “Glory BE to the Father AND to the Son, AND to the Holy Spirit.” Simply project, and speak in a smooth and natural voice.
Leading the prayers and intercessions is an important ministry. Some helpful suggestions include:
Be clear ... in leading God’s people in prayer you are not trying to convey information or preach a sermon! Instead, you are enabling a gathered group of Christians to come before God in adoration, supplication, and intercession. This should always be borne in mind. Remember that the petitions should be addressed directly to God and not to the people
Be prepared ... make sure your prayers are related to the content of the service (readings, sermon, etc) and your intercessions are rooted in specific concerns and needs. Parishioners may sometimes request prayers for particular people and situations, and it is important to remember these requests. Remember, too, to mark in advance any books you and leave them ready well before the start of the service.
Be tidy … Avoid using too many prayer books. If possible write out on cards the material you wish to use. Have your books in order, and be sure not to fumble pages ... ribbons and sticky paper are great gifts.
Be thoughtful … Avoid a long and rambling series of prayers. Your prayers should always be clearly focused. For example, move from the general to the particular (or vice versa), or follow a clear theme. A bidding to each prayer is helpful (e.g. “In our prayers this morning we remember the people of ...”). Prayers should end in a way that allows a corporate response, giving everyone the opportunity to join in with “Amen!”
Be watchful … Is the service being used in traditional or contemporary language? Sometimes, prayers written in one idiom jar with the language of the service that is in another idiom.
Don’t be afraid … to make use of silence during corporate prayer. It is best, however, that any silence is announced and that it concludes with an appropriate versicle and response (“Lord, in your mercy ...”) or a suitable prayer.
Be creative … Consider varying the prayers by using a set form of intercession (e.g. the weekday intercessions in the Book of Common Prayer, pp 139 ff) or by a sensitive use of extemporary prayer.
Part 2: Presiding at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion
For priests, presiding at the Eucharist is the clearest expression of our place and purpose among the priestly people of God. The Eucharist is the great thanksgiving – eucharistia (εὐχαριστία) – of the great goodness of God. Whether we call this “The Eucharist,” “The Holy Communion,” “The Sacrament,” or “The Lord’s Supper,” this is the central act of Christian worship where Christ encounters and feeds his faithful ones.
“And to preside in the very deed that that so expands the life of creatures is a function of unquestionable beauty and dignity,” says Robert Hovda (p. 19).
Careful preparation is required on the part of all who have leadership and liturgical roles at the Eucharist or Holy Communion. In deacon’s year and perhaps already in ordinands’ placements, this will include reading the Old Testament and/or the Epistle, preparing the Intercessions, administering the cup and giving the dismissal.
As the first of the General Directions for Public Worship in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 75), and as Bishop Harold Miller says, “The Holy Communion is the central act of worship in the church.” Bishop Miller says it is the most normative and complete act of Sunday worship.
General Direction 1 also says: “Holy Communion is to be celebrated on the principal days as set out in the Calendar and regularly on Sundays and festivals for which provision is made …” The directions under the Calendar (p. 18) say that on Sundays and Principal Holy Days “it is fitting that the Holy Communion be celebrated in every cathedral and in each parish church or in a church within a parochial union or group of parishes.”
Bishop Miller is quite right when he says: “The Holy Communion gives us a window into all that is most vital in our regular worship.” As we have it, this service is not simply the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. It is a combination of both a Liturgy of the Word, a Prayer Service, and a Liturgy of the Sacrament.
Colin Buchanan has summarised it as “A Bible study, followed by a prayer meeting, followed by a meal.”
Presiding at the Eucharist
The President’s Role at the Eucharist is defined at six specific points:
1, The Opening Greeting;
2, The Collect of the Day;
3, The Absolution;
4, introducing the Peace;
5, praying the Eucharistic Prayer;
6, the Dismissal.
The Gathering of God’s People
The Greek work ekklesia, which we translate as “Church,” refers to the gathering of the people, the call out of the world and into the assembly.
We are there first and foremost as the gathered or assembled church, believers. Others may be guests, and welcomed guests, but it is not a secular gathering, on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, is it a meeting for evangelism. The presumption first and foremost is that those present will be baptised believers.
We meet in his name, and we do as he commanded us. We meet together not as a collection of neighbours, or even as a collection of individual Christians, but as the One Body of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit.
The liturgy is essentially what we do – hence, it is our “Common Prayer.”
At the initial gathering, chattering and individual greetings are natural. But how do we move from that to being gathered as the worshipping assembly? How you create this silence important.
In the college chapel, for example, we ask for silence once the candles are lit. Bishop Miller suggests giving out the notices five minutes before the liturgy begins. The processional hymn too can have the same effect. If you use one it should not be announced as “We begin our worship with Hymn Number 857 …”
Once you’ve set on that course of moving across the boundary from the secular to the sacred, from the temporal to the eternal, from the earthly to the heavenly, then it is reversed if we do not use a proper liturgical greeting.
The liturgical greeting is usually: “The Lord be with you …” But this may vary: “Christ is Risen …” or “Grace, mercy and peace …”, or even something else. But do not choose one you then have to announce or give the page number for.
Two points are worth emphasising. The liturgical greeting: is not the same as Good Morning. And it establishes who is presiding, the presidency, so it should not be left to the Reader or assistant.
Perhaps it can be followed by a sentence of scripture, reflecting the theme, the readings, or the season.
After the liturgical greeting, I can then welcome all present, including strangers and visitors (but with sensitivity), and perhaps those who have come back, so we are confident who is being gathered. An introduction to the theme or topic then allows the gathered people to know what to expect.
Part of this section of the Liturgy also includes: the Collect for Purity, the Penitence, which is preparation for the whole event; the Gloria, which is part of the preparation for leading worship – I was impressed by Rosalind Brown’s story of her conversation with a German Lutheran theologian, in which she told him she thought the Gloria was a dispensable part of the Liturgy; “I completely disagree,” was his swift reply, “when we have given glory to God then we cannot give glory to the Fuhrer”; and then the Collect of the Day, which collects us together at the end of this section, and links us into the next:
Proclaiming and receiving the word involves a two-way movement. The normative components on Sundays are the First Reading, Psalm, Second Reading, Canticle, Gradual hymn, Anthem, Alleluia, &c., Gospel, Sermon and Creed.
The provision of three readings is objected to by some clergy on the grounds of length. But properly speaking liturgy must be both the liturgy of word and liturgy of sacrament. The liturgy of word sacrament is about the breaking of the word and breaking of the bread. It is about proclaiming and receiving, so the address or sermon is an integral part of the liturgy.
The Creed is not a prayer, but a response to the Word, an affirmation that we are the gathered people of faith. The Prayers of the People are the Prayers of the People, not of the clergy.
The Peace is still objected to by some parishioners. How is introduced will shape whether it is acceptable and whether it is liturgical. In the Communion we are being reconciled with God and with one another, so this should not be any old peace.
The Offertory is not primarily about the collection. It includes the preparation of the table. This can be done by laity, especially by children. It is even better to do this before bringing up the bread and the wine.
Now we are ready to celebrate at the Lord’s Table, The actions of Jesus at the Supper is sometimes summarised in four actions: the taking of the bread and wine; the Great Thanksgiving (which gives us the word Eucharist); the Breaking of the Bread (fraction); and the giving or distribution.
1, Taking: We sometimes get this wrong in churches. How often do I find the bread and wine are already on the table or altar, or on a credence table at the side where no-one can see it? How do we symbolise taking? Is the use of the burse and veil outdated? As for the vessels, do they need to be silver? It may be enough simply to take them in your hands if they have already been placed there. But you show you are doing this – and this is not about elevation. Only the bishop or priest then may say: “Christ our Passover …” (p, 208). This is the president’s role, and cannot be delegated. Like the opening greeting, this states clearly what we are about to do. This is no longer bread and wine for secular use.
2, The Blessing or Great Thanksgiving: The meaning of the word “Eucharist” is thanksgiving. In Holy Communion II in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004), there are three Eucharistic prayers: 1 (p. 209); 2 (p. 212); and 3 (p. 216). This compares with eight in the Church of England’s Common Worship.
The spirit of each of these three prayers is thanksgiving. It is not supposed to be quiet, or penitential, or singular. The appropriate posture is that all are standing, for all are celebrating. But how many people when they are leading the liturgy change this by asking people to kneel, or by asking them to kneel for the Sanctus. The only rubric for posture in Holy Communion is Stand, and the normal place for presiding is behind the altar/table, with hands out-stretched throughout the prayer (Harold Millar, p. 137).
3, Breaking or The Fraction: When it comes to the breaking of the bread, we need to remember that this is not merely a function in distribution. It should take place at the fraction and not at the words of institution, where we recall the breaking of bread, or later when the celebrant has communicated separately. The rubric states specifically: the presiding minister and people receive communion, and states this after the invitation.
4: Giving or the Communion: There is giving and receiving in both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Note the different words used in the distribution. Whatever words are used, the communicants’ response is always: Amen.
Going out as God’s People: This section includes the Great Silence, the Post-Communion Prayer, the Blessing and the Dismissal.
Do not fret, do not be anxious. Presiding is going to be your greatest privilege. Enjoy being in the meeting place between the Divine and the Human, between the Creator and his Created. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Rosalind Brown, Christopher Cocksworth, On Being a Priest Today (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2002).
Stephen Burns, Liturgy (London: SCM Press, 2006).
Mark Earey, Liturgical Worship: a fresh look, how it works, why it matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, A Guide to Celebration (Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1989).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship: transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Robert Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976).
Harold Miller: The Desire of our Soul: a user’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating the Eucharist (London: SPCK, 2005, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 3).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar and workshop on 11 January 2009 with Year I students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course and on 19 October 2008 with Year III students on the NSM course.