14 November 2018

The traditional role of the
Precentor in the chapter
of an Anglican cathedral

By the banks of the River Shannon in Killaloe, Co Clare, before a chapter meeting in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday in Killaloe, Co Clare, taking part in meetings of the joint chapter of the three cathedrals in this diocese: Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway.

I am the Precentor in the joint chapter, and as such also the Prebendary of Ballycahane. As Precentor, I was asked by the Dean of Limerick and the Dean of Killaloe to present this short paper on the traditional role of a Precentor in the chapters of Anglican cathedrals:

The traditional role of the Precentor in
the chapter of an Anglican cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Most Anglican cathedrals have a precentor whose role is traditionally related to the organisation of liturgy and worship.

In many cathedrals of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, the precentor was traditionally a residentiary canon or prebendary, and was often assisted by a succentor, particularly in the daily task of leading choral singing.

The word precentor comes from the Latin praecentor, from praecinere, to sing before, lead in singing, or from the Latin preces cantor, the singer of the prayers.

There are different uses of the term precentor in other faith traditions. Jewish precentors, like cantors, are song or prayer leaders, leading synagogue music. In many churches in the Presbyterian churches tradition, where worship follows the tradition of singing a cappella, the precentor leads the singing, often by means of conducting techniques, but sometimes just by singing from within the congregation, and is not normally an ordained person.

In Church of England cathedrals of the ‘Old Foundation, the precentor is a member of the cathedral chapter and officially ranks next to the dean. His or her musical duties are often performed by the succentor, one of the vicars choral.

In cathedrals of the ‘New Foundation,’ the precentor is not a member of the chapter but is one of the minor canons. This includes Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, where the Precentor is a minor canon, and therefore part of the Foundation, but not part of the Chapter.

Traditionally, the precentor’s stall in an Anglican cathedral is on the opposite side of the quire from that of the dean, leading to the traditional division of the singers into decani or the dean’s side, and cantoris, the precentor’s side.

In the Church of Ireland, the two cathedrals in Dublin, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, the precentors – Canon Peter Campion and Canon Roy Byrne – work well with the traditional understanding of the role of the precentor, and in the past Canon Bob Read was virtually a full-time residentiary precentor in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

But in other dioceses and cathedrals in the Church of Ireland, the Precentors often overlap with roles in their associated cathedrals, if only to effect a unified chapter. For example, in the neighbouring diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, the Precentor of Cashel is the Dean of Waterford, the Precentor of Waterford is the Dean of Lismore, the Precentor of Lismore is the Dean of Waterford, the Precentor of Ossory is the Dean of Ferns, the Precentor of Leighlin is the Dean of Ossory. Similarly, Precentor of Cork is the Dean of Cloyne; the Precentor of Kildare is the Dean of Clonmacnoise (Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Trim).

A number of cathedral chapters in Ireland no longer have a precentor, including Cloyne, Derry, Killala, Kilmore, Raphoe, Ross, Sligo, Trim, Tuam,
In Lichfield Cathedral, Canon Andrew Stead is Canon Precentor and holds responsibility for the cathedral’s worship, music, and for the way in which the Cathedral seeks to build up its communities in faith, knowledge and understanding. The Chancellor’s roles are in education and outreach, and the Treasurer has oversight of property and fabric.

In Wells Cathedral, the Precentor is also the Prebendary of Whitchurch – just as in the Chapter of the three cathedral in this diocese the Precentor is also the Prebendary of Ballycahane. The Precentor’s role in Wells involves the oversight, planning and direction of the cathedral’s daily round of worship as well as the many special services throughout the year.

The Precentor also oversees the Music Foundation on behalf of the chapter, working closely with the Cathedral musicians, for whom he also has pastoral care.

In Durham Cathedral, where they are appointing a new precentor, the precentor attends monthly chapter meetings, informal meetings with senior colleagues three or four times a year to discuss wider strategy, and an annual 48-hour residential conference.

There are termly meetings of the Chorister School governing body, of which Chapter members are by statute ex officio members. The Canon Precentor chairs the Worship, Music Outreach, Diary and Corporate Safeguarding (Management) Committees, and is expected to attend the annual College of Canons meeting and sub-committees of the Chorister School.

As a residentiary canon, the Canon Precentor attends meetings of the Fabric Advisory Committee, and is eligible to sit on other cathedral and diocesan committees or bodies, such as the review of diocesan support for liturgy and the Diocesan Safeguarding Board.

Beyond the governance role as a member of chapter, the Canon Precentor is a key leader within the cathedral, taking an executive role in leading and managing Heads of Department.

The job description has said the new Canon Precentor is expected to:

• Lead on all aspects of liturgy and music, including the line management of the Precentorial Department, Master of the Choristers and Head Verger.

• Lead the Cathedral in achieving its strategic goals of developing both traditional and innovative forms of worship and extending its engagement through worship.

• Act as ‘Custos’ of the Chorister School, being the first point of contact for day-to-day liaison with the school community, line managing the Headmaster and offering pastoral care to staff and pupils.

• As Vice-Dean, elected annually by Chapter, act in all things in the absence of the Dean.

• Lead on parish Patronage and charitable giving; oversight of all groups supporting regular and special services.

• Develop areas of strategic leadership or involvement in ministerial formation.

The Canon Precentor carries out canon-in-residence duties in the daily offices for periods of a week or a fortnight at a time, up to 13 weeks a year. All residentiary canons share this responsibility, which the canon-in-residence leads, as well as preaching at Matins on the Sunday of his/her residence cover.

In case of need, the Dean and other canons are always ready to cover for one another.

The Canon Precentor is fully involved in the liturgical life of the cathedral, including regular Sunday celebrations, presiding at weekday Eucharists and preaching. The rotas are drawn up well in advance, and where possible external invitations, especially in the Diocese of Durham, are supported. Residentiary canons will normally attend the daily offices as part of their commitment to corporate worship.

The Precentor’s own robing area in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This paper was prepared for a meeting in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, of the joint chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert.

A window in the Chapter Room in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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