Occasional Notes on Ceremony #1 

One of the most obvious ways that Thomas Cranmer simplified the liturgy so that all the authorized rites could fit in a single volume was by cutting most of the rubrics. Rubrics, often printed in red in older books (from the Latin rubrica, ‘red earth/chalk’) and often now in italics, are the directions in any particular liturgical rite that indicate the manner in which it is to be executed. Thus, a church authorizes a rite that includes not just what is spoken by the officiant/celebrant and the people but also the posture in which various persons are to place themselves, the sorts of actions that are to accompany the words, and so forth. But for Anglicans, that authorized “how” is extremely limited.

Marion Hatchett, longtime liturgy professor at Sewanee, was author of the Commentary on the American Prayer Book (1980, repr. 1995), which likely sits on the shelf of almost every priest in the Episcopal Church. He also wrote a brief and little-known ceremonial guide for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in St. Luke’s Journal of Theology. It begins with these words:

Though the Book of Common Prayer is a book of “rites and ceremonies,” with the exception of the essential actions of the sacraments, there are few authoritative directions for ceremonial actions. The minister is not a magician but a liturgical functionary, left free to determine what ceremonies might be most appropriate in particular circumstances and with particular rites or texts.


(While I’ll just flag this here, I would note that I hope to consider at another point and at some length the theological implications of what Hatchett highlights. What does it mean when a church reduces its liturgy mostly to what is spoken and not to how the liturgy is conducted? And consider the profound burden this places on every parish priest: “to determine what ceremonies might be most appropriate in particular circumstances and with particular rites or texts.” My driving aim when I teach the history of Christian worship to seminarians is precisely to this point, to provide them with a working knowledge of the historical trajectory of how Christians, including Anglicans, have celebrated the liturgy in order that they might make ceremonial decisions that are truly recognizable to their forbears.)

Here are two brief examples of how these rubrics work in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

First, after the General Confession in the Holy Eucharist liturgy, the rubrics read, The Bishop when present, or the Priest, stands and says, and this is followed by the declaration of Absolution. The Absolution is followed by another rubric, which read, All stand, followed by the Peace (BCP, p. 360). Now, while the rubrics never explicitly tell the congregation to kneel for the Confession (except in the long bidding in Rite I), the rubrics then direct (a) the celebrant alone to stand to give the absolution and then (b) the People to stand for the Peace. What this indicates, of course, is that all are to kneel or bow profoundly during the General Confession.

Second, in all of the Rite I and Rite II eucharistic prayers, a careful reading of the rubrics indicate that it is assumed that the when the priest is at the altar and faces the altar, the priest is not at the same time facing the people. Thus, just before “The Lord be with you/Lift up your hearts,” we read, The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest, faces them [the people] and sings or says… Then, after the people make their third response, It is right to give him thanks and praise, the rubrics that introduce the Preface read as follows: Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds (e.g. BCP, p. 361). The implication is clear: when the priest is at the altar and facing the altar, the priest and people are all facing the same direction (toward the Lord, toward the altar, toward the East); when the priest faces the people, the priest faces a direction different from the direction that is facing the altar and thus at that moment the priest’s back is to the altar. The basic principle is thus: when addressing the people, the priest faces them; when praying, the priest and people are all facing the altar and the same direction, thus enacting a unity of posture and common prayer in their united physical orientation.

One place (though certainly not the only one!) where a wide variety of ceremonial differences in Anglican parishes can be seen is in the Preparation Rites. I’m using this title for the first part of the Holy Communion service, from the opening until and including the Collect of the Day. The BCP rubrics indicate very little about how this part of the liturgy is to be done: basically, the only thing that is clear is that it is all to be done standing. If, however, as in the current liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church, the Confession is included as part of the preparation rites (using the so-called Penitential Order; see BCP, pp. 351-353), kneeling or bowing for that portion of the rite would be the one possible additional direction of ceremony. But otherwise, how is it to be done?

One of the most common ways that ceremonial actions beyond what are given in the BCP have been incorporated by Anglicans (and everyone does this, by the way; this is not simply a “high church” matter) is to look to the rite most closely connected to ours, namely the Roman Rite. The incorporation of ceremonial from the Roman Missal was extremely contentious in both England and the United States at various points in their histories. But, for the most part, almost all ceremonial actions are taken from the Roman Church of the West from which Henry VIII severed England. That is to say, it would be difficult to make up a long list of uniquely Anglican ceremonial actions. Most of them are common, such as:

  • The priest using the orans position when praying (hands lifted above the waist at shoulder width, palms slightly up);
  • Using the sign of the cross when speaking blessings over people or things (“and the blessing of God Almighty…” or “…vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these by gifts and creatures of bread and wine”);
  • Bowing when speaking words of praise (“Glory be to the Father…”, or “who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified”), when speaking the Name of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, or the saints being commemorated, or as a way to show honor or veneration to a person (the bishop or celebrant) or a consecrated object (processional cross or icon of Our Lord or the saints).

All these actions dramatically predate Anglican practice.

There are two practices that are common in many churches regarding the Preparation Rites that I wish to challenge: first, the priest enacting these rites while at the Presider’s chair, and second, the priest facing the people for these rites.

The origin of enacting the Preparation Rites from place where the celebrants sits is most certainly from the current Roman Rite (this will be a very cursory summary, I hasten to add). Instead of beginning at the Altar as in the liturgy before the reforms initiated by Vatican II, the rubrics of the new Roman Missal are very specific: after venerating “the altar with a kiss and, if appropriate, incens[ing] the cross and the altar,” the priest then “goes to the chair” from which he presides until the preparation of the altar for the Mass itself following the Prayers of the Faithful.

The desire behind this change was to return to an earlier model that can be seen mostly clearly in basilica-style churches, where the bishop’s chair was both in the center and elevated near the far east end of the church. In this arrangement, the altar would stand between the congregation and the celebrant at the chair. In this arrangement, the celebrant standing at the chair would appear to the congregation to be at the altar, was easily seen by all, and was in a practical location from which to easily preside for the entire liturgy.

If you have a basilica-style church, this arrangement works quite well. But if the presider’s chair faces 90 degrees away from the congregation (think of the officiant’s seat in the choir stalls of an English-style cathedral), the arrangement is awkward at best. Either the priest is facing neither toward the altar nor the people, when addressing the people or praying; or, quite possibly, in order to compensate, the priest makes half-turns to the people when directly addressing them, which usually looks quite silly.

One solution to this in some Catholic and Anglican contexts was to construct a set of chairs for the priest and other ministers that are situated to one side and face the congregation at an angle less than 45 degrees away from the congregation. This solves the problem of not having to make the strange half-turns. But in most places, one is left with an arrangement that is quite lopsided; an architectural dilemma is how to arrange the pulpit or ambo on the opposite side in such a way that real balance is achieved. And even if that difficult architectural problem is solved, there remains the liturgical weakness of presiding at the liturgy from somewhere other than the center.

The larger the room and the congregation, the odder the feeling for the congregation: the person who is engaged in ritual dialogue with them and who is leading them in prayer and adoration is standing off to the side. Ritually, this can easily indicate that what takes places at this point is less important and less central than other parts of the liturgy. And just as bad, it also can easily suggest that this portion of the liturgy (and, in fact, the entirely movement of the liturgy until bread and wine are brought to the altar) is disconnected and quite distinct from Communion itself. The unfortunately but frequent repetition of the “liturgy of the Word/Table” distinction has had the same disorienting effect.

While there are quite obviously a number of movements within the Eucharistic liturgy, this fact must be maintained absolutely: that the Holy Eucharist is one, united liturgy and one continuous action. There is simply no historical evidence of a liturgy that began simply with the Liturgy of the Altar. Now there is ample evidence of just the opposite — of a Liturgy of the Word without the Liturgy of the Table (known as a dry mass in the medieval West and Antecommunion amongst Anglicans). Thus, if the Communion liturgy can never exist without that which has always preceded it, we can only conclude that the Eucharist necessarily contains these two interconnected movements. In addition, it is very important to consider the content of the Preparation Rites (and this is even more true when the Confession is a part of the Preparation). A quick read makes it abundantly clear that they are not preparation for only the Liturgy of the Word, but for all that follows. And what follows finds its apex in the Eucharistic Prayer at the Altar. Note the progression of actions in the Preparation Rites:

  • The invocation and blessing of God (almost universally with a corporate sign of the cross)
  • The Collect for Purity (“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…”): a profound acknowledgment that there is a chasm between us and God and that in order for us to receive the forgiveness necessary to be in communion with this God, and even to have the capacity to offer praise rightly, God must first act.
  • The Kyrie
    • I suggest that the Kyrie should always be present here, since it is a direct enactment of what was just indicated in the previous collect. And because of this, I have also come to think that here in the Preparation Rites is the best and most fitting location for the General Confession, in light of what I have argued thus far.
  • The Gloria (outside of penitential seasons of expectation) then expresses the central purpose of the gathered Body of Christ on the Lord’s day: to offer to God worship with reverence and awe (cf. Heb. 12:28-29).
  • The Collect of the Day then focuses us on a particular quality or past gracious action of God (e.g. “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity”) and then makes a specific request of God on the basis of this worshipful remembering (“Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure” — collect for Proper 21, p 234).

Together, these elements constitute in the western tradition the appropriate and fitting beginning to the offering of acceptable worship to God and the most fitting means whereby we can fully participate in this worship.

Thus, I wish to suggest that outside of a traditional basilica-style church with elevated central chairs for the ministers at the far east end, the most fitting and appropriate place from which the priest should lead the preparation rites is in the center and facing the altar. Outside of when the priest directly addresses the people (“The Lord be with you” just before the Collect of the Day), the priest and people stand as one, equally turned toward the Lord in love, humility, and adoration. In this way, our ceremony and liturgy itself are most fully united and enacted in perfect unison.

The featured image of a bishop at Mass is plate 2 in William Benham’s Old St Paul’s Cathedral (1902), taken from a medieval missal now in the British Library. It is in the public domain.

About The Author

The Rev. Matthew S. C. Olver, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of The Living Church Foundation and Publisher of The Living Church Foundation.

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9 Responses

  1. Jonathan Mitchican

    As always, Father, very interesting and insightful. I am thinking about how all this fits in connection with my own parish. The parish has a long, strong low church bend, but it also has a large east facing altar. The tradition I inherited is of the priest beginning the celebration from the prayer desk at the edge of the chancel, just below the pulpit. The crucifer and acolyte stop at the altar rail during the procession and stay there until the conclusion of the processional hymn, so it would be physically hard for me to get to the altar before then without stepping over them. I have done the “liturgy of the word” from the prayer desk partly because that was how I was trained in my first parish, partly because of logistics, and partly because I did not want to spook my parishioners with one more thing that seemed too “Roman” to them (I introduced the wearing of the chasuble, just to give you an idea). I have, however, done the kind of awkward swiveling you mentioned, turning back and forth in the desk between people and altar, depending on whether I am speaking God’s Word to the people or carrying the people’s intercessions to God. Has this been the wrong approach? Also, the space is unusually large, having been built in the fifties. There’s no rood screen or any other similar Catholic accoutrements, and yet the altar feels like it is a million miles away from the people who scatter themselves throughout a room that can seat 350 comfortably. Any suggestions?

  2. Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver

    That’s a great question. “The church [building] always wins” is a good rule of thumb and so one always has to figure out how to make best use of the space that you likely didn’t design and can’t alter. I wonder if instead of going all the way to the altar, since it’s so far away, the preparation could happen at the crossing or at the top of the chancel steps, facing east. You could have the crucifer go put the cross in its place as the hymn continue and then the acolyte and crucifer can come stand on either side of you for the preparation rites. Thus, there is a sense of togetherness between each of you–lay and clerical–and it also mitigates against the idea for some of you “turning your back” on them. In this way, you are all in unison together. And then, when you turn to face the People for the Salutation, the two lay persons just turn in toward you 90 degrees, and then turn back to face east with you for the collect. You all reverence and then go to your seats. It may work!

  3. Ian Wetmore

    Thank you for this, Father. I had forgot until I read this that in my formation according to the older tradition (BCP Canada, 1959/62), I was taught- and indeed practiced it- that the celebrant always speaks to the people from the center, and to God while facing east at the epistle side of the altar through the collect, and at the center from the Creed onward.

  4. Fr. J. Wesley Evans

    That quote by Hatchett is eye opening!

    There is something blindly assumed (and I think wrong) about valuing the sense of hearing over the sense of sight or touch to where prescribed words are just “liturgy” but prescribed actions are “magic”. Perhaps he assumes words are somehow less physical and thus more spiritual?

    Perhaps also he had not read many Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman magical texts? They have very little physical actions as well, and are mostly just mandated words.

    I do agree that Ad Orientem has much to commend it liturgically and historically, and am thankful to be in a parish where that is the norm!

  5. Bishop Daniel Martins

    (Late to this party because I was traveling.)

    Some brief points:

    Yes, the architecture will usually “win,” and decisions about ceremonial placement need to be made with the unique character of each liturgical space in mind.

    I quite agree with the general notion that the Entrance Rite should take place “west” of the altar and in the center. Even when I had a parish with the sort of basilica arrangement described in the article, I remained in the chancel for the conclusion of the opening hymn, faced the people for the Opening Acclamation, faced the altar for the beginning of the Hymn of Praise (Kyrie/Gloria), and moved toward the end of it (last “Lord, have mercy …” or “For you alone are the Holy One…”) to the chair for the Collect (the reason being that the Collect is arguably the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word), Now, being in a different church every Sunday, if the architecture permits, and the local priest would not be annoyed, I do as Fr Olver suggests, and move to the altar, back to the people, for the Collect, then go to the chair. (I have two parishes where the altar is against the wall, so everything is done at the altar, facing it.) Thus, I am an advocate of “we all face God” for the Entrance Rite and the meta-rubric of “we gather around the table” for the Great Thanksgiving and what follows.I cringe when I see celebrants face the people for the entire Entrance Rite (unless there is a “presidential” seating arrangement).

    I would argue (or, in this context, simply assert) that the rubrics regarding “facing the people” and “facing the Holy Table” at the Great Thanksgiving are plain enough in those (fairly rare) instances with an altar against the wall, but, in the case of a free-standing altar, one can face the people and face the altar simultaneously, thus complying with the rubric.

    Technical note: As I read the rubrics, in Rite One the Kyrie is mandatory and the Gloria is optional; in Rite Two, the Kyrie is optional and the Gloria (or its surrogate) is mandatory.


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