By H. Boone Porter Jr.
Edited and introduced by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
The following essay by Harry Boone Porter Jr. (1923-99) was first published in The Anglican, Lent 1965, pp. 3-6 and distributed separately as a booklet at the 1973 General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. The Anglican was the quarterly joint gazette of the General Theological Seminary and the now-defunct Anglican Society, established in the United States in 1932 “to promote and maintain the Catholic doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church in accordance with the principles and contents of the Book of Common Prayer.”
Boone Porter was a major figure in 20th-century Anglican liturgics, receiving his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1954 on liturgical reforms under Charlemagne. He taught Church History at Nashotah House from 1954 to 1960, and liturgics at the General Theological Seminary from 1960 to 1970. In addition to many other responsibilities in the Episcopal Church, Porter served on the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church from 1961 to 1976, and the General Board of Examining Chaplains from 1970 to 1982. He was a member of Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, the Anglican Society, and the Alcuin Club. Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990.
Ever since medieval times, a typical practice of Western Christendom has been the employment of three sacred ministers to mark the solemn celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Referred to as priest, deacon, and subdeacon, or as celebrant, gospeller, and epistoler, these three hieratic figures have long been characteristic of Western worship at its best.
They have graven deep furrows in our religious thought and practice. In medieval theology, as represented by St. Thomas and other writers, the three sacred orders of the ministry are no longer defined (as in antiquity) as bishop, priest, and deacon. Instead, they were defined, in accord with contemporary medieval liturgical usage, as priest, deacon, and subdeacon. (See Summa Theologica, Quest. 37, Articles 2 & 3, Supplement). Such has continued to be the normal Roman teaching until recent years. In architecture, the long gothic Chancel, with its distant view of the sanctuary at the end, was perfectly suited to display the altar with three symmetrically placed figures before it. In order to make the subdeacon match the deacon, the tunicle was invented to clothe him. Our altars are still customarily raised on three steps, one for each order to stand on; and traditional sedilia provide three seats for them to sit in.
During the late medieval, renaissance, and modern period, the liturgy has been attenuated by the individualistic outlook common to laity and clergy alike. During these long centuries, the customary usage of three sacred ministers at a solemn celebration has been a most valuable witness, maintaining some awareness of the properly corporate and collegial character of liturgical action. Today, however, the Church is ready for a much deeper and broader understanding of corporate liturgical worship. The arbitrary restriction to three ministers is a limitation that is now very difficult to defend. There are repeated occasions when two, or four, or six, or seven ministers would better suit the circumstances.
What Is the Traditional Norm?
How much historical authority does lie behind the threefold stereotype? First of all, it does not go back to the earliest periods of Catholic worship. In the age of Hippolytus, Augustine, Chrysostom, or Basil, a solemn celebration was led by a bishop, concelebrating with several priests (or “fellow presbyters”). They were assisted by as many deacons, who were helped by as many subdeacons as might be on hand, and there were as many readers and cantors as were necessary to read the lessons and lead the chants appointed for the day.
Secondly, even in the late medieval and modern Latin rite, the most solemn enactments of the Mass are still based on that pre-medieval pattern. In the fullest forms of the pontifical Mass, the officiating bishop is assisted by several priests, several deacons and subdeacons, and several taper-bearers. Such a practice survived down to modern times in certain European cathedrals on Maundy Thursday and a few other great feasts. (A.A. King, in Liturgies of the Primatial Sees, London & New York, 1957, discusses this practice in connection with the Cathedral of Lyons, where it still continues. In Liturgy of the Roman Church, London & New York, 1957, the same author describes the papal solemn Mass). The present Vatican Council, in its admirable Constitution on the Liturgy, rightly recalls attention to the central and plenary character of the episcopal celebration.
Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the preeminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations … at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his presbytery and by his ministers. (IV, 41).
Thirdly, it may be pointed out that while the medieval rite was still a living thing, it did not permit itself to be hamstrung by the threefold scheme of sacred ministers. In the small parish, where there was no deacon or assistant priest, the parish clerk could still chant the Epistle on Sundays and feasts, and the priest himself could come down to the lectern to chant the Gospel. (See C. Atchley, The Parish Clerk, and His Right to Read the Liturgical Epistle, Alcuin Club Tracts IV, 1903, 1924).
Fourthly, the threefold scheme has never been universal, for it is unknown to the Eastern Churches. In normal Orthodox usage, as many priests as are present concelebrate together: priests never masquerade as deacons or subdeacons. When deacons are present, they perform their proper duties, irrespective of whether one or several priests are officiating. So too do subdeacons where members of this ancient rank are on hand. In most Orthodox communities, the Epistle is taken by a reader who simply steps out of the congregation in lay clothes. In short, the limiting of sacred ministers to a priest, a deacon, and a subdeacon has no universal or comprehensive claim.
The Present Problem
Granting that the threefold scheme has had no monopoly on the arrangement of solemn worship in the past, what are the objections to it in the present or future?
First, it may be pointed out that if the Eucharist is to be celebrated and the three available ministers are in fact a priest, a deacon, and a subdeacon, then the customary Western pattern is an excellent arrangement. In fact, however, this very rarely happens. Apart from the Armenians and certain other smaller Eastern groups, the subdiaconate scarcely exists anywhere today. Within the Anglican Communion, it is now normally conferred only within the Province of South Africa. The use of priests to fulfill all three roles puts the whole rite on an artificial and misleading basis. If ill-formed liturgical usage could confuse so great a theologian as Aquinas, it can certainly confuse the average lay person. Ceremonial and gesture ought to clarify, rather than obscure, what is happening.
On occasions when more than three clergy are present, the arbitrary concentration on three “sacred” ministers unnecessarily relegates the others to the sidelines. The use of ordained clergy for epistolers, furthermore, is very questionable. It may have been necessary in ages when the laity were illiterate, but today any congregation ought to have one or more competent lectors, and they ought normally to be able to perform their office without having to put on an elaborate costume which makes them look like ordained clergy in the eyes of the congregation.
Particularly regrettable is the still widespread assumption that the two assisting ministers can only function at a fully choral celebration. This view is still being implanted in younger clergy by the customs still followed in certain seminary chapels. Unfortunately, many congregations are not familiar with an elaborate choral rite, and they will only become familiar if it is introduced to them by degrees in a flexible manner. The rigid, authoritarian, “all or nothing” approach is no longer tenable — if indeed it ever was.
One young curate recently told me, with obvious bitterness, that during the entire period of his diaconate the rector under whom he served had never once permitted him to read the Gospel, prepare the elements at the offertory, or perform the ablutions. Then three days after he had been advanced to the priesthood, a solemn Mass was performed in the parish and for the first time he was assigned to be “deacon”!
It is evident that the celebration of the Holy Mysteries by a priest, deacon, and subdeacon represents simply one of many ways of arranging a group of clergy. In America at the present time, it is not normally the most reasonable or useful way. Practical convenience, pastoral sensitivity, and the theology of holy orders all require a more flexible and more realistic manner of deploying clergy and lay assistants in the liturgy. In the subsequent section of this essay, we will consider how this can be done.
In the previous section, we briefly surveyed the history of the solemn celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We saw that in varying times and varying places, varying numbers of clergy, in various ranks, have exercised their liturgical ministry. The limitation of the solemn rite to three ministers, whether called priest, deacon, and subdeacon, or celebrant, gospeller and epistoler, cannot claim to be either ancient or universal. In many cases, it is inconvenient, misleading, and otherwise unsuitable. But what then are some of the alternative patterns? In order to answer this question, we must first understand what we are trying to achieve.
The Reasons for Several Ministers
The use of additional clergy and lay assistants has two major objectives, both of which are important. First, additional persons enable the rite to be performed more effectively and more expeditiously. It is easier to listen attentively to Epistle, Gospel, and sermon if we hear them from different persons with differing voices. The dramatic force of the rite is enhanced if additional clergy enable the more rapid distribution of Holy Communion, and if they can dispatch the ablutions.
Secondly, additional persons give visual and audible expression to the corporate nature of the rite. When the Eucharist appears (as, alas, it so often does) as a “one-man show” performed by the officiating priest, its very nature is compromised. The sacrament of Christ’s Body is the sacrament of the Church, in which different members perform different functions in an orderly manner. The solemn collaboration of different orders of persons in the liturgy expresses the holy community of the household of God.
Other reasons for additional ministers also arise in particular cases. Thus, lay readers and young clergy cannot learn to perform their tasks properly if they have no opportunities to practice. The local church will have little idea of its place within the Church Catholic if visiting clergy from other places cannot be welcomed into the sanctuary.
Practical Contemporary Solutions
With these objectives in mind, we can consider concrete means of achieving them. The average congregation has only one ordained clergyman, the priest. In order to give the liturgy a more visibly corporate character, therefore, the role of lay readers must be zealously promoted. In many congregations it is attainable to have a layman read the Epistle at every public celebration of the Eucharist, even the “simple, said service” at an early hour. Nor should the occasional presence of visiting priests cause the readers to be squeezed out of their regular role. This consistent use of lay readers in the Church’s chief act of worship can have a marked effect on a congregation.
If shortened Matins precedes the Eucharist (at least at certain seasons) this provides the occasion for a lay officiant at the office, and an Old Testament reader. When the Litany is sung or said before the Eucharist, this too can be assigned to a layman. Thus the rector can have two or three lay ministers reading significant portions of the rite. He will of course also have servers and, in an increasing number of parishes, representatives of the congregation will bring the elements forward at the offertory. Thus the service ceases to be an individual performance by one clergyman.
Another kind of question arises with regard to the diaconate. In many parts of the Christian Church, its effective revival is now being called for. Some of us believe that the Holy Eucharist will never gain its rightful place in the life of the Episcopal Church, unless we also can provide at least one deacon in every parish to help administer Holy Communion in the liturgy and also to carry the sacrament to the sick (as well as helping in various other ways). Our canons now have clear provision for the diaconate, and in every diocese there are many mature and experienced laymen who could be encouraged to study for this order while remaining in their secular professions and occupations. (See H.B. Porter, The Ministers of the Distribution of Holy Communion, Supplemental Report II, the General Convention, 1964.) Several dioceses already have a number of men serving very usefully in this order.
In certain larger centers and on certain special occasions, there is the problem of fitting several priests into the rite. Some form of concelebration is the answer to this question. Once it is understood that a group of priests can offer the Eucharist together, the exact details of arranging the rite can easily vary according to the number of participants, the size of the sanctuary, the nature of the occasion, etc. (For an extended Anglican discussion, see Basil Minchin, Every Man in His Ministry, London, 1960. For an excellent modern Roman account, see Mother Jean McGowan, Concelebration, New York, 1964.) Some of us who have repeatedly celebrated in this fashion have found it very satisfactory.
These remarks would be gravely incomplete if no mention were made of the episcopate. Our present rubrics require the bishop to give the absolution and blessing in the liturgy, but these are only peripheral ceremonies, not integral to the eucharistic action as such. Should not the bishop, as bearer of the apostolic commission, preach the gospel and preside at the Lord’s Table? In rubrical terms, this would mean delivering the sermon, and reciting the eucharistic prayer, beginning with the sursum corda. The local priests, as his collaborators and associates, would properly concelebrate with him. Performed in this way, the rite is extraordinarily impressive.
In conclusion, we see that the three authentic orders of sacred ministers are not those of priest, deacon, and subdeacon. Rather they are those of bishop, priest, and deacon. Each of these orders can and should have their proper roles in the Holy Mysteries, whether they be represented by one or by several individuals. The fullest participation of ordained clergy, furthermore, should not crowd out all the functions of lay readers and other assistants. All of these, and the choir, should carry out their roles in such a spirit and in such a manner that the congregation as a whole is not suppressed, but is rather stimulated to a new awareness of itself as a community of priestly people who glorify God through Christ in the fellowship of his Life-giving Spirit.