New York: The Anglican Society, for distribution at the General Convention, 1973.
Like so many other expressions, the term “eucharistic concelebration” is open to differences of interpretation. In a sense, everyone participating in Holy Communion is concelebrating the Eucharist. The term is more often used, however, to describe priests who are joining together in the service specifically as priests, performing together the sacramental actions at one altar. This latter, narrower sense is the subject of the present discussion. Nonetheless, the general, broader sense of the phrase cannot be ignored if we are to understand the principles involved.
We are all accustomed to any number of lay persons worshipping together in unison. Similarly, certain special lay persons may discharge special responsibilities together. A dozen or more singers sing together in the choir. Two or three men or boys may be acting as servers or acolytes. Several men may be ushers. Several persons, men, women, or children, may bring forward the alms and oblations. In the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper which is presently undergoing trial use, there may be two or even three lay readers functioning at one service (Old Testament lector, epistoller, and litanist). Few parishes are fortunate enough to have more than one deacon, but two or more deacons certainly can function in one service since, beside the reading of the Gospel, diaconal duties properly include leading the intercessions, arranging the elements on the altar at the offertory, distributing Holy Communion, performing the ablutions, and, when necessary, carrying the sacrament to the sick. In the liturgy now being tried, the Summary of the Law, the Invitation to the General Confession, and the Dismissal may also be assigned to a deacon. On occasion a deacon may preach. Several deacons could be kept busy, particularly if there were many communicants. In short, there is nothing incongruous or surprising in having several ministers of the same rank or order share together their liturgical duties.
The Role of Additional Priests
By the same token, several priests can be included in one service. The old way to do this—normal Anglican usage of the past few decades—was to have an assisting priest read the Epistle and administer the chalice. If there were two assistant clergy, one read the Epistle and the other the Gospel. The rest of the time they simply knelt (or stood) at the sides of the sanctuary. All of this was good as far as it went, but if lay persons are trained to read the Epistle, they should not be displaced every time a visiting priest happens to appear. After all, the priest could be assigned some other part to read; the layman couldn’t. If, furthermore, the Epistle and Gospel are read with dignity from the lectern and pulpit, or from the chancel step, the old positions of the epistoller and gospeller at each end of the altar require some new justification. We are today rediscovering the integrity of the Ministry of the Word. During this first half of the Eucharist, the principal priest is primarily to preside and, like everyone else, to hear the Word of God in a framework of praise and prayer. An additional priest would, in the absence of a deacon, read the Gospel, and he might preach. Other additional priests, like other worshippers, are there to honor God by listening. They should be standing or sitting at their scats or sedilia, not standing or kneeling at the altar, for the Ministry of the Word.
In the more specific sense, sacerdotal concelebration really begins at the offertory. In the recent past, an assisting priest usually did nothing at the offertory, since the preparation of the bread and wine was considered an unimportant detail of housekeeping which the congregation should not notice. Today we want it to be conspicuous—as indeed the Anglican Society has long urged that it should be. An additional priest or two make it easy to accentuate the offertory. This is especially true in a large church, or on a special occasion, when several patens and chalices are to be used. Two or three priests, with the deacons (if any), can meet the oblation-bearers in the chancel and, while facing the people, fill the patens and pour the wine and water into the chalices. The priests can then go to the altar and present in unison the vessels they arc holding, as also the alms.
They can then remain right there, standing about the chief celebrant, during the prayer of consecration. When there is a free-standing altar, it looks very well to have a semi-circle of ministers back of it, thus completing the circle of Cod’s people around His holy table. Opinions differ as to whether the priests should recite all, or parts of, the prayer of consecration in unison aloud, or in an undertone, or whether different ones should say different parts of it. Theologically, all or any of these are valid options. Many of us, however, will prefer the indubitably older practice of having the additional “fellow-presbyters” simply stand in silence beside the chief celebrant. Their position gives visible evidence of there “priestly intention” of supporting and endorsing his words. If there are several vessels, concelebrants can help fulfill the rubrical requirements of putting hands on chalices, etc. During the Invocation, all the priests may appropriately make the sign of the cross in unison towards all of the elements. (When facing the people, priests should remember to make one large, deliberate, and dignified sign of the cross, not the jerky wiggling of the hand which was formerly too much in fashion.)
In the ancient Roman rite, a distinctive role of the concelebrants was the breaking up of the consecrated bread. In the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, with the fraction restored as a distinct section of the rite, this practice may be conveniently restored, as is suggested in the long rubric regarding the ministers at the beginning of the text. Without entering here into the complicated question of whether “real bread” should be restored at the altar, it is always simple enough to have several large wafers on the paten so that there will be adequate material for several priests to be visibly engaged in breaking for some seconds. If the majority of the congregation are really to see it, the fraction must go on for more than a moment. It is better to extend the time by breaking more hosts, rather than by confusing one’s self and others with the exotic gestures of an elaborate commixture.
All the clergy can conveniently communicate standing together about the altar, passing the vessels from one to another. If there are many concelebrants, they may distribute Communion to the people while the chief celebrant remains at the altar, or withdraws to his seat. Afterwards, one or two of the priests (if there be no deacons) can take the vessels to the credence table, or a side altar, or the sacristy and perform the ablutions, while the rest continue with the Post-communion and conclude the liturgy.
In short, concelebrating priests participate in the Ministry of the Word basically like everyone else, by joining in the’ prayers and chants and by listening to the Word of God. If there is no deacon, one of the priests will read the Gospel, and one of them or the chief celebrant, will preach. In the second half of the rite, they will have a visible role at the altar in taking, giving thanks, breaking, and receiving. With good planning, it is possible for the participation of added priests to give dramatic emphasis to the main actions of the rite, and they can do so without crowding out deacons, lay readers, or others who should also retain their proper share in the total liturgy. It will be noted that if the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is performed in strict conformity to the preliminary rubric regarding ministers, there may be two lay lectors (O.T. and Epistle), one or more deacons (Gospel, intercessions, offertory, etc.), several concelebrating priests, and a senior’ priest or (better still) a bishop as chief celebrant and president of the liturgical assembly.
Variations on Special Occasions
Within this basic traditional pattern, a good deal of flexibility is possible. I recently participated in a concelebration of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper at a large conference in which it was desired that two bishops should have a part. For the Ministry of the Word, both bishops sat side by side in their chairs (with several priests to the right and left of them), but the suffragan presided, reciting the Collect for the Day, etc. For the Ministry of the Sacrament, both stood side by side at the altar (with the priests still on either side of them), but the diocesan presided, reciting the sursum corda, preface, and remainder of the canon. This arrangement was convenient and gave clear expression to the unity of the episcopate and the close association of the episcopate with the presbyterate.
At a conference in another diocese, the bishop sat in his chair in the chancel, but did not wish to preach or lead the prayers. Accordingly, one of the priests did so. The bishop’s presidency over the first half of the rite was dramatically expressed, however, at the Greeting of Peace. Each of the priests and deacons in the chancel came up individually to be greeted by the bishop, and then they passed the Peace to the other worshippers. The bishop’s presidency over the second half of the rite was expressed after the Lord’s Prayer, when he came up to the altar and began the breaking of the consecrated bread.
At the last Annual Meeting of the Anglican Society, half a dozen priests concelebrated together. One of the concelebrants read the Gospel and preached; another led the intercessions; and others helped at the offertory, etc., thus distributing the diaconal duties among the priests in a very convenient fashion.
I would suggest that at the ordination of a priest or bishop, the newly ordained, after joining the chief celebrant in the fraction, might appropriately be the one to invite the communicants with the words “Holy things for the People of God”. Similarly, when a bishop is ordained, he can give his blessing at the end. The circle of priests, or bishops, who lay on hands in these ordinations should of course remain as the circle of concelebrants in the Eucharist.
Our present Prayer Book allows a much smaller role to deacons and lay lectors and, as often pointed out, it tends to be a priestly monologue. With the Prayer Book rite it is, therefore, especially desirable to divide the priestly prayers between different concelebrants, even if the principal prayers are all left to the chief celebrant. Thus one may read the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church, another the Prayer of Humble Access, another the Post-communion Thanksgiving, etc. This has, of course, often been done.
When Should Concelebrations Take Place
It is evident that the foregoing suggestions and comments are chiefly directed toward special occasions when many people are involved in the liturgy, as at ordinations, conferences, conventions, etc. There are also some places, such as monasteries, cathedrals, and seminaries, where several clergy are normally present, and some degree of concelebration may be desirable either as the regular routine, or at least on certain days. Among our seminaries, Nashotah House has found a daily concelebration to be of value, as has also the Order of the Holy Cross.
No one, so far as I know, proposes that the average parish should have a concelebrated service as its normal usage. Yet there are special times when such an arrangement may meet a genuine need. There may be a visiting missionary preacher from another branch of the Anglican Communion who is not sufficiently familiar with our American liturgy to celebrate alone. Or an aged or infirm priest may welcome the chance to have some place in the sanctuary on the great feasts of the year.