A much noticed practice these days involves the combination of presiding priests and lay worship leaders. Let me explain. In many services in our diocese the sharing of upfront leadership roles means that the presiding priest does not need to be standing before the congregation for the whole of the service. Consequently we often find the presiding priest sitting in the front row of the church while a lay person is leading worship or preaching the sermon. This is a natural thing to do in our egalitarian church. But is it the right thing to do? Increasingly I am of the conviction that the ‘presiding priest’ is not simply the person who moves forward to lead the Eucharistic prayer, and, by extension, pops up at the right point to say the Absolution, but is, or should be, the person who ‘presides’ over the whole service as a meeting in which the believers gather together.
If the image of the ‘chair’ of a public meeting comes to mind – the one who steers proceedings along, who remains seated on the stage or podium through the meeting even when another is speaking – then I think that not a bad image to connect to an enlarged understanding of the role of the presiding priest.
Most if not all Anglican churches have space at the front of the church for a seat or stall for the vicar (and another for the bishop when present). I suggest the presiding priest should be seated there when not standing to lead this or that part of the service. I would go further. I think the presiding priest should welcome people at the beginning and commence worship (e.g. by announcing the first hymn), and conclude the service at the end with the announcement of notices and the dismissal (though I accept the variation that in some quarters the tradition is to make any deacon present the voice for the dismissal).
This enlarged role for the presider would diminish little of the roles of the lay worship leader(s) of the service. It would add to a sense of continuity and unity in the service around the Absolution and the Eucharistic prayer. Sometimes the former can be a disconnected part and the latter an add-on at the end of ‘the real stuff’.
It’s appropriate to offer these thoughts on this particular site as a change in direction in our parishes should be both a welcome from lay leaders to a different way of being the presiding priest and an initiative from the priests who preside.