When I first came to Montreux and began producing booklets for the orders of service, I changed the name of my role from ‘Priest’ or ‘Celebrant’ to ‘President’. A member of the congregation said ‘What!? Are we going American? Are you the president of the United States?!!’
The significance of this difference in language came up again recently, so I thought that it would be worth sharing with you again what it means.
I don’t know if you have noticed the feature in many mediaeval cathedrals that, all around the altar end of the Church there are numerous side altars. Sometimes there are a dozen or more. This feature was built in because it was necessary at that time for every priest associated with the cathedral (and everywhere else) to ‘say mass’ every day. It was not necessary for there to be a congregation as such, but the priest alone could ‘celebrate’ the Mass. Clearly, at this time, the priest was the ‘celebrant’. Even when there was a congregation, the priest was still considered the one who was ‘celebrating’ while the members of the congregation were ‘hearing’ or ‘attending’ mass.
The Reformation and later developments changed all that. The Eucharist was said in the vernacular, and there was a genuine role for the congregation. The responsibility for the way the service went was expanded into the whole congregation now. They had to say ‘Amen!’ and ‘and also with you’ and the Lord’s prayer and so on. The Wesleyan revival brought singing to the congregation and let them find their own voice in singing too.
It was the Reformation that gave rise to the slogan ‘The Priesthood of all believers’. This does not mean that every believer is a priest, but that
taken together, the whole people of God, when gathered together, is God’s priestly people, representing the whole world before God. As the first epistle of Peter says “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may
proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his
This means that the whole congregation is not the recipient of what is offered by the clergy or the ‘celebrant’ but that the whole congregation is the ‘celebrant’ with a task to do: ‘to proclaim the mighty acts of God and represent light rather than darkness.’
So the movement of responsibility for the conduct of the worship shifted from the clergy out into the whole congregation. This movement reached its official high point with the second Vatican Council. There, the whole congregation was called into ‘..full, conscious and active participation’ in the Eucharist.
So it became a misnomer to call the one who presided over the Eucharist the ‘celebrant’. It was after all the whole people of God who ‘celebrated’ the Eucharist. And this is what we see. The Welcomer proclaims the love of God in welcoming. The people offering coffee and tea after the Eucharist offer hospitality. The readers read the Scriptures, the Intercessor leads everybody in their priestly task of offering prayer to God on behalf of the world. The communion minister leads the ministry of the Word, and sets the table, the choir supports the whole congregation in singing, and offers music to help our devotion during communion. Finally, the President
presides over the whole thing.
So the picture is not one of something being offered from the front, to the
people in the pews, but of something by everyone in the Church, to God. The leadership of the worship moves around from place to place in the church, and from person to person. This is an image of the Spirit at work, calling out different gifts in the service of God, and co-ordinating their expression so that everything is done ‘decently and in order.’
This shift in responsibility means that the congregation can no longer be as passive as they were. Being passive, and receiving is sometimes a good thing. Having everything done for us can be pleasurable. What is more, spending time waiting of God, being receptive to God is a good thing. But if we are going to fulfil our role as a ‘Priestly People’ then more is going to be required of us in terms of
knowledge, skill, and a willingness to be active than has been the case before. It is this difference that makes us all ‘Church’ and not just the clergy.
This is why I hope that many of you will come to or ‘singing day’ on 25th October, so that you can find your voice, and exercise some freedom in responding with your lines in the Eucharist.
This shift in the answer to the question ‘Where is the celebrant?’ has also been accompanied by a shift in the answer to the question ‘Where is God?’ in the Eucharist. Instead of ‘God’ being located somewhere ‘up and out’ so that everyone faces in the same direction and looks ‘up’ and ‘out’ of the East window to offer our thanks and praise to God, we now see that God is in our midst. God has come to dwell among us as John’s Gospel says.
This is why we have taken the altar away from the wall and located it so that the President faces the people. This is the first step in signalling both that God is with us as we the Body of Christ gather. Second, that it is all of us, gathered around the altar who are the celebrants of the Eucharist.
If you look at many cathedrals and
other parish Churches,(Saint Maurice for example) you will see that this movement has been taken the next step, so that the altar is situated nearly in the middle of the whole congregation. It emphasises once more that it is the whole congregation who is the
‘celebrant’ at the Eucharist.
So there is a brief explanation about why my job in the Eucharist is called the ‘President’ and not the Celebrant.
But that raises the question for me, is there a role for the priest? What do they do if they are no longer called the ‘celebrant’?
Some management people have coined the phrase ‘The main thing is…to keep the main thing the main thing!’ A priests job is to be freed from other responsibilities in order to be able to keep the main thing the main thing: that is, to live life before the face of God. Just as the whole congregation says to the community at large, when it takes time out of life to
worship, ‘We are God’s priestly people’ so the priest in a congregation says to the congregation ‘Remember, your role is to be God’s priestly people.’ This is an important calling, but it is not the same one as being the president of the Eucharist. Thee, the priest takes his or her place within the celebration of the Eucharist, with the whole People of God.