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Last month the front page of the Hallam News carried an article by Bishop Ralph which begins a series of explorations of how we as a Diocese can respond to Jesus’ invitation to “Put Out into Deep Water”.

This month Fr Peter McGuire writes about Liturgy in the Absence of a Priest.

Miraculous catch of fish s

Liturgy in the Absence of a Priest

  Amongst the many things which we will need to take into account as we look ahead to changes which may be made to our parish structures is the fact that with fewer priests they will not be as available as they have been to preside at parish liturgies.  We will, therefore, need to be clear if and when liturgies can be led by other people.  Our situations may vary.  Some parishes will have been used to this situation already: some parishes will have a permanent deacon: and some may have lay people who have been trained for some liturgical ministries.

  Permanent deacons are ordained members of the clergy.  As well as assisting at Mass in various ways, they can lead liturgies of baptism, marriage and funerals as well as Services of Word and Communion, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and other non-liturgical devotions.  The celebration of the liturgy will form part of their training and their ordination forms the basis of their faculty for liturgical leadership but this is only a part of a deacon’s ministry.

  Religious Sisters take pastoral responsibilities in various parts of our diocese and they may be called upon to exercise some liturgical leadership.  Lay people too may also, at times, lead certain liturgies.  We cannot, however, necessarily presume that either Religious or lay people will have received either training or any necessary commissioning.  And, before they are called upon, there needs to be a clear understanding of what liturgies can or should be celebrated in the absence of a priest.

  Perhaps the most common experience of this in many parishes of our diocese has been what are often called ‘Eucharistic Services’.  The Church knows these more formally as “Services of Word and Communion” and they were originally offered “in the absence of a priest on a Sunday.” (Rome 1988)  The first focus, then, was on the importance of the Christian community still gathering on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day, when a priest was not available for the celebration of Mass.  In such Services there are a number of roles: leadership, reading, bidding prayer, and music ministry as well as that of the distribution of Communion.  And these ministries really ought to be shared out, as they should be at Mass.  There should be no automatic presumption that it is the place of extraordinary Minsters of Communion to lead such Services nor that they are necessarily trained or fitted for liturgical leadership.  Other parishioners may be more suited to lay leadership of liturgy and parishes should look out for people with these special talents.

  But perhaps the questions being most asked about these Services in the Church of England and Wales today are:

1)         Should they be celebrated on weekdays at all?

2)         But if they are, should they be simply Services of the Word?

  There are fears that without better catechesis and understanding some people see hardly any difference between these Services and Mass.  As long as they receive Communion some parishioners may be quite satisfied and not really miss the event that is the complete celebration of the Eucharist.  This may be particularly true if they are used to receiving Communion at Mass from hosts kept in the tabernacle, just as they do at these Services.

  To help us understand this we could perhaps compare it to the difference between preparing, cooking and then enjoying a meal together as opposed to microwaving a ready meal.  Both deliver a meal but with one we are involved in the whole process whilst in the other most of the process happens elsewhere and we are only involved in someone else’s product.  In the Eucharist the celebration of the whole process is important.  Being part of the preparation for, and the bringing about of the presence of Christ in bread and wine as he wished, takes us deeper into what the Eucharist and Communion is all about.

  Bishop Ralph recently told the Council of Priests that he had come to the conclusion that there was really no justification in our diocese for Services of Word and Communion on weekdays.  It is not as if Mass is not available in any area of our diocese for any length of time.  There may occasionally be emergencies on Sundays – for example, if a priest fell ill suddenly – but on weekdays there are always Masses if not in our own church then in a neighbouring parish.

  This may come as something of a shock and disappointment to some priests and people, but Bishop Ralph has a duty to oversee the liturgy in our diocese and his decision must be respected.  What is more, this gives us encouragement to explore the other ways in which we can pray together in the absence of a priest.

  The celebration of Services of the Word will, obviously, help us to become more aware of the Scriptures.  The Word of God is not simply a preparation for Communion.  The Word of God nourishes us and helps to inform and strengthen our faith.  The Word of God has often been neglected and its power has too often been underestimated.  Services of the Word may be priest- or lay-led.

  Lay people may be commissioned to lead some elements of Funeral Rites and the new Rite of Marriage, which came into use at Easter, envisages situations in which they may lead weddings too.  We always have to remember that Roman Rites are offered to the universal Church and that circumstances and needs will be different in places throughout the world.  It is the responsibility of the Bishops of the different countries to approve and/or adapt the Rites for their own circumstances.  Our bishops published their guidance for lay-led Funerals as long ago as 1999 – in a ritual book called ‘In sure and certain hope’.  They are presently preparing guidance for the revised Rite of Marriage so we cannot anticipate the outcome.

  Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament continues our ‘Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass’ and this can be lay-led.  Our diocese offered a leaflet of advice when the scheme for Exposition on Sundays began some years ago.  This leaflet is still available (email peter@pdmcguire.com) and the Church encourages extended periods for prayer rather than a short exposition simply for the purpose of blessing (or ‘Benediction’ as we knew it).

  Efforts have been made to introduce some parishes to the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, or The Divine Office, which is the Psalm based prayer which the Church celebrates at different times throughout the day.  Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are particularly encouraged for celebration by the whole Church and this can be alone or as a gathered community.  The Divine Office had over time become almost exclusively the prayer of the clergy but for some years now the Church has been encouraging lay people to take back what can be the prayer of the whole Church.

  There are, of course, many devotions which are not liturgy (i.e. not the official prayer of the Church) which can be priest-, deacon- or lay-led.  Common devotions will include Stations of the Cross, the Rosary and Novenas.  If these are to be lay-led and celebrated with others in the church, then it is always best to discuss this with the parish priest.  They may be celebrated informally (privately) as well as formally (publicly).  Some lay people will be well suited to leading such devotions but not everyone will.  Such public leadership demands training, understanding and particular skills.  Priests may sometimes have been guilty of asking parishioners to take on such responsibilities without offering opportunities for both growth in understanding and training.  We may have ‘got by’ doing this but the liturgy and devotions deserve better.

  As we look to and plan the future of the Church in the diocese of Hallam, questions about what liturgies can or should be celebrated, when and how often will continue to be asked.  This is as good a time as any for everyone and especially those presently involved in liturgical leadership to take a good look at themselves and thoroughly review the situation.  The future may be much more demanding of us than our past has been and the liturgy of the Church is too important a meeting place between God and ourselves for us to leave to chance.  Our celebration of the liturgy will always be ‘work in progress’ as we strive to share its fullness.

  The liturgy of the Church calls us all to be the best we can be: nothing more, nothing less.