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the bishop comes last?

bishopSome time ago I received a question which I answered privately. I do not know which country nor even which communion this question refers to. So if the mitre fits…

The diocesan bishop was coming to a church’s patronal festival. The bishop said he would robe and sit in the sanctuary but “play no part other part in the Eucharist”. The parish priest was to preside. The question was – in the procession does the priest go last as presider, or the bishop go last as bishop?

Form follows function

What would be your response?
What would you say to your bishop if your bishop issued these instructions?
Would your bishop listen?
How might your bishop respond to your response?

I think the question is a wonderful discussion starter, because there are so many questions underneath this question that need to be worked on first:

What do orders mean in the Christian community?
What does it mean to be bishop of a diocese?
What does it mean to be a priest when the bishop is absent?
And in the presence of the bishop?
Why do we process? What does it mean to be the last in a procession?
Why do some people robe in a service?
If the bishop is “playing no part part in the Eucharist”, why does he robe?
What is the vesture the bishop is wearing (honorary doctoral gown, chasuble, cope)? What do these robes mean?
If the bishop is “playing no part part in the Eucharist”, why does he not sit in the congregation in (lay) street clothing? How might the bishop react if you told him either preside or do that?

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36 thoughts on “the bishop comes last?”

  1. Peter Carrell

    There is no need to worry about order in a procession as Christ neither prescribed that we process nor that there should be any form of hierarchy in the kingdom or church, save for the last being first.

    As a ministry trainer I would like to know if the bishop was wanting to see how one of his or her priests performed as presider. A general difficulty for bishops being all singing, preaching, presiding officers of the church is that they may never experience the ministry of their priests!

    Just to be clear, on pragmatic grounds of style I think it appropriate for bishops to go last in any procession since they are the senior officer of the diocese present, whatever their role in the service, and I generally assume a bishop will be presider as an expression of their role as focus of unity for their diocese.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Would it be appropriate for the Queen to let the Governor General knight in her presence just so she could see how well he did his job? There are better ways to review the quality of a person’s actions now (I highly encourage a regular review for priests). Blessings.

  2. I have always heard that the “order” of persons of faith and in the church was the Laity, Deacons, Priests and finally Bishops. “The first shall be last” means,to my understanding, that the those who might be considered in the worldly sense the most important, shall humble themselves, as did the Son of God, and the least important, such as the laity, shall be raised up!I expect Im quite likely wrong though!

      1. I think that is a chasuble.

        However, being a eucharistic vestment, if the bishop wasn’t participating, he would have no need to vest in a chasuble.

  3. Training bishops is terribly hard, but basically, his/her chair is always in the sanctuary and, no matter what role s/he takes in the liturgy she is the pastor, in the image of Christ the Shepherd, amongst God’s people entrusted to her.

  4. Well, it is for the bishop to decide whether s/he processes or not. As the bishop is the one in charge of the liturgical practices and worship of the diocese, it’s the bishop’s choice.

    If I were the priest I would ask for further clarification.

    1. Sorry, Kurt, although I think there is some limited truth to your point, and possibly it is canonically accurate in your context, here, although some bishops may act as if they have jus liturgicum (the technical term for the right you describe) they, like the rest of us, vow and sign up to our shared liturgical agreements, and I would not want to reinforce any misunderstanding about that. Blessings.

  5. I also consider it an undesirable situation, but there is a precedent for bishops doing this. If you are immersed in Liturgical Movement, avert your eyes! There is a tradition of a bishop being at the eucharist, robing (not in chasuble), not presiding, yet pronouncing absolution and the final blessing. In the procession, the bishop would still follow the presiding priest. It seems that this was done when the bishop presided at another mass in the day. Nowadays, it just suggests the Bishop is too tired or busy to care!

    1. Yes, Gareth. I am aware of the “precedent” you describe. And was of half a mind to mention it in the post. But I would hold strongly that precedence is not justification. Part of what I hope we are doing on this site is looking at liturgical practices and seeing if they are appropriate in our current context. Blessings.

  6. My own instinct is to vest the bishop in cope and mitre (and crozier) and have him/her come last in the procession (with attending deacons/chaplains depending on local practice). I would also request the bishop to pronounce absolution (if there is a confession), to lead the sharing of the peace, and to give the final blessing. While it is certainly most appropriate for the bishop to preside at the Eucharist when present and vested, I also honor the pastoral instinct that says that the local pastor should preside at a parish’s patronal festival. Yes, the bishop is the chief pastor of the parish, but the reality is that the priest in the parish is the pastor to whom the people are most likely to feel a strong connection. The bishop’s presence, vested, acknowledges his role as chief pastor of the congregation and honors their special day. The priest actually presiding at the Eucharist on this day acknowledges his/her intimate relationship with the people of the congregation and honors the integrity of the parish as worshipping community when the bishop is absent (i.e., most of the time).

    1. Jim, I only have time to quickly respond to one of your good points. Why would you have the bishop suddenly leap up and absolve? Does that not reinforce the sense that this is magic? Absolving prior to communion already has significant issues which this reinforces with the idea that the bishop’s magic is stronger than the priest’s. Blessings.

      1. On such a feast as a patronal festival, my first instinct would be to omit the confession and absolution. However, if local custom dictates that it be left in, then we are left with a quandary. I guess my instinct was to simply follow precedence/tradition in the giving of the absolution, but as you point out in another post, that isn’t necessarily a good justification. I don’t necessarily think that it has to give the idea of who has stronger mojo. As deacons traditionally lead the confession, it isn’t suddenly a moment of the priest being cast aside for the bishop. It could be a moment of including the bishop. In my mind, the flow of this part of the liturgy would look something like this:

        (1) Creed, led by the priest (although it might be germain to invite the bishop to lead this as well)
        (2) Prayers of the People, led by the deacon (or by a lay person, depending on local custom) – make the prayers of a form which leads directly to the confession without a concluding collect
        (3) Confession, led by the deacon
        (4) Absolution, given by the bishop
        (5) Peace, led by the bishop

        I’ve seen a similar arrangement to this with an assisting priest instead of the presider leading this part of the liturgy. It isn’t the most desirable norm, in my opinion, but on a special occasion it can be a way to include other ministers into leadership.

        Also, if the parish has a strong sense that the Great Thanksgiving and Communion is the high point of worship, then it actually becomes the priest who has more mojo, as s/he would preside at the Eucharistic Prayer while the bishop sits off to the side.

        1. Our practice is confession at the start of the service. Having absolution half way through – and that being the first thing the bishop does, makes it even more odd. IMO.

      2. The priest presides at Eucharist in the bishop’s stead, since as the chief priest, that is the bishop
        s primary role. A priest’s faculties come from the bishop, actually attached to the bishop. And those faculties pertain to not only presiding at Eucharist, but when administering any of the faculties. That is the tradition of the church. It may be the partonal feast of the parish, but it is the bishop who still would preside. In the context of what you have presented, it seems that the bishop is trying to find a middle ground here, and liturgically it is creating questions, not of the laity, but of the clergy.

        What I would suggest is that the bishop cede not role of presider to the priest, but to cede to the priest the role of preaching. And though not normally seen unless a priest is substituting for the deacon as proclaimer of the Gospel, I would have the priest come and ask for a blessing before s/he begins to preach. The blessing is a sign of how the role is attached to the liturgical role of the bishop as chief priest.

        The bishop then would process in last.

        1. You present, Robert, the understanding I more naturally tend to – that priests preside in the bishop’s stead. But you also (in the same breath!) include an alternative understanding which I also respect – that priests delegate to the bishop authority that belongs to the priests by right. Blessings.

  7. I was recently visiting another city and attended a quite well-known (US Episcopal) church. I was a bit surprised by their procession. This church employs several clergy. The celebrants (a vicar and 2 deacons) were very early in procession. The rest of the clergy followed the choir, and the rector was at the end of procession in cope. The rector did deliver the sermon at this service, but sat aside for the rest of the liturgy.

  8. Brian Poidevin

    And does any of it matter? I find more and more the christian church an inconsequential body in its obsession with form. i have quoted Micah before. I can enjoy ceremony, in fact i rather like it. With a Baptist friend i revelled in the picture of the Baptist bishop you recently posted. But really this obsession with form and style is curious. I am reminded of a comment in “Regina Coeli” that Pope Francis in rejecting the red mancha, red slippers was displaying a lack of humility. I suppose part of my unease is the number of responses such a post so quickly received as though we were discussing an essential of Jesus’ example.

  9. This does raise lots of other questions, chief in my mind is – does it actually matter? and does it affect the ability to witness to the risen (bodily) Lord Jesus?

    I don’t see how it does.

    Peter is spot on, the procession is not an institution of Christ, one has to question why we bother with it at all in 21st century worship.

    Bosco, apart from your desire to uphold the liturgical instructions of the ACANZP why do we need to process in 21st century worship?

    1. Please, Zane, don’t put words into my mouth. It was I, in the post, who was asking about processions. Please show me where in “the liturgical instructions of the ACANZP” does it indicate “we need to process”?! This is news to me – so I would be greatly helped by your pointing to that specifically.

      As far as I recall, if you have read anything of substance from me on leadership at worship, it would focus on coming from the congregation and returning to it, and moving through a congregation as the normal human way we gather a community.


  10. Hi Bosco,
    I may have misunderstood your reply to Kurt above where you described bishops ‘like the rest of us, vow and sign up to our shared liturgical agreements’ it seemed to me that you were asserting that those liturgical agreements included processing.

    1. You and me, Zane, vow and sign up to those same agreements. I presume you read what you vowed and signed up to, as I have. I cannot recall anything anywhere about requiring processions (let alone the order that such might take!), and would be fascinated to be pointed to such.

      The bishops may break their vowing and signing agreement, just as others do in our province. In other provinces they may hold the jus liturgicum that Kurt’s comment could imply. In our province our bishops are bound to agreements of the church. I think it is an important point and distinction that I would not want a comment on this site appear to blur.

      I hope that helps.


  11. Fr. Ryan Mackey

    Our bishop describes it like this: our procession is like a living family photo album. We start with the deacons (most recently ordained to longest ordained), followed by the presbyters (after the same manner), and finally the bishop(s) (after the same manner, with the diocesan or presiding bishop at the end).

    As the one who acts as the verger/diocesan bishop’s chaplain at ordinations and feasts, it’s always a joy for me to line everyone up for the processional and remember when everyone was ordained.

    1. This is fascinating, Fr Ryan. Are there no lay people in any of the processions? So Archdeacons go at their place in ordination? In a monastery I can understand such an approach, in order of entering – but that is the whole community, not the ordained only. If this is the Christian family photo album, should it not be in order of baptism – laity included? Or does one join the family by ordination? Blessings.

      1. Fr. Ryan Mackey

        Fr. Bosco,
        You point out a very good point – one of which we are negligent: the participation of the laity in the procession. We are a more “charismatic/evangelical” parish – many of our congregation are from low church backgrounds, so our bishop tries to be sensitive, yet we educate along the way! 🙂 It has been my desire to stir up more interest in people for participation in such things. Many seem content to allow the clergy to do it, which amuses me in a slightly sad way as the bishop and I both consistently teach on and declare the priesthood of all believers. Hmm…

        That being said, we typically use processionals only for major feasts and ordinations. I wish we did it more often.

      2. In Nigeria, Our Procession is just like Fr described: We start with the deacons (most recently ordained to longest ordained), followed by the presbyters (after the same manner), and finally the bishop(s) (after the same manner, with the diocesan or presiding bishop at the end).The only difference is that we start with the Choristers, then the Wardens, deacons, etc. After the service, the recession is in the reverse manner. Also, the Bishop can be in the service be it Eucharistic or normal service, and have another Priest to preside and Preach.

  12. This is a fantastic discussion.

    I can’t add much, apart from what would seem appropriate to me.

    *If* the Bishop takes *any* role in the service, he should be last in the procession, and sit in the sanctuary. I would expect that if the Bishop is not presiding, that he would lead the absolution – not because he is more powerful in the ways of Christian-magic, but because as our reverend father in God, we believe that he brings the forgiveness of God with him, apostolically.

    If, he is playing no role; then he should sit with the laity. As the addition of his Episcopal nature, does not diminish his lay nature. And at his core, he is still a baptised child of God, and co-heir with us, and Christ.

    Please, correct any errors (I’m a lay evangelical in Wales, I expect a lot of errors).

    1. Thanks, “6eight” for your comment. I certainly don’t see any “errors” 🙂 On this site, please use your ordinary name.

      I’m not sure whether a bishop’s absolution is apostolic while a priest’s is not. Another concern of mine is the loss of understanding of the reconciling significance of communion. Communion forgives – and stressing absolution before communion can undermine that insight IMO.


  13. I think architecture plays a role in whether and how processions happen. My first two churches had a traditional vicar’s vestry off the chancel. The choir robed elsewhere and processed without ceremony to their seats. Then I and other clergy and lay ministers came out, greeted the people, and got on with it. In both these churches, we would occasionally choose to do a full procession from the west end, but that would mean our running round the outside of the church in rain and wind to come on through the main door.

    My third church was more in a basilica style, and every Sunday and feast we would process with the choir westwards down the south aisle and then east up the centre aisle. With many servers, a large choir and quite few robed ministers, combined with a generous architecture, the procession seemed actually to be a rather practical way to come in and go out with dignity and circumstance, which is the point.

    1. Thanks, Gareth. Very helpful points. Especially when reversed – in planning new buildings we should start from how we want to worship. I have been writing a lot here about architecture and your point is another helpful one in that discussion. Blessings.

  14. Padre, have you covered processionals; their derivation, etc in a post in the past? If not, I would be interested in your take on the topic. If you have, a link would be nice.

  15. I would probably suggest that the Bishop be in choir dress. Or perhaps choir dress and cope/mitre. AFAIK, any clerics are welcome to sit in choir during liturgies. If the bishop is vested in mitre and cope, he should probably be last in the procession with attendants. If in choir dress, it seems that his place should be right before the celebrant.

    But this is opinion, and no one is bound to mine. 🙂

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