The Procession

The following was written by Jake Worley, the rector for Saint Andrews Episcopal Church. I found this to be a beautiful and theological explanation of the procession and why the bishop is last, so I requested permission to repost with attribution.

“As Anglicans, we can get pretty used to things that to the uninitiated seem at best odd, and at worst a bit weird. The traditions and liturgy are increasingly unfamiliar for most people who aren’t around them all the time. Traditions and liturgy often have obscure beginnings. I have a book on my shelf entitled, The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. The book itself is obscure, and I wouldn’t recommend Dix to many people. But this book is good because it traces the historical roots of what we do in our liturgy. And, it’s extensive. 


One of the things we do that gets very little attention is our procession. In particular how our processions in the liturgy are arranged. If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching diocesan clergy try to decide how to line up for an all-diocese procession, it can be a bit comical and often somewhat maddening. It’s more than just trying to herd cats. Who goes first? How about second? And why is the bishop last? Even writing those sentences reminds me of the old Abbot and Costello baseball gag! But there is a method to the madness and a very profound theological reason for it.


“In Second Corinthians, chapter two, Paul writes these amazing words:
“When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2.12-16)It seems that the Apostle Paul was at a loss for what to do. He had been hoping that Titus would be at Troas waiting for him. But he wasn’t there. And Paul describes his response to Titus’ absence as his spirit was not at rest. He was troubled, maybe even discouraged. In Acts 16 we see this moment described further. In the middle of his troubled heart, God gave him a vision – “a man of Macedonia was standing there and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16.9)


“In other words, the Apostle didn’t know what to do, and he needed God to tell him. He needed Christ to lead him. Then he writes these profound words as a way of explanation, ‘But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.’


“The image he is employing is that of a Roman general’s triumphant procession in Rome after conquering his enemies. The order of the procession was important. The victorious general was at the head of the procession followed by all the captives he had gotten in the campaign and the slaves. The most important people went first. The least important people went last. Paul envisions himself among the captives and slaves in the order of importance in the procession of Christ as the Lord conquers the enemy territories of the devil. Macedonia was next!


“Back to our weekly procession in our liturgy. Who goes first? Who goes last? The most important people go first and then in descending order of importance those who are considered the slave or servants. The cross of Christ leads us in procession followed by the laity in the Choir. Then comes those who are called on to minister in some way: the chalice bearers, then our seminarian, then our priest associate, then the rector. And if the bishop is there, finally the bishop. In other words, slaves go last and the laity go first. It’s a misunderstanding to presume that the most important people go last. It’s just the opposite. The servants always go last. Remember the words of Jesus in this parable found in Luke 17, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”


“My ordaining bishop, the Rt. Rev. Terrence Kelshaw, told me early on before I was made a presbyter how I was to view my upcoming ordination. To paraphrase, he told me that the church is not to be viewed like we view the ranking in the military, with the lowly private on the bottom and the multi-starred general at the top, as though the lay are the privates and the bishops and priests are the generals. In fact, it is the opposite. We serve Christ first and then the people. When we are ordained, we kneel before the bishop and he presses us down into service. We take our marching orders from Jesus. Obey Him first no matter what opposition and trouble from people may come. In all things we answer to our Master always. The more ordinations you have, the farther down we are pressed. And the bishop is the servant of the servants of Christ.


“This is how the Apostle Paul saw it. And this is how the Church has seen it for millennia. And this is why we process the way we do.”

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