Totally Random Thought on Processions

Processions as a liturgical movement within the church are not a common feature of current church life and worship. They were a much bigger deal in the medieval period and, when considering the liturgical life of a typical medieval cathedral or abbey, a specialized book called a processionale is an important resource. Naturally, there is a Sarum processional and there were some in the late 19th/early 2oth Sarum Revival who were interested in bringing back the custom of processions, noticably Percy Dearmer.

I want to make on quick, rather random note on processions and their use in the modern church… I’ll do so by introducing this image that I just ran across and that reminded me of what I wanted to say on this topic. From the British Library, here’s a miniature of a bishop preaching from Harley MS 4425, f. 167v:

Note where he’s preaching from: a platform set on barrels… 

What does this have to do with processions? Furniture. More specifically the kind of furniture that did and didn’t exist in major medieval worship spaces vs. the furniture that exists in American churches.

A cathedral is quite different in size than a modern American church. Too, the furniture did not have the same relationship to the space that ours does now. Namely—pews, pulpits, and other kinds of fixed furniture. Processions as envisioned in medieval sources work a heck of a lot better in a big space without fixed pews! Many of the modern processions I’ve seen or participated in end up with a long trail of people squeezed between a wall and long lines of set pews with very few being able to effectively “group” at a station. So—if we’re going to do this, how do we do it better?

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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16 Responses to Totally Random Thought on Processions

  1. Susan Loomis says:

    All the liturgical churches I’ve attended (except one, which had five rows of pews, no choir, and no deacon) have processions. As long as there is a center aisle, there’s no impediment to a procession. I’m I missing something?

    • Derek Olsen says:

      I should have clarified that up front rather than making people read my mind! The processions I’m thinking about specifically are ones that go around the periphery of the church and make pauses or “stations” at various points. These are sometimes used in devotions like stations of the cross where the images of the various points are hung on the church walls or, conversely, may be used on feasts if there are shrines throuhout the church. You see this particularly in Anglo-Catholic churches in relation to Marian feasts. This is different from the more common entry procession which just uses a central aisle.

  2. I don’t know about the “grouping” problem; at Stations of the Cross, for instance, people go to the station and stand in the pews if they need to. Not a big deal, really, to me; you’re still part of the group. The pew is just a physical object you need to avoid – as you’d avoid another person standing there. The same thing would happen if there were chairs only.

    I guess the only real solution would be to have no seating at all, a la Orthodox. I don’t think that’s going to fly in general, though. I do think it might make sense to remove the first few rows of pews, to allow extra space in front, for various reasons. But as far as I can tell, people like pews – especially families with kids; pews keep young kids contained and relaxed, for one thing.

  3. John-Juian, OJN says:

    When it comes to processions, I can’t resist posting this—I ran on to it while looking for something else:

    “His Antagonist, Dr. Price the Anniversarist, was made Deane of Hereford. Dr. Watts, Canon of that church, told me that this Deane was a mighty Pontificall proud man, and that one time when they went in Procession about the Cathedral church, he would not doe it the usually way in his surplice, hood, etc., on foot, but rode on a mare thus habited, with the Common prayer booke in his hand, reading. A stone horse [i.e., a stallion] happened to break loose, and smelt the mare, and ran and leapt her, and held the Reverend Deane all the time so hard in his Embraces, that he could not gett off till the horse had done his bussinesse. But he would never ride in procession afterwards.”

    From an article on Richard Corbet in
    “Brief Lives” by John Aubrey; ca. 1696.

    • Derek Olsen says:

      LOL! That’s awesome!

      And I can’t help but read the sentence structure to suggest that the mare was “thus habited” and am wondering where one would find a mare-sized surplice…

  4. What do you think, Derek? Personally, I don’t think it’s really a good move to remove all seating – and pews have some definite advantages. The kid thing (kids lie down on them and read or color, or just stretch out); kneelers; pew racks for hymnals and books; etc. I actually like them quite a lot – but I do totally get that they can be “in the way.” I don’t like chairs very much, though, so that could be part of it, too.

    I mean, we don’t do prostrations, so we don’t need all the room the O’Dox do! And I can’t see modern Americans standing for the whole service. I guess we could spread picnic blankets and have floor seating – and that would work for the kids, too.

    Perhaps pews that automatically flip up and down from the floor? That would be the perfect solution…. ;-)

  5. John-Julian, OJN says:

    One short serious note regarding processions: In researching the use of incense, I got to wondering why that first censing of the altar during the Gloria came from—it’s pointless, redundant, irrational, and a bother. Then I found the following:
    Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500 AD), “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”; Ch. 3, § II: “The hierarch, having said a sacred prayer at the divine Altar, begins the censing there and then he makes the round of the entire sacred place. Returning to the divine Altar…” and § III, 2: “…we must turn a reverent glance to the double movement of the hierarch when he goes first from the divine Altar to the far edges of the sacred place spreading the fragrance and then returns to the Altar…”
    So, in the 6th century, there was an INITIAL procession around all the walls of the entire building—ceremonially cleansing the building before worship (just as the altar is ceremonially cleansed by incense at the Offertory). Once again—obviously no pews! Truly the “traffic problem” for processions does come from the building being set up as a theater, rather than a church!

  6. The real consideration at this point, though, is: money. We’re all going broke just trying to keep the buildings themselves in good repair; some parishes can’t even hire priests.

    I don’t think anybody’s going to have the $$ to make major changes to the building at the moment….

  7. Susan Loomis says:

    A small local church moved its pews to make room for a crib and a small table for children to sit at to color during the Sunday service. Both have a straight view to the altar. At my own church, the pews in the East Transept are occasionally rearranged for meetings or small services. You don’t have to change the church building to move the pews around.

    • Somebody’s got to do the work, though. Pews around here are old, incredibly heavy, and bolted to cement floors, which would have to then be finished or otherwise spiffed-up (particularly if you might want to rent the space out as an income-generator). Some pews, I think, are fasted to the walls, too. And anything you do in an old building costs a fortune.

      I didn’t mean structural change – just any work on the building other than repairs to the roof, etc. These kinds of projects are usually just way back on the back burner.

  8. Fr. Michael S. says:

    I’m in favor of abolition the pews entirely. The pews, in my experience, divide the space into two sets of people: Those performing the liturgy, and those who are spectators. The spectators sit and watch. You would never see a priest (I hope!) or deacon pull up a chair at the altar, and have a seat when starting the eucharistic prayer – but people feel free to: they’re just watching the action. I’ve never been to a service in a western chuch too long to stand through – especially when you’re one of the ones *doing* it. (And sure, provide seats for the infirm. )

    • Susan Loomis says:

      It’s not the pews that make church congregations spectators. It’s the attitude of the congregation members. I know the congregation is alert when during the homily members shout Amen! or applaud. (Sometimes we don’t act like “traditional” Episcopalians.) And, 80% of the congregation would need seating at the service I attend.

    • This is a real miscalculation, I think, about what’s going on with worshippers. Honestly, I don’t think most of us are just watching the action; I’m not anyway. We’re all praying and singing together and kneeling and meditating and listening to the readings and looking at various icons and windows and the altar and at our near neighbors. Some people are talking softly with their kids; some get up and walk around with their kids to keep them from being restless.

      We’re getting our spiritual and mental lives in order, IOW, and coming back to the meditative reality of weekly worship; for me at least it really has almost nothing to do with the “performers.” (But this is one good reason, if you think it does, for parishes to push the altars back to the wall and celebrate facing east again; one of the reasons priests keep trying to pull the altars away from the walls, so they say, is so that people can see them. Make up your minds, guys! ;-) )

      I think we should take a poll, in fact, and see which of these points of view is most prevalent.

      In any case, why would it be any different (except for sorer legs) for people standing and watching?

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