Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Love a Parade

It’s been years now since I saw a video on liturgical renewal featuring Robert E. Webber, professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, but it left a lasting impression on me. In the video, Webber strongly advocated having at the top of the worship service a formal procession of choir and clergy with other worship leaders, moving from the entrance to the front of the room during the congregational singing of a hymn.

I remember being impressed with how strongly he urged viewers to go home and establish a procession as a necessary ingredient to Sunday worship. Webber was sure this would make a significant improvement in the quality of liturgy. I think he had a point.

I don’t remember all Webber’s reasons that everyone ought to start off with an entrance processional, but over the years I’ve come up with my own.

While the active participants in a processional would seem to be the leaders/enablers of the people’s worship, in a real way the people themselves take part. They are not mere bystanders viewing the festivities from the curb. The people are drawn into the procession by their singing, and by following its progress from entrance to front.

The procession will be headed up by a person carrying a large cross—that person is known as a “crucifer,” a cross-bearer. This becomes the visual focus of the procession that all can follow. The cross, of course, is the sign of our risen Lord, whom we are to follow throughout life. As we begin our Lord’s Day worship, we are visually reminded who has led us to this place.

The first words preceding the processional hymn will call the people’s attention to the cross—the people then stand and face the entrance and turn to follow the cross as it passes. This part of the service is led from the baptismal font, which is ideally placed near where people come into the church.

A procession is, like all liturgical actions, symbolic. The parade of worship leaders stands for the entrance of all worshippers as well, and the procession then has the effect of assembling the people into one worshipping community.

There is a certain solemnity to a formal procession. It signals the seriousness of the occasion. We do not “come before” the Almighty casually. The procession in song is in effect an audio-visual call to worship that sets the tome for the whole service.

At the same time, the action is celebrative. We all love parades because they ring with rejoicing, and the procession into church should be no exception. The hymn accompanying the entrance will be up-beat and all will sing full-voiced.

There are those, I suppose, who can go over the top with a processional and make it into a spectacle. The marchers can proceed in lock-step via a round-about route, when all they need to do is go directly from one place to another, rejoicing. There does not need to be fretting and fussing over details. If someone makes a “mistake,” it just proves they are human. Overdoing this entrance parade can make the whole thing stilted and rigid, and ultimately boring.

(The other half of the processional is the exit parade, the recessional. The symbolic significance is very much the same, except now we are entering the world following our Lord. Again the congregation participates in the parade visually and vocally.)

Now all of this is well and good, and having a procession to start off our worship service is a good idea, but there are barriers to what I’ve described—architectural barriers.

For example, in two of the churches where I often preach, a processional of choir and clergy and other worship leaders would be very difficult, if not impossible, without major architectural changes.

In one church, the choir is situated at the back of the congregation, just inside the entrance. So they have no place to process to—they’re already there. This arrangement is designed to provide maximum choral support for congregational singing. It also minimizes treating anthems as performances and encourages choral work as accompaniment to prayerful contemplation.

The other church arrangement is different. The choir is placed behind the pulpit and lectern on a high platform. To get there they’d not only have to climb a number of steps, but funnel through a small gate to their places. When I’ve preached there, the worship leaders assembled in a coat room off the choir loft, and simply took their places when the service was ready to start. The good part of that arrangement is that, considering the configuration of the whole room, the choir is in an excellent position to encourage congregational singing.

For a processional coming in and an exiting recessional, a lot depends on what architecture offers or restricts. Sometimes minor changes or rearrangement of furniture can make enough difference.

Do you have a processional/recessional in your worship service? Do you have a crucifer? Does your architecture present barriers?


  1. In the congregation I served before this one, we had a procession of the choir and ministers, but the organist was already in place, and there was a separate music director. In the formality of that rather large sanctuary, the procession made sense and turned peoples' attention to the beginning of worship. There really was no space for silent meditation though.

    The congregation I now serve has a smaller sanctuary and one organist/minister of music. While a procession feels right for certain festival days, like Palm Sunday and Pentecost, I think it would be more difficult to achieve every week. By having the choir, lay leader, and pastor walk in together (though at the front), we strive to set the tone for the beginning of worship. The welcome is followed by an organ voluntary and a time for silent meditation. However, the acolytes process forward after that- so perhaps we have blend. We mark the beginning of worship by making the shift from "getting here to being here" and have a procession by the acolytes.

  2. There are processions and there are processions. While I agree that a choral procession is preferable due to the music and singing involved, as well as the number of participants, sometimes that is not possible or advisable due to architecture -- not to mention the occasionally-balky choir. An acceptable alternative is a procession involving all others who will be leading worship -- clergy, lay readers, acolytes, and yes, hopefully, a crucifer. Protestants can sometimes beef up the ranks on Communion Sundays (yes, they **ought** to be every week!)by adding the Communion servers. In addition, there may be someone carrying a pitcher of water for the font, someone carrying a Bible, or someone bringing vessels for the Table. (Ordinarily the bread and wine are brought forward closer to the time for Communion, but sometimes they too may be properly presented at the beginning of worship.)

    I love processions! Aside from theological reasons, they simply thrill my soul and add a lot to my appreciation of the worship they introduce.

  3. Thanks, Donna and Reford, for your thoughtful and creative responses. I especially like the idea of bringing in the water for the baptismal font and the elements for the eucharist (or the tableware if Communion is not celebrated) as a visible reminder that both sacraments are central to our liturgy, even when they are not observed.

    I agree with Reford that a procession is exciting and brings a sense of dignity to this wondrous and mysterious celebration.

    Thanks for your comments.


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