Presiding from which chair?

Chair of St. Augustine of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral

As one who teaches not just liturgical history to all sorts of students, but also practical liturgics to ordinands training for the priesthood, my students and I inevitably discuss the placement of priest at various points in the rite. A good answer to these question is not as easy as one might think.

One of the significant changes in the Missal of Paul VI is the place from which the priest presides for parts of the Mass. The most notable difference is that the entirety of the Entrance Rite is said from the chair (see no. 50 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, hereafter GIRM). Neither the GIRM (see no. 68) nor the Missal’s rubrics specify if the presiding priest must be at the chair for the Creed, but it is clear that he must be there for the Prayer of the Faithful (“It is for the priest celebrant to direct this prayer from the chair;” GIRM, no.71). After the Ablutions of the chalice and paten, the rubrics indicate that the priest “may return to the chair” and that the Prayer after Communion is to be said “standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people” (no. 138 and 139).

The chair is described later in the GIRM in this way:

Presiding Chair and Altar, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (AD 547)

The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. Thus the best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede this: for example, if the great distance would interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the center behind the altar. Any appearance of a throne, however, is to be avoided. (GIRM, no. 310)

These changes had practical effect on many Anglicans in this country elsewhere, including the Episcopal Church, where I am a priest. Interestingly, however, none of the changes I just described are reflected in the rubrics of our prayer book that was revised after the first edition of the new Roman Missal (ours is known as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer).

Pope Francis celebrating versus populum

A few general differences between our churches are important to keep in mind. First, there is nothing equivalent to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the Episcopal Church (and as one who teaches liturgy, I can tell you that there are times when it would be extremely helpful if there was!). Second, and related to the first, is that one of the principal ways that Cranmer edited the liturgy was to reduce and redact rubrics. Thus, from the beginning, there has been a very minimal use of rubrics, which means there is also nothing exactly parallel to the sort of direction and specificity given in the rubrics of the Roman Missal for American Anglicans. This raises an question about the nature of ritual after the reformation, but that is discussion for another time. Third, there isn’t anything exactly equivalent to the Roman Missal. The Altar Book provided by the Episcopal Church does not have authority; only to the extent that is reproduces some materials in the Book of Common Prayer is it “official.” This was another reformation concern: that the book used for worship be the same for both priest and laypersons.

17th century Anglicans celebrating at the North End

The ’79 BCP, in fact, provides even less direction about where one is to preside than previous prayer books. The first two American books (1789 and 1892) both indicate that the Minister is to stand “at the right [i.e. north] side of the table, or where Morning and Evening Prayers are appointed to be said” for the opening of the Holy Communion liturgy. The 1928 Book revised this and instead directs that “the Priest” is to stand “reverently before the Holy Table.” The current BCP gives no direction at the opening of the rite for the Holy Eucharist.

Pope Francis celebrating ad orientem over the tomb of St. Pope John Paul II, St. Peter’s Basilica

The only other direction about placement or orientation of celebration in any of the American prayer books comes at the opening dialogue of the Eucharistic Prayer. Before the initial salutation, the rubrics read, “The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest, faces them [the People] and sings or says” (the previous American books assume the priest is already facing the People because the Absolution has just been given). Then, after “It is meet and right so to do/It is right to give him thanks and praise,” the rubrics read, “Then shall the Priest turn to the Lord’s/Holy Table, and say,” or in ’79, “Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds.” In other words, they all appear to assume an ad orientem celebration. (Now, since the ’79 does not use the verb ‘turn,’ the ’79 rubrics don’t prohibit versus populum celebrations, of course, since if one is facing the People across the Altar for the opening Dialogue, one need not turn to fulfill the requirement, “then, facing the Holy Table”). On this question in general, I encourage you to check out Lizette Larson-Miller’s recent post on orientation in Anglican eucharistic celebrations, where she notes that ad orientem simply does not carry the same political baggage as it can in the Catholic world.

Contemporary presidential chair

Because the GIRM and the Missal provide clear directions about the placement of the presider at the chair for particular parts of the rite, this necessitated architectural alterations to many Catholic churches. Not surprisingly, some Anglicans followed Rome in this matter, and for good reason. The Roman Rite has served as the basis for Anglicans in many ceremonial directions (e.g. Patrick Malloy, in his very helpful Celebrating the Eucharist (Church Pub. 2007) offers this as his sixth principal for making sound liturgical decisions: “When neither the rubrics nor the canons dictate what to do and reason does not provide a solution, the Roman Rite is a good place to start”). In fact, it is not uncommon for people thinking about these things to make it a principle that one simply follows all the rubrics of the Roman Rite (which was often the Missal of Pius V, even after the Missal of Paul VI was promulgated) in the absence of Prayer Book rites.

Sedilia in the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary

The problem comes when one follows the current Roman rubrical directions without a church with a true presidential chair. Apparently many Anglican priests were told that celebrating anything outside of the Eucharistic Prayer while at the altar is liturgically improper. The result is somewhat strange: a priest leading parts of the liturgy from a sedilia or choir stall seat that faces 90 degrees away from the people. In some cases (like in my seminary’s monastic-style chapel), leading from the sedilia literally makes the celebrant invisible to nearly have the congregation.

The options when celebrating from this location are all less than ideal: (a) facing south for all prayers (most sedilia’s are on the liturgically-north side of a church) and treating it as liturgical east, and then turning to the People when addressing them; (b) turning at something like a 45 degree angle for the entire time when standing; (c) doing the “peak-a-boo” (I’ve seen this!), where the priest sort of leans towards the center to try and get better eye contact when addressing the people. Anglicans have tended to be less practiced in having a server or acolyte hold the book for the celebrant, which makes these scenario’s even more awkward, since the priest is often holding the book while attempting to preside at the liturgy.

Chancel in the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary

My sense is that in non-Catholic churches with a sedilia and no presidential chair, there are two good options. The first, is to stand before the altar (i.e. facing the same direction as the people, except when addressing them) for the Entrance Rites, the Creed, and the Intercessions, with a server holding the book for the priest as necessary. Then, go to the altar (whether celebrating ad orientem or versus populum) for the offertory through the ablutions. Then, I think it is probably best to remain there for the post-communion prayer, blessing, and dismissal. The second option is simply to preside at the altar for the entirety of the rite, again, whether ad orientem or versus populum, facing the people every time they are directly addressed if the former orientation is used.

As I often tell my students, “the building always wins.” And if there is no presidential chair (and in many churches, radical architectural changes would be required for one to be present), the sedilia can never be treated as if it is a de facto presidential chair. They are both seats; but their orientation in relationship to the people indicates their different purposes. The sedilia is intended only as a place to sit during the readings (and homily, if there are multiple ministers); the presidential chair as a place from which to preside. Trying to make the building say something other than what is says only results in a cacophony.


  1. Just a small note. The photo of Pope Francis is at a side altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, over the tomb of John Paul II. He is celebrating an early morning weekday Mass. the only public ad orientem Masses that PopeBenedict XVI celebrated were a few Masses in the Sistine Chapel, where he judged the architecture to only be conducive to ad orientem celebrations. On the other hand Pope Francis celebrates versus populum in the Sistine Chapel on a temporary altar (as was the practice of John Paul II

      1. Thanks Matthew.
        I stand corrected. It must have been only his Inaugural Mass there that he celebrated on the versus populum altar. [ ].

        In any case there is no doubt that he is opposed to efforts to promote an exclusively ad orientem celebration: Holy See Press Office Communiqué: Some clarifications on the celebration of Mass, 11.07.2016 available at

  2. In Westminster Cathedral the Archbishop’s throne is on the North side of the sanctuary and the archbishop presides from there, when he is celebrant. However it is not easy to see from the nave, and in my experience he does not preach from there (despite it’s role as the seat from which the bishop speaks). Priests (in the Cathedral) always preside from an arrangement like that in your sixth picture (contemporary).
    Unusually, London has two Metropolitan Cathedrals, and less than two miles apart. St. Georges, Southwark, used to have a similar arrangement, but has been remodelled, with the altar moved below the crossing and the cathedra behind it. Archbishops there preside and preach from the chair.

    1. Yes, thanks for pointing that out; what is normative definitely would change when it comes to bishops and presiding from their cathedra. My hope was to address something rather limited, the more usual setting of the parish Mass.

      1. Agreed, but I also wanted to point out that north side does not work for the teaching function of a cathedra. I think that reads through to any sedile, you can’t address people without facing them (even with modern amplification aids). So you first have to decide which parts of the liturgy are directly talking to people, which parts are for listening, and which parts are addressed to God.

  3. When Fr Jerry Ryle was the pastor of North Highlands, Sacramento, I think I’m right in saying that for the introductory rites and concluding rites he would preside from a chair placed in the front row of the people. He would stand facing the people. During the Liturgy of the Word he would turn and sit down, facing the ambo, visibly listening to the Word of God along with his people. He only mounted the sanctuary steps for the Gospel (if he was proclaiming it) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

    1. Another cathedral example I recall, rather vaguely. Some years ago a US cathedral remodeled with the cathedra on the south side, facing the altar, and the ambo facing across from the north side. That emphasises the presidential role and the altar, I don’t know how it comes across to the congregation.

  4. I think it’s pretty common in Catholic cathedrals to have the cathedra on the (liturgical) north side, with the bishop facing south. That’s the way it is in Baltimore and the archbishop simply turns to the people when addressing them. He’s quite visible to everyone (or as visible as he can be in our rather vast cathedral). Cardinal Keeler used to preach from the cathedra as well, but our current Archbishop preaches from the ambo/pulpit.

    In my parish, the seats for presider and deacon are also on the north side, facing south. We, however, are down on the same level as the people. This is an arrangement that dates from a remodel in the 1970s (we’ve remodeled again since then, but have kept the same arrangement), and was based on the egalitarian idea that the priest/deacon and people should all be seated on the same level, so that the priest is among the people and not standing over and against them (not unlike what Paul describes above). The difficulty is that you can’t really preside from that position because nobody can see you. So we go and stand in front of the altar for the entrance rite, the creed and intercessions, and the prayer after communion and blessing/dismissal. So the presider’s chair really serves simply as the place where the presider sits, not the place from which he presides. I think it works OK, but it is clearly not what the GIRM envisions. I would suggest we think about relocating the presider’s chair, or try having the presider be at the chair throughout the Entrance Rite and Liturgy of the Word (maybe the presider doesn’t need to be seen in order to preside), but I have other things that are higher on my liturgical to-do list.

  5. Matthew,
    Is there some liturgical reason for not taking an approach such as Paul mentions above? It seems to me that the altar does not have a role in the opening rite and the liturgy of the Word, so it would be permissible to follow such an approach after having reverenced the altar at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.

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