Concerning Large Diocesan Festal Liturgies

A customary for Large Eucharists Celebrated on Special Occasions

These notes are meant to guide those who must occasionally organize liturgies for special groups which do not usually meet together and may be gathering in a place unfamiliar to them. The assumptions are that these occasions are Eucharists, although there is no reason why such gatherings might not take place around the Daily Office.

Advance Planning

Arrange seating so that the readers, the intercessor or litanist, the cantor, and the preacher are in one area so that the MC can easily get to them during the ministry of the word and send them to the places where they are to read, lead, sing, pray, or preach. Similarly, have those who will be ministers of communion (except for the celebrants who will be at the altar) seated together so that they can move in one group to get their communion vessels.
Have the altar servers in one place. During the ministry of the Word of God, plan to have those presiding away from the altar, perhaps at chairs on one side of the altar.


It is hard to have anything uniform or matching unless you are in a place where there are very large sets of vestments with many stoles, places such as cathedrals. Generally, however, follow these guidelines: Lay ministers such as readers should wear cassock and surplice or street clothes. Acolytes should wear cassocks and surplices. Those assisting with holy communion might wear cassock, surplice, and stole. Other assisting clergy, such as preachers, might wear cassock, surplice, scarf and hood. Those presiding should wear eucharistic vestments.

It is not necessary to be absolutely slavish about colors. Special services by their very nature are festal, so you may wish to use white or gold. If the service is about mission or ministry or in some other way related to God the Holy Spirit, red may be effective. It is not suitable to have such liturgies during Lent and scheduling them during Advent may be a bad idea because of people’s heavy social schedules. However, a special liturgy using Advent blue or violet might be very effective depending upon the theme of the liturgy and its occasion.

Planning the service

We encourage using marshals for various groups of people who need to be given instructions, shepherded, or corrected. One marshall might organize the opening procession, telling people how to line up (a poster sometimes helps) where to sit or stand, how to receive Holy Communion and where and how to leave. Another marshall might coordinate the ushers, dealing with special seating, reservations in the nave, how to handle the collection of alms and the presentation of gifts, directions to Holy Communion, and the like. Another marshal might be in charge of the ministers of communion, telling them in advance where to get their vessels, any special rules about communion (such as whether dunk-it-yourself intinction is allowed), if there will be children wanting the sacrament, where to put their vessels when completed, and where to return at the end of administration of the sacrament. Another marshal might be in charge of all equipment, books, and paraphernalia, borrowing it, if need be, setting it up, and putting it away.


There are no hard and fast rule about processions. Many go in what is called indirect precedence, that is, those of greater dignity and rank at the end. Thus the order might be thurifer, crucifer, torches, banners, choirs (although it is almost always better to have them at their seats to lead the singing), visiting clergy, ministers of communion, readers of lessons, preachers, intercessors, deacons, concelebrants and Bishops. It is also customary in some traditions to place the thurifer after the crucifer. Sometimes it is effective to have the marshals of the various groups in procession right ahead of the groups so that they can be led to their places.

Some traffic direction is usually necessary. The procession or even whether to have one, may depend upon your geography–that is where people will be seated, how they might most effectively enter, etc.

Opening rites

It is probably best to keep them simple. Perhaps use the acclamation, skip the collect for purity, and then have the opening song of praise and the collect. The song of praise, sometimes the Gloria, should be familiar and easily singable for all present. On occasion, it can be sung by the choir alone.

The Ministry of the Word

The MC should direct the readers to the lectern as they are needed. A cantor should lead the singing of the psalm. At festal occasions, it is not appropriate to say the psalm. A pause of thirty seconds or more after each reading can allow people to reflect upon what they have just heard.

The gospel procession probably needs to be rehearsed carefully with the acolytes, the deacon or other reader of the gospel, whoever will hold the book, and the thurifer if one is used. The procession should go to an ambo or a pulpit or to the center of the church. This decision will be based upon audibility, availability of amplification if necessary, and simplicity. The deacon may go to the bishop or other celebrant for a blessing. The gospel book may be kept on the altar (having been placed there by the deacon at the end of the procession) until the gospel. Sometimes it is effective to manage this procession in this fashion: Send the thurifer and torches to some convenient station where they may wait for the deacon. Send the deacon and book bearer to the Bishop for the blessing. Direct the deacon and book bearer to the place where the thurifer and torches are waiting for them, and then take them all to the place where the gospel is to be read. After the gospel, send the procession back in the same order it came out. The bishop may wish to kiss (osculate) the book after the gospel. The MC should check this in advance.

Sermon, Creed, and Prayers

The Sermon follows. At large festal services, a brief homily may be most effective. The Nicene Creed will usually not be used at such services. It should only be used on Sundays or on major Holy Days and should be omitted at other times. The prayers should be done by a reader in some central place, perhaps before the altar or at the pulpit. The prayers are concluded by a Collect and this is one of the most important–and yet neglected–prayers in the liturgy. At a special service, this should be a prayer carefully chosen–and perhaps composed–for the occasion. As an example, a meeting of those concerned with ministry in higher education might choose a Collect for education or for those who teach and those who learn. The Collect should reflect the nature of the occasion.

There should be no General Confession. A penitential petition might be added to the Prayer of the People.

The Peace follows.


There are two steps to the offertory (l) table setting and alms gathering and (2)presentation of the gifts. The first part should be covered by music which the people do not have to sing. Do not use a hymn at this point; people are reaching for their wallets or checkbooks and they are busy. During this time, the deacons and servers might set up the vessels for the eucharist. Only one chalice should be prepared. The others should be left on a side table for later use. The altar book and its pillow or stand should be set up now.

Then, at the second step, (2) the presentation of the gifts, the deacons should receive the bread and wine from the ushers, receive the alms, and arrange everything. The simplest setups are best. It is often good to use perhaps two flagons of wine and one large container of bread. At some large services, experienced MC’s use a tray divided by a paper divider into the number of sections equal to the number of communion stations which will later appear. This makes it easy to transfer the number of particles necessary for each station. Such a tray is prepared before the service and handed to an usher in back who will bring it forward.

One acolyte should be prepared for the hand washing.

Have a side table (credence) set up with the extra chalices and the vessels into which the bread will be divided later. Now, and only now, are the Bishop and/or other presiders taken to the altar.

After all is arranged, the altar might be censed if that is the custom. Simple censings save time. First, the Bishop or other presiders might cense the altar, handing the thurible off to a deacon or to the thurifer. Then the thurifer might cense everyone at the altar at once. Then the thurifer might cense others around the altar–in groups–and then the rest of the congregations. Censing in groups is less focussed upon the hierarchy and more egalitarian. Some MCs have the thurible taken out at this point because some of our people are sensitive to incense (or prefer to believe that they are).

The Great Thanksgiving

During the Lord’s Prayer, the MC should direct the marshal to get the ministers of communion and bring them to some place near the credence table. This may be tricky if space is in short supply, so think this move through carefully. Alternately, these ministers may be moved into place during the offertory.

At the breaking of the Bread, the Deacon might take the sacrament to the credence table, fill the chalices and divide up the bread particles among the several vessels for bread set out at the table. Then, without receiving Communion themselves, the ministers of communion might find their way to their stations under the direction of the marshal.

At the Communion

At communion stations, the ministers can communicate each other and then set up their stations. Generally it is best to have two chalices and one administrator of bread at each station because the chalice takes longer to receive than the bread does. The ministers of communion should determine which set of communion sentences are to be used so that uniformity prevails.

Only when the stations are set up should the ushers begin to direct people to communion.

Those at the altar receive the sacrament from the principal presider and then proceed to their stations if they are assisting with communion or return to their chairs if they are not.


After holy communion, each minister of the sacrament returns his or her vessel to the credence table and leaves it there. There should be no ablutions. A deacon might cover all of the vessels with a white cloth (a postcommunion veil) and, in any event, all the ministers of communion return to place. The deacon should return to the credence after the liturgy and perform the ritual ablutions.

Conclusion of the service

After communion, the Bishop and or other celebrants should go back to the chairs from whence they led the ministry of the word.

The last permissible place for a hymn is right after the Postcommunion Prayer and before the blessing. No retiring hymn (the so-called “recessional”) is permitted by the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.

One way to end is to have the celebrant lead a Postcommunion Prayer, have a hymn, and during the hymn, have the acolytes go to get their equipment and move to a station to wait for the procession. Then, have the marshals go to the areas where their people are seated and prepare to put them in procession . Then the Bishop or other presider might give the Blessing and the deacon would say or sing the Dismissal. Then the procession starts out. As the procession passes each area of the church, the respective marshals might put their assigned people into the procession.

In some places, it is customary for only the Bishop, the others at the altar, the ministers of the Word of God, and the acolytes to leave in the retiring procession, the others remaining in church. This makes the procession shorter and easier to assemble, however it needs to be carefully rehearsed.

Books needed

One book for the celebrant for the first part of the service (up to the Peace) and the Postcommunion Prayer, Blessing and Dismissal. Sometimes the MC can take a service leaflet, if it is complete, blow it up on a copier, and put pages in a simple, dark binder.
An altar service: It is easy to make one yourself and better if you can put before the presider just what he or she will need without having to make choices or move to different parts of the book. Include the music for the sursum corda and preface, the Sanctus, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the Fraction and the Gifts of God for the People of God.

A lectionary book: A simple dark binder with the readings in it, in order, enlarged. Before each one write: “A reading from the book of _________________” and at the end of each one write: “The word of the Lord.”

Gospel book: This should be festal and lovely, and might contain just a single page with the gospel of the day printed upon it, along with how to announce it and how to conclude it.

Other notes

Mark each seat by both the name of the function and the name of the person: E.g.: Thurifer – Amanda Milholland.

An MC’s emergency kit should consist of: 3×5 cards, tape, magic markers, a three-hole puncher, an extra note book, and perhaps aspirin.