Processions: A dissertation together with practical suggestions

I have recently acquired a short book published in 1932 by Bishop Colin Dunlop (1897-1968) who was, in 1955, appointed as the first chair of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England. In his short book ‘Processions: A dissertation

together with practical suggestions’ he outlines the nature of religious procession historically and in current form. He is critical of the decline of the proper use of procession and makes a series of suggestions of how it can be reinstated as, “a liturgical means of leading modern congregations into a more ready understanding of the Christian faith” (p. 9).

In the first section of the book Dunlop charts the history of processions. He makes the link between processions and pilgrimages in that processions had a purpose and were directional.

“Plainly these processions are not mere marching for the sake of marching; they are made in order to arrive at certain holy places; on arrival lessons are read and prayers are said appropriate to the place and season at which the visit is made” (p. 11)

Indeed, this is something that I have been reflecting on in terms of defining a procession and there seems to be a general agreement that a procession leads somewhere. However, he comments that processions have shifted from plain to becoming more lavish and whilst he is not critical of this necessarily he appears to be more aggrieved with processions that have no purpose. He speaks of processions that take place within churches and how they often end up where they started – for him this is not defined as a procession. He draws on the 1883 work of Canon T. A Lacey ‘ The Liturgical Use of the Litany and quotes him directly…

“A perambulation alone is not a procession: A procession means going somewhere to do something. It is not necessary to say or do anything while going; but the priest and clerks must have somewhere to go and something to do when they get there.”

The more lavish processions of the Middle Ages, which he labels ‘propaganda’ (albeit not necessarily in a critical manner):

“The Middle Ages witnessed a luxuriant growth in all kinds of religious devotion and ceremonial. A tendency to become more and more complex, to exaggerate and to stereotype, was slowly at work.” (p. 13)

Despite this he still years for a more simple and directional form of procession to be integrated in liturgy:

“One could wish that Processions were conceived more as acts of worship and less as spectacles to be glanced at, and that they were normal acts of worship in a variety of ways rather than reserved only for festivals as signs of rejoicing.” (p. 27-28)

I think this is what is interesting in terms of the images of the Whit Walks and masses of spectators coming out to see the processions on the streets of Manchester during the heyday of the Walks. Indeed, I often wonder about the role of the Whit Walks as placing less of an emphasis on the religious feast day celebrations and more of an emphasis on gathering as a Church community. The Whit Walks are directional and have a purpose – they make their way to the Town Hall in Manchester for a short ceremony. However, what is evident in my own observations more than anything is a sense of place and community. Dunlop suggests that if treated as a spectacle, processions do nothing and “the only thing people can do is look.”

Interestingly, Dunlop calls for more variety in annual processions. The use of banners, hymns and crosses are repeated year on year and he asks that more variation be considered:

“In the old days at Salisbury they knew better, and by deliberate use or non-use of the various crosses and banners gave each procession an added significance” (p. 29)

Indeed, we argue that despite looking very similar year on year, there is variation (paper under review) but I think his point is well made in that maybe more variation will help secure the future of such traditions.

I still have the ‘practical suggestions’ to read in this book and will post further then.


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