In the Fourth Nocturn

The Reformation utopian vision of frequent communion

One of the chief aims of the English reformers was to restore the ideal of congregations regularly receiving the sacrament at the mass. In the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, it had become usual for the laity to communicate only once per year, at Easter. The remaining 51 Sundays of the year were essentially celebrated as solitary masses, the priest being the only communicant — this being based on a misconceived notion of the ‘sacrifice of the mass’, by which mere presence for the service and adoration of the sacrament was considered to bring about the spiritual benefits of communion.1

To encourage this, the authors of the First Prayer Book wrote homilies (‘exhortations’) to be read before the communion. In a context in which the laity had been used to not communicating, there had to be a kind of large-scale re-catechesis of the English people: these exhortations were the means by which the reformers intended to carry out this ambitious project. In the modern prayer book there are three such exhortations, none of which are today heard with any regularity. It is clear from them that the reformers did not simply want the people take communion for the sake of taking communion: they wanted the laity to undertake similar preparations for reception throughout the year as they had previously done for their single reception per year at Easter (when the period of preparation had extended throughout the whole season of Lent):

The […] sacrament being so divine and holy a thing, and so comfortable to them which receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to take the same unworthily, my duty is to exhort you, in the mean season, to consider the greatness of the thing, and to search and examine your own consciences, and that not lightly, nor after the manner of dissimulers with God, but as they which should come to a most godly and heavenly banquet; not to come but in the marriage garment required of God in the Scripture; that you may (so much as lieth in you) be found worthy to come to such a table.

Similar ideas can be seen in the invitation to confession, which is still part of the prayer book and consequently far more frequently heard (emphasis mine):

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort …

There is but one contrast to the pre-Reformation expectations of preparation for the communion: an repudiation of the Roman Catholic doctrine that auricular confession is a mandatory aspect of this self-examination. Instead the emphasis is shifted to undertaking whatever acts of penitence and contrition will satisfy communicants’ own consciences, thereby endorsing by implication the truth of the Protestant teaching that nobody can know for themselves the extent of their own sinfulness:

If there be any of you whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that of us (as the ministers of God and of the Church) he may receive comfort and absolution, to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness; requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the priest; nor those also which think needful or convenient, for the quietness of their own consciences, particularly to open their sins to the priest, to be offended with them that are satisfied with their humble confession to God, and the general confession to the Church: but in all things to follow and keep the rule of charity; and every man to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men’s minds or consciences; whereas he hath no warrant of God’s Word to the same.

Even despite the attempt at mass re-education,2 this rapid and radical shift in doctrine was too much for many lay people to bear: the authors of the Articles of the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 demanded a restoration of the mediaeval abuse of the weekly solitary mass. Thomas Cranmer in his response to them wrote laudatorily of the practice of the apostolic Early Church, giving us an idea of just how frequently he hoped devout laity might communicate:

What injury do you to many godly persons, which would devoutly receive it many times, and you command the priest to deliver it them but at Easter! All learned men and godly have exhorted christian people (although they have not commanded them) often to receive the communion. And in the apostles’ time the people at Jerusalem received it every day, as it appears by the manifest word of the scripture. And after, they received it in some places every day; in some places four times in the week; in some three times; some twice; commonly everywhere at the least once in the week.3

It is not hard to see a utopian vision of English society with a reformed Church within the prayer book authors’ thinking: by encouraging frequent communion and all the necessary preparation and godly living which reception of the sacrament entailed, an entire nation in constant preparation to receive the holy communion on the coming Sunday, or even at several points during the week,4 would live a truly apostolic lifestyle, always being in love and charity with their neighbours. The corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church, they must have thought, were what had led to the corruption of society — and they had a chance to fix it.

What actually happened may be found in any English book of Church history: the English people, more stubborn in their custom of infrequent reception than the reformers had hoped, did not change their habits. Faced with this, the reformers gave in to popular practice (and to the Puritan emphasis on Word over Sacrament) and, in the 1552 revision of the prayer book,5 allowed the ante-communion (or ‘dry mass’, as it had hitherto been known) to be said alone on most Sundays, stipulating only that the faithful should communicate at Easter and two other times per year. That remains the state of the rubrics to this day; doubtless at the time, many did not even obey this relatively minimal requirement.

This is a great tragedy, for it robbed the English church not only of the opportunity for its laity to become frequent and worthy communicants, but of the frequent celebration of the eucharist entirely, for centuries.

Regular celebration and reception of communion has, in recent years, finally become commonplace in the Church, so in a sense the reformers’ wish has finally come true. This is only at some length the fruit of the reformers’ efforts — it has more to do with the Anglo-Catholic and Parish Communion movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. In another sense, however, what has happened is an even greater perversion of the 1549 reformers’ wishes than the previous settlement was, for in our modern church we have set aside any wish that, as communities, we might live such apostolic lives, in which worthy reception of the body of Christ is only the central symbol of the love and charity we share with all our neighbours, and of our commitment to full-time Christian living.

In the practice of the modern church there is almost no emphasis or even expectation of any particular preparation for reception of the Holy Communion. In Common Worship the three long exhortations are gone and replaced by the rubric (which most lay people will never even have chance to see) ‘Careful devotional preparation before the service is recommended for every communicant. A Form of Preparation for public or private use is provided.’6 The idea that preparation for communion is supposed to be of a devotional nature only, and that the relatively short ‘Form of Preparation’ service is sufficient, speaks volumes about how the official doctrine has been downgraded in response to the Parish Communion movement.

To condone, implicitly or explicitly, the idea that reception is open to all without the need to take the difficulties of discipleship seriously devalues the sacrament, and even the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood. It is a nightmare of Bonhoefferian ‘cheap grace’:

The sacraments […] are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! (The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 1)

Further, to receive without examination of ourselves not only cheapens the sacrament, but by extension it cheapens the whole idea of Christian life. To receive only carefully acknowledges the true nature of the gospel message: that to be a Christian and to live a Christ-like life is hard, and a task that none of us will always succeed at. When we do happen to fail at living Christianly for a while, we ought not to pretend that we have succeeded and to pretend anyway that we can lay claim to full membership in the Body of Christ.

As the reformers’ struggle for regular lay communion shows, though, worship habits die hard. It will not be easy to change peoples’ minds on this in an era when the cheapness of the sacrament is celebrated by opening the altar to the unbaptized, and even explicitly to non-Christians — especially when the Church itself is struggling to maintain attendance. Telling people things which they will interpret as meaning that they are not worthy to take communion is admittedly not a great way to improve membership figures. Reading out the exhortations leaves a parish open to accusations of aesthetic traditionalism, of reading the exhortation only because it seems like a cool and retro thing to do, while tacitly admitting ‘nobody believes that stuff any more’7; putting the same message in a newly-written sermon stinks of this kind of elitism.

But the message is not elitist. The Anglican emphasis, since the Reformation, has never been on telling people who can and cannot receive the sacrament. Bonhoeffer himself in the introduction to The Cost of Discipleship writes disdainfully that

The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast—burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations—that it has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ. […] Jesus invites all those that labour and are heavy laden, and nothing could be so contrary to our best intentions, and so fatal to our proclamation, as to drive men away from him by forcing upon them man-made dogmas.

The invitation to consider one’s own conscience in the sight of God — so central to the Anglican via media in many ways — ought to be considered central to our message on what discipleship means. The Christian message is not a legalistic ‘come to church and take communion every Sunday’. It is rather a deeper call to live, to the best of our abilities, as our Saviour did, however impossible that might seem; and the sacrament is a symbol of having heeded that calling, and taken seriously our faith in the commandments he gave us: to love God and to love each other.

Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, ‘Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it. What does anyone gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his life? What can he give to buy his life back? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this wicked and godless age, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Matthew 8:34–8, REB)

  1. This misconception was itself corrected within the Roman Catholic Church by the decrees of the Council of Trent, which likewise encouraged the laity to communicate more often, although unlike the reformed churches including the Church of England, it refused to admit (and anathemized the claim) that a mass at which only the priest communicates is itself an abuse.

  2. No pun intended.

  3. Although I have abbreviated this quotation for the sake of space, I encourage readers to continue reading from here, because the rest of Cranmer’s response is excellent, despite that even then he railed against some harmless ‘superstitions’ which are in truth (at least in their modern practice) little more than Christian story-telling aids.

  4. The First Prayer Book shows no intention to reduce the frequency of masses, which were held (and attended) daily in many churches before the Reformation.

  5. The 1549 communion office did include the rubric instructing one of the six collects to be used when no communion was to be celebrated — but there was no instruction as to the precise form of service intended to be said, unlike in later prayer books. It is quite likely that Cranmer’s intention in 1549 was simply to cover the possibility that, despite exhortation, none would approach the altar; and perhaps also to provide for the celebration of a Missa nautica, or reading of the epistle and gospel on board ship when the sacrament of the blood could not be safely handled without risk of spillage and thus desecration.

  6. p. 158, Main Volume.

  7. And, true, we ought to de-emphasize the parts of the exhortations which say that unworthy reception causes physical illness as a superstitious and overly literal interpretation of the relevant Scripture.