In the Fourth Nocturn

The time of approach

Further to my previous article on the time of approach to the altar to receive the holy communion, a careful Google Books search has provided me with two independent pieces of evidence on 18th (and possibly 17th) century practice: one by William Beveridge (1637–1708), Bishop of St Asaph, in his apparently posthumously published book The Great Necessity and Advantage of Publick Prayer and Frequent Communion (1709); and secondly a 1747 (eighth) edition of The New Week’s Preparation for a Worthy Receiving of the Lord’s Supper.

These texts suggest that the time of approach was even earlier than I speculated in my previous article — not only before the prayer for Christ’s Church, but before the offertory and the offertory sentences themselves.

First, the earlier source, Beveridge’s Great Necessity, presumably describing practices he had known throughout his life, includes prayers for communicants to say privately at the service, in this order: ‘Before going to the Altar’; ‘At going to the Altar’; ‘At prostrating before the Altar’; ‘Whilst others are coming up, and the Priest preparing to read the Sentences’; ‘At the Offertory’.

Second, the New Week’s Preparation provides a much more detailed outline of preparation and prayer, starting the week before reception and proceeding day by day, continuing smoothly into the devotions to be made during the communion service itself. The section immediately following a ‘prayer to be used as soon as Sermon is ended’ is a detailed annotated version of the prayer book liturgy from the offertory onwards entitled ‘The Companion for the Altar’, beginning:

Now, laying aside all Fears and Despondencies, proceed to the Communion Service, and then to the Sacrament, which as much Joy and Satisfaction, as a guilty Criminal would go to plead his Pardon at an Earthly Tribunal.

☞ At your Approach in the Chancel, drop all Thoughts of Things on Earth, and give up yourself wholly to the Remembrance of the Sufferings of our Saviour, lifting up your Soul to him in these Words:

I will wash my Hands in Innocence, O Lord, and so will I compass thy Altar, that I may shew the Voice of Thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wonderous Works.


¶ Then shall the Priest return to the Lord’s Table (etc., rubric from the prayer book)

The movement of communicants from nave to chancel immediately after the sermon may also explain the 18th century practice of non-communicants leaving the church entirely after the sermon.

The New Week’s Preparation also suggests that my hypothesis that the communicants would remain in place for the prayers of thanksgiving after reception is incorrect: the private devotion entitled ‘A Prayer of Thanksgiving as soon as we are retired from the Lord’s Table’ comes immediately after reception and before the Lord’s Prayer. The rubrics are fairly clear that communicants should withdraw at some point before the blessing,1 but I had assumed this would be before or during the Gloria, since the Lord’s Prayer and thanksgiving or oblation belong to the canon and not the dismissal in the old mass. But if the approach before the offertory is in any way a continuance of a mediaeval custom, it makes sense that the communicants would have continued to withdraw at the point in their own devotions at which they had always been accustomed to (i.e., directly after receiving) notwithstanding that the content of the prayers following reception had originally belong to the part of the service they would have been in the chancel for.

When did the modern practice of approaching after the consecration arise?

An account of the Rev. Robert Walker (1709–1802) quoted by Wordsworth and published 1820 in The Edinburgh Magazine reads (emphasis mine):

There is a small chapel, in the county palatine of Lancaster, where a certain clergyman has regularly officiated above sixty years, and a few months ago administered the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the same, to a decent number of devout communicants. After the clergyman had received himself, the first company out of the assembly who approached the altar, and kneeled down to be partakers of the sacred elements, consisted of the parson’s wife, … (etc.)

More precisely datable accounts doubtless exist, but as Walker was appointed to the church of Seathwaite, Lancashire in 1736, and this account apparently dates from a time when he had been serving his chapel for over sixty years, apparently the modern practice was common enough not to be surprising by 1796 or earlier, but practice may have varied from church to church for significantly longer. Sources or further information would be appreciated.

  1. The rubric concerning disposal of the remaining consecrated sacrament reads: ‘the Priest, and such other of the Communicants as he shall then call unto him, shall, immediately after the Blessing, reverently eat and drink the same’. But the priest would not need to call the communicants back to him if they had remained ‘conveniently placed for the receiving of the holy Sacrament’.