At a communion service according to the Book of Common Prayer, when are the communicants supposed to enter the chancel and approach the communion table to receive the sacrament?
In practice, the answer now (apparently for the last several centuries) is after the ‘Prayer of Consecration’ (i.e. after the words ‘… as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me. Amen.’) But the text of the rubrics of the 1662 BCP seem to at least accommodate, even to direct, a different, older practice.
The rubric before the third exhortation (‘at the time of the Celebration of the Communion’) directs that the exhortation should be read with ‘the Communicants being conveniently placed for the receiving of the holy Sacrament’. This implies that e.g. if the communicants are to receive the sacrament kneeling at a communion rail (as the Laudian authors of this rubric doubtless hoped), they should already be there for the exhortation, and remain there throughout the confession, preface, humble access, and institution narrative.
Obiter dictum: The reading of the exhortations
All three exhortations are printed in the communion service between the prayer for Christ’s Church and the confession, but only the third is to actually be read at that point. The rubric before the first exhortation, covering also the second, directs that those exhortations should be read ‘after the Sermon or Homily ended’. This was a change from the practice in the 1552–1604 prayer books, which clearly directed all of the exhortation to be read (one after the other!) after the prayer for the Church. The Laudian/episcopalian party involved in the revision of the prayer book in 1662, from early on in their thinking, saw that the exhortations were more of the nature of a sermon than a prayer and therefore should be read in the pulpit, not from the chancel. Bishop Matthew Wren’s Advices, containing his own notes on his proposals for revision, suggests that the rubric begin
Warning shall be duly given for every Communion, by the Minister, upon the Sunday before, next after the Nicen Creed at Morning Prayer […]
(i.e. just before the sermon), and a proposed revision in the Durham Book (the episcopal party’s early attempt at a draft proposed prayer book combining all their wishes) read (emphasis mine)
When the Curate shall see the people negligent to come to the holy Communion, he shall use this Exhortation in the pulpit after the Sermon or Homilie there ended, upon ye Sunday or some Holyday before he intendeth to celebrate ye same.
The time of approach
At services with communion, then, by the reading of the third exhortation, the communicants should already be placed for receiving the consecrated bread and wine. But when should they actually have moved from their seats in the nave to this position?
The 1549 prayer book had an explicit rubric to this effect, directing that, at the offertory,
so many as are disposed, shall offer unto the poore mennes boxe every one accordynge to his habilitie and charitable mynde. […]
Then so manye as shalbe partakers of the holy Communion, shall tary still in the quire, or in some convenient place nigh the quire, the men on the one side, and the women on the other syde. All other (that mynde not to receive the said holy Communion) shall departe out of the quire, except the ministers and Clerkes.
The expectation was, then, that the poor box would be somewhere in the chancel and parishioners would approach it at the offertory to put their money in, and remain (‘tarry still’) there if they wanted to communicate, otherwise returning to their places in the nave.
In 1552 though, this rubric was gone and, though the poor box remained, it was to be approached only by the churchwardens (‘or some other by them appointed’) after gathering the offerings of the people, more like a modern offertory collection.
The BCP editions from 1552 to 1604 contain no direction at all for when the communicants would approach the altar, but presumably the intention was to maintain something like the 1549 practice. But with the offering of money now done by the churchwardens on behalf of the people, were they then expected to enter the chancel after the offertory having remained in their seats for the collection? Or after the prayer for Christ’s Church? Or, more confusingly, following the direction of the priest when he told them to ‘draw near with faith’?
There remains also a third option, that the intending communicants should be in the quire from the start of the service ready to receive. But this can be ruled out on various grounds: in most churches, this would mean the communicants would be sitting behind the pulpit during the sermon; the gathering of people in the quire, assuming they did not sit in the stalls (which would be occupied by choristers in large churches), would inconveniently block the way of the priest on the way to the pulpit and lectern; and if it were done that way, there would be no need for the rubric asking people to give notice of their intention to communicate for the priest so he may know how many will receive with him, since he could see them in the chancel at the start of the service.
In 1549 the words ‘draw near with faith’ followed the consecration, with the communicants having already been in the quire since the offertory, and so the ‘drawing near’ was most certainly in a spiritual, not a literal sense. Further, we have already seen that the 1662 book’s authors intended the communicants to be in place before this point. To this end several of the bishops’ proposals in 1662 suggested deleting the ‘draw near’ language from that short preface to the confession to avoid confusion, including Wren’s Advices and John Cosin’s Particulars. So the ‘draw near with faith’ point for entering the chancel can likewise be ruled out: the people should already physically be in place by that point.
Ruling out either the offertory or the exhortation as the time at which communicants should approach is considerably less clear-cut. Essentially, the only evidence within the 1662 book or any of the drafts of it that I can find is that final form of the rubric for the third exhortation, ‘the Communicants being conveniently placed for the receiving of the holy Sacrament’. But even this is unclear: the passive language used suggests that by the time of the reading of the third exhortation, the people should already be so ‘conveniently placed’. This may suggest an earlier approach to the altar, before the prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church (which, in 1549, followed the Sanctus and therefore was also prayed with the communicants in the quire prepared to receive), but does not give a clear indication.
In the absence of any clear rubric, it is difficult to know which of these two positions the approach should have. Nor is it easy to appeal to any precedent other than 1549, because the question depends on the complicated nature of the prayer for Christ’s Church. In terms of liturgical history, the prayer for the Church fills three distinct rôles at once: as the first part of the prayer book’s ‘disjointed canon’, in which case it is part of the communion rite and the people should be appropriately placed for it; as the reformers’ reintroduction of the ancient oratio fidelium, in which case it is part of the ‘pro-mass’ and not the communion itself, and should be said in the same place as the rest of that part of the service, i.e. the nave; and as an offertory prayer replacing the mediaeval secreta, in which case it has an ambiguous position between the two possibilities.
For an abundance of caution, I would suggest the approach to be after the prayer for the Church, since that is the only point at which a rubric explicitly mentions the people’s placement to receive the sacrament. Nonetheless the reformers’ intentions were clear: that the intending communicants should be in their places to receive the sacrament throughout the whole eucharistic prayer, even including the confession, and thereby to create an integrated communion rite in which the people were present in the chancel for the whole act of penitence, celebration, reception, and thanksgiving — despite having apparently ‘disjointed’ the canon of the mass into multiple scattered pieces. While numbers of communicants are now generally too large, and churches too small, for so many to be crowded into the quire for so long, it’s worth considering how the intended posture for the entire second half of the 1662 communion service at the time held the catholicity of the service together despite the arrangement of its elements having been much criticized.
Update: I later found more evidence on this question.