Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Kneeling, Altar Rails, and Making a Good Communion

Holy Communion
Administered by a Priest and Deacon in the 17th Century.
Anglican practice is that the altar (a.k.a. "Holy Table", the same word used in the Byzantine Rite) is enclosed by communion rails.  This was mandated in the early 17th century as a guard against Puritan abuse of the Blessed Sacrament. In the Anglican tradition, Communion is to be received kneeling (unless one is prevented from doing so by bodily infirmity).*  

The communicant, in order to receive the sacrament, must have repented of the sins of which he or she is aware, and to have confessed them to God. The absolution given by the priest at the General Confession in Morning and Evening Prayer and in the mass is deemed sufficient, unless the person has committed notorious public sin. Confession to a priest is to be resorted to when one is in need of counsel, or when one otherwise wishes to do so, and is highly recommended.  Whenever the penitent perceives that she or he has committed mortal sin (a sin of grave matter, committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent) then for "the removal of all scruple and doubt, the assurance of parson, and the strengthening of your faith"** the penitent should seek out a priest for confession, counsel, and absolution.  When one has committed notorious public sin, then confession and repentance to the curate***  and reconciliation is necessary before admittance to Holy Communion.  

In addition to repentance and confession, the Anglican formularies require that one have faith that one is receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, as it is through such faith that Christ is received. While there are many possible ways of looking at the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a bare memorialism, that is thinking of the Eucharist as only our remembering of Christ without any actual reception of His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, is not within the bounds of Anglican theology and dogma.  Those who are unrepentant of their sins or who do not have faith that they are receiving Christ in Holy Communion do themselves great spiritual harm: "For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (I Cor. 11:29).  

Anglicans are bidden to "prepare themselves carefully"** before receiving Holy Communion.  This includes not only examining one's conscience, and some prayer time for preparation, but Anglican tradition is to fast prior to receiving the sacrament. The traditional fast was from all food and drink from midnight, but, depending on one's health, this may be modified. (My standard rule is for three hours from all solid food before receiving Communion, and for one hour before all liquids.) 

Prior to the Reformation Anglicans received Communion in one kind only, the host, and on the tongue (not however the most ancient practice, see below).  The original post-Reformation practice was to take the Sacrament of the Body of Christ from the communion plate offered by the priest, it being leavened bread and cut up into cubes by a knife, and to put it directly in one's mouth, being careful to guard against the loss of crumbs.  Aprons (esp. for ladies) or houselling cloths (white cloths attached to the altar rail and held underneath the communicant's mouth while receiving) were employed to catch any crumbs that might fall.  Later Anglican practice advocated by the Tractarians and eventually universally adopted, followed the counsel of St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Mystical Catecheses:  The communicant is to come up to the Communion Rail, kneel down, and receive the Host on the right hand, supported by the left hand as by a "throne," and receive by lifting the palm of the hand to their mouths, and then checking, (as St. Cyril insists), that no crumb remain: "be careful that no particles fall, for what you lose would be to you as if you had lost some of your members. Tell me, if anybody had given you gold dust, would you not hold fast to it with all care, and watch lest some of it fall and be lost to you? Must you not then be even more careful with what is more precious than gold and diamonds, so that no particles are lost?"† 

Many Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics) also receive on the tongue, both out of reverence, and also to avoid profanation of the sacrament from dropping it.  This is also a perfectly acceptable practice.  (When administering communion in either fashion, I make sure that the paten is kept close to catch anything that falls.)  

The chalice is usually received by bringing the chalice to the mouth by gently grasping to the base while the minister holds the chalice at the knob, and tilting the cup so as to get a sip.

Following the universal tradition of the Church, and following the Anglican formularies, and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the proper matter for the Eucharist as ordained by Christ are wheat bread and (fermented) grape wine. One receives both Christ's Body and Blood by receiving either, but it is usual Anglican practice to receive both, and the priest must do so, and, the Anglican practice, mandated by the rubric of the 1979 BCP, is to make both species available separately.‡  If one is unable to receive either the species of the bread or the wine, one may thus receive only one, and the smallest amount of either is sufficient to receive both our Lord's Body and Blood.  If one is incapable of consuming any amount of either, then one makes what is called a "spiritual communion"  telling our Lord that one is unable to receive the sacrament, and asking for the spiritual benefits thereof, which one may be sure sure to receive under the same conditions as actual reception of the sacrament.  


The rubric requires that the Priest and other Ministers reverently consume what is left over after communion, unless some is to be reserved (for the Communion of the sick or shut-in) in a hanging pyx or tabernacle.  To do otherwise is a grave sin of sacrilege.  The only condition under which the Sacrament may be otherwise disposed of is if, for some reason, it may be polluted or poisoned and rendered undrinkable or uneatable.  Then it should be so dissolved in water as to be effectively no longer bread or wine, and poured on holy ground — down the piscinum, a special sink which drains on holy ground, is the usual practice; if there is no piscinum, then the water may be poured on the church yard.

In these times we are subject to many abuses. Disposing of the sacrament in some other way than that outlined above, attempting to consecrate something other than wheat bread or fermented wine, or attempted consecration by a person not validly ordained to the presbyterate to do so, are grave sins of blasphemy ("taking God's name in vain" by purporting to do in His name that which He has not commanded) and sacrilege (misuse or attempted misuse of sacred things). The faithful, being mindful of the damage done to their souls and the souls of others by such abuses, should absent themselves from services where such take place, and would be justified in making a formal complaint to the bishop.


An excellent summary of eucharistic doctrine employing the Anglican methodology of theology is to be found in E.L. Mascall's Corpus Christi: Essays on the Church and the Eucharist (1953), which I commend for your reading. 


*All previous prayer books, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (one of the Anglican formularies) mandate communion kneeling. However the present Book of the Episcopal Church has no rubric as to the position of the communicant.  The usual rule, when something is not referred to in new legislation, is to refer to previous legislation.  However, in many places, the practice of standing for communion has been so long in force that it has acquired the force of custom in canon law.  However, it must be said, in a Western context, that is it less reverent; it leads far more often to occasions of sacrilege (as I have seen many many times); and it is not the Anglican tradition.

**The Exhortation, BCP 1979, p. 316–317


***In the Anglican formularies, the term "curate" refers to the rector, vicar, priest-in-charge, or other priest with pastoral responsibility for a parish, mission, chaplaincy, or house of religion.  The Anglican formularies are the essential post-Reformation texts for doctrine discipline and worship, accepted of necessity by all Anglicans.  They are the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, together with the necessary canonical legislation which it assumes, especially the canons of 1608–1609, (which have greater force for us in this country, having never been replaced in the U.S., our canons being an addition thereto), the Articles of Religion, and the Ordinal, both included in the BCP 1662.  Their understanding and interpretation is dependent upon and subject first to the authority of Holy Scripture, and then to catholic tradition (catholicity being an article of the creed and an essential mark for the Church) in particular the writings of the Church Fathers.  

†h/t Fr. Hunwicke

‡"Opportunity is always to be given to every communicant to receive the consecrated Bread and Wine separately.  But the Sacrament may be received in both kinds simultaneously, in a manner approved by the bishop." The practice of intinction, whereby the host is dipped in the wine by a Minister, and then placed on the communicant's tongue (much less preferably, for the communicant to do this himself), is the usual way of doing this.  If proper teaching is given on the nature of the Sacrament, as given above, communicants should find this unnecessary.  However, if this is the custom of some of his people, and authorized by the bishop, then the priest should respect it, as long as it is done carefully and reverently.

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