One doesn’t have to go far these days to read in an Anglican service leaflet some variant of the words: “all baptized Christians may receive Holy Communion.” In some places there are additional notes like “all baptized and penitent…”, “all who believe the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present…”, “all who are permitted to receive Communion in their home church…” and so on. There is a remarkable lack of common practice, let alone common discipline, in our purportedly common prayer.
So what is Communion discipline for Anglicans supposed to be?
The answer, as one might expect of Anglicans, could be presumed to be: “well, it depends.” But does it really?
In the Anglican Catholic Church, the standard is the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, a salutary standard and logical basis, as it is the first BCP and hence the one closest to the ancient practice and our received English Catholic heritage and patrimony. In all the other “continuing” Anglican bodies that trace their history through the Affirmation of Saint Louis the standard is the 1928 US and 1962 Canadian Books of Common Prayer. In the new Anglican Church in North America, the standard inexplicably is the 1662 BCP “with the Books which preceded it,” which include the 1559, 1552, and the aforementioned gem, the 1549.
The 1549 BCP states that
“And there shal none be admitted to the holye communion: until suche time as he be confirmed.“
In the 1928 US BCP, 1962 Canadian BCP, and 1662 BCP:
“And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.”
The escape clause “or be ready and desirous to be confirmed” was added to the 1662 book to allow for those who had been deprived of the ministrations of the episcopate by the puritan interregnum. This same escape clause was kept in the North American books originally to allow for the lack of episcopal ministrations on this continent (unless one wanted to venture a risky, lengthy and expensive sea voyage to the Bishop of London) and was retained later to accommodate the then growing Anglo-Catholic practice of (after instruction) administering First Penance and First Communion to seven-year-olds and following up with Confirmation the next year, an imitation of the then current Roman Catholic practice.
In the 1559 (Elizabethan) and 1552 BCPs:
“And there shall none be admitted to the holy communion; until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme and be confirmed.“
Here we see an additional, intellectual requirement which was later removed.
So the irreducible minimum requirement to receive Holy Communion at an Anglican celebration would seem to be “all who have received the sacrament of Confirmation….”
It is true that in the last fifty years we have seen remarkable scholarship detailing the history of the sacrament of Confirmation and demonstrating that the apostolic practice inherited in the patristic period was to administer an impressive initiation rite that culminated in Baptism-then-Laying-on-of-Hands-with-Chrism-by-the-Bishop-then-Eucharist. We now know that in both East and West the practice became disjointed, and in the East the “Laying-on-of-Hands-with-Chrism-by-the-Bishop” part became “Laying-on-of-Hands-with-Chrism-that-had-been-blessed-by-the-Bishop,” which is the pattern yet today in the Orthodox Churches. In the West we know that the disjoining of the ancient and patristic pattern was instead a temporal one, with sometimes several years intervening between first part of the initiation, Baptism, and the culmination, the “Laying-on-of-Hands-with-Chrism-by-the-Bishop-followed-by-Eucharist.” In the liturgical revisions that led to the 1979 US BCP and alternate rites in other parts of Anglicanism, this scholarship was misapplied and instead of restoring the unity of Baptism and Confirmation as both essential parts of Christian initiation, Confirmation was initially made optional and then soon ignored.
We all have heard the story of how to cook a frog: that if one places a live frog in boiling water, he will just jump out, but if one raises the temperature of the water gradually, the frog will stay in the water until he is dead. It should be apparent that there are many frogs who stayed in the water in the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Australia, etc., etc., and as the water temperature rose, accommodated themselves until the water was boiling. Many of those frogs had stayed so long they no longer recognize in themselves the bad habits they had acquired under the inadequate revisions of liturgy and accelerating loosening of discipline.
These bad habits of laxness now plague Anglicans in both the older continuing churches and the newer ACNA alike.
Going back to that irreducible minimum requirement of Confirmation to receive Holy Communion at an Anglican celebration, we find we cannot just stop there. Each of the aforementioned Books of Common Prayer explicitly list other requirements in the texts of the liturgy itself:
DERELY beloved in the Lord, ye that mynde to come to the holy Communion of the bodye and bloude of our savior Christe, must considre what S. Paule writeth to the Corinthians, how he exhorteth all persones diligently to trie and examine themselves, before they presume to eate of that breade, and drinke of that cup: for as the benefite is great, if with a truly penitent heart, and lively faith, we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eate the fleshe of Christ, and drinke his bloude, then we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, wee bee made one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the daunger great, yf wee receyve the same unworthely; for then wee become gyltie of the body and bloud of Christ our savior, we eate and drinke our owne damnacion, not considering the Lordes bodye. We kyndle Gods wrathe over us, we provoke him to plague us with diverse dyseases, and sondery kyndes of death. Therefore if any here be a blasphemer, aduouterer, or bee in malyce, or envie, or in any other grevous cryme (excepte he bee truly sory therefore, and earnestly mynded to leave the same vices, and do trust him selfe to be reconciled to almightie God, and in Charitie with all the worlde), lette him bewayle his synnes, and not come to that holy table; lest after the taking of that most blessed breade, the devyll enter into him, as he dyd into Judas, to fyll him full of all iniquitie, and brynge him to destruccion, bothe of body and soule. Judge therfore yourselfes (brethren) that ye bee not judged of the Lorde. Let your mynde be without desire to synne, repent you truely for your synnes past, have an earnest and lyvely faith in Christ our savior, be in perfect charitie with all men, so shall ye be mete partakers of those holy misteries. And above all thynges: ye must geve moste humble and hartie thankes to God the father, the sonne, and the holy ghost, for the redempcion of the worlde, by the death and passion of our savior Christ, both God and man, who did humble himself even to the death upon the crosse, for us miserable synners, whiche laie in darknes and shadowe of death, that he myghte make us the children of God: and exalt us to everlasting life. And to thende that wee should alwaye remembre the excedyng love of our master, and onely savior Jesu Christe, thus diyng for us, and the innumerable benefites (whiche by his precious bloud-shedyng) he bath obteigned to us, he hath left in those holy Misteries, as a pledge of his love, and a continuall remembraunce of the same his owne blessed body, and precious bloud, for us to fede upon spiritually, to our endles comfort and consolacion. To him therfore, with the father and the holy ghost, let us geve (as we are most bounden) continual thankes, submittyng ourselfes wholy to hys holy wil and pleasure, and studying to serve hym in true holines and righteousnes, al the daies of our life. Amen. (1549 and carried forward in 1552, 1559, 1662, and with modernized spelling in 1928 US and 1962 Canadian)
So now the most accurate expression of the real Anglican discipline of Holy Communion should be printed in all our service leaflets as follows:
“According to Anglican discipline, it is our custom to welcome to receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion all those:
- who have received the Sacrament of Confirmation,
- who are not conscious of unconfessed grave sin, and
- who submit themselves wholly to God’s will and pleasure, intending to serve him in holiness and righteousness all the days of their lives.”
Anything less is simply not true. Anything else is disobedient.