Reserved Sacrament for Communion of the Sick

Despite the practice of at least some churches in the time of Justin Martyr, I have not been partial to reserving the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, a practice that has generally met with greater favour among Anglo-Catholics. But the deposited English prayer book of 1927/1928, which Parliament did not approve, was voted down precisely because of its allowing reservation and communion from the reserved sacrament (cf. the practice of Rome). The Commons’ rejection of this proposed revision to the BCP precipitated a crisis; some Anglo-Catholics even considered essentially seceding from the Church of England. Not being an Anglo-Catholic myself, I am of the opinion that such a schism would have been unwarranted and injurious to the cause of biblical religion, though it would perhaps have allowed all to depart who were the most opposed to the Reformed principles of the Church of England. Nevertheless, I believe there is reason to examine the matter of communicating the sick with elements reserved from a prior celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Whereas the Church of England stopped reserving the elements during the Reformation, the Church of Scotland, which is likewise a Reformed church, continued the practice in both its episcopalian and its presbyterian times. According to F. C. Eeeles, writing in 1910,

To this day there are many old people who when ill would not like to be communicated at a clinical or private celebration. In north Aberdeenshire thirty years ago, old people spoke of Communion with the reserved Sacrament as ‘the Altar coming to them’.

In Shetland in the 18th century and later it was a common custom for Presbyterian communicants to take away in a clean handkerchief a portion of the Sacrament to sick members of their families. The writer has been told that it is still done in places.

Eeles quotes the Dean of Edinburgh on the practice of Woodhead, Fyvie, in the Diocese of Aberdeen:

The old people in the north had a strong feeling about the privilege of being communicated from the elements consecrated in the church. They would have thought that the link which bound them to their fellow churchmen through all being partakers of one loaf, was relaxed if one had consecrated for each separated Sick Communion.

To this desire I am rather sympathetic. Private communion has struck me, as it has struck James B. Jordan, as an individualistic practice that reifies the blessing of Holy Communion: rather than viewing the sacrament in the context of the whole Church as represented in the local assembly, people seem to locate the blessing in the individual reception of a certain selection of bread and wine. Now Mr Jordan may be a Presbyterian with some Presbyterian quirks, but on private celebrations of the Lord’s Supper I am inclined to agree. In contrast, the old Aberdonians wished to partake in the same supper as the rest of the people; and so, though the supper is one in Christ, for all times and places, yet they desired that this truth should be as visible as possible. Their desire was commendable, and perhaps is for that reason to be preferred to separate celebrations in houses and hospitals.

That said, reservation should be practised in such a way as to affirm the catholic doctrine as clarified by the Reformers. The provisions in the deposited prayer book are good, but not good enough. It is well that the rubrics prohibit uses that are contrary to Scripture – ‘there shall be’, one rubric says, ‘no service or ceremony in connexion with the Sacrament so reserved, nor shall it be exposed or removed except in order to be received in Communion, or otherwise reverently consumed’ – but more should be required than mere avoidance of illegitimate uses.

The sacramental signs are acts, not static things, and thus cannot in any way be tied to any local site of real presence: we ourselves, receiving with faith, enabled by the Holy Ghost, are the site of real presence in the rites. Therefore no one, for baptism, simply takes water from a baptismal font and attempts to baptize someone by splashing this water simply for its having been consecrated for baptizing. Such a baptism most of us would probably reject as null and void. In the same way, it can be no sacrament that has only bread and wine, even if it be reserved from a service at which the elements have been consecrated for such use. A sacrament is enacted by the word; and without the word as intelligible to someone, it has no magical power to change anyone. The word, indeed, is part of the sign itself. In Holy Baptism, the sign is not water per se, whether water in general or any particular water, but washing with water as directly authorized by the words of our Lord; in Holy Communion, likewise, the sign is bread and wine taken up, consecrated, given, and consumed according to the institution of our Lord. And so, just as ‘I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ are the necessary words of one sacrament, so for the other sacrament I think it safest not to neglect the Words of Institution in one form or another:

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

To distinguish the administering of the reserved sacrament from the celebration of Holy Communion, I think the biblical text is best retained as a lesson and not, as in the order for the full service, made part of a prayer. Then the following prayer can be used, at the discretion of the minister (lightly altered from the use of Bp Alexander of Dunkeld):

Almighty God our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death and sacrifice until his coming again; hear us, O merciful Father, we most humbly beseech thee, and of thy almighty goodness vouchsafe to bless with the Holy Spirit us (these) thy servants here before thee, and to grant that we (they) receiving thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine already consecrated into the most precious body and blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ according to his holy institution, and in commemoration of his death and passion, may be made partakers of all the benefits of the same: and so sanctify our (their) whole spirits, souls, and bodies, that we (they) may become holy, living, and acceptable sacrifices unto thee. And we entirely desire thy Fatherly goodness to be propitious to us sinners: and grant that by the merits and death of thy Son, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, may be delivered from the Devil and his snares, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him, and at the last may obtain everlasting life with thee; thou, O Lord Almighty, being through him reconciled unto us, by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.

The deposited prayer book also ordered that, except when extreme sickness required otherwise, ministration to the sick person or persons would follow at least the General Confession and Absolution (which might be in the shorter form) and the prayer ‘We do not presume, &c.’ I would recommend greater caution, in line with the practice of the Scottish Nonjurors, saying that only in emergencies should the communion of the sick be reduced to this minimum; and the Absolution should include the Comfortable Words. Finally, as the 1928 rubrics direct, delivery and reception of the sacrament in both kinds should be followed by the Lord’s Prayer and the Blessing.


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