Preparations for Holy Communion

Photograph by Peter Owen.

Photograph by Peter Owen.

I think the ceremonies in and around the Prayer Book services should be to the point. The people of God are to lose no time in putting their hearts into what God requires, and to this end all else should be subservient. The things God requires are all provided for by the Prayer Book, and so there is nothing essential to be added to the Prayer Book. Everything else is either a practical circumstance or a momentary devotion that helps the ministers and the whole congregation worship freely. Call it what you will, Anglicans; I call it the regulative principle of BCP worship.

In particular, I wish to write about the preparations for the office of Holy Communion, because it is this office that is most often encumbered by a number of extraneous things. Clutter, my friends, is not dignity. Noble simplicity is dignity. In this interest I shall try to spell out a dignified way to do the things the Prayer Book does not directly address, with ceremony that does not try to be picturesque, but only does the necessary.

In order for the service to happen, of course, the ministers must enter. It is fitting that, for this greatest of services, they enter by what is called the long way: not from the side, as for Morning and Evening Prayer, but from the back where the baptismal font usually is. And in order that their entrance by the long way may not be in a dreadful silence, a silence that the Church of England has not commended even for the church service for the burial of the dead, it is only sense that an Introit should be sung. The Introit psalm to be sung should be, unless for good reason, the one listed in the 1549 Prayer Book, in order that such things may not be left to the whims of individual ministers.

The elements should be brought in with the Introit and procession. Otherwise, if the song is accompanying nothing, the people are left sitting to wait for the music to end, and the elements are brought in awkwardly before or after that song. It makes far more sense to sing an Introit to beautify the bringing in of the elements and by God’s word to stir up the people to devotion as the preparation is made. It matters little whether the Introit be sung by a choir or by the people themselves in antiphonal fashion: what matters is that the preparation be one, to signal clearly and succinctly that the Holy Communion office is about to begin.

According to the infamous John Purchas, ‘At plain service the elements are placed upon the Credence by the clerk who serves; at solemn service by the assistant priest.’ If the celebrant priest bear the chalice and paten together, then the Gospeller can hold the cruets of wine and water, and the Epistoller the canister of bread. The celebrant arriving before the holy Table stands closest to it; the Gospeller, a step behind on the right; the Epistoller, two steps behind on the left. Once they have all given a polite nod toward the Table, the priest goes first to the Credence with the chalice and paten, then the Gospeller with the cruets, and last of all the Epistoller with the canister. So all three ministers are then at the Credence.

Once the Introit has ended, the Gospeller and Epistoller may begin the Litany, if it has not already been said. I think the best practice, when the Litany is so appended to the Holy Communion office, is for the celebrant to finish the Litany with O God, merciful Father &c., the people giving their Amen. In a short space for silent prayer, he may then say on his knees (in the words of the Rt Rev. Samuel Seabury),

O gracious and merciful God, Thou supreme Being, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, look down from heaven, the throne of thy essential glory, upon me thy unworthy creature, with the eyes of thy covenanted mercy and compassion: O Lord my God, I disclaim all merit, I renounce all righteousness of my own, either inherent in my nature, or acquired by my own industry: And I fly for refuge, for pardon and sanctification, to the righteousness of thy Christ: For his sake, for the sake of the blessed Jesus, the Son of thy covenanted love, whom Thou hast set forth to be a propitiation for fallen man, and in whom alone Thou art well pleased, have mercy upon me, receive my prayers, pardon my infirmities, strengthen my weak resolutions, guide my steps to thy holy altar, and there feed me with the meat which perisheth not, but endureth to everlasting life. Amen.

The silence marks a definite break. Then, rising and taking his stand at the north end of the Table, the celebrant begins the Holy Communion office with the Lord’s Prayer.

What do you think? How successfully does this execution accomplish the ends I think it our duty to serve?


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