Table for One

Table for One
The lawfulness of Holy Communion celebrated without a congregation

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin church, Canon 906 reads, ‘A priest may not celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice without the participation of at least one of the faithful, unless there is a good and reasonable cause for doing so.’ No equivalent ruling exists among the canons of the Church of England, but it is sometimes alleged that celebrating the Holy Communion without a congregation is nevertheless unlawful in our Church. This blog post argues that such a celebration is not unlawful, and indeed may on some occasions be required. 

At first sight, it may appear that all authorised services require a congregation. For example, in the Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, there are rubrics to be followed by the ‘People’ as well as the Minister, there are responses to be made, and there are portions of the liturgy to be said or sung by Minister and People together. Despite the proper role of the congregation being clearly specified, it is nevertheless possible for someone to say Morning and Evening Prayer alone. This, of course, falls short of the ideal, but for many clergy and lay people it is by far the most frequent way in which they say these offices. Clergy are required to say Morning and Evening Prayer daily by Canon C26. The absence of a congregation does not relieve the duty to pray in this way, and when clergy pray these services alone they make the responses themselves. In Common Worship: Daily Prayer, there is guidance and instruction specifically for those situations when Morning and Evening Prayer are prayed alone.

In the same way, a celebration of the Eucharist without a congregation is far from ideal, but the fact that the ‘People’ are referred to in the rubrics is not an impediment to the celebration taking place if no congregation can be present. The responses can be made by the priest, in the same way as during Morning or Evening Prayer, or the dialogues can be adapted within the flexibility allowed by Canon B5. Indeed, during the present pandemic, some bishops have given advice on how the Eucharistic rite can be adapted for exactly this situation.

Why might a priest wish to celebrate the Eucharist in the absence of a congregation? This might, for example, be because of a promise to pray for someone at the Eucharist on a certain weekday, when it happens that none of the regular but small congregation turns up. Or it might be to fulfil a canonical duty. Just as Canon C26 requires Morning and Evening Prayer to be said daily, clergy are required by the same canon to ‘celebrate the Holy Communion, or be present thereat on all Sundays and other principal feast days.’ In ordinary times, priests would seek to fulfil that requirement by their presence with others at church, but at the present time, the only way for many priests to fulfil this requirement is to do so without a congregation. During the current circumstances, the desire to maintain the usual patterns of worship – which might include a daily celebration of the Eucharist – could also provide adequate justification.

Despite the above reasoning, the claim is sometimes made that a Eucharist without a congregation is unlawful in the Church of England (e.g. Bursell (1996), Liturgy, Order and the Law, p.103, arguing during the period of authorisation of the Alternative Service Book). Those making this argument usually point to the Book of Common Prayer, which says, ‘And there shall be no Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be a convenient number to communicate with the Priest, according to his discretion. And if there be not above twenty persons in the Parish of discretion to receive the Communion: yet there shall be no Communion, except four (or three at the least) communicate with the Priest.’ In response, we have two main points to make.

First, the above rubric from the book of 1662 does not say that there must be a congregation of at least one: it says that there must be a certain minimum number who communicate. It was only possible for the priest to know how many of the congregation were intending to communicate when a correlating rubric earlier in the BCP service was still observed. That rubric required those intending to communicate to ‘signify their names to the Curate, at least some time the day before.’ Since that practice of notification fell into desuetude, it has been impossible for any priest to know whether or not a certain minimum number of those present would communicate with him or her. The rubric concerning the minimum number of communicants cannot therefore be observed.

Secondly, even if it were still possible to apply this rubric, it would not necessarily carry over to other services, such as the Eucharist according to Common Worship, where no similar rubric is reproduced. The rubric would only affect such other rites if it were a statement of doctrine, with general applicability. It does not seem that the rubric is a statement of doctrine. As we have seen, it has necessarily fallen into disuse along with the requirement to notify the minister of one’s intention to communicate, and so cannot embody an enduring doctrine. No doubt it may have been a wise temporary injunction to deal with a situation that has now passed. Certainly the encouragement given by most of our bishops at the present time for priests to celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation suggests they do not believe there is a doctrinal prohibition on doing so.

Even more tellingly, there is a clear statement, applicable to all rites, in Canon B12.2 concerning who must communicate: ‘Every minister, as often as he shall celebrate the Holy Communion, shall receive that sacrament himself.’ This teaching is repeated in the rubrics of Common Worship. If the doctrine of the Church of England were that four or five people must receive the Holy Communion at each celebration, one would expect to find that teaching too in Canon B12, or in the Common Worship rubrics. Instead we have in both texts a clear and explicit statement specifying the one person, the celebrant, who must communicate.

During the present pandemic, some bishops have written to their priests giving permission to celebrate Holy Communion alone. If this has encouraged priests to celebrate alone at home or in church, whether live-streamed over the internet or not, that is a result for which we should be very thankful. But as I have argued above, no such exceptional permission is necessary. Even outside of the context of a pandemic, there may be circumstances that lead a priest to celebrate the Eucharist in the absence of a congregation. No priest would seek such a situation by choice, but to use the words of the Latin code, if a priest is moved by a ‘good and reasonable cause for doing so,’ no law in the Church of England forbids it.

The Rev’d Russell Dewhurst – Vicar of Ewell

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