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People first, then priests

Fr Andreas Wenzel considers the question of alternative ways of receiving Holy Communion recently suggested by the Archbishops and wonders whether they prompt more practical and theological problems than they solve.

“God himself could not sink this ship!” These are the famous last words of Captain Edward J. Smith who trusted too much in the sophisticated engineering of his vessel, the Titanic. What he got right, though, was to follow the maritime expectation of his day and abandon the sinking ship last.

This image of a humble captain or leader, putting himself last, is what inspires some to think priests should receive Holy Communion last, and not first, at a celebration of the Eucharist. It may feel difficult in our egalitarian culture to justify the traditional Christian practice of the minister receiving first before distributing Holy Communion to others. But there are practical and theological reasons, which I wish to lay out in this article, that might convince us to stick with tradition and wait for the iceberg COVID-19 to pass.

A letter was published recently by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with attached liturgical guidance (from a working group commissioned by the House of Bishops) for the safe reception of Holy Communion under both kinds. (1) The other diocesan bishops, as many of them later stated on social media, were clearly not consulted before the paper was released. The document suggests a change in traditional practice, that the people receive before the celebrant: ‘The president communicates last and must not drink from the chalice until this point.’ There are, in fact, two main suggestions in the guidance, as it stands, that need unpicking: the question of when the priest should receive Communion, and the way in which the faithful could safely receive under both kinds.

The guidance for the priest to be the final recipient of the chalice after all the hosts / morsels of bread have been dipped into the precious blood during ‘simultaneous administration’ follows purely practical considerations. It is of course permissible to give practical considerations more weight in times of pandemic. However, as practical considerations they do not convince, nor do they offer a safer way of receiving from the chalice.

Unlike a captain waiting to disembark the ship last, the priest, on behalf of the people of God, receives the Sacrament when it is confected so as to be charged with the Bread of Life before offering the Body of Christ to the gathered community. We insist that priests who hear confessions regularly make their own confession, before they give advice to others. In the same way, it follows the logic of the celebration that the celebrant of the Eucharist receives first. That could easily be included in the recommendations, by adding an additional sanitising of the priest’s hands after receiving the intincted sacred host.

Those in favour of the suggested COVID-compliant ‘simultaneous administration’ or alternative arrangements like individual cups, argue that the Reformation principle of Communion in both kinds is at stake. One commentator on Thinking Anglicans writes ‘we are… just Anglicans wanting to be faithful to our Reformation roots.’ I agree with the importance of all the faithful being able to receive from the chalice. However, none of the suggested alternatives solves the problem that we cannot safely, during these challenging times, obey the Lord’s command: ‘Drink ye all of this.’

S. Gregory Agrigentinus, a 6th century bishop, speaks of the spiritual joy of receiving the Sacrament in both kinds: “They who eat this bread and drink this mystical wine are indeed gladdened and exult and can cry out, ‘You have given joy to our hearts.’” And the great interpreter of the liturgy, William Durandus, compares the eucharistic wine to that spiritual exultation which can dispel the enemy (Rationale Divinorum Officium I.7.8) But, let’s be honest, the complicated, undignified and potentially unhygienic intinction of wafers or pieces of bread by the priest, that then dissolve in the hands of the communicants, does not express that Eucharistic joy to which we are called and invited. It seems far more sensible to celebrate with simplified ritual and receive under one kind, for the time being. Let us look forward with expectant hope and Advent joy for better times when the faithful again receive from the chalice.

Let’s not abandon ship. We all care for this shared space, the good ship Church of England. Let us instead be patient and hopeful that soon the joy of celebrating the Eucharist together will again allow for the Common Cup to be shared. But until then, let us stick with known tradition and avoid trying to solve problems with methods that simply create more.

The Rev’d Andreas Wenzel, Vice Principal and Director of Pastoral Studies, St Stephen’s House, Oxford


1) COVID-19 Receiving Holy Communion in both kinds by simultaneous administration

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