The Holy Communion


The Rev. Canon Dr. Robert Crouse



an excerpt from

Understanding the Prayer Book: A Commentary

The Association for Common Prayer, 1989.



The service of Holy Communion, instituted by our Lord himself at the last Supper to be a memorial of his body broken and his blood shed for us, has always been celebrated by Christians in response to his commandment that we should "do this in remembrance" of him.  There are many references to the service in the New Testament (see especially I Cor. 11:23-29), and many other early Christian writings give us explanations of the meaning of the service, and examples of the forms of service actually used.  It is clear that from the very beginning, this service has been the central act of Christian worship, in which, celebrating the Cross and Passion of our Saviour, we find "means of grace and hope of glory".  Because Jesus 'gave thanks' at the Last Supper, and because we join in thanksgiving for the redemption through his Cross, we sometimes call the service by its ancient Greek name, "Eucharist", which simply means "thanksgiving".


While the essence of the service remains always the same, its form naturally varied considerably in different times and places, and the form of the "Holy Communion or Holy Eucharist" as we find it in our 1962 Canadian revision of the Prayer Book is the result of many centuries of liturgical development. 


Archbishop Cranmer, the chief architect of the first English rite of 1549, and his colleagues had the delicate task of balancing the claims of ancient catholic liturgical tradition with the ideals of the Reformation.  That is to say, the service had to be translated from Latin into English, and revised, without unnecessary disruption, in such a way as to make it understandable to the people, to ensure its conformity to the clear Word of God in Holy Scripture, and to encourage devout participation, edification, and more frequent communion.  To many Reformers, including Cranmer himself, the English Prayer Book of 1549 seemed too conservative, and it was quickly followed by the Prayer Book of 1552.  Subsequent revisions (including our own of 1962) represent, in general, modifications and enrichments of the 1552 service, tending generally in the direction of the more traditional service of 1549.  Thus, the history of the Holy Communion service typifies the character of Anglicanism as both Catholic and Reformed: preserving what is good in the centuries old tradition of Christian witness, and at the same time holding that tradition always in obedience to the Word of God in Holy Scripture.


As we turn now to the service of Holy Communion, as we have it in our Book of Common Prayer, we should first notice the preliminary instructions (called "rubrics" because they were traditionally printed in red) on page 66, which remind us of our duty to participate frequently, "after due preparation", in this sacrament.  What is meant by "due preparation," is explained partly in these rubrics, more fully in the Exhortation (p.  88, 92), and in the Catechism, where we are told that those who come to the Lord's Supper must

 "examine themselves, whether they truly repent of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead the new life; have a living faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men" (p. 552)


The opening prayers of the service, on page 67, were introduced in 1549, from the Sarum Missal (medieval Latin service used in England), where they formed part of the priest's private preparation for the service.  The Lord's Prayer here, together with its "Amen", is still said by the priest alone; but the Collect for Purity has become a prayer of preparation for the whole congregation, in which all join by saying the "Amen".  The Ten Commandments (introduced in 1552), for which we now usually substitute our Lord's Summary of the Law (p. 69), remind us of the holiness of God, into whose presence we have come, and of our duty of moral and spiritual purity, in humble obedience to his will.  We respond with the ancient Christian litany, "Lord, have mercy upon us".  Thus concludes our common public preparation for the service: We come in humble obedience to God's will, trusting in his mercy to purify our hearts and minds that we may be fit partakers of the holy gifts he promises.


We proceed to what are called the "Propers of the Day", that is to say, the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel especially appointed for the particular Sunday or Holy Day we are celebrating.  The origin of the term "collect" is uncertain; it may mean the prayer that takes place when the congregation has gathered together (i.e. "collected"), or it may mean the prayer which gathers our intercessions, or the theme of the day, in one common prayer.  Some of these collects are relatively modern compositions, but they are mostly very ancient prayers, known as early as the fifth or sixth century, or even earlier.  They came into the Prayer Book from the Sarum Missal, as did the similarly ancient selection of Scripture readings for the Epistle and Gospel.  From time to time (e.g. in our 1962 revision), a few of the readings have been altered, by lengthening or shortening a lesson or occasionally substituting a new one for an old one, but basically, the pattern is still the ancient one.  These "Propers" present the Church's message from the Scriptures for the particular day, and should be studied thoughtfully, in order to understand their common theme.  Arranged according to the Christian Year (from Advent through Trinity Season), they set before us the pattern of Christian truth, and instruct us in the development of moral and spiritual life.


Our service treats the reading of the Gospel lesson with special reverence, because it proclaims the words and deeds of Christ himself.  Therefore, we are directed to stand when it is read, and make the joyful acclamation, "Glory be to thee, O Lord", and "Praise be to thee, O Christ".  Sometimes, there is a hymn, or psalm (see pages l-liv for proper psalms) between the Epistle and Gospel.  It is called the "Gradual", because traditionally it was sung as the Deacon went to the step (Latin: gradus) to read the Gospel.


Now, having been instructed by the Word of God in Holy Scripture, we make an affirmation of our faith, in the Nicene Creed (p. 71).  The word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo", which means "I believe".  This statement of Christian faith, a summary of essential truths revealed to us in Holy Scripture, comes from ancient councils of the Church (Nicea, 325 AD; Constantinople 381 AD).  It is carefully, and sometimes very technically worded, because it was originally a defence against subtle and dangerous heresies.  For instance, its precise statements about Jesus as the "only-begotten Son of God", etc., were a refutation of the "Arian heresy", which said that Jesus was "like" God, but less than God and therefore not really God at all.  The Creed insists that Jesus is "of one substance with the Father".  These precise statements of Christian doctrine, although not always easy to understand, are still vitally important, because the false opinions are still prevalent in the modern world.


After the Creed comes the Sermon, in which the preacher seeks to help us understand more fully the Scripture lessons we have heard, and the faith we have affirmed.  The sermon should also help us to relate those truths to our own personal circumstances, and thus help us to grow in our own moral and spiritual life.  The sermon concludes the "instructional" part of the service (sometimes called the "Liturgy of the Word"), and encourages our "living faith", as we now go on to celebrate the Sacrament.


The Offertory (p. 72-74) has two elements: our "oblations", or offerings of bread and wine to be consecrated; and our "alms", which are our charitable gifts for the relief of the poor, and generally for the financial support of the Church's work.  Associated with the Offertory is the Prayer for Christ's Holy Catholic Church (p. 75-76).  Together with our gifts ("alms and oblations") which represent our life and work, we offer our intercessions for the universal Church, praying that God will inspire it with "the spirit of unity, peace, and concord".  The prayer is comprehensive: First, the universal Church, all God's people, all nations and their rulers, (especially Elizabeth our Queen); then, all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, (especially our Bishop), and all congregations (especially this congregation here present"); all in special need; remembering finally the faithful departed, praying that the whole Church (we with them) may be partakers of God's heavenly kingdom.  Originally, this prayer came later in the service, as part of the Prayer of Consecration, (as in the old Latin service in the Sarum Missal), and was moved to its present position, in 1552.  In this position, it corresponds to the "Great Intercession", a feature of some ancient Christian liturgies.


The first part of the Holy Communion service, then, consists of instruction in the Christian faith, by way of the Epistle and Gospel lessons and the sermon, and the affirmation of that faith in the Creed and the prayers.  Now, in the second part of the service, we proceed to the actual celebration of the sacrament which our Lord himself ordained and commanded us to continue.  In the early centuries of Christianity, there was a very clear division between these two parts of the service: Those who were preparing to become Christians would be present for the first part, receiving instruction, while only those already baptised and confirmed would remain for the second part.  In later centuries, when it was assumed that the whole community was fully Christian, that division in the service tended to disappear.


The English Reformers, concerned to encourage more frequent communion of the people, and more serious preparation for its worthy reception, reintroduced such a division in the service.  They provided (in 1552) that if there were none to receive the sacrament with the priest, the service should end after the Prayer for the Church (in which case, the service is usually called "Ante Communion").  Only if there were to be communicants would the second (sacramental) part of the service be said, and it would include a corporate, penitential preparation of the communicants.  Thus, they introduced the Exhortations (p. 88, 92), which, shortened and revised, are still directed to be used at certain times.


These Exhortations speak of the importance of receiving the sacrament, and of what is required for worthy reception.  The Reformers also introduced the Invitation.  ("Ye that do truly and earnestly repent"), the Confession and Absolution, and the "Comfortable Words" (p. 76, 78), as a penitential preparation for Communion.


The Medieval service included confession and absolution, but only as a part of the preparation of the ministers; members of the congregation communicated rarely, and when they did so, were required to make a private confession beforehand.  The Reformers (first in 1548, in the Latin service, and then in the 1549 English Prayer Book) provided for public confession and absolution (and the Prayer of Humble Access, p.83), at the time of Communion.  In the 1552 Prayer Book, the Confession and Absolution, and the "Comfortable Words" (giving scriptural assurance of forgiveness) were moved to their present position, as a preparation for all who intend to participate in the sacramental part of the service.  This penitential element in our Prayer Book service is very emphatic, echoing St. Paul's solemn warning (I Cor. 11:28, 29):

 Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup.  For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

Our common preparation (in faith and repentance) now completed, with our hearts lightened by assurance of God's forgiveness of our sins, we move on to the Thanksgiving and Consecration (p. 78, 83).  The Sursum Corda ("Lift up your hearts"), the Proper Preface (relating our thanksgiving to special occasions in the Christian Year), the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy") and the Benedictus ("Blessed is he that cometh") are very ancient elements of the service.  We are reminded that as we draw near the sacramental Presence of our Lord, in thankful adoration of the great work which God has wrought for our redemption, we are joined with the whole Church, in heaven and earth, "in all times, and in all places", "with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven".  The Benedictus is, of course, the cry of the Hebrew multitude on Palm Sunday (St. Matt. 21:9), welcoming the promised King, who goes on to the sacrifice of Calvary.  Thus, it is a fitting anticipation of the consecration of the Sacrament ordained, as the Catechism says (p. 551), "for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ".  The glory of God fills heaven and earth, but is manifest, above all, in the Cross.


The great climax of the whole service is the Consecration Prayer (p. 82, 83).  The original form of this prayer (in 1549) followed quite clearly the old Latin form, but in 1552 it was much shortened and simplified, by moving the intercessions to the Prayer for the Church, and moving the latter part of the prayer ("Prayer of Oblation ") to a position after the Communion.  The intention of the Reformers, in reducing the complexity of the old Consecration Prayer, was to emphasise as directly and forcefully as possible the meaning of the Sacrament as a commemoration of the Sacrifice of Christ: "His one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."  They wished to focus as sharply as possible on the essential meaning, and to remove anything which might seem to distract from that focus.  Archbishop Cranmer expressed the point very clearly:


The priest should declare the death and passion of Christ, and all the people should look upon the cross in the mount of Calvary...And this is the priest and people's sacrifice, not to be propitiators for sin...but to worship continually in mystery what was once offered for the price of sin.


Modern Anglican Prayer Book revisers have generally felt that the 1552 Consecration Prayer was too stark and abrupt (ending with the Words of Institution) and have replaced the "Prayer of Oblation" (revised) as part of the Consecration Prayer (as in our 1962 Canadian Prayer Book; the part beginning, "Wherefore a Father", p. 82).  Nevertheless, the emphasis still clearly remains upon Christ's sacrifice for us, and upon his own words and actions at the Last Supper, which He commanded us to continue.  As St. Paul says, we "show forth his death until He come".  The meaning of the commemoration is beautifully expressed in William Bright's well-known communion hymn:

 And now, a Father, mindful of the love

That bought us, once for all, on Calvary's Tree,

And having with us him that pleads above,

We here present, we here spread forth to thee

That only Offering perfect in thine eyes,

The one true, pure, immortal Sacrifice.


The Pax ("the peace of the Lord", p. 83) naturally follows the consecration, because it is Christ's sacrifice alone which makes our peace with God.  The Prayer of Humble Access ("we do not presume", p.  83), which was already part of the "Communion devotions" added to the Latin service in 1548, allows us one final moment of spiritual preparation before we receive the holy sacrament of our Lord's Body given for us, and his Blood shed for us on Calvary.


At the time of Communion, the traditional hymn, the Agnus Dei ("O Lamb of God"), and other appropriate hymns may be sung. 


The Sacrament is administered with a form of words which is actually double: The first part, "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ...", "The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ...", was a traditional form, used in the 1549 Prayer Book; the second part, "Take and eat this...", "Drink this...", was the form substituted in 1552.  In the Prayer Book of 1559, the two forms were simply joined together, combining two Anglican emphases: First, the objective reality of Christ's presence in the Sacrament; second, the importance of our spiritual reception of the Sacrament, "by faith, with thanksgiving". 


"Communion" means, in the first place, our union with our Lord in this Sacrament; and it also implies our union with one another, as members of Christ's Body.  Archbishop Cranmer expressed the thought beautifully:


For like as bread is made of a great number of grains of corn, ground, baken, and so joined together, that thereof is made one loaf; and an infinite number of grapes be pressed together in one vessel, and thereof is made wine; likewise is the whole multitude of true Christian people spiritually joined, first to Christ, and then among themselves together in one faith, one baptism, one Holy Spirit, one knot and bond of love...As bread and wine which we do eat be turned into our flesh and blood, even so be all faithful Christians spiritually turned into the body of Christ, and so be joined unto Christ and also together among themselves, that they do make one mystical body of Christ, as St. Paul saith: "We be one bread and one body, as many as be partakers of one bread and one body, as many as be partakers of one bread and one cup."


The Communion is appropriately followed by prayers of thanksgiving.  The Lord's Prayer, which traditionally preceded the Communion, was placed here in 1552, with its "doxology" ("For thine is the kingdom...") added; and it is followed by the Prayer of Thanksgiving (p. 85), in which, giving thanks for "spiritual food", we offer ourselves, as members of Christ's  Body,  "to  be  a  reasonable,  holy  and  living  sacrifice".   This

prayer is followed by the ancient hymn of thanksgiving, Gloria in Excelsis (p. 86).  The traditional place for this hymn was at the beginning of the service, but there can be no doubt that it serves also as a magnificent conclusion.  Perhaps the Reformers, in placing it here, were thinking of the "hymn" which concluded the Last Supper (St. Matt. 26:30).


The service concludes with the Blessing, which speaks of the peace, knowledge and love which must fill the hearts and minds of all who faithfully share in this holy sacrament.  For, as Archbishop Cranmer expressed it,


In the receiving of the holy supper of our Lord, we be put in remembrance of his death, and of the whole mystery of our redemption...  Wherefore, in this sacrament (if it be rightly received with a true faith) we be assured that our sins be forgiven, and the league of peace and the testament of God is confirmed between him and us, so that whoever by a true faith doth eat Christ's flesh and drink his blood, hath everlasting life by him.



At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.  He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

John 14:20-21