Project Canterbury

The People's Book of Worship
A Study of the Book of Common Prayer

By John Wallace Suter and Charles Morris Addison

New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter VII. The Holy Communion

THAT the service of the Holy Communion is the chief of all the services of the congregation is universally acknowledged by the people of the church. Its preeminence is equally recognized by those who urge its frequent use, and by those who would reserve it for less frequent and therefore more impressive and better prepared-for occasions. Why is it thus esteemed the great, the culminating service and act of worship?

The attempt to answer this question will lead us on our way to an understanding of its supreme appeal, and to a clear apprehension of its genius as an instrument of worship.

The first answer, and the one which possesses perhaps the most immediate and general recognition, is that it is the service ordained by Christ himself. In seeking expression in worship for our sense of loyalty to him, there can be no more obvious and simple way than the way of obedience to his express command. It is certainly true that many of his followers, with no very clear notion of the Master's intention or purpose, and with no thought-out estimate of the inherent value of the sacrament itself, give themselves in humility and trust to the simple carrying out of his sacred charge,--"Do this in remembrance of me." No analysis of Gospel records, with an alleged rediscovery of the original Gospel, and of the Master's mind the night before his death, can serve to shake the universal Christian consciousness that there was intent to leave with his followers an obligation to a Memorial Service of fellowship. It is well that is so. The motive of obedience is a potent one, and the service which enshrines this participation in the Master's will, through obedience and remembrance, must necessarily be supreme.


There is a further reason in the constant observance of the Church from the beginning. To this all ancient records, within the New Testament, and beyond it, give eloquent testimony. The stary of the liturgies of all the churches, in their infinite richness and variety, speaks of the persistence of the great service, and of the sense of sacred obligation with which the followers of Christ gather for the supper of their Lord. This cloud of witnesses through all the ages presents in itself an inescapable appeal to the Christians of to-day. The sense of the great company, not only of those drawn together throughout the world of this present time, but gathered from all generations and centuries, urges the souls of men to lay hold upon this bond of union, and to become partakers in the universal fellowship which is the Communion of Saints. It is an urgent and compelling call that the supper be furnished with guests, and the disciple knows that the faithful of all ages and lands are expecting until his place be filled. The invitation echoes from countless lips, "This do in remembrance of me,--in remembrance of him."


But in itself the observance possesses the elements of an inevitable greatness. It is instinct with genius for the realizing within men's souls of the final facts of the spiritual life. Partaking together of the common food is the very method of individual and corporate life. The material side of it gives it power because we are in very deed tabernacled in the flesh. It is the testimony of age-long human experience that no other act can compare with the partaking together of the bread of life, in establishing and cementing that communion with the life of God and with the life of man, without which we cannot live. Had Christ himself not instituted the Lord's Supper, then must his followers have perforce forthwith instituted it, since their life with him and with one another demands it.

The two names by which the sacrament is most commonly and universally designated are the Lord's Supper, and the Holy Communion, and these names are equally expressive of the genius and method of the great service, and testify to its preeminence. Each name is of two words. One word is not sufficient, because what is demanded is a combination of intimacy and mystery, and this combination each name supplies. The soul requires in its culminating act of worship the opportunity of intimacy. It must make and keep connection with the most familiar and constant things of life. Its feet must be upon the ground. It must also possess the immediacy of approach to things divine. It demands to lay hold upon the ultimate mystery. In its very expression it must have to do with things inexpressible and unutterable. The names give form to these two equally insistent demands. There is nothing more intimate, homely, or familiar than a supper. But it is the Lord's supper. There is nothing more intimate and familiar, more essential to living, than communion or fellowship. The ultimate horror for the human soul is solitude. But it is the Holy Communion. Its very title helps us to an understanding of the fact that this service is our culminating and supreme act of worship.


There is a further question for users of the Prayer Book. Why is the Communion Service of that book so great and satisfying an instrument of worship,--so worthy a vehicle for the supreme observance?

The service itself, as we hold it in our hands to-day, is the descendant of a long line of ancient liturgies. It has taken up into itself a vast and sacred experience in Christian worship. This is much in itself.

When we come to study these ancient liturgies, one thing at least becomes plain, and that is that each one is composed of parts. There are, for instance, two parts which may be universally recognized. The names of these are familiar to students of the subject, the pro-anaphora, and the anaphora, or the ordinary of the mass, and the canon of the mass. In a word, these two parts represent a preparatory service, and the service, or celebration of the sacrament itself. Still a third part becomes recognizable at certain times or under certain conditions, and this is the Communion, that is the partaking by the people of the offered sacrifice. There is a possibility, and in certain cases, a tendency, to make these parts not only separable, but separate. The pro-anaphora, or ordinary of the mass, or the ante-Communion, may be severed by an interval, or inserted hymn, from the real service which follows. It may be used by itself. It is of possible edification to outsiders, who are not as yet of the number of the faithful. It may conceivably be used on the day before, as a service by itself of preparation for to-morrow's sacrament. In like manner, the Communion of the people, if this Communion is infrequent, and if it is esteemed unessential, the offering of the sacrifice being the one necessary celebration of the feast, may be relegated to a subordinate place of occasional occurrence.

But it is the genius of our Prayer Book service to make clear, while the service has parts, that these parts are not detachable, but are parts of a whole, are parts whose significance consists in emphasizing and realizing the whole.

As a matter of fact, the parts of the service, as it stands in our book to-day, are three. They may be designated as a series of Approaches, in order by means of a series, to make it clear that the one great service all through is presented as an Approach to the Presence. Herein rest the reasonableness and beauty of its structure. The approaches may be symbolized by the plan of Solomon's Temple, or of any Christian church. There are the Outer Court, and the Inner Court, and the Holy of Holies. There are the Nave and the Choir and the Sanctuary. But the temple is one--the church is one. This structure of the service is carried through with amazing symmetry and proportion and richness of detail, like an architectural plan. The first approach may be called the Instructional Approach. Here are the Scriptural lessons, from the New Testament, in Epistle and Gospel, and from the Old, in the Ten Commandments; and here through the same enunciation of God's law, is the opportunity for self-examination. The second approach may be called the In-tercessional Approach. Here is the remembrance of our brethren in the giving of alms, and in the great intercession, which leads as intercession does, to confession, followed by the assurance of God's forgiveness, fortified by the summary of his gifts of grace, as contained in the Comfortable Words. The third approach is the Sacramental Approach, with the central Prayer of Consecration and its Words of Institution, followed by the Communion of the people.

Moreover, each approach is ordered in a corresponding manner with every other, in the method of its inauguration and of its climax. Each begins, with the priest and people, so to speak, on their knees in humility or penitence, and each ends with an outburst of triumphant thanksgiving and praise. In the first, we begin with the Office's collect, and its prayer that the thoughts of our hearts may be cleansed; and we end with the triumphant singing or saying of the Nicene Creed. In the second, we begin with the great prayer of intercession which takes up into itself our alms and oblations, and we end with the exultant Sanctus. In the third, we begin with the prayer of humble access, and the sense of our unworthiness so much as to gather up the crumbs, and we end, after the culminating Lord's Prayer and word of Thanksgiving, with the praises of the Gloria in Excelsis. And then, with the Blessing, the service is over, and it is over with a sense of completeness. The unity is the striking fact, and gives its compelling force and beauty to the supreme act of worship. It is an approach through a series, but it is one great approach. No part is detachable or inconsequential. It is a progressive realization of the fundamental facts of God's gift, and of man's participation. It is a continuous and self-corrjpleting sacrifice. Priest and people together enter into solemn preparation, together they consecrate the bread and wine, and plead the sacrifice, together they partake of the Body and Blood. All are interdependent in one communion, all parts of the service are indis-solubly united, and contribute essentially to the perfection of the whole.

The service of our Prayer Book indubitably derives its greatness, in a true sense, from the fact that its roots are in the great liturgies of the past, and from its fidelity to the total experience of worshiping Christendom. But it may claim with reason that it is a very perfect flower of a long process of growth, and though sometimes the methods of its development have been almost by accident, while again they have been through deliberate determination, the result is a model, not necessarily perfect, or the denial of further development to come,--but yet a model, to which the churches of the Anglican Communion and churches everywhere, may well look with imitative envy, and gratitude.

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