Project Canterbury

God With Us:
The Meaning of the Tabernacle

by Frank Weston, D.D.
Bishop of Zanzibar

[London and Milwaukee: Mowbray and Morehouse, 1920. 135pp]
pp 122-129


IT is not sufficiently known that reservation of the sacrament is one of the most primitive and most universal of the customs commonly called catholic. From at least the second century until the sixth the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the houses of the people and in the cells of hermits. The sacrament was also carried to the sick, and even to other absent communicants, as early as the middle of the second century. It must not be supposed that reservation in private houses was regarded as an ideal. Far form it. But distance from altars, infrequency of the opportunity of offering the Eucharist, and periods of persecution made this abnormal use customary.

We have no evidence that any official directions were issued concerning treatment of the sacrament reserved in private houses. Every man would treat it as his conscience and religious training suggested. Bowings and genuflexions belong to a far later stage in the worship of the sacrament. It is enough to know that from the first reservation was allowed and the worship of Jesus in the sacrament reserved was not in any way forbidden.

But while the Church was endeavouring to make unnecessary and to abolish the carrying of the sacrament home a further need for reservation was found. In some places, e.g. Rome, the unity of the Eucharist was symbolized by reserving a Host at each Eucharist for consumption in the next, while the custom of sending Hosts from Mass to Mass was followed in some places. Again, and more striking evidence still, the Mass of the presanctified came into use, a communion without the Mass! Thus perpetual reservation became common. Official reservation in the Church was necessary to the performance of the Church's liturgy.

And at the time of the Reformation the English Church followed the ancient canons and custom under which parish priests reserved in open church. And there was free access to the reserved sacrament for all who wished to worship the Lord Jesus. The Reformation, as we know, saw a great reaction against popular materialistic views of the presence of our Lord, and of course the pyx, or tabernacle, became an object of violent dislike, being associated in the reformers' minds with these particular views. In England, under the influence of Germany and Geneva, a party rose up and combined with certain leaders of the State to get rid of the custom.

Dr. Frere, in his edition of Procter's History of the Prayer Book tells us that the custom was, however, ecclesiastically lawful in certain circumstances under the two Prayer Books of Edward VI and the Book of Queen Elizabeth. It was not abrogated. The only definite enactment bearing positively on reservation as a canonical custom is in the last paragraph of Article XXVIII, which denies to it the authority of Christ's own institution or ordinance.

This Article, however, was never interpreted as an ecclesiastical prohibition of the custom, which seems to have been continued by those who were accustomed to it. The article states a fact, like that of Article XXV, on the five rites "commonly called sacraments." All that the Puritans could force the bishops to do was to order a celebration of communion in the sick man’s room when there was no celebration in church from which the sacrament could be brought. This was enacted in 1549, and served as an alternative use with reservation until the Revolution.

At the Revolution Puritanism became much more powerful and influential. So that in 1662, after the Restoration, no open reference could be made to the reserved sacrament. The Prayer Book appeared with one sacramental provision only for the sick—a celebration of the Holy Communion, with at least two communicants besides the priest and the sick person. This, however, only means that the rubrics were framed with a view to comprehension; reservation was not in fact treated as forbidden. Of this we have definite evidence. Dr. Thorndike, one of the revisers, exhorted the clergy to celebrate frequently, so that the sacrament might be reserved from celebration to celebration, according to the common practice of the church. He must have known the mind of the authorities, and could hardly have given so public and general an exhortation had he believed the custom abrogated.

The truth is that the rubrics were formed not to restrain "extreme" men but to recall the whole clergy to its work of ministry. The duty of communicating the sick had to be enforced, and that on lines which the bulk of the clergy would accept. Thorndike and his friends approved the rubric; it safeguarded men's last communion against a careless or uncatholic parson; they did not regard it as shutting out reservation.

A careful examination of the rubric about spiritual communion shows that it is an attempt at a comprehensive statement. For, in summing up the impediments against sacramental communion, it gives an exhaustive list—the sick man's inability to receive and the curate's inability to celebrate, for lack of notice or absence of other communicants. And then it adds, "or for other just impediment." Why? As a loophole for Thorndike and his party. Read "or through absence of the reserved sacrament," and you have a rubric exactly corresponding with the practice of the Thorndike party. But, be this as it may, the case against reservation has never been any stronger than it appears in the book of 1662 interpreted in the light of contemporary practice.

Germany and Geneva, assisted by the English Puritans, failed to produce canonical abrogation of the universal custom of reservation. Neither reservation, nor worship of the Christ in the reserved sacrament was ever synodically forbidden. They were both divided off from the list of things ordained by Christ, a division evidently found useful in those days of bitter controversy. Like "those five commonly called sacraments," they were placed in a lower class, and discouraged. Yet certainly what the Puritan alliance could not do in synod it managed to effect with Church people. 1 am too far from authorities to speak definitely, but I think the eighteenth century saw no reservation in our English churches. In the nineteenth century the practice began to be restored. It is true that Dr. Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, after allowing it in London Diocese, decided that the Prayer Book did not contemplate it, and that it was illegal. But individual bishops, of equally great learning, decided that they were in a position to tolerate it—that is, they knew the English Church had never claimed to abrogate the ancient canons and custom. And, no doubt, some of them recognized that bishops of a small national Church could hardly claim that a universal custom of the Church had, for them, become obsolete just because their predecessors, for private reasons, had refused to practise it.

The English bishops at the Reformation deliberately and synodically dispensed their laity from the universal custom of compulsory private confession, hoping to restore the more primitive public penance. And they wisely recognized facts as they were and dispensed the clergy from the ecclesiastical law of celibacy. The custom of reservation, older far than compulsory private confession and compulsory celibacy, they did not attempt to abrogate. And the prelates of the nineteenth century, some of them really great historians, did not plead popular disregard of a custom in one country as equivalent to abrogation. That they were most unwilling to see reservation revived we may fully believe. But they were too human to deny the sick folk's need. So the practice grew, until to-day it has become common enough to startle the present occupants of the episcopal bench.

Two main issues are before us:—

I. Did the bishops in 1662, formally and definitely, claim to abrogate the law and custom of reservation?

2. Can the present Synod of Canterbury Province quote Catholic precedent for forbidding men to worship our Lord Jesus Christ in the reserved sacrament?

The answer to the first question is in the negative. It cannot be proved that they even attempted to abrogate the law and custom. And, without formal abrogation, it still holds good. For a canonically-ordained custom, of such importance as reservation, cannot become obsolete by mere disuse in two provinces; its continued use over the whole West prevents that. And the English bishops of the nineteenth century did not treat it as a point on which the English Church had, once and for all, abrogated canonical law and practice. Their action prevents their successors from pleading that the custom is so obsolete as to be, ipso facto, abrogated.

To the second question the answer is also in the negative. It is beyond dispute that the bishops are here ordering an entirely new thing, out of harmony with all that has gone before. And, further, they will be enforcing a rule, under penalty, in a matter of conscience, touching a man and his interior relation with God.

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