Project Canterbury

Non-Communicating Attendance versus Non-Communicating Non-Attendance
by Henry R. Percival, M.A.
Rector of the Church of the Evangelists, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia: James Hammond, No. 1224 Chestnut Street, 1888.

Chapter I. True State of the Question.

THERE has been in the treatment of this subject a great deal of accidental or intentional misstatement of the real point at issue. The question which arises for solution is not, as is often assumed, "Shall the congregation receive the Holy Communion or not receive it?" (a question to which there can be but one possible answer, viz., that all those who are properly prepared should do so); but the real question, as everybody knows, is quite different, viz., "Shall the congregation go home in the middle of the service without even waiting for the blessing, or shall they stay on until the service is done?" This is the real question, and the stating of it in any other manner is an ignorant blunder or a wilful perversion of the facts. It is not a question of "receiving or not receiving," but of "staying till the end or leaving in the middle."

All arguments, therefore, from the history of the Primitive Church are utterly out of place. It is not disputed that such a thing as a majority of a congregation being present at, and yet not receiving the Holy Communion, was unknown to the first three centuries. It is not necessary to quote an array of authorities, modern and ancient, to prove what is not denied. It may have an appearance of learning, and may lead away the unwary from the real issue, but it has no force at all as an argument. In the Primitive Church all Christians received, when they could, every day; and in those ages there never was, so far as we know, more than one celebration on any day. But how does this affect us? And what light can this throw upon the right solution of the question which we have just stated, and which some among us consider an open one to-day? The question to be answered is, "Shall the congregation go home or stay to the end of the service?" And we are told in answer, "In the Primitive Church every one received the Holy Communion." Of course they did; but every one knows that this is not and could not rightly be the case with us to-day, and has not been the case for long centuries past. So far, then, as the Primitive Church throws any light upon the subject at all, it is in favour of all the congregation remaining, for one thing is certain, that none but the excommunicate, etc., went away before the service was done. But while the practice of the Primitive Church can be no exact guide to us to-day in our answer to this question, the practice of the later Church is a most unmistakeable one. As soon as Christianity ceased to be the religion of the few and became that of the many, primitive fervour declined, and with this the frequency of the Communion diminished. As early as the time of St. Augustine there were those, including himself, who doubted if the people should receive daily, and in succeeding ages Communion became weekly, then monthly, and finally the Canons prescribed only three times a year as of necessity. When, then, Communion became less frequent, the question arose all the world over which is being asked by some to-day, and everywhere it received the same answer. Controversialists may try to darken knowledge, but not man with any regard for the truth or history will deny that whenever and wherever the Church found herself unable to keep men to the primitive fervour of frequent receiving, she made the most stringent regulations compelling, at the least, attendance until the completion of the service. [1] Preachers, like St. Chrysostom, denounced, with invectives as strong as that in the exhortation of the second Edwardine Prayer Book, the growing carelessness of the times, and the imperfection of attendance without reception; yet when the question was a choice between non-communicating presence or absence, the Church East and West did not hesitate one instant, but with one voice decided that "they must remain." It seems strange that a question which from the faithful of all ages has received but one answer should by any one be considered as still open; but it is stranger still that persons who claim to be bishops and priests of the Catholic Church should have the effrontery to answer that question in the negative in direct contrariety to the unanimous voice of all the whole Christian world, East and West, Orthodox and Heretical, Catholic and Protestant.

Chapter II. The Communion Service.

We are told that the Communion Service presupposes that there will be communicants. Of course it does. It would be a unique Communion service, indeed, if it did not. The Church has framed her services not so as to agree with the degenerate practice of these last days, but so as to set before men their duty. She puts in the mouth of "all those who are minded to receive the Holy Communion" the words, "We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry;" although, alas! she knows full well that with many who come now-a-days to the Holy Table this is not the case. So, too, she makes the priest say, "We most heartily thank Thee that Thou hast vouchsafed to feed us who have duly received," etc., when perchance, alas! few or none (vel duo vel nemo) have received with the priest at that time. In both these cases the Church, in the Liturgy, sets forth not what is, but what should be the case, for she would desire that at every celebration of the Holy Sacrament there were some of the people to receive orally beside the priest. Our Communion Service, therefore, expresses the Church's wish, and in so doing it is exactly in accord with those of the Latin and Greek Churches. As this point has been ignorantly overlooked or criminally suppressed, we have translated from the Roman office the portions which refer to communicants, noting that in our office such references are but four in number, in the Prayer of Humble Access, two in the Prayer of Consecration, and one in the Thanksgiving.

Portions of the Latin Communion Service said by the priest at every celebration, whether any receive beside himself or no:

"That all we (quotquot sumpserimus) who shall receive from this altar the most holy Body and Blood of Thy Son may be filled with Thy grace and all heavenly benediction."

"May this commixture and consecration of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve us who receive to everlasting life."

"Grant, Lord, that what we have received with our mouth we may take with a pure mind, and that from the gift vouchsafed in this life may come to us health everlasting."

Besides these, which occur at every Mass, the Post Communion usually refers to the Communion, e.g., for Second Sunday in Advent: "Being filled with the food of spiritual nourishment, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord, that by the receiving of this holy mystery Thou wouldest teach us to despise earthly things," etc.

Third Sunday in Advent: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, that this Divine food (hæc Divina subsidia) may prepare us for the feasts to come," etc.

Fourth Sunday in Advent: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, that by frequenting this mystery we who receive the holy gifts may have," etc.

And so on throughout the year. The Latin rite, then, is as clear upon the subject as our own, and in the Greek Liturgy the mention of Communion is still more frequent. No argument, therefore, can be deduced against the practice of the congregation's remaining till the close of the service from the Prayer Book, but quite the reverse; and to the minds of most people the very wording of the rubric before the Confession, and of that before the Prayer of Humble Access, will suggest the idea of the presence of those who do not intend to communicate at that time.

Chapter III. Misrepresentation.

To misrepresent the case one desires to overthrow is a favourite method with special pleaders and pettifogging lawyers, but is not a method which would seem to befit theological discussion. How often must we declare we do not "separarate the communion and the sacrifice," whatever that may mean! We declare, again and again, that for persons not to receive when they attend but one celebration of the Holy Communion in a day is a departure from primitive usage, and a corruption in so far as it is proof of a lessening of holiness; and yet, despite all this, the public is unblishingly assured that the Sacrifice with spiritual communion is set in opposition to oral communion, and that the people are taught that the one is as perfect a service as the other. This is direct misrepresentation. The people are taught that to receive the Holy Communion is the greatest as well as the most blissful act of one's life; that a good communion is the most perfect work a mortal can perform, and that to be present at a celebration with only an act of spiritual communion is but a poor and insufficient substitute. But while this is true, it is also true that the people are taught that even this (inferior as it is to oral communion) is far superior, and more pleasing in God's sight, than going away: for while they that stay are unhappily not worthy to receive the Holy Sacrament, yet, at least, they lament their unworthiness and make fresh resolves to prepare themselves against another opportunity, and ask God to give them such grace as He of His great goodness wills to bestow. Perhaps an illustration will make this matter plainer, it being always premised that "parables will not go on all fours." Should a musician promise on a given occasion, in honour of some distinguished person, to play with an orchestra and also to sing with a chorus, and find at the appointed time his throat too sore to allow him to use his voice, it would be better for him to go to the place appointed, make his excuses, play with the orchestra, and promise to be more careful of his voice on another occasion, than to stop away altogether. His playing would be good and pleasing though only accompanied by the singing of others, while not so acceptable as it would have been could he have sung himself. In other words, "Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all." Such has always been the mind of the Church in regard to the presence of the whole congregation during the celebration of the Holy Communion, even when the majority do not communicate orally.

Chapter IV. Lack of Perception.

When a small number of to say the least not world-renowned scholars set themselves about correcting the whole Church of God, it is not strange should it turn out that their extraordinary position was due to a lack of perception of the real drift of the argument in the case, for there is a considerable a priori probability that all other living and dead theologians and prelates may be right. In considering that class of penitents in the early Church called "Consistentes" we find this very lack of perception of the point of the argument. We are told that the Consistentes were penitents, that their not receiving was their punishment, and that therefore they cannot be paralleled with congregations to-day assisting without communicating. But the whole point of the argument is overlooked by these good people. Had there been any sin in assisting without communicating (as some would have us believe to-day), the Church would never have commanded a certain class of penitents not yet clear from old sin to add this to their account! But since it is evidence there was no sin in their being present and yet not communicating because they were not fit to receive at that time, so no more can there be any sin in those to-day assisting without communicating who are not fit to receive at that time. The point is absolutely clear and conclusive. Heretics, heathens, demoniacs, etc., etc., were dismissed, and it were to be desired that such were the case to-day (if we remember aright the Protestant ambassadors were ejected before the offertory at the coronation of Catholic sovereigns), but this has nothing to do with the children of the Church who, for any temporary cause, cannot rightly, at any given service, receive the Holy Sacrament. The quoting of the ancient canons, which failed to enforce frequent Communion, and have been dead-letter for long centuries, only covers paper, but throws no real light upon the subject. It is not likely that canons which failed a thousand years ago are going to be effectual now. The Prayer-Book in the rubric before the Communion of the Sick points out to these Bishops and Priests how to accomplish the good work they appear to have so much at heart—not by devising new rubrics so as to overturn the custom of the Church of God, but by exhorting the people "to the often receiving of the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ"; but until the people have heeded their exhortation, let them urge them to do the next best thing, viz.: to tarry to the end of the service and receive the blessing of peace.

Chapter V. Garbled Quotations.

It is a disagreeable task to point out that any one has misrepresented another. It is a sadder thing to draw attention to the fact that three Bishops have given their quasi-sanction to such a misrepresentation. Nevertheless, without hesitation, it must be asserted that in a certain chapter of a well-printed little pamphlet the witness of several divines of the Church of England is sadly garbled and disfigured. Of course we gladly acquit the writer of any intention to deceive, but we lament that he should have made the statements he has made without more careful deliberation and research. He tells us that "extremes meet, and Geneva and Rome, in more ways than one, are not far apart," and that the Puritans, in the time of Hooker, desired to enforce non-communicating attendance. This is an absolutely false statement; they did not wish to do anything of the sort; what they desired was the enacting of a law forcing the whole congregation to receive or else forbidding the celebration altogether. A reference to Hooker will make the matter perfectly clear. The writer has been misled again by the quotation from Whitgift, taken from Maskell; [2] if he will read the matter at large in Whitgift's Works, published by the Parker Society (Vol. II., p. 554), he will see he has missed the whole point at issue, which is not "non-communicating attendance" at all. No more is it the custom of others besides those intending to receive remaining, which Cosin describes as "lewd and irreligious," but the Communion of the priest without any of the people, and even this (he says in another place) he considers preferable to the omission of the service. It is true that Wilberforce did not quote all Cosin said upon the subject, but he was more honest than this writer who quotes from the first and third portions, but omits the second and fourth, and accidentally the second portion, which is omitted, throws a different light upon the whole subject. In quoting Mede we think it would have been well to have said that the citation was made from his famous discourse in which he denies the Real Presence altogether, and even so what he is contrasting is not "non-communicating attendance" with "non-communicating absence," but "non-communicating attendance" with "communicating attendance," quite a different issue. We might point out other similar blunders, but we pass to the consideration of what appears to us the most sublime piece of effrontery we have ever met with. We do not stop here to enquire into what was Jewel's opinion on the subject, we are only concerned with his witness as to the "practice" and the "doctrine" of the Church of England in his time upon the point. He was in controversy with Hardinge the Papist, who charges the Church of England with turning out all those who did not intend to communicate before the Communion. Jewel, instead of answering, as some Bishops we could name would do to-day, "Yes, that we do, and in this we are following the ancient Church and have left your popish corruption of non-communicating attendance;" instead of answering so he says the exact opposite, in substance, as follows: 'Were this our custom it would be in accordance with the usage of the early Church.' But, "O M. Hardinge, how long will you thus wilfully pervert the ways of the Lord? You know this is neither the doctrine nor the practice of the Church." What could be plainer! Jewel says, 'I know that non-communicating attendance was not the practice of the early Church, but our Church, like the Church of Rome, has departed from that practice, and this departure is also in accordance with the "doctrine of our Church."' Such is Jewel's statement and with it we entirely agree. When men are so incapable of weighing evidence as to doubt after such a statement as to what was "the practice" and "the doctrine" of the Church of England in Jewel's time upon the subject, it becomes hopeless, indeed, to reach them by any argument.

Chapter VI. The Two Systems.

We are told that the custom of the whole congregation remaining till the end of the service (which those opposed to us call "non-communicating attendance") reduces the number of communicants. This is surely one of the most extraordinary perversions of truth man ever dared to place upon paper. We waive the figures which have been so carefully prepared of the number of communions made in those parishes where all remain, in comparison with that of other parishes where the congregation is dismissed or goes home, figures so clear as to convince even the most skeptical. We waive them because they may possible be unknown to those with whom our controversy lies. It is a proverb, alas! as true in theology as in other subjects—"Men usually write and speak on those matters they know the least about." But there is a fact which needs no figures and about which there can be no ignorance. Every one knows that the system of "non-communicating attendance" is that of the Roman Communion, and that every adherent of that Church is a communicant. And every one knows that in the Episcopal Church, where the opposite system of "non-communicating non-attendance" has been all but universal for 300 years, the ratio of "communicants" to "non-communicants" is ———, shame forbids us to say. Our blessed Master gave us a rule by which to determine such cases—"By their fruits ye shall know them."

Chapter VII. The Doctrinal View.

We have tried to treat this matter utterly apart from any consideration of differing doctrinal views there may be among us. This matter is one upon which the same decision is arrived at, whether one starts from the highest or lowest views of the Lord's Supper. If the celebration of the Holy Communion is but a memorial before men, then, evidently, the greater the number of men before whom the memorial is made the better. If it is also a memorial made before God of the Death of His Son then the more who are present at that memorial the better. If it be only a subjective recollection, made by each man of a dying Saviour's love, then those present will be more likely to have this recollection than those who go away. If Christ be present, then it were well for the people to assembly, and by devout prayer and meditation to make Him present to their minds and hearts. Let the Holy Sacrament be viewed as you will and there can be but one answer to the question—Is it better for the congregation to stay or to go away? And that this is a true statement of the case is manifest from the fact that it has been urged alike by High Churchmen and by Low, by Churchmen and by Dissenters. We cannot better prove this point than by quoting some words from the address, in 1857, of the late Rt. Rev. Alfred Lee, Bishop of Delaware:

"The non-communicating portion of a congregation will be led to realize more the importance of this duty. And if, as I cannot but believe, holy impressions are often made upon those not themselves participants, who witness this commemoration of the Redeemer's sacrificial death, this influence for the good will be promoted by a more numerous attendance on their part."

Chapter VIII. The Spirit of the Age.

There is a school among us, a most pernicious, but providentially small, school, who boast that they are the followers of Archbishop Laud. In one particular, at least, they are in accord with that great, but often mistaken, man—they are narrow and desire to suppress all who differ from them. This arbitrary spirit of narrow dogmatism did not find favour even in Tory England in the seventeenth century and the results showed its unpopularity. We beg leave to assure those who would repeat Laud's experiment, that free America and the nineteenth century is an unfortunate place and time for their efforts; and that even if, by ingenious wire-pulling, they did succeed in their ends, the final results would be as disastrous to the Church and to themselves as were some of Laud's triumphs. This age and land have no love for the dogmatism of the few being imposed upon the many, and far less will they tolerate the removal of liberties now enjoyed for long years past. Some may desire a rubric to encourage or enforce the withdrawal of those not intending to communicate, so as to accentuate their own peculiar views of the Holy Eucharist and to place a narrowing gloss upon the Prayer Book, but the Church has no idea of having her borders curtailed, nor of adopting for all what are now the peculiarities of the few. As the Prayer Book stands to-day all are agreed to approve and support it; the Church will be careful how she allows changes to be made in any partisan direction. It were well to leave well-enough alone, and while we are posing as the healers of the divisions of Christendom to take heed how we increase the divisions among ourselves.

[1] A sample or two may not be out of place. Canon XLVII. of the Cl. of Agde.: "We command, by a special decree, that whole Masses be assisted at by the laics upon the Lord's Day, so that the people presume not to leave before the blessing of the priest. And if any should do so, let them be most severely censured (confundantur) publicly by the Bishop." This Council was holden in A.D. 506. Binius, in his notes on this Canon, quotes St. Cæsarius of Arles as follows (Hom. 12): "I beseech you, most beloved brethren, and admonish you with fatherly love, that as often as Masses are celebrated, whether on Sundays or Feast days, no one go out of the church until the Divine Mysteries are finished." The same was enacted at Orleans in A.D. 511. Canon XXVII: "When the people come together to celebrate Mass in the name of God, let them not depart till the solemnity of Mass is completed, and when the Bishop is present let them receive his benediction (benedictionem sacerdotis)."

[2] It is interesting to note that Maskell, although he went to Rome, is with the author a high authority—because he thinks he agrees with him; but Archdeacon Wilberforce is only to be sneered at for taking the same step, because he takes the opposite side. As a matter of fact it was the ignorant or wilful misrepresentation of the Church's teaching made by men like this author that lost to her Communion Newman and Manning and Maskell and Wilberforce and many others; fortunately for the Church to-day, nobody now believes their misrepresentations.

Project Canterbury