Finally, after the Communion prayers have all been said, the celebrant addresses the congregation.  Apart from the quick bid to say the Lord’s Prayer, this is the first time the priest or bishop actually speaks to the congregation in this half of the liturgy.

It is common practice, I’ve noticed, for priests to look up at the congregation during the Words of Institution – “Take, eat, this is my body…” etc.  This is absolutely inappropriate.  Even if you’re a highchurchman who favors the theology of the priest serving in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), those words are still not for the priest to say to the people.  The Words of Institution are part of the prayers recited by the celebrant at the altar; to look up at the congregation is to defy the prayerfulness of the entire paragraph, and cause confusion for everyone involved.  If you, as a celebrant, have trouble with this, consider celebrating ad orientem instead of versus populum, as if you’re leading the congregation in prayer rather than bartending for them.  I have a brief explanation of the ad orientem posture in the “Looking East” section of this sermon from a few years ago.

Anyway, it is at the end of the prayers that the celebrant does speak to the congregation.  In our 2019 Prayer Book there are two such points: an invitation to the whole congregation, and the words spoken while actually administering the bread and wine to each communicant.  The content and history of these words is important for us to understand, especially we ministers who read them.

In the first prayer book, of 1549, the following words were to be spoken during the administration:

The body [blood] of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee; preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

This suggested a strongly realist theology of the Sacrament, which the Swiss-influenced English Reformers were a little wary about, and so when the next prayer book came along in 1552, these words were changed to something more spiritualist.

Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

It seems that this was a pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction, however, as this language could very easily indicate the absenteeist theology of the likes of Ulrich Zwingli.  (For a review of the terms realist and spiritualist and absenteeist in this context, see this summary I wrote a while back.)  So, in subsequent books, the high view of 1549 and low view of 1552 kind of got mashed together.  This is what the ministers say in the 1662 Prayer Book:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

This is a jarring move for a lot of people.  Those of a Lutheran or other such high church persuasion regarding the Sacrament are going to favor the first half of the statement, and those of a Calvinist or other such low church persuasion are going to favor the second half.  But this is an instance where the Anglican Way is a via media between Wittenburg and Geneva.  That’s not always how things work for us,  but this is one of those areas where it does.

Nowadays, in the 2019 Prayer Book, there is a little variety in what the priests might say to the congregation at this point in the liturgy.  First we have a pair of invitations which we may say (but don’t have to).

The gifts of God for the people of God.  [Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.]

or

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

The former is kind of a summary of the classic 1662 mash-up, with the longer 1552 part made optional.  The second invitation is a mash-up of John 1:29 and Revelation 19:9, which might favor a high-church theology in the way they’re used, but by bringing in the context of the eschatological wedding feast it takes some focus away from the question of what’s going on with the communion elements and shifts it to the act of participation.  And that, I think, is something that people of all churchmanships can get behind.  And in my localized experience, that line has put more smiles on the faces of my flock than the first invitation.

All that is optional, however.  It’s common practice in modern liturgy to use one of those invitations, and it’s especially helpful in a large congregation where the communion line can make people wait a while – hearing such words before they get up and again when they receive.

At the altar rail itself, or wherever the people receive the bread and wine, this what the ministers say:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, [which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving].

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, [which was shed for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful].

That is the Anglican Standard Text (on page 120), and you’ll notice that it is identical to the 1662 Prayer Book except “thee” has become “you” and the second (low-church theology) half has been made optional.  Some may note that this is an unfair emphasis on the shorter, high-church first half.  Others may rebut that the low church phraseology is also in the first Invitation, and therefore the minister has two opportunities to say it.

Meanwhile, in the Renewed Ancient Text (page 136), the same Invitations are supplied, but the words at the administration are different:

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

This is a holdover from the 1979 Prayer Book where diversity of options and simplicity of statements were the rules of the day.  To my slight embarrassment, I admit this is what I still say when distributing Communion, despite my preference for the historic liturgy.  It’s shorter and easier to memorize, and I’m afraid that if I try to use the first, Standard, text, I’ll mess it up.  But I’m working on it.

Plus, to be fair, if you use the first Invitation in full, then you’ve provided the historic words of administration already.  So our tradition isn’t lost necessarily, just slightly rearranged, and that’s not the worst thing in the world!

It also should be noted that the Additional Directions on page 141 state that:

The words used when the Bread and Cup are given to the communicants may be taken from either Eucharistic Text.

This option to exchange elements from the Anglican Standard and the Renewed Ancient Texts applies to just about every element that diverge between them, which is helpful for those who are concerned about “doing it right” in the midst of learning a different rite, as well as for emphasizing the essential unity of these two rites, as I’ve argued before.

So, for those of you who have the charge of celebrating the Eucharist, take note of the words you say to the congregation, both when administering the bread and wine and when giving the general invitation forward.  Make sure that your words are not careless announcements, but the theologically rich words they’re meant to be.

And those of you who hear these words from the pew and/or when opening your hands and mouth for the Sacrament, make sure you open your ears as well.  These are not idle words to keep the ministers busy or just to fill space, but instructive statements of faith!

One thought on “What the Minister says to the Congregation at the Communion

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