Walk-through of the Communion liturgy (BCP 2019)

Over the past few months we’ve been walking through the Communion liturgy in the 2019 Prayer Book, step by step, and just finished last week.  Now it’s time to share the full index of this summary so you can go back, catch up on anything you missed, or revisit what you might want to revisit.

This is not, of course, a complete commentary on every portion of the liturgy.  But it does give you something to think about, or context to consider, for each section of the worship service.  Plus some advice along the way!

  1. The Trinitytide Acclamation or The Advent Acclamation
  2. The Collect for Purity
  3. The Penitential Rite (Decalogue or Summary of the Law)
  4. The Gloria in Excelsis
  5. The Number of Collects and Lessons
  6. The Nicene Creed (translation)
  7. The Order of the Sermon & Creed
  8. The Prayers of the People
  9. The Exhortation
  10. The Confession
  11. The Comfortable Words
  12. The Offertory Sentences
  13. The Sursum Corda
  14. The Proper Preface
  15. The two(ish) Prayers of Consecration
  16. The Epiclesis
  17. The Fraction
  18. The Prayer of Humble Access
  19. the Anthem
  20. What the Minister says to the Congregation at the Communion
  21. The two Post-Communion Prayers
  22. The Blessing
  23. The Dismissal


The very last act of worship in the Prayer Book’s Communion service (unless you have a hymn or other music after this, as the rubrics permit) is the Dismissal on page 122 and 138.  This is an import from the Roman Rite (and the 1979 Prayer Book); the classical Prayer Book tradition didn’t include a dismissal, but ended with the Blessing.  That being said, most (if not all) of the 1928 Prayer Book parishes that I’ve visited have tacked on a Dismissal to the end of the liturgy anyway!  I guess it really helps for the celebrant, or deacon, to tell people that the liturgy is over.

The rubrics state “The Deacon, or the Priest, may dismiss the People with these words“.  This indicates three things:

  1. If there is a deacon serving, he is the one should say this.  The priest only says it in the absence of a deacon.
  2. The Dismissal is optional, and may be left off, according to the historic Prayer Book pattern.
  3. The Dismissals provided are the complete list of approved dismissals; we’re not technically supposed to re-word them or make up different ones.  (Not that this is a massively critical piece of the worship service that will undermine the entire Christian Faith if we mess it up, but at the very least it avoids confusion if we don’t go “off-script” too far.)

The four dismissals all have the same response by the congregation: “Thanks be to God.” though “Alleluia, alleluia” is indicated to be added from the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost.  “It may be added at other times, except during Lent and on other penitential occasions.”  This is a concession to popular practice, I suspect; traditionally, additional Alleluia’s are only found in that Easter-Ascension-Pentecost block of time.

Identifying the choices and when to use them

The four dismissals provided are not accompanied with any suggestions about times of year for use, allowing a parish or deacon to stick to one favorite all the time, use whichever one catches the deacon’s fancy at the time, or make a choice according to liturgical mood or tone.

Let us go forth in the Name of Christ.

This is perhaps the most straight-forward dismissal, and the one I find myself using the most often.  The word “Name” is capitalized here, as it often is in liturgical texts, because “the Name of Christ” or of God is of particular theological significance.  The Name, in ancient understanding, is representative of the power, authority, even presence, of the one named.  Regarding both the Tabernacle (or Tent of Meeting) and the Temple in Jerusalem, God said he would make his Name dwell there.  So when we depart in the Name of Christ, the implication is that we carry Christ with us, out from the church gathering and into the ordinary world around us.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

The second dismissal is more like a “mission statement reminder”, giving the people particular instructions on their way out.  The call to love and service may make this dismissal particularly appropriate in penitential seasons, when there are concrete spiritual disciplines being preached from the pulpit, or otherwise commended in the lessons.

Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is the longest and most specific dismissal.  It points us out into the world, like the first two, but, rather than emphasizing good works like the second, it suggests a continued life of worship like the first.  Rather than centering us on Christ, though, this dismissal centers us on the Holy Spirit.  This perhaps makes it particularly appropriate for the Day of Pentecost and other occasions that share that emphasis.  And, lest one misconstrue a Pentecostal excess, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Let us bless the Lord.

The appearance of this stark and brief dismissal in some of the Holy Week services in the 1979 Prayer Book suggested that this is an appropriate dismissal for that time of year, but I haven’t found it there in our new prayer book, which frees this dismissal to an “any time” status.  As it is found at the end of the Daily Offices too, this simplest of dismissals may find their natural home in brief weekday Communion services or the ordinary Sundays of Trinitytide.

The Dismissal historically

The most common nickname for the service of Holy Communion among the Papists is “the Mass”.  That name comes from the usual traditional Latin dismissal “ite, missa est.”  I have often heard it said that the word missa indicates “mission”, that we’re being sent into the world bring the Gospel to all nations.  While this is a fine sentiment, and perhaps even an implication of the idea of the dismissal, that’s not what the word really is.  There is some linguistic discussion on its precise etymology and origin, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page linked above, but basically the missa here refers either to the congregation which is being sent, or to the dismissal being said.  Mission is a fine and proper implication, but not the direct meaning of that dismissal.

This background insight translates pretty well into our four dismissals, in that some of ours indicate a “missional” character and others don’t.  Both are valid interpretations of the purpose and message of the dismissal.  In your own ministry context, be sure you don’t pigeon-hole the dismissal into an overly-narrow field of meaning.

The Blessing at Communion

The last part of the Communion service in the classical prayer books is the Blessing.  Specifically, this one (albeit with the 2019 wording)…

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen.

Once this blessing is pronounced, people can get up and go.

Except, in the modern order, we now have an extra Dismissal that follows, and usually music as well.  But until the 1970’s (or perhaps the arrival of something like the Anglican Missal?) the Blessing marked the end of the liturgy.

I have heard it argued that the priest offering a Blessing at this point is redundant – what greater blessing could be conferred than receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord?  But there are a couple different answers.

First of all, ending a worship service with a blessing is biblical.  It is the Old Testament pattern – even though the sacrifice of animals and their oblation in the Temple and the eating of the meat was the “high point” of the Old Covenant liturgy, the priest was still to bless the people after.  It is the New Testament pattern too, in a way: St. Paul ended each of his epistles with a blessing of some sort.  It is a little ironic, though, that the blessing we use is not explicitly used as a blessing by St. Paul (cf. Philippians 4:7 – it was actually the Epistle reading a couple Sundays ago).

Secondly, the specific content of this blessing is appropriate.  In a general sense, the argument against a blessing after receiving Holy Communion does sound logical, but this objection is undermined by what this blessing calls for: that the people would be kept in the knowledge and love of God.  It is a blessing of perseverance – may the people, who have just celebrated their unity with and in Christ, always remain so.

Third, and finally, it is analogous to the Prayer of Humble Access.  If you reduce the meaning of this blessing to some sort of generic blessing, then yeah it’s lame.  Same deal with the Prayer of Humble Access: if you reduce the meaning of that prayer to some sort of generic confession, then it’s redundant and silly too.  But both of these prayers, although bearing similarities to other prayers and “functions” within the service, bring new and different lights to the table (or, from the Table in this instance).

Now, all that having been said… the 2019 Prayer Book states that

The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, gives this or an alternative blessing

But what is an “alternative blessing”?  None is supplied.  In the classical prayer books this choice didn’t exist: that blessing was the blessing.  But there is another blessing in the old prayer book tradition – the Burial Office ends with a different blessing, also found at the end of the Committal in the 2019 Prayer Book:

The God of peace, who brought again the from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight…

Notice in both blessings that these are not (strictly-speaking) prayers.  “May God ___” is a prayer, but these are more like statements (or perhaps subjunctive verbs, if I remember my grammar correctly): “God… make you perfect” and “the peace of God… keep your hearts and minds.”  Blessings are “speech-acts”, like when a minister declares a man and a woman husband and wife, or baptizes somebody.  However sacerdotal you may or may not choose to view these “sacramental rites”, the reality is that these are special acts of the Church through her ordained ministers.  Pentecostalism, especially in its Prosperity Gospel extreme versions, has yielded an unhealthy practice that is creeping into evangelicalism: “declarations” in the name of Jesus for one or another sort of blessing.  This practice is essentially usurping the special role of the ordained clergy, popularizing it for all Christians, and reducing its gravity and import often to crass hopes and dreams for health and wealth.  Be very careful what you do, or permit, along these lines in your ministry context.

One last note about the option for different blessings at the end of the Communion service.  I strongly suspect that the main reason the 2019 rubric permits an “alternative blessing” is to authorize the Seasonal Blessings that have been provided in supplemental books such as Book of Occasional Services and Common Prayer (2000).  If you are so inclined, you can peruse those materials for a variety of blessings – probably finding a unique one for every Sunday of the year.  Although modern liturgy trends seem to prefer such variety, classic Prayer Book wisdom does not support this, so I would advise priests not to deviate from the standard Prayer Book blessing very often.  Maybe grab a “solemn blessing” for Christmas Day and Easter Day; maybe use another blessing from the Bible or pre-existing tradition on other special and rare occasions; otherwise, be sure to use the standard historic blessing virtually all year.

If it’s always changing, it’ll never stick in the people’s minds, and go in one ear and out the other.  And, given the fact that the standard blessing is for our hearts and minds to kept, that would be sadly ironic indeed.

Two Post-Communion Prayers

I can just hear the traditionalists gnashing their teeth at this title.  “Two post communion prayers?  What’s wrong with your new prayer book, couldn’t you just settle on one like the good old days?”  The funny thing, in this case, is that the 1662 Prayer Book actually did have two choices of prayer after the reception of Holy Communion.  The second option is essentially what we have to this day in American Prayer Books – the “post communion prayer.”  The first option might be called a Prayer of Oblation, and American prayer books have typically placed it as part of the Prayer of Consecration.  So where the 1662 Prayer Book has a one-or-the-other-prayer situation, books like the 1928 use both, having moved one to a different spot.

In the 2019 Prayer Book, though, with our two communion rites, we end up with two different versions of the post-communion prayer.  Before preparing this write-up, I’d not yet spent any time comparing the two prayers against one another, and was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered: they are essentially the same prayer.  Check it out:


Of course there are some differences, and even the slightest difference can imply a much larger shift in emphasis and focus.  So let’s take a look at some of the variations between these.  The Prayer on the left side is the Anglican Standard Text, and, minus a couple words and one phrase trimmed out, is the same as found in the 1662 Prayer Book.  If you’re interested in that “true standard”, you can find it at the end of this entry.

The first major streamlining in the Renewed Ancient Text (right column) is where the prayer makes an aside to further explicate the nature of the Church.  “The body of your Son, and heirs of your eternal Kingdom” is made to cover for twice as much material in the Anglican Standard Text.

The next noteworthy omission is in the petition.  The first prayer asks God to assist us with his grace, while the second prayer asks God to send us out.  Both involve doing the good works according to his calling, but the former leans first on a prayer for perserverance in faith and the latter leans more on mission.  Indeed, that reference to serving as faithful witnesses of Christ is the only element of the second prayer that is truly unique to it, rather than a reduction of the other.

In short, both Post Communion Prayers in the 2019 Prayer Book are based upon the historic Post Communion Prayer.  The Anglican Standard Text is slightly shortened from the original, and the Renewed Ancient Text is even more shortened, and given a “missional” flavor toward the end.  They still ultimately communicate the same thing to us, but they do send us in slightly different directions.

– – –

ALMIGHTY and everliving God
we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us,
who have duly received these holy mysteries,
with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood
of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us;
and that we are very members
incorporate in the mystical Body of thy Son,
which is the blessed company of all faithful
and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom,
by the merits of the most precious death and passion of thy dear Son.
And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace,
that we may continue in that holy fellowship,
and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in,
through Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

What the Minister says to the Congregation at the Communion

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.]


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!

During the Anthem at the Communion

The bread and wine have been consecrated and broken, and we’ve just prayed the Prayer of Humble Access… now what?

The following or some other suitable anthem may be sun or said here

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world;
have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world;
have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world;
grant us your peace.

This is the Agnus Dei, or “Lamb of God”, a classic feature of Communion liturgy.  It takes the words of St. John the Baptist (in John 1:29) turns them into a prayer.  The classical prayer book tradition does not appoint this (or any) anthem here.  In fact, a strict reading of the 1662 Prayer Book makes it difficult to work out where any music can be inserted into the liturgy!  The 1928 Prayer Book, however, notes that a Hymn may be sung at this point.  A liturgical traditionalist probably would have had the Agnus Dei in mind, although the Anglican hymnody tradition has produced some truly marvelous communion hymns, and I miss them terribly whenever I’m away from my congregation!

Behind the scenes, this where things are getting busy.  In a large setting, it may take a while to pour consecrated wine from flagons into chalices, and to break the large communion host into smaller pieces.  This anthem is a good time for the priest and deacon to make such preparations without spending too much time in silence.  It’s similar to how the initial preparation of the altar is typically done during the Offertory Hymn.

Don’t get me wrong though, silence is a good thing; and as a general pattern I think most of our celebrations of the liturgy need more silence.  But if it takes a significant amount of time to accomplish a mundane task, then an anthem (be it spoken or sung) can help people remain meditative upon the spiritual realities – the Holy Communion of our Lord.

As a final encouragement, don’t be afraid of the repetitive nature of this and similar anthems.  I avoided using it for most of Trinitytide, probably out of an over-anxious concern for time, but when I did finally use it again one Sunday, I got a comment after that it was nice to have it back, and that we should keep saying it.  I was reminded that it’s not just a “filler”, but a meaningful prayer.  Sometimes our pithy one-liner Acclamations and Antiphons are simply too short and abrupt for people to take them.  When we repeat the same thing a couple times, it gives us more opportunity to process (or digest) what we’re saying and praying.  So, please, if you have a habit of utilizing the option of skipping the Agnus Dei, try bringing it back for a while.

Was there really such thing as a Scottish-American Communion liturgy?

Tomorrow is the commemoration of the Consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first American Bishop.  One of the popular stories about the origins of Anglicanism in this country is that he was ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church in exchange for the use of their Communion liturgy in our new province.

It turns out that this story is not only oversimplified, but exaggerated to inaccuracy.  As this very informative recent article by Drew Keane reports, the agreement was between three Scottish bishops and Samuel Seabury, who was representing Episcopalian clergymen in Connecticut.  So, at the first, there was nothing binding upon the American Episcopal Church, as it didn’t exist yet.  And secondly, the Scottish bishops did not demand or require anything of Seabury or those in his cure, but rather, simply encouraged him to consider the Scottish liturgies.  Yes, “liturgies” in the plural.  There was a standard Communion text from 1637, a standard reprinting from 1743, and there was another form in circulation by 1764.  And they’re all slightly different, in terms of the precise order of service.  The link above includes a handy table to line up those three against the first American Prayer Book of 1789.  We learn here two critical things:

  1. The “Scottish form” of the liturgy was not standardized at this time, making the common “Scots-American” label for a particular Order of Communion somewhat of a contrivance.
  2. There was no particular deal or obligation put upon the Americans by the Scots.

We American Anglicans do owe gratitude to the Scottish Church, of course, and there are traces of Scottish features that have been preserved in the American tradition.  But the way we sometimes speak of it can be rather overstated.  The English Prayer Book of 1662 was still the strongest standard by which the Scottish and American liturgies were measured.

Thankfully, this correction does not require me to retract any significant errors on this blog so far; I’ve only mentioned the “Scottish connection” once before, when reviewing the 1928 Prayer Book, and didn’t go too far down the rabbit trail.  Our exploration of the epiclesis (invocation) may also be further informed by Keane’s article.

All that to say, go read “Seabury and the Scottish Liturgy” by Drew Keane.  Here’s the link again: http://northamanglican.com/seabury-and-the-scottish-liturgy/

The Prayer of Humble Access

We now come to one of the most cherished and beloved prayers in the Prayer Book tradition: The Prayer of Humble Access.  If your training in Anglican liturgy is primarily via the 1979 Prayer Book or another such modern book or text, you may not be very familiar with this prayer.  This was the case over on Twitter a couple weeks ago, resulting in a brief-but-intense #humblegate incident complete with penance.  So let’s dive in and see what this prayer is all about.

The text of the prayer in our 2019 prayer book is:

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up
the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord
whose character* is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.  Amen.

The only major difference between the wording here and the traditional wording is the word “character”, marked above with an asterisk*.  The classical prayer book word is “property” – it is a property of God that he has mercy.  Earlier drafts of our prayer book used a different term and phrase there; “character” is a better update to “property” than our previous draft “who always delights in showing mercy.”  In that draft, mercy is God’s delight, but the original (and now also 2019) text identifies mercy as property of God’s very nature or character.  It is the same as how we speak of God’s love – God is not simply loving, rather, God is love.  God does not just delight in showing mercy, God’s character is to have mercy.  If you think on that for a moment, you will find this a very comforting and moving reality.

Lots of Scripture references went into this prayer.  These are the main ones I know of:

  • Exodus 34:6-7 = God’s character of mercy and forgiveness
  • Daniel 9:18 = we pray not in our righteousness but in God’s mercy
  • Matthew 15:27 = dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table
  • John 6:47-58 = Jesus’ flesh & blood are to be eaten & drunk for eternal life
  • John 17:20-26 = that we may be in Christ, and Christ in us
  • 1 Corinthians 10:14-18 = partaking in the bread & wine is partaking in Christ

Three Challenges

One of the challenges to which some people are probably responding negatively today, especially without previous exposure to this prayer, is the strong realist language: “Grant us so to eat the flesh of your dear son… and to drink his blood.”  We must remember, though, that just as there are different theological interpretations of our Lord’s words of institution and of his Bread of Life discourse, so too will this prayer take on different tones according to one’s theology.   A Lutheran can see this as an affirmation of the Real Presence – Christ’s human and divine natures actually present in the bread and wine.  A Calvinist an see this as an affirmation of the Real Spiritual Presence – Christ’s body and blood actually communicated to us sacramentally as we receive the bread and wine.  So there is no problem with this prayer from either end of the churchmanship spectrum.

Another question that might also get raised is the “effects” of the bread/body and wine/blood of Christ.  A simplistic reading of this prayer might indicate that Christ’s body cleanses our bodies, and his blood cleanses our souls.  But that is not the intention of this prayer – the historic belief has always been that Christ’s body and blood go together, just as any other real creature.  It’s like talking about the Father creating, the Son redeeming, and the Spirit sanctifying – all three persons of the Trinity actually do all three of those things… there’s a convenient prominence of different Persons with different roles, but never an actual division between them.  Similarly, this prayer affirms, poetically, that the body and blood of Christ together sanctify our entire being – body and soul.  (Honestly, though, I’ve never actually heard anyone confused about this before.  I explain this only because I imagine someone somewhere has probably wondered about it before.)

One misunderstanding and mistreatment of this prayer that I have heard about, however, concerns its penitential tone.  Some people claim this prayer is extraneous in light of the confession and absolution already offered in the liturgy.  Such a claim is to miss the point of this prayer.  This is not a confession of sin, this is an acknowledgement of unworthiness.  Even with our sin absolved we are still unworthy participants at the Lord’s Table.  Even with the grace of divine forgiveness upon us, “blessed are they who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).  Furthermore, some of the language in the prayer – “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” – is echoed in the 8th paragraph of the prayer of consecration, plus the language of unworthiness is echoed in the 9th paragraph of the same.  So this prayer is integrally connected to the rest of the communion liturgy.

A Wandering Prayer for Wandering Pilgrims

Our prayer book (I think for the first time?) puts this prayer in the mouths of the whole congregation.  Some users of the 1928 Prayer Book may have already started using it as a congregational prayer, in violation of the rubrics (that’s just a story I heard, no idea how true it is), but especially because of its thematic and linguist connections to the consecration this is a great prayer for all the people to pray together, because it gets everyone involved in some form of eucharistic piety.  In pre-modern times, preparation for receiving Holy Communion was a big deal both for Protestants and Papists alike.  Now that Communion is received weekly by the majority of (liturgical) Christians, we tend to kind of take it for granted, and many of us have lost a sense of preparation and piety for the Sacrament.  This prayer is a helpful, powerful, and beautiful treasure to that end.

But since I’ve mentioned its history of being spoken only by the priest, let’s now look at its placement in the liturgy.  It’s something of a “wandering prayer” in the history of the Prayer Books.  In the 1662 Prayer Book, the Prayer of Humble Access was said by the Priest immediately between the Sanctus and the Prayer of Consecration.  The language echoes I mentioned above, then, connected to one of the two options to pray after the reception of Holy Communion, providing a before & after dynamic when it comes to the theme of unworthy reception.

The American Prayer Book of 1928 moved this prayer after the Consecration and Lord’s Prayer, immediately before the Ministration of Communion.  That is essentially where it is placed in the 2019 book too, the only visual difference being that where the 1928 book says a hymn may be sung, the 2019 book prints the Agnus Dei as an anthem that may be sung or said after this prayer and before the Ministration.  So, functionally, 2019 and 1928 are doing the same with the Prayer of Humble Access.

I’ve heard of other churches in the Anglican Communion doing other things with this prayer, like lining it up alongside the Confession, Absolution, and Comfortable Words, but that’s just playing into its penitential tone and missing its eucharistic piety and preparation.  Perhaps such a misunderstanding could be due to a misuse of the original 1549 prayer book, where this prayer follows immediately after the Comfortable Words, but in that book the Confession/Absolution/Comfortable Words sequence took place after the Consecration and Lord’s Prayer and Fraction!  So in actuality, the 1549 placed this prayer directly before the reception of the Sacrament, much like the 1928 and 2019.

It was in the Prayer Book of 1552 that the Prayer of Humble Access moved earlier, between the Sanctus and Consecration, where it then remained, through to 1662.

But it’s optional…

Last of all, it must be noted that the 2019 Prayer Book says this prayer “may be said“, meaning it’s optional.  This is largely a concession to the 1979 fan club; in light of historic Anglican tradition we should always say it.  Some people have suggested we pray it during penitential seasons like Advent and Lent.  That is bad advice, because that sends the message that this is primarily a penitential prayer, and it’s not!  It’s an expression of eucharistic piety, not penitence as such.

Also, from an ecumenical standpoint, it should be noted that the Roman Rite has a different (shorter, less elegant) sort of prayer of humble access.  The wording may have changed over time, but the one I was familiar with in the mid 2000’s was:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.

This prayer draws from the words of the faithful centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus’ word, rather than actual visit and contact.  And it communicates the same basic premise: we are unworthy of God’s presence (regardless of how recently absolution has been pronounced) and approach him only by his grace.

So, in short, yes, pray this prayer at every Communion service.

And if your church doesn’t, and you’re not the celebrant, then pray it silently yourself before receiving the Sacrament.  This is our tradition, this is our theology.

Readings Review & Planning Propers 10/28

What we’re doing on this blog on Mondays is looking back and forth at the Daily Office readings (or lessons) so we can better process together what the Scriptures are saying, and list the recommended Propers for the Communion or Antecommunion service for each day of the week.

Readings Review

Last week: 2 Kings 10-14, 2 Chronicles 26, Acts 1-5:11, Isaiah 2-8, Mark 4-8:10

This week: 2 Kings 15-17, 2 Chronicles 28-29, Acts 5:12-9:31, Isaiah 9-15, Mark 8:11-11:26

Special reading for St. Simon & Jude’s Day on Monday: John 14:15-31
Special readings for All Saints’ Day on Friday: Hebrews 11:32-12:2 & Revelation 19:1-16

If you’ve got a moment, check out this quick devotional on Isaiah 9 & 10, straddling Sunday and Monday evening’s OT lessons:

Planning Propers

This is the week of Proper 25 (or 19th after Trinity in the traditional calendar), so keep in mind that the historic Prayer Book default is that a mid-week Eucharist will repeat the Collect & Lessons (the propers) for yesterday.  Otherwise, we recommend…

  • Monday 10/28 = SAINTS SIMON AND JUDE
  • Tuesday 10/29 = Votive* or James Hannington (martyr)
  • Wednesday 10/30 = Votive
  • Thursday 10/31 = Votive
  • Friday 11/1 = ALL SAINTS’ DAY
  • Saturday 11/2 = Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

* A Votive is a “Various Occasion” (page 733 in the BCP 2019).  The traditional appointments are Holy Trinity on Sunday, Holy Spirit on Monday, Holy Angels on Tuesday, of the Incarnation on Wednesdays, of the Holy Eucharist on Thursdays, the Holy Cross on Fridays, and of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturdays.

The Fraction: when to break the bread

On the night that he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it*…

And so when we celebrate Holy Communion, to this day, the celebrant breaks the bread.  The question we’re looking at in this entry in the walk-through of the Communion liturgy is when to break the bread.  The rubrics in the 2019 BCP, immediately above the words of institution in the prayer of consecration (pages 116 and 133) read thus:

At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or lay a hand upon it, and here* may break the bread; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing the wine to be consecrated.

This is very nearly the only rubric in the prayer book tradition that tells the priest or bishop what to do with his hands during the prayers.  The Roman Rite is very specific – when to elevate, how many signs of the cross to make – but ours is very simple and free.  But the celebrant must touch the bread or the paten, and each vessel with wine to be consecrated.  This is as far as we go (at least officially) regarding the idea of “sacramental intent” – the notion that the priest only consecrates what he intends to consecrate, and nothing by mistake.  Physically indicating that which is to be consecrated for the Holy Communion is thus both an imitation of our Lord’s “taking” before blessing and breaking, as well as an act of verification regarding exactly what is about to be consecrated.

I have seen Anglican celebrations even by bishop where these rubrics have been ignored… please be sure you heed them!

But what’s interesting here for the 2019 Prayer Book is that it says the bread may be broken during the words of institution.  Those who are used to the 1979 Prayer Book’s liturgy may be surprised – there is a distinct “Fraction” or “Breaking of the Bread” soon after the prayer of consecration.  But the classical Anglican pattern is actually to break the bread during the words of institution.  In our new prayer book we have the choice of doing the fraction at this point or as a special act after the prayers of consecration and Lord’s Prayer.  This is what it looks like:


This is much like what is found in the 1979 Prayer Book and the modern Roman Rite, with the one difference being that instead of the traditional wording of the Pascha nostrum (“[Christ] our passover”) the celebrant can say another version of it.  Why two versions?

  • “… is sacrificed for us” indicates an immediacy to the Sacrifice of Christ.  Some will take this as an acceptably high theology of the sacrament, others may deem it too close to the Roman notion of the sacrifice of the Mass.
  • “… has been sacrificed for us, once for all upon the Cross” puts more scripture verses together to emphasize the Cross and ensure that the people are directed backwards thither in time.

That both are presented as acceptable options here indicate that insofar a present sacrifice can be inferred in the celebration of Holy Communion, it is one that is communicative of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and not a repeat or addition thereto.  As Anglicans we can speak of a participation in the Holy Communion with Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, even those of the “lower” Reformed stripe.

If your practice is to make the Fraction at this point, and use these two dialogues, consider using the first one most of the year and the second one during Lent and other occasions where the centrality of the Cross is made more explicit.

Anyway, back to the big question of the day: when should we break the bread?  And why do we have choices?

Option 1: Break the Bread during the Prayers

This is the theological preference of the Calvinists and (I presume) Zwinglians.  By breaking the bread at this point it emphasizes our remembrance of the Last Supper and de-emphasizes any notion of eucharistic sacrifice or offering.  Because most Anglicans-in-exile under Queen Mary’s reign spent their time with French Calvinists, the Elizabethan settlement saw the fraction enshrined in the same place in the liturgy.  So we have this as the standard pattern for every Book of Common Prayer with the probable exception of the original (1549) which doesn’t seem to specify.  Anglican precedent, therefore, pushes us firmly in this direction.  However…

Option 2: Break the Bread after the Prayers

That nice ritual breaking of the bread after the prayers is more historic, being the universal order before the Reformation.  The Lutherans retained it, too, likely due to their higher sacramentology compared to the Calvinists, et al.  And they rejected the Roman notion of eucharistic sacrifice as much as the rest of us, so that ought to assuage those who fear this form of the fraction is too “papist.”  To break the bread at this point, then, is to realign our liturgy with the greater ecumenical and historic consensus.  This is also in the “biblical” order.  Notice what we read: Jesus “took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it.”  The sequence is taking, praying, and breaking.  So why should we not let the priest finish “giving thanks” before breaking the bread?

Please Not Option 3: a bit of both

One practice I’ve come across (which seems quite common in my experience, though I haven’t traveled much) is for the celebrant to “snap” the bread during the words of institution without actually breaking it.  This, ideally, adds a dramatic effect in the midst of the prayers.  On my first celebration of the eucharist as a newly-ordained priest, I had perfect beginner’s luck and did this perfectly without breaking the bread on my first Sunday.  It took weeks to replicate that success.  But after a couple years I learned more about the theological reasons for the two different placements of the Fraction.  And so I took the advice given me: choose one point or the other.  People know what breaking bread is, means, and sounds like – you don’t have to pretend to demonstrate it for them, it doesn’t make things more dramatic or meaningful.