Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Retreat House
Using the Prayer Book Order for Holy Communion during Lent has been a chastening experience. In many respects the contemporary language liturgy is friendlier – it has an open, even relaxed structure, in which to be and pray. In the Prayer Book liturgy, language of piercing intensity penetrates the mind and imagination. There is no hiding place for the half-hearted. I suspect this is one of the reasons for its widespread and tragic demise – it goes ‘too far and too deep’.
There is a directness about the language of the Prayer Book that communicates the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist in such a way as to strip off the finer nuances of Eucharistic devotion. The exhortation at the time of Holy Communion warns that if we do not come to the Lord recognizing our own sinfulness in penitence and faith, we cannot be ‘meet partakers of those holy mysteries’. If we ‘receive the same unworthily, not considering the Lord’s body, we kindle God’s wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases and sundry kinds of death.’ There is, of course, an echo here in contemporary liturgy: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.’ But that does sound a little half-hearted.
What is missing from modern liturgy is any clear statement that Holy Communion is a physical encounter with God. For parishes that pray the prayer of humble access, there is the prayer’ that our sinful bodies made be made clean by his body’, but in some way the Lord’s presence in the Eucharistic elements is now elevated to the realms of spiritual mystery. In the Prayer Book, Christ’s Body can and will have a real physical effect on the communicant. It is a simple but stark fact.
Until the advent of the Parish Communion movement in the Church of England, around the time of the Second World War, the widespread custom
was for communicants to make their communion at 8 o’clock in the morning, unless illness or age made this difficult, in which case Holy Communion followed Morning Prayer. The main reason for this practice was to permit a total fast before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. The real presence of the Lord in Holy Communion was felt even at the breakfast table. Would that it were now! If we do not discern the Lord’s body we bring judgement on ourselves; if as individuals or as Eucharistic communities we play ‘hide and seek’ with God in our preparation for Holy Communion, the health and fabric of our life in Christ will certainly be touched by ‘divers diseases and sundry kinds of death’. God knows there is a desperate need for us all to seek him afresh in penitence and faith if we are to be ‘meet partakers’.
In a worthy attempt to make the Eucharist inclusive and accessible, something has been lost. It is the call to holiness. What is missing is the loving service of total self-giving of body, mind and spirit which the Book of Common Prayer expects from each communicant. May the Lord have mercy on all of us who presume to come to his table.