The Sermon

Previous articles

The preceding articles have been exploring the rich vein of Anglican devotion in manuals of private devotion, poetry, devotional classics, catechetical books, forms of preparation for Holy Communion and William Law. The sermon is another form of expression and the published sermons of Anglican divines are a rich resource. Space confines us to one example, The Worthy Communicant preached by William Beveridge in the seventeenth century (Works, VI p20 (Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Oxford, 1845)), on a subject of contemporary concern and relevance.

Parish Communion

The contemporary relevance of the sermon’s subject matter is highlighted in St Saviour’s Durham Essays and Addresses, where Michael Ramsey discusses the gains and losses of the Parish Communion Movement in which there was much that made him uneasy. In some parishes there is a theological and liturgical sense of purpose and meaning, in the mind of priest and people that makes for awe and reverence. There is a note of discipline, the communicants are trained and taught to prepare themselves.

In other parishes, all this may be largely absent. Ramsey felt that if the Parish Communion Movement was followed with uncritical enthusiasm it may leave out of sight some very important elements in the religion of older generations. One danger he underlined lies in connection with the doctrine of communion.

A new tendency is to emphasize that Holy Communion is ‘corporate’ so that we must speak of ‘our communion’ and suspect the phrase ‘my communion’. A truth is here being recovered. But receiving Holy Communion is also a ‘responsible act of an individual and it is an act full of awe and dread. If Holy Communion unites a man with his fellows, it does at the same time set him alone with his Lord as at the hour of death and the day of judgement.’

Ramsey contrasts the awe of the individual’s approach to Holy Communion among earlier Tractarians and Evangelicals, which ‘stands in stark contrast to the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.’ The bishop sees such an approach to Holy Communion as having an honourable place in Christian history, and suggested reading and pondering the long Exhortation in the Prayer Book Communion service. It stresses ‘how the reception of Communion is dreadful as well as precious, and reminds us of the need for confession of sin and the possibility of the ‘benefit of absolution’. A priest’s responsibility is not to make people into ‘communicants’, but ‘to bring them (and ourselves) into union with our Lord by the careful use of Communion, prayer, and penitence.’

The frequency of communion

For Bishop Beveridge the frequency of Holy Communion stems from the practice of the Apostles and primitive Christians and then from the reason of the thing and the end of the institution. The Apostles, received this holy Sacrament ‘whensoever they met together upon a religious account; yea, so as that it seems to have been the principal end of their meeting, especially upon the Lord’s Day when they received this Sacrament at least on the first day of every week.’ So for Apostles and primitive Christians this sacrament is the chief part of their public devotions; ‘insomuch that they never held any religious assemblies, without the celebration of it; and if anyone went away without receiving it, he was censured by the Church for it.’ They looked upon themselves as obliged to do this in remembrance of him, as often as they met together to worship and to serve God.

If we consider the end of the institution, we will find that we ought to receive this Sacrament as often as we possibly can, ‘for seeing it was ordained in remembrance of Christ, and seeing we cannot possibly remember Him too often Who laid down His life for us, it must needs be our duty to do it as oft as we can, especially considering that the oftener we remember Him, the better we shall believe in Him. For by frequent receiving of His most blessed body and blood, that faith whereby we do it, being frequently exercised, is thereby more and more confirmed, and by consequence all other graces and virtues whatsoever being derived by faith from Him, are thereby made more strong and vigorous in us.’

So we see ‘what great reason our Church had to appoint the communion-service to be used every Lord’s Day and holy-day in the year, that all her members, who desire it, might at all such times have an opportunity to receive this holy Sacrament.’ He regrets the practice of those who only receive it three times a year, to avoid the penalty of the law, which only illustrates how far we are fallen from the zeal and piety both of the primitive Christians and our first reformers.

The unworthy communicant

His first concern is with a right understanding of the Apostle’s words, ‘He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself’ because people have mistakenly believed that, if they are not worthy to receive the Sacrament, and do so, they are damned. Paul does not mean this, the word ‘damnation’, meaning only ‘judgement’. It means ‘that they who eat and drink unworthily’ are obnoxious to the judgment of God for so doing, as all they are who either pray, or hear, or do any other duty otherwise than they ought to do it.

He is not speaking of the qualifications of the person receiving, but his manner of doing it having in mind the disorders and divisions among the Corinthians in their Christian assemblies. Their sin was to eat the Lord’s Supper as if it had been common food, without respect or reference to Christ’s mystical body and blood so that they over ate and over drank. This is ‘eating and drinking unworthily,’ as if it was not Christ’s body and blood, but common meat and drink, ‘expressing no more regard or reverence towards it, than they do to bread or wine at their own tables.’

The worthy communicant

The worthy receiving of this Sacrament ‘consists properly in the carrying and demeaning ourselves, both in our souls and bodies, at the Holy Sacrament, in a manner worthy and suitable to that body and blood which we there receive; yet that we may do so, it is necessary that our minds be first rightly disposed and prepared for it.’ He then cites what our Church requires of us in her Catechism ‘that it is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper to examine themselves about three things: 1. Whether they repent them truly of their former sins steadfastly purposing to lead a new life? 2. Have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of His death? And 3. Be in charity with all men?’ And accordingly, in the exhortation at the Communion she calls upon all the communicants actually to perform these great duties. And verily, these three things, Repentance, Faith, and Charity, are absolutely necessary to the qualifying us for the worthy receiving of Christ’s body and blood, in the sense now explained.’

1. Repentance is essential. Unless we are so sorry for our former sins, that we are now resolved for the future to forsake, we cannot value Christ’s dying for them, that is a necessary disposition at the commemoration of his death. So ‘the first thing that we ought to do in order to the fitting ourselves for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper, is to look back upon our former lives, and consider seriously with ourselves what sins in thought, word, or deed, we have heretofore committed; and what duties to God or man we have hitherto neglected, and purpose with ourselves, by God’s grace and assistance, that we will for the future do so no more; and so renew and ratify those vows and promises in this, which we made to God in the other Sacrament, even when we were baptized. He that doth this heartily and sincerely, is so far rightly prepared for the worthy receiving’ of that body and blood, which he thus repenteth of.’

2. Faith is the next requirement in the worthy communicant, as described in Hebrews 11.1, ‘the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen’. It is such faith that will give us, persuade us that God will give us the good things he has promised to us in Christ, as if we had them already; and make us certain of whatever he has revealed, as if we saw it before our eyes. Without such a Faith as this, it is impossible for us to discern the Lord’s body, and by consequence to receive it worthily. ‘For all that we see with our eyes is only bread and wine. Neither is it possible for us to look any further, but only by the eye of Faith, whereby we behold Christ’s body and blood as broken and shed for us; and so verily and indeed receive, and apply it to ourselves. And therefore, in order to our worthy receiving the Holy Sacrament, we must take special care to examine ourselves, whether we be in the Faith (2 Corinthians 13.5), whether we really believe all the Articles of the Christian Religion, and have a sure trust and confidence in God’s merciful promises for the pardon of our sins, and the Salvation of our souls by the blood of Christ: for the main stress of our receiving aright lies upon this, as we shall see more presently.’

3. Charity ‘ … as for Charity, or a sincere and universal love to all men, without that no man is fit to appear before Him Who died for all men; much less to receive that body and blood which was offered up as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world. For he cannot possibly give it that honour and respect which is due to it, by reason of his malice and hatred against some of those persons for which it was offered. And besides that, he that is not in love and charity with all men, it is plain that he doth not forgive the wrongs and injuries which he hath received from some men and therefore is not capable to receive the pardon of his own sins from God, and by consequence not worthy to receive that Sacrament wherein it should be sealed to him. Wherefore, as ever we desire to receive it worthily, we must be sure to lay aside all malicious and revengeful thoughts against all persons whatsoever; and come with love as large, and of the same extent with that death which we there commemorate; as freely forgiving all others, as we desire that God, for Christ Jesus’ sake, should forgive us.’

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College Durham.