Arthur Middleton returns to Bishop William Beveridge
Preparation for Holy Communion is not a high priority in the contemporary Church. Michael Ramsey expressed his concern about this in his essay on the Parish Communion in his Durham Essays and Addresses. It was not so, however, in the Anglican devotion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when there developed à detailed and sophisticated system of self-examination and prayer which must be gone through before the Sacrament is received’ [Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, OUP (2001), 8]. It is mistakenly thought that, devotionally, Anglicans were asleep during this period and that the Eucharist played little part in the devotional life of the Church of England before the Oxford Movement.
From the devotional literature of the time there emerges a different picture, which demonstrates the receiving of Holy Communion, prepared for beforehand with prayer and penitence. The Sacrament was celebrated less frequently than it is today – in some parishes only according to the Prayer Book requirement of three times a year – but that did not detract from the high regard in which it was held as a means of grace in the way of holiness, exhibited in the careful preparation before reception, sometimes lasting a whole day or more of prayer, penitence, and fasting. At the same time there was a tension between the encouragement of more frequent reception of Holy Communion and the fear of receiving it unworthily that caused an infrequent reception among communicants. Also, one might instance the requirement in the Roman Church that communicants must always go to Confession before receiving the sacrament, which led to non-communicating Masses. So the infrequent reception of Holy Communion was not because of an anti-sacramental prejudice; but came about through reluctance to receive it unworthily.
The Worthy Communicant
Bishop William Beveridge was an advocate of more frequent communion. In his sermon The Worthy Communicant [Works VI, Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Oxford (1845) 20], he states that frequency of Holy Communion stemmed from the practice of the Apostles and primitive Christians, and then from the reason for the Eucharist and the purpose of its institution. For the Apostles and the primitive Christians this Sacrament was the chief part of their public devotions. 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 purpose of the institution of the Eucharist, we will find that we ought to receive this Sacrament as often as we possibly can.
Beveridge’s concern is the right understanding of the St Paul’s words ‘He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself’ (1 Cor. 11.29). People have mistakenly believed that if they are not worthy to receive the Sacrament and do so then they must be damned. Paul is not speaking of the qualifications of the person receiving, but the manner of the communicant in approaching the sacrament, 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 reception of this Sacrament is about the disposition of soul and body when receiving Holy Communion, which must be a manner worthy and suitable to that Body and Blood which we receive there; and in
order to do so our minds must first be rightly disposed and prepared for it. Beveridge then cites what our Church requires of us in her Catechism:
[I]t 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.
There is one duty which I should not forbear to touch this Sacrament, that is, our gladly embracing any opportunity of communicating therein; the doing so being not only a great aid and instrument of piety; the neglecting it a grievous sin and productive of great mischiefs to us…
… The rarer occasions therefore we now have of performing (the which indeed was always esteemed the principal office of God’s service), of enjoying this benefit,—the being deprived deemed the greatest punishment and infelicity that could arrive to a Christian,—the more ready we should be to embrace them. If we dread God’s displeasure, if we value Our Lord and His benefits if we tender the life, health, and welfare of our souls, we shall not neglect it.*
*From ‘The Eucharist’, A Brief Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and Decalogue; to The Doctrine of the Sacraments, cited in Paul Elmer More and F. L. Cross, Anglicanism, SPCK (1951), 504. ND