Martin Williams on the Welsh Bishops and Admission to Communion

The Church in Wales claims, repeatedly, to be “part of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, and to be bound by its historic formularies, including the Book of Common Prayer. In Wales this is part of the Church’s Constitution, and changes to it are subject to Bill procedure in the Governing Body – a synod of bishops, other clergy, and laity voting by houses, in each of which a two-thirds majority is required to give effect to measures affecting faith and order. A synod, of course, is a “coming together” of the local Church to achieve a common mind and to follow a common way (cf Acts 9.2, etc). It is not supposed to be a form of political democracy in which minorities can be repeatedly outvoted; but neither is it something to be taken for granted by an oligarchy or dictatorship, however intentionally benevolent.

Disregard for the Governing Body and the Constitution of the Church in Wales on the part of its bishops dates back to February 1998, when the Bench issued a statement allowing remarriage in church after divorce. This was clearly designed to bypass the Governing Body, which had rejected a Bill to that effect two years before. The historic teaching of the Church and its Canon Law, the consistent teaching of the Welsh bishops since Disestablishment, and the reiteration of that teaching in the 1984 BCP counted for nothing. The bishops had spoken – the Civil Law was all that mattered.

Now they have spoken again. In September 2016 they issued a Pastoral Letter “to all the faithful” concerning Admission to Holy Communion. This was supported by three other papers: A Theological Admission of all the Baptised to Communion; Inviting all the Baptised to Share Communion: A Guide for Churches; and An Invitation to Communion: Guidance for Members of the Congregation.

The Pastoral Letter and its supporting papers are subject to grave objection on grounds of both process and content: they create a situation of crisis in both respects. They undermine the Constitution of the Church in Wales, the bishops’ own authority as guardians of the faith and the teaching office of the clergy, and they introduce confusion to clergy and laity alike at the fundamental level of Christian initiation and membership of the Body of Christ. Below is a flavour of their content.


From the Pastoral Letter:


  • The Sacrament of Baptism, commanded by Our Lord, is in fact the whole ceremony, entire and complete in itself, by which a person is incorporated into Christ, and recognised as a Christian.
  • The Bench of Bishops wishes now to readopt the practice of the early Church with respect to admission to Holy Communion.
  • No barrier should be erected to prevent all the baptised from making their Communion, other than that which is required by civil law … [which] does not permit the administration of alcohol to children under the age of five.
  • [Confirmation] will no longer be the gateway to Communion, but take its proper place in the sacramental acts of the Church as a channel for God’s grace, affirming disciples of their place in the fellowship of the Church and commissioning them for service in the Church and world. We have asked the Standing Liturgical Advisory Commission to prepare work on a new Rite of Confirmation that will reflect more clearly this understanding.


From A Theological Admission of all the Baptised:


  • We describe ourselves as the community of the baptised, rather than the community of the confirmed, or the community of the theologically educated, or the religiously proficient or the morally superior.
  • Are there any reasons to deny Communion to the baptised? No. Any obstacle that you might place in between the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion risks making that thing more important, more powerful, than the grace of God.
  • The system we have inherited at present was appropriate for a different kind of society.
  • This is not just about children. It helps make sense of our sharing at the altar with ecumenical friends who have not been episcopally confirmed.
  • What then of Confirmation? The work of the Doctrine Commission illustrates well that this rite has had a whole number of meanings and has been conducted in many different ways over time. The commission was also unanimous in affirming that Confirmation has a very important place in the life of the Church today and should continue to do so.


From Inviting all the Baptised to Share Communion:


  • Participating in any specific course of preparation or special service should not now or in the future be required of anyone before receiving Communion.
  • Being welcome at the family table and participating in the Church’s family meal by receiving Holy Communion is a natural consequence of being a family member.
  • Under 5’s should receive bread only. Over 5’s may receive wine as well with a parent’s or guardian’s consent.
  • [Confirmation] can now be more fully understood as a wonderful opportunity for people to affirm their baptismal vows, to confirm for themselves their place in the family and to signify, publicly, a willingness to be used by God in the mission of the Church as disciples of the Lord Jesus.
  • Wording such as the following might be printed in service booklets… : Anyone who is baptised in the Name of the Trinity is welcome to receive Communion in this church. When you come to receive, hold out your hands and you will be given bread and wine.
  • Each child may be given written evidence that they have been admitted to Holy Communion. The date and place of their first Communion, and the incumbent’s signature may be added to their baptism certificate – or they may be given a certificate designed for the purpose.


From An Invitation to Communion:


  • The Communion service will help you prepare to receive. We confess our sins… We receive God’s forgiveness… The service also helps us focus on our faith through hearing the Bible read, through teaching and through prayer. At a particular point in the service everyone is invited to come to receive Communion…


It should be emphasised that the Pastoral Letter is addressed to all the faithful, and that the practical advice on introducing the policy in Inviting all the Baptised to Share Communion: A Guide for Churches is addressed to “Ministry/Mission Areas and local churches” – not parishes and parish clergy. Although parishes and parish clergy are recognised in the Constitution of the Church in Wales, the new Ministry/Mission Areas and their leaders have no such recognition.

The presuppositions of this policy appear to be congregational, and bypass the traditional structures of diocese and parish in which the vast majority of practising Anglicans have been nurtured. This will no doubt be claimed to be in the interests of “mission rather than maintenance”, but it is hard to see in these documents any incentive to take up the Cross and follow the Lord in the way of the Kingdom. But there are more specific and conclusive objections to be made.

The Revd Professor Thomas Watkin, a distinguished academic lawyer, has written a learned paper reflecting on the Pastoral Letter. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – it was not accepted for publication on the Church in Wales website. Professor Watkin divides his critique into Legal, Theological, and Practical and Pastoral Concerns. I will follow that pattern and, with his permission, present some of his comments.


Legal Concerns

Rubric 6 of the Order of Confirmation of the 1984 Book of Common Prayer states that “except with the permission of the Bishop, no one shall receive Holy Communion until he is confirmed, or is ready and desirous to be confirmed”. The readiness presumably refers to Rubric 1, which requires candidates for Confirmation to have been baptised and to have worshipped regularly within the Church: “They must also have been instructed in the Catechism and be able to say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.”

Speculating on what possible grounds the Legal Sub-Committee might have had for their advice that the Pastoral Letter was not directly contradictory to the BCP, Professor Watkin points to the exception in Rubric 6 and goes on to explain that an exception proves that there is a rule, and to issue a blanket exception in effect abolishes the rule. Such a change would require careful consideration by the whole Church, and debate under Bill procedure in the Governing Body. The bishops appear to have acted illegally and unconstitutionally. The same would apply to the contradiction of Rubric 6, which, however interpreted in practice, clearly requires careful and individual preparation for receiving Holy Communion.

Canon Law, then, is swept away as though it were simply erecting “barriers to Communion”, rather than safeguarding something sacred in the interests of the well-being of the Church as a whole and the salvation of the individual communicant.


Theological Concerns

These are deep and heartfelt, on behalf of the existing faithful and of those who may come to faith in the future. These are existential concerns about our identity as Christians and the doctrinal integrity of the Church in which we have been baptised and confirmed – and in which some of us have been ordained – in whose communion (however impaired) we share in the divine Eucharist. We are not, frankly, interested in indulging in polite academic debate about the history of Christian initiation or the doctrine of the Eucharist. We simply wish to continue to be “obedient to the Tradition” – a phrase of the former Archbishop of Wales, Lord Williams –which we found we were able to do, at least as far as Initiation, Catechism, and Eucharist were concerned within the Church in Wales.

The assertion that baptism in water in the name of the Trinity is the whole rite of Christian initiation is simply wrong. It is not, and never has been, in those Churches which have retained the historic episcopate. There have been attempts to persuade Anglicans otherwise, notably in the Ely Report of 1972, no doubt in order to bring our practice into line with the non-episcopal Churches. These attempts have failed, partly because the majority of church people recognise the spiritual authenticity of their own experience, and partly because there are cogent arguments for the continuity of the Tradition and its roots in the apostolic age and the age of the Church Fathers. The reinvention of the sacraments by a simplistic reading of the New Testament is a continuing temptation for the Reformed tradition, resulting, in Calvinism, in the abolition of the episcopate. Abolishing Confirmation on the grounds that it was not explicitly and in terms commanded by Our Lord would be a similar mistake.

The claim that the bishops are not abolishing Confirmation is difficult to understand. They are at least inventing something else, which they are calling Confirmation: an optional rite for those adults who wish to “confirm” their baptism and affirm their status as communicants. First, removing Confirmation from the context of initiation must radically change its meaning, whatever they may want to call it; and secondly by making the meaning of the word something that we do, rather than what God does, means that the rite is no longer sacramental.

It is hard to imagine what the bishops have in mind. The radical reformed insistence on only two sacraments leads to a misinterpretation of confirmatio, which in the Latin tradition from the early centuries was an equivalent to robur, meaning “strengthening”: in this case, with the Holy Spirit, the gift of whom, in the Church’s tradition, is not just taken for granted but manifested in Confirmation. Many have noted the almost complete absence of any reference to the Holy Spirit in the Pastoral Letter and its accompaniments.

We now come to the extraordinary instruction forbidding “any specific course of preparation or special service” to be required of any potential communicant. There is the assumption that instruction in preparation for first Communion presents some kind of intellectual hurdle that might compromise the grace of God and suggest that communion is something to be earned. This betrays the most extraordinary misunderstanding of the purpose of Christian catechesis, which is surely to deepen and to elicit repentance and faith on the part of those approaching the Blessed Sacrament. Yes, there needs to be sufficient understanding according to the age and mental capacities of the person concerned; but no one, surely, regards confirmation class as a course in moral and sacramental theology. It is spiritual preparation, which is never in this life complete, for full participation in the sublime Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The official English title of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Church in Wales is “The Holy Eucharist”. Not once in the documents we have been considering is the word “Eucharist” used. It is the “Communion Service”, and the emphasis is all on the individual “receiving Communion” or being given “bread and wine”. Even the passage about the liturgy itself providing a complete and all-sufficient preparation for Communion fails to mention the Eucharistic Prayer and consecration, as though this were incidental. The “family meal at the family table” is essentially a purely congregational concept, lacking any sense of the Eucharist as the offering of the whole Church, let alone the sacrifice of Christ. It is His Body and Blood that we receive – we were bought at a price.

There is an emphasis in these documents on divine grace. That is good; but it is completely undermined by emptying Confirmation of sacramental content, and by seeming to trivialise Eucharistic communion. There is no reference whatsoever to the sacramental Ministry of Reconciliation, which is part of the Church in Wales’s provision in appendices to the Holy Eucharist in both the 1984 and 2004 Prayer Books. These papers are redolent of the “cheap grace” against which Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned.


Pastoral and Practical Concerns

The bishops are giving us until Advent to enact this new policy. Meanwhile, of course, the damage has been done. We are already hearing stories of children and adults coming to the altar without seeming to know what they are doing, and not even knowing whether or not they have been baptised, or if they need to be baptised.

Such is, of course, the practice of the Orthodox Churches; but in a context where three things apply. First, infants are chrismated (that is, confirmed) immediately after their baptism. Secondly, they are brought to the altar by their parents to communicate with their parents, presupposing a devout Christian family whose home is as much a house of prayer as the church building itself. Thirdly, at years of discretion the child will cease to communicate as a member of the family, and will be instructed and make his or her first confession before communicating as an individual.

We are far from such a culture in the Church in Wales today; so, if reform is needed, it has to build on the Tradition as we have received it, and not undermine the very foundations of our Christian life and culture.

Where do we go from here? The Bishop of Swansea & Brecon, the Rt Revd John Davies, has said that he looks forward to presiding at many Confirmations in the future. But what does he mean by “Confirmation”? What rite will he be using? Will he be confirming children? What about ordinands? Will they continue to need to have been confirmed, and, if so, with what intention will they have been confirmed? It is difficult to see how any of these questions could be answered satisfactorily unless the Pastoral Letter is withdrawn. The Church of Wales is in a very grave crisis indeed.

The Venerable Martin Williams is a former Archdeacon of Margam.