Arthur Middleton on the reception of Holy Communion

In Durham Essays and Addresses, Michael Ramsey discusses the gains and losses of the Parish Communion Movement, in which there is 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, which makes for a sense of 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 might 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.’

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.’ For the 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.’

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.

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’ only means ‘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.’