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Anglican Teaching on the Holy Communion

GAFCON II has come and gone, and I’ve been asked whether there is in fact any authoritative Anglican understanding of the Holy Communion. For our intellectual and spiritual edification, for study at home or reading before service, here are the Book of Common Prayer’s succinct summaries in the Catechism and the Offices of Instruction and its more thorough pastoral and personal applications in the Exhortations. These are 1549-1552 foundational teaching documents, from the beginning: enjoy them, grow in them.

The Catechism, page 577, dating from the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and at Puritan urging augmented in 1604 by the same Hampton Court Conference that launched the King James translation of 1611. This is designed for youngsters’ instruction and (in those happier times) memorization. Those were good old days…

The Offices of Instruction, page 283, is a 1928 adaptation of the Catechism for public use in the congregation with hymns and Collects so that everyone would be frequently reminded of his earlier instruction.

The Exhortations, page 85. The first two were published in 1548 before the whole Prayer Book was completed, the third added in 1552. These were written for the instruction and edification of the whole congregation whose members were hearing and taking active part in public services in English for the first time. We no longer read them at every Communion, but our Parish obeys page 85’s rubric: we all benefit from reminders.

With that in mind I review all of the above from time to time, at home, before a service, or while waiting for or after receiving the Sacrament. I try to read Psalm 51 to humbly prepare for Communion and 116 to give joyful thanks after receiving that blessing. Note also the Psalms suggested on page ix in the front of the Prayer Book, an organized treasure-trove for our varying spiritual and intellectual needs.

In every Communion service Prayer Book page 83 follows 1549 by referring to Sacraments as “holy mysteries,” specifically phonetically using St. Paul’s Greek word μυστήριον which means not “a secret to be figured out by human reasoning” as in a murder mystery but a divine truth not attainable by human reasoning:

Mystery is not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend

Another call for human humility before God comes from the Rev’d K. L. Reinhard in the December 18 The Living Church: “As St. Augustine so famously asserted in his Sermon 52, if you think you’ve understood something, whatever it is, it’s not God… Faith involves disciplining our seeing and imagining, because in contemplating the triune God we come to recognize that what leads us to God is not itself God.”