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Worthy Reception in the Historic Formularies

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Posted by Adam Young, 22 Jun 2018

Adam Young concludes our short series on worthy and unworthy reception of the sacraments by examining the historic formularies of the Church of England.

As recent court cases have reaffirmed, the Church of England does have a clear doctrine and teaching: this doctrine is that of Scripture. The official interpretation of Scriptural truth for the Church of England is found in the Historic Formularies—the 39 Articles of Religion,  the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and the Ordinal.  Until these foundational documents have their absolute authority abolished (by removing or altering canons A2-A7, C7 and C15) they remain the doctrinal standards of the Church of England to which everything else must be held accountable. 

According to canon A3, all ministers should be able to use the BCP in “good conscience” and, following canon C15, the oath taken at ordination means that all ministers vow to “affirm your loyalty [to the historic formularies] as your inspiration and guidance under God.”  Importantly, canon C7 demands that not only should no-one be allowed into ministry without having been found to have sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures but also “of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England as set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.”  But what is the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England concerning who should receive the Lord’s Supper and who should refrain from doing so? 

The 39 Articles
Taking language directly from 1 Corinthians 11, Article 25 states that only in those who “worthily receive” the sacraments is there a “wholesome effect or operation” and conversely those who receive “unworthily purchase to themselves damnation.”  This basic idea is reiterated with special regard to Holy Communion (Article 25 there referring to both sacraments) in Article 29, which insists that those without “lively faith” do not receive Christ in the sacrament but only condemnation. The word “lively” is important and refers to an active faith which is lived out in repentance and obedience to God’s law. 

The idea that approaching the Lord’s Supper requires serious preparation, personal introspection, and repentance is not new. It is found in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 11 and in terms of the community in Matthew 5.24.  It was also found throughout church history with St. Augustine insisting on repentance before reception (in the same place as the quotation of his in Article 29) and this tradition being seen right through to men like St Bernard of Clairvaux.  It is a teaching which is made manifest in the BCP communion service not only in the words spoken but in the very order and structure of the service itself. 

The Book of Common Prayer
In the BCP there are four exhortations in the communion service all centred around who should be receiving Holy Communion.  Though all found one after the other following The Prayer of the Church Militant the first two—of which either one or the other is used—are actually to be said after the sermon earlier in the service as part of the notices (just imagine if church notices today were so full of doctrine and biblical teaching!)  The need for preparation and repentance before communion was seen as so great that the very occurrence of a communion service had to be announced a week in advance.

The First Exhortation
The first exhortation is all about this need to prepare for such an amazing moment as the Lord’s Supper.  Straightaway we are told that the intention of the minister is to give the sacrament only to those who “shall be religiously and devoutly disposed”.  “Religiously” here refers to outward holiness and charity (cf. James 1.26-27) and “devoutly” refers to inward disposition.  The exhortation continues: “Which being so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily; my duty is to exhort you in the mean season to consider the dignity of that holy mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receiving thereof; and so to search and examine your own consciences, and that not lightly, and after the manner of dissemblers with God: but so that ye may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that holy Table.”

Again we find the emphasis on receiving “worthily” which was found in the Articles.  It is the duty of the minister to make clear how serious this matter is due to the dignity of the sacrament and the “great peril” of unworthy reception.  But what does “worthy” mean?  It cannot mean holy and blameless as if sinners were not welcome at the Table.  In The Prayer of Humble Access we make clear that “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”  Worthiness must instead refer to having imputed worth and holiness placed upon us like a marriage-garment through repentance.  This is why we must examine our consciences and repent of all sin in the faith that the blood of Christ will cleanse us from our inherent unworthiness.

Indeed, the exhortation goes on explain that to be “worthy”  we must examine ourselves before God’s Law and if we fall short we must “bewail” our sin, repent, and do so with “full purpose of amendment of life.”  If our sin affects others we must repent and reconcile ourselves to them whilst in turn be willing to forgive others who sinned against us.  The exhortation goes on to list sins including adultery, envy, and slander of God’s word as examples and says that failing to repent but still receiving the sacrament could result in Satan entering you and leading you, as he did Judas, to utter destruction. 

The need for a quiet conscience and trust in God’s mercy before coming to communion means that ministers must be available throughout the week to offer godly wisdom and counsel to the congregation and through God’s Word help them see that through the Cross God absolves their sin. 

The Second Exhortation
The second exhortation may replace this first one and is designed to be used if no one wants to come to Holy Communion.  It insists that sinners must simply repent and amend their lives so as not to throw such a gift back in the face of God and that any other worldly excuses for not coming are worthless.
Now that the minister has given notice of the coming communion service he gives further exhortation before the communion itself.  This would come at a transitional time in the service when, usually, the minister and those who wished to receive communion would move to the chancel and anyone not wanting to receive would be told to leave by the church wardens—non-communicating attendance at the time of the sacrament was not allowed. 

Third and Fourth Exhortations
This third exhortation covers much of the ground of the first.  It insists that unworthy reception can bring not only God’s wrath but “plagues…diverse diseases, and sundry kinds of death.”  Unworthy reception can be a matter of life and death.  To avoid this fate those who wish to receive must “repent…have a lively and steadfast faith… amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men”. 
The final exhortation, also called “The Invitation” is still used today in one form or another and also insists that those who “draw near with faith” must be “truly and earnestly” repentant.  Following all of this exhorting the service moves into a time of final confession before absolution is proclaimed, God’s comfort is spoken from Scripture, and finally the glory of God seen by Isaiah is depicted—then, at the last, we fall down still recognising our unworthiness even as the prophet did.

Concluding thoughts
The doctrine of the Church of England is clear that receiving communion requires:
1) A time of preparation and self-reflection (potentially involving a minister).
2) Lively and active faith in Jesus as Lord, God, and Saviour.
3) Repenting of all sin and a firm commitment to not sin again; a change of life. 
4) Every effort to reconcile with your brothers and sisters in the faith if there is a dispute.

The “godly and wholesome doctrine” of the Book of Homilies (Article 35) would also add:
5) Knowledge of what the Sacraments are and are not and belief that through them, in faith, Christ offers us the benefits of His precious passion and resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 11).

It is the duty of every minister to prepare their congregations to approach the Sacraments worthily. Likewise, out of love and kindness, we must not shirk from proclaiming the hard truths of the condemnation—and even here and now divine punishment—unworthy reception can bring. 

The Revd Adam Young is a minister in York Diocese

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