On the Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer


This morning I want to begin with you a series of occasional sermons where we take a look at what we’re doing in the service of Holy Communion. It’s my intention to work through the service piece by piece thinking about what’s being said and why.

My intention in doing this is two-fold. I want, personally, to better understand the tradition in which I was raised and into which I will be ordained in a few years time. I think that’s only right. And I want to share those findings with you so that, together, we can better understand what it is that we do here each Sunday morning. It’s right, I think, to always properly understand what we’re doing so that we can enter into it with upmost sincerity and integrity.

So, what we’ll do is start at the beginning. But the beginning of the prayer book is not so much page 1 but the person who wrote page 1 so let’s begin with Thomas Cranmer, the father of the Anglican Reformation. As we explore who Cranmer was and what he believed that will give us the right framework within which to understand the Prayer Book in general and Holy Communion in particular.

For my text of the Holy Communion I’m going to be referring to the 1662 service and also what’s known as “An English Prayer Book” which is essentially the 1662 service in modern English.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was a little-known minister in the church in England at the time of King Henry VIII. He rose to prominence over the issue of Henry’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer wrote a detailed paper supporting the King’s position and soon found himself much in the King’s favour. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in March 1533 having in the previous 2 years been ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor. While in Europe in that role he became
immersed in Reformation theology, something he had always been very sympathetic with.

Under Henry, Cranmer was able to push through many reforms in the Church of England but was only able to really set a solid protestant stamp after Henry’s death and succession by Edward VI. Edward was a convinced protestant and it was during his reign that Cranmer was most productive, producing the substantial part of the Book of Common Prayer that we all know and love and firmly moving the church away from Rome and back to what he considered to be a more apostolic, biblical basis.

When Edward died he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who became known as bloody Mary because of her relentless persecution of protestants. Inevitably Cranmer, being a staunch protestant, was removed from office and on 21st March 1556 was burnt at the stake at St Mary’s Church, Oxford. His last words at his trial on that day were, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”

Perhaps that will give you some idea of the strength of feeling over this issue. On the question of the Roman Catholic Church there was no doubt where they and the Church of England stood and still officially stand today in terms of their doctrine.

Cranmer and many of his fellow bishops were executed but the legacy they left behind remains with us, principally in the shape of the Book of Common Prayer and it is not an understatement to say that Protestant theology floods the Prayer Book.

With that in mind, I want to turn to that Prayer Book and to the Holy Communion service within it.

The service we use is in part very close to Cranmer’s Communion service. Like his it has 3 cycles. The first, which we will look at today, is the ante-communion. It contains all that Cranmer considered necessary to prepare for communion. Within each of these three cycles, as we shall see, there is repeated pattern and if you take only one thing away with you from the whole series then it needs to be this. This is the pattern of the Communion service, repeated in three cycles.

1. Sin acknowledged
2. Grace announced
3. Faith exercised in response.

Let me repeat that.

1. Sin acknowledged
2. Grace announced
3. Faith exercised in response.

So let’s look at that in detail in the first cycle, the ante-communion.

First, there was a prayer of preparation. Not so much a confession (that would, significantly, come later) but a simple preparation.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

So, the first thing we need to do as we come together before God is receive His help. Our act of worship is really nothing more than Him acting in us. Without his cleansing we simply cannot respond to God as we should. Immediately following this preparation comes the reading of the Law, either in the form of the Ten Commandments or in the Summary of the Law given by Jesus. The response to which is either the refrain.

Lord, have mercy on us, and incline
our hearts to keep these laws.

or the Kyrie,

Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy

Once again, the call here is for God to act. Underlying this is the biblical conviction that what the Law does is simply expose to us our sin. Listen to what the Apostle Paul says in the letter to the Romans

Romans 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through
the law comes knowledge of sin.

That’s the premise. We don’t hear the Law in order to show us how to please God, rather we hear it so that we will genuinely say ” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” . The Law shows us that we will never be who we should be and so we begin to see that we need to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

So that’s the first part of the cycle, acknowledgement of sin.

Then the next, proclamation of grace.

Following the collects we enter into the bible readings, and those from the whole bible – typically an Old Testament reading, a New Testament epistle (that’s a letter) and then a gospel reading. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of bible to take in one sitting and yet Cranmer thought it vital. It would be interesting to know why he wanted so much bible and we don’t have to guess why.

Within the Book of Common Prayer we have what are known as the Homilies, a series of sermons that come with official approval. Cranmer wrote the first book of homilies and I can recommend them to you as great reading – very edifying. The first 6 are basically an outline of the Christian faith, the very basics of belief. And the first of those, so the very first thing that Cranmer wanted Christians to know about, is entitled “A fruitful exhortation to the reading of Holy Scripture“.

I want to take a moment to just read you the preface of that homily for it opens up for us
a right understanding of what we do here every week.

The prayse of holy Scripture. TO a Christian man there can bee nothing either more necessarie or profitable, then the knowledge of holy Scripture, forasmuch as in it is conteyned GODS true word, setting foorth his glory, and also mans duety.The Perfection of Holy Scripture: And there is no trueth nor doctrine necessarie for our iustification and euerlasting saluation, but that is (or may bee) drawne out of that fountaine and Well of trueth.

The knowledge of holy Scripture is necessary. Therefore as many as bee desirous to enter into the right and perfect way vnto GOD, must applie their mindes to know holy Scripture, without the which, they can neither sufficiently know GOD and his will, neither their office and duty. To whom the knowledge of holy Scripture is sweet and pleasant. Who be enemies to holy Scripture. And as drinke is pleasant to them that bee drie, and meate to them that be hungrie: so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy Scripture, to them that bee desirous to know GOD or themselues, and to doe his will. And their stomackes onely doe loathe and abhorre the heauenly knowledge and food of GODS word, that be so drowned in worldly vanities, that they neither fauour GOD, nor any godlinesse: for that is the cause why they desire such vanities, rather then the true knowledge of GOD.

An apt similitude, declaring of whom the Scripture is abhorred. As they that are sicke of an ague, whatsoeuer they eate and drinke (though it bee never so pleasant) yet it is as bitter to them as wormewood, not for the bitternesse of the meate, but for the corrupt and bitter humour that is in their own tongue and mouth: euen so is the sweetnesse of GODS word bitter, not of it selfe, but onely
vnto them that haue their mindes corrupted with long custome of sinne and loue of this world.

Of course, Cranmer’s view is not a new one – it’s the view of the scriptures themselves.
So, when Paul writes to Timothy he tells him

2 Timothy 3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

It was that confidence that scripture makes us wise for salvation and equips you and I for every good work that underlies the feast of bible that we get served up every Sunday. So, at this point I think it’s my duty to ask you if you hold the same opinion, if you feast upon the Bible as though it were your favourite food; because that is the way that the scriptures talk about themselves and how they’re presented to us every week here in this service.

That’s why, of course, we have a sermon too – so that we might better understand those scriptures that we’re being taught. Because it’s the scriptures that make us wise to salvation in Jesus Christ. Luther, who kicked off the Reformation, spoke of receiving Christ clothed in the scriptures. And a full diet of scripture is the answer to the desperate situation that the Law on it’s own leaves us with. Let me return to the Romans passage that I referred to previously and continue the thought.

Romans 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

So the logic of the Communion service is that of the Bible itself. The answer to my sin is a healthy dose of scripture or, as Paul puts it, the Law and the Prophets bearing witness to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

But more than that – Cranmer’s intention is that everything that now happens in the service is governed by the scriptures. They are, really, the first main segment of the service, they provide the framework by which we will understand everything else that happens.

So we read the Bible and we have it explained to us and so we have 2 parts of the cycle. Acknowledgement of sin and then a proclamation of grace by the reading of the scriptures.

The final part of the cycle is the response of faith. Us responding correctly to what we have heard in the scriptures. In the first cycle this takes the form of the Creed. The word “Creed”, of course, comes from the latin “Credo”, “I believe”. So as we say the creed together we’re saying, “yes, I affirm that the only place I can go for truth about God is the bible and the bible says these things about God”. Now, we don’t have time to go through the Creed in detail (perhaps we’ll save that for another sermon series) but the creed in the Communion service, officially called the Nicene-Constantinople Creed and dating from 381, is the end result of a huge debate in the church about what the bible actually says about God and Jesus in particular and, as a result, how we get saved. So it’s
absolutely the right thing for us to affirm. If you’ve got questions about the Creed I’d be more than happy to answer them after the service.

So, there we are, the first part of the Holy Communion service. After this week we’ll slow down and go through the next cycles in more detail even to the extent of looking at one prayer each week. But this week we’ve covered the whole first cycle. Our sin exposed as we have the Law read to us, the gospel proclaimed as the whole of the scriptures are read and explained to us, and then a response of faith, of trust, as we declare the creed together.

So where does this leave us? I think it will have a number of effects. For some of us we’ll want to return to think more about the Law, we’ll need to think a bit more about ourselves and how we simply don’t match up to what is required of us. The Law, remember, is there to drive us to Christ, not to build up our confidence in ourselves. It might be good for some of us to be reminded of that.

For others it might be the surprise at the priority of scripture here. We may have settled both in our day to day life and even on Sundays of not taking scripture seriously enough. We may have forgotten that it is in the scriptures and nowhere else that we hear of Christ and so there is nowhere else for us to go to hear the wonderful news of God’s grace towards his people. It may be that we need to reassess our attitude to scripture and it’s place in our lives.

And, for some of us it may be the last part of the cycle – the response of faith, of trust. Perhaps there are some here who need to be reminded that the Christian faith is not passive, it is active – it is about actively putting one’s trust in what God has done in Jesus. Later in the service we shall see that we are urged to cling to Jesus, to hold fast to him like my 2 year old daughter clings to me. I think we’ll only do that if we realize both our own need, as our sin is exposed, and the amazing riches of mercy available in the gospel. Then, when both are understood, we might once again respond in faith, in trust.
And not least by rightly understanding and participating in what we do here each Sunday.

Let’s pray.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. the_least

    David, this looks very interesting and I plan on reading it later when I’ve got more time… but could you please put large posts like this behind a LJ-cut? Thanks.

  2. prester_scott

    This is pretty good but I agree with the above commenter about the lj-cut.

    1. David Ould

      my bad. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. Anonymous

    Did you preach the rest of the series?

    Hi Dave,
    I stumbled upon this entry while surfing the web (I sometimes get lost)…

    I was just wondering if you/someone else preached/will preach the rest of the series, because I would be interested to hear/read it.

    The reason I ask is that I really don’t understand the communion service but I would like to.

    I grew up outside the Anglican Church, and remember going to one on a random day, and asking my Dad “why do they have black bibles, and little green bibles??” as a child. To tell the truth, I’m still not sure of the answer, even though I’ve been going to an Anglican church for 18mths!!!

    :o) Lauren
    (yes, you do know me, from ski camp!)

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