Undoing the Reformation: communion in one kind

On 6 March 2020 the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) issued advice in response to the coronavirus pandemic which included this clause: “The sharing of the Chalice is suspended until further notice, and communion should be offered in one kind i.e. taking the bread only, placed into the hand”. This does not apply to the presiding priest, so wine was still consecrated and consumed as this is essential to the sacrament, but it was still a radical step. The English Bishops followed on 10 March and this advice, which had previously been issued during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, will remain in place for a while when we return to celebrate the Eucharist together.

My title, ‘undoing the Reformation’, emphasises that this simple directive, done for the best of public health reasons and generally obeyed, tells us something about the identity of the SEC and about how we think theologically. It is not really about ‘undoing the Reformation’ but I have used this title because it involves doing something that was anathema to most sixteenth-century Protestants and still raises Protestant hackles today. Episcopalians have been repudiating Calvinism for centuries and rejected the ‘Protestant’ label in 1838, so the religious fights of the sixteenth century are of merely historical interest to the SEC. I also show in Sacred Signs (Oxford, 2015) that it is inaccurate to use the term ‘The Scottish Reformation’ to mean the Protestant revolution in 1559-60 – those events were only one of a number of ‘reformations’ in sixteenth-century Scotland both Catholic and Protestant. This post is really about how the SEC understands its identity because we reveal who we are by our instinctive reactions.

Jesus’ words about the Eucharistic cup, “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27) are quite clear, but the consecrated wine was gradually withdrawn from the laity in the Latin West from the twelfth century. This was probably inspired by a reverence for the sacrament similar to that which had earlier inspired the Churches of the East to administer Holy Communion with a spoon. In the West communion under one kind was generally accepted but began to be condemned by the Hussites in the fifteenth century, a position taken up by magisterial sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers like Luther (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 2) and Calvin (Institutes 4.17.47-50). It was also condemned in the 39 Articles of the Church of England: ‘The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike’ (Article 30).

Bishop White of Pennsylvania administers Holy Communion under both kinds

The SEC, while long known for its High Church theology of the Eucharist, maintained a firm attachment to communion in both kinds. F.C. Eeles 1910 study Traditional Ceremonial and Customs Connected with the Scottish Liturgy notes that communion of the sick was ‘always in both kinds’ (p.85), requiring vessels such as the ‘Argyll Pyx’ in glass and silver to transport the sacrament. Philip A Lempriere’s 1903 Compendium of the Canon Law of the SEC notes that the Eucharist must be administered under both kinds (p.139). Even when the influence of the Oxford Movement in Scotland led to the adoption of medieval and contemporary Catholic devotions, Episcopalians retained this attachment. The Day Office of the Church (1871) was a translation of the Roman Breviary by the Revd Thomas Ball of Cove and an English priest, H.A. Walker, which was used by the Episcopalian nuns of the Society of Reparation in Aberdeen. It included such novelties as the feast of the Sacred Heart but the order for the communion of the sick from the Roman Ritual was modified to allow for communion under both kinds, even by intinction. Likewise, Bishop Forbes of Brechin held, in his 1862 An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles (2.597ff), that “while the sacrament under one kind conveys all the graces necessary for salvation, the chalice has a grace of its own, the grace of gladdening” and that as a banquet requires drink so the Eucharist is only complete if it involves drinking.

An Argyll Pyx

The reason for this attachment to communion in both kinds among Scottish Episcopalians is not hard to find. Jesus tell us both to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’, Paul presumes that the followers of Jesus will do both (1 Cor. 11:26), and this was the custom throughout the Church for its first 1300 years and has remained so in the Churches of the East. As a Church rooted in Scripture which has the greatest respect both for the early Church and the Churches of the East, it would be surprising if the SEC did not value communion in both kinds even if it were not also influenced by the sixteenth century reformations.

South of the Border it would appear at first that Article 30 mandated a similar exclusivity, but English liturgy and law allow for exceptional circumstances. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has a rubric in its provision for the Communion of the Sick which says that if, for practical reasons, a person cannot receive the sacrament on their sickbed but has faith in Christ’s Passion, “he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth”. This is the doctrine that we can receive ‘spiritual communion’, we can receive the benefits of the sacrament when we are impeded from receiving the sacramental signs. From this one can deduce that receiving communion under one kind (bread or wine) may not impede the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ with all their benefits. This is consonant with evidence from the history of the Church where, from the early centuries, there have been instances of communion under one kind in special circumstances, for example for the sick, babies, and communion at home (see James J. Megivern, Concomitance and Communion: A Study in Eucharistic Doctrine and Practice, Fribourg, 1963). In this spirit, Section 8 of the English ‘Sacrament Act’ of 1547 likewise provides that communion must be given to the laity in both kinds ‘except necessity otherwise require’.

There are thus good grounds in the Church of England for withdrawing the cup from the laity as a prudent and practical response to the coronavirus pandemic, but what of Scotland? In Scotland the ‘Sacrament Act’ is not in force but the rubric on ‘spiritual communion’ is still in the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book and so there are practical and spiritual grounds. The Scottish Bishops’ updated ‘Coronavirus guidance’ of 15 March 2020, reserving the chalice to the presiding priest alone, also suggest that there are more profound theological reasons beyond ‘spiritual communion’ when it says that “Receiving communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion”. The Bishops of the Church of England had earlier written similar words in response to the swine flu pandemic, on 22 July 2009: “While communion in both kinds is the norm in the Church of England in faithfulness to Christ’s institution, when it is received only in one kind the fullness of the Sacrament is received none the less”. To understand this teaching we need to look at the reasons why the chalice was withdrawn from the laity in the medieval Latin West and why, despite the Lord’s command to the contrary, this became the norm by the thirteenth century. Behind the teaching is the doctrine of concomitance, that the whole Christ is received under bread or wine, which is explicitly taught by the American Episcopal Church.

The chalice was withdrawn in the medieval West for practical and theological reasons. Pastoral manuals from the period are often concerned with the danger of sacrilege in spilling the wine, and there was also in some lands the difficulty and expense of administering the chalice to large numbers and concerns about the desirability of sharing a common cup. From about the eighth century we find attempts to get round these problems by using a spoon or straw, the former becoming the norm in the Christian East. From the seventh century we find a desire to dip the bread in the wine (‘intinction’) but this was regularly condemned in the West, partly because it resembled the action of Judas at the Last Supper. What is interesting is the connection between the practice of only the celebrant receiving from the chalice and its theological justification.  

Why Do We Use Communion Spoons? / OrthoChristian.Com
Holy Communion with a spoon

While earlier theologians generally affirmed the importance of communion under both kinds, in the twelfth century we find scholastic teachers such as William of Champeaux (1070-1121) teaching that the whole Christ is present under either form: the doctrine of concomitance. Achard of St Victor (1100-1171) is a representative of this tradition: “under either species both the Body and the Blood are received. There is no Body without Blood, nor Blood separated from the Body. But perhaps some grace is conferred under the sign of bread which is not conferred under the sign of wine, and indeed, perhaps under both signs some things are given more strongly under one than the other” (quoted in Megivern, Concomitance and Communion, 46). We can see here the grounds for Bishop Forbes’s teaching on the ‘grace of the chalice’, but also perhaps the theological grounds for the Scottish Bishops’ March statement that “receiving communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion”. This teaching on concomitance, elaborated by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 3a 76) and affirmed by the General Councils of Constance (1415), Florence (1439) and Trent (1562), gave a theological underpinning to the general withdrawal of the chalice from the laity – they still receive the whole Christ or ‘full communion’.

Communion under one kind depicted in a medieval tapestry

The Decree for the Armenians (1439) of the Council of Florence gave a succinct definition of concomitance and said that it had “always been the belief of the Church of God”, words echoed in the teaching of the Scottish Bishops in 2020. This decree, however, speaks of Christ’s presence in the sacrament in two logical stages: 1) his body is present under the form of bread and his blood under the form of wine by the consecratory power of his words; 2) his body, blood, soul and divinity are present under both forms because the risen Christ is not divided in any way. While communion under one kind has been practiced from the earliest times for practical reasons, this theology of comcomitance is a later development which became popular partly because it enabled people to understand the equally practical withdrawal of the chalice from the laity. If you believe, as Christians have always believed, that the bread becomes the body and the wine the blood of the undivided Christ, then concomitance is a valid example of seeking to understand our faith and to make sense of the immemorial eucharistic practice of occasional communion under one kind. If you don’t hold to something like concomitance, you end up with people only receiving half a sacrament.

The interesting thing is that while Anglican Bishops responded to the public health crisis by withdrawing the chalice, this was not the only possible response and for some it is not even a desirable response. Some Protestant Churches use individual cups or shot glasses for communion, a practice that originated in 1890s America in response to a fear of infectious diseases. Individual cups were reluctantly allowed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1909 depite strong opposition on theological grounds led by Professor James Cooper. Those who saw the excellent Channel 4 series about a family of priests in the Church of Denmark, ‘Ride upon the Storm’, may have noticed that the wine at Mass was consecrated in a chalice and then poured into individual cups brought up by the communicants. Some Anglicans have opposed the withdrawal of the chalice on traditional Protestant grounds, for example the former Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey Nicholas Sagovsky, while others have opposed the doctrine of concomitance. On the other hand a common position among the Eastern Orthodox is that because holy communion is the life-giving flesh and blood of Christ it can not transmit infection and so there is no necessity to change their traditional practice of giving communion under both kinds together with a spoon.

That the Scottish Bishops moved quickly to withdraw the chalice, as did their Roman Catholic counterparts, and did not engage with any of the positions in the previous paragraph suggests that the SEC operates within the breadth of Catholic tradition, specifically that of the Latin West. While the motivation could simply have been a concern to protect our congregations, the phrase “communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion” indicates that the decision was made in the Catholic theological context described above. The Scottish Liturgy teaches unambiguously that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ (though Episcopalians have generally rejected the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation) and so if we lack nothing essential in communion under one kind a doctrine of concomitance is implied. A reliance solely on the ‘spiritual communion’ taught in the Prayer Book would suggest that the physical matter of the sacrament is dispensible. The Church of England may have to engage with sixteenth-century Reformed formularies but the SEC operates inclusively within Catholic tradition. This is not surprising as it defines itself as “a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ” (Canon 1). This should not now be understood as adherance to the Oxford Movement’s ‘branch theory’ but rather in the context of the modern ecumenical movement by which Churches are challenged to look beyond the bounds of their own denominational traditions. Reformed traditions exist within this inclusive reformed Catholicism but the SEC has no confessional fetishes, as the Church of England has the 39 Articles and the Church of Scotland the Westminister Confession.

The SEC has a deep tradition of valuing the sign of communion under both kinds, as commanded by Christ. Whatever theologians might say, I am sure communicants feel a lack when they can’t receive the precious blood. Bishop Forbes’ ‘grace of the chalice’ is an experienced reality and contemporary Roman Catholic teaching reflects this when it says that communion in both kinds is necessary for the fullness of the sign of the sacrament (Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), 100). It is, however, significant that, if contemporary circumstances require, the SEC is willing to suspend this for a higher good – Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour. The swift move to communion under one kind this year reveals that the SEC instinctively acts in a Catholic way, with an eye on the whole of Christian tradition, but it also reveals an instinctive attention to the operation of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary world, the ‘signs of the times’ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 4, cf Matthew 16:3). By eschewing the American individualism of shot glasses, the ‘sacrament of Judas’ of self-intinction, and the crypto-monophysitism of denying the sacrament can carry a virus, we can see Scripture, Tradition and Reason being deployed in harmony. This triad is usually said to be distinctively Anglican, but its integration of faith and reason is actually characteristic of the Western Catholic tradition in which the SEC exists.

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