Whitsun Communion

... touching the frequency of the Communion, the Parson celebrates it, if not duly once a month, yet at least five or six times in the year; as, at Easter, Christmasse, Whitsuntide, afore and after Harvest, and the beginning of Lent.

George Hebert, A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson, Chpt. XXII.

The curate reported in 1682 that, in obedience to commands from the bishop, he had given notice before Whitsun communion, 'and to stir them up to their duty, I did read the second exhortation ...'.

Episcopal Visitation return, Parish of Caversham, Diocese of Oxford, 1683, quoted in Donald A. Spaeth, The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660-1740.

I administer the Holy Sacrament of the Lords Supper the first Sunday in every Month, and also on the Usual Festivals, namely, Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide. 

Episcopal Visitation return, Parish of Axminster, Diocese of Exeter, 1744. 

I read prayers and adminstered the Holy Sacrament this morning at Weston Church being Whitsunday.

Parson Woodforde's Diaries, 3rd June 1781.

On Easter Day 1800, when there were only six communicants at St Paul's Cathedral, London, there were 311 in St Mary's, Kilkenny, where, the year before there had been 280 at Whitsun.

F.R. Bolton The Caroline Tradition in the Church of Ireland (p.170).

Over centuries, it was an established Anglican pattern: Whitsun was a 'Sacrament Sunday'.  Whatever our criticisms of the relative infrequency of the reception of the Sacrament in the Anglicanism of the 'long 18th century', what cannot be easily doubted is that this pattern was a means of identifying reception as a participation in the mysteries of the Faith celebrated at these feasts.

Contrasting this with contemporary Parish Communion practice brings us to a not insignificant question: which practice leads to a more devout reception of the Sacrament on Whitsunday, a more thankful recognition that in partaking of the Sacrament "Christ ... giveth by the same sacrament his holie spirit to sanctifie them as it sanctiefieth him which is theire head" (LEP V.67.7)?  As Thomas Comber wrote in his A Companion to the Altar (1675), meditating on the Whitsunday proper preface:

I will go to thy Altar O Lord with a New-Sacrifice of Praise, because thou hast given me a fresh instance of thy Love this day ... let me therefore together with thy precious Body, receive here such proportions of thy holy spirit ... that this may be a day of joy to me also.

The relationship between the feast and the reception of the Sacrament had also been a consistent, and rich, feature of Lancelot Andrewes's Whitsunday sermons:

Besides, it was one special end why the Sacrament itself was ordained, our comfort; the Church so telleth us, we so hear it read every time to us: 'He hath ordained these mysteries of His love and favour, to our great and endless comfort.' 'The Father will give you the Comforter.' Why He gives Him, we see; how He gives Him, we see not. The means for which He gives Him, is Christ--His entreaty by His word in prayer; by His flesh and blood in sacrifice, for His blood speaks, not His voice only. These means for which; and the very same, the means by which He gives the Comforter: by Christ the Word, and by Christ's body and blood, both. In tongues it came, but the tongue is not the instrument of speech only but of taste, we all know ...

This is sure: where His flesh and blood are, they are not 'spiritless,' they are not or without life, His Spirit is with them. Therefore was it ordained in those very elements, which have both of them a comfortable operation in the heart of man ... And all this to show that the same effect is wrought in the inward man by the holy mysteries, that is in the outward by the elements; that there the heart is 'established by grace,' and our soul endued with strength, and our conscience made light and cheerful, that it faint not, but evermore rejoice in His holy comfort (Whitsunday, 1610).

Note too how Andrewes here makes reference to the third Exhortation - "he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries ... to our great and endless comfort" - while the curate from the 1682 Visitation in the Diocese of Oxford notes using the second Exhortation on the approach to Whitsunday. 

The relationship between Whitsunday and reception of the Sacrament has, of course, been lost following the triumph of the Parish Communion movement.  To receive on Whitsunday is to do what happens every other Sunday.  And Whitsunday, therefore, becomes like every other Sunday, not marked by the particular preparation, penitence, and self-examination urged for a Sacrament Sunday.

Mindful of this, we might consider how this normative Anglican practice through the 'long 18th century' should be rescued from the condescension of posterity. (And we need to remember that the figure oft-quoted by Tractarians - 6 receiving Easter Communion in St Paul's, London, in 1800 - was far from typical, as the quote from Bolton demonstrates.)  As a pattern of eucharistic devotion and liturgical spirituality, it has strengths lost through routine weekly reception.  Half a century or so on from the triumph of the Parish Communion movement, it is time to assess the movement and whether the practice of weekly Eucharist as the main liturgy and the norm of weekly reception of the Sacrament has led to a strengthening of the Church's life.  Or, has it undermined sacramental devotion and flattened the liturgical year?

In other words, it might be time to reconsider the casual dismissal of that very traditional Anglican practice of, alongside monthly Eucharists, marking the great feasts with reception of the Sacrament. 


  1. Inasmuch as it gives the highest mystery of the Church's corporate life the preeminence it is due, (and, according to the logic of the reformed liturgy's sursum corda theology, the sacrament knits together the militant church on earth with Mother Jerusalem above in the body and blood of her Head), it is difficult to deny that having the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on the Lord's Day has been a blessing for Anglicans.

    Unfortunately, it has resulted in a rote contempt for the sacrament bred by over- familiarity (the sacrament as "fast food", as Peter Toon put it). It has also been disastrous for the Daily Office.

    Devout 18th C churchmen, such as Samuel Johnson, regarded"Sacrament Sunday" with nothing less than awe. If one wished to be a meet partaker of the holy mysteries, he had to devote himself to a week's worth of serious preparation. Johnson, of course, was a man of exemplary piety. But, given the measure of his devotion, one wonders if he would have felt the Sacrament was too holy for weekly celebrations?

    In any case, rather than returning to monthly celebrations, perhaps a better solution might be to alternate the Holy Communion with sung Mattins on consecutive Sundays? That would not only break the curse of dull routine, it would also be an opportunity to reinsert the Daily Office into the pattern of Common Prayer on the parish level.

    My wife and I attended a sung 1662 Matins on the first Sunday of our honeymoon at All Saint's Pavement in York, and it was marvelous. A small vested choir led the congregation in singing the canticles and hymns; the priest, vested in surplice, cassock and tippet, preached a fine sermon on the lessons (and he didn't soft pedal the reality of our sin!); the people were highly engaged in the act of corporate worship; the ceremonial was beautiful, but chaste.

    One could maintain this as a norm for all services of Morning and Evening Prayer, and up the ceremonial a bit for services of the Holy Communion. Festal celebrations of the Eucharist could be an opportunity for a greater display of ceremonial joy by going full stop in the use of incense, copes or chasubles. And these great festivals would be an opportune time for the parish to bask in the joy of the solemn commemoration in a common meal (what we Americans call a "potluck".)

    1. I entirely agree that the Eucharist is the highest mystery of the Church's life and should have pre-eminence, not least because, as you wonderfully state, of the hgh Reformed theology of the Sursum Corda. What I am dubious about is that this is seen in the fruit of the Parish Communion movement.

      Alternating Choral Mattins with Holy Communion as the main act of worship on Sundays would be very appropriate, with early celebrations of the Eucharist to facilitate those who desire weekly reception. This would ensure that both Mattins and Eucharist shape and form the parish, and that the gifts of both are received and cherished.

      I am not sure there is a vast pastoral difference between this and monthly celebrations at the main liturgy, and I would be quite happy with either approach. My key concern is the growing conviction (including from parish experience) that the Parish Communion movement has failed and has weakened the Church both in terms of sacramental devotion and the solid teaching embodied by Mattins.

  2. There is no substantive difference between the two approaches, I believe. Both seek to rectify the lazy humanism of " table-fellowship", which is a sorry substitute for Cranmer's vision of the Church realizing itself as one body in Christ, by participation in the mysteries of his body and blood. They also seek to bring back the awe, wonder and implicit danger that comes when a baptized believer makes his own communion with the ascended Lord unto eternal life of soul and body, or unto condemnation.

    Whether the sacrament is to be celebrated monthly or on every other Sunday, the priest ought to ensure:

    1) That one or more of the exhortations provided in the Prayer Book are read to the congregation at the end of Mattins (or, perhaps, during the announcements) on the Sunday before Sacrament Sunday.

    2) Although we do not make auricular confession necessary to being a communicant, the priest should emphasize the pastoral invitation to seek ghostly counsel and the benefit of absolution as a ministry of God's compassion for those sons and daughters whose consciences are burdened with the knowledge of besetting sin.

    The recitation of the Decalogue with sung responses is a wonderful improvement on the old Ora Fratres. It honors the catholic necessity of moral cleansing through confession of sin as a prerequisite to entering the joy of the heavenly liturgy, while giving the people a Divine criterion in the Law as a measure of our faults. The summary of the Law followed by the Kyrie is perfectly fine, but from time-to-time, the people ought to rehearse themselves in the splendor of the Ten Words, whose end is Christ.

    Let the priest not neglect to read the exhortation after the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church. The ethos of Prayer Book worship is solemn joy before the Lord; but at this juncture a note of soberness is more than appropriate, and should continue into the General Confession and Absolution. With the certain hope of the Comfortable Words, the ethos begins to lighten until at last, in the Sursum Corda, Preface and Thrice Holy, the congregation expresses joy and unshakable confidence in the tender mercies of God in Christ, with Angels and Archangels.

    Let the priest preach on nothing else but the appointed lessons. And let him do it well

    Let the lectors do justice to the truth, beauty and mystery of God's Word in reading the lessons. The public reading of Scripture is an art. And, when you do it right, it can make the text jump out at the ears, minds and hearts of the people in profound ways. No mumbling monotones, please.

    Traditional hymns suitable for the season.

    No matter if your ceremonial is simple or elaborate, do it unto the glory of God and for the joy and edification of the people.

    1. The Exhortations are a powerful and, I think, necessary part of the classical Anglican discipline regarding the Eucharist. It is the Exhortations which avoid the requirement of either confessor or elders examining the heart and soul of another. As you say, the invitation is given to those particularly burdened to seek ghostly counsel and absolution, but it is not anticipated that this would be routine, regular discipline. Restoring the Exhortations, however, does surely mean we need to revisit the expectation of weekly reception.

  3. What about Matins, Litany and a dry mass as the morning service? The rubrics from the BCP 1662 suggest that this was the practice:

    "Upon the Sundays and other Holy-days (if there be no Communion) shall be said all that is appointed at the Communion, until the end of the general Prayer [For the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth] together with one or more of these Collects last before rehearsed, concluding with the Blessing. "

    This seems to me the best option to allow for most the communion texts and prayers and still protects the Eucharist from becoming fast food.

    1. Robert, many thanks for your comment. Yes, I think it is time to re-examine Ante-Communion. As you say, it allows an important part of the Eucharistic rite to continue to shape and nourish us, while ensuring that reception of the Sacrament of itself comes after due preparation. A key of the Ante-Communion is the Prayer for the Church Militant, a solemn intercession for Church, State and those in need, with commemoration of the faithful departed. Its presence ensures that Mattins does not become 'top heavy' with additional intercessions.


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