The Canons of 1603: Holy communion

by Philip Jones

The 1603 canons generally encourage the reception of holy communion. The faithful should receive the sacrament ‘oftentimes’ (canon 13). They are bound to receive it ‘at least thrice in a year’ (canon 21). Clergy should remind them of this duty (canon 23). Moreover, the incumbent of a benefice should not delegate all the responsibility to his curate, but should administer communion at least twice a year (canon 56). Members of the universities and cathedral foundations should receive at least four times a year (canons 23 and 24) or even weekly (BCP rubric of 1558).

The wording of the canons suggests that the evil they were intended to cure was popular neglect of communion, rather than excessive enthusiasm for it. It was noted that ‘many … do not receive that sacrament [even] once in a year’ (canon 22), let alone the required three occasions. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) prescribes an exhortation for use by a priest whose parishioners are ‘negligent to come to the holy communion’. Those who neglected to receive communion at Easter were subject to ecclesiastical discipline (canon 112).

The canons follow the 39 Articles. The Articles deprecate as superstitious and unscriptural the adoration of the consecrated bread, but urge its consumption (cf. Articles 25 and 28).

Catholics refused to receive communion in the Church of England: ‘being popishly given … they come to the church, yet do refuse to receive the communion’ (canon 114). Strict protestants were also reluctant to receive it. Protestantism tended to emphasise word over sacrament. There was a reluctance to receive holy communion from non-preaching ‘dumb dog’ clergy (canon 57). (People may have thought that, if a clergyman was incapable of administering the word of God by preaching, he must also be incapable of administering the sacrament effectively.)

The device of occasional conformity, whereby dissenters received holy communion annually in order to comply with their legal obligations but otherwise practised their religion separately, may already have begun (cf canon 27). Thus catholics were prepared to hear the word of the Church of England, but refused its sacrament. With protestant dissenters it was the other way around.

The canons encourage the reception of holy communion, but only in the context of a strict discipline. ‘Notorious offenders’ were excluded, pending their repentance and reconciliation (canon 26). Communicants were required to kneel, a controversial practice in the Reformation era (canon 27). The link between word and sacrament was insisted on, hence communion was denied ‘to any that refuse to be present at Public Prayers according to the Orders of the Church of England’ (canon 27), a reference to dissent and occasional conformity.

There was a strong emphasis on holy communion as a collective, corporate act.  Communicants were expected to receive the sacrament in their parish church, and nowhere else. ‘Strangers’ were not to be admitted, but ‘[sent] home to their own parish churches and ministers there to receive the Communion with the rest of their own neighbours’ (canon 28). The sacrament was not to be administered in any private house ‘except it be in times of necessity’, that is, where a communicant was gravely ill (canon 71). The occupants of grand houses with their own private chapels were still expected to receive holy communion in the parish church at least once a year.

The general rule of communion in the communicant’s own parish church was reinforced by the rule that the priest should not administer communion alone, only in the company of lay communicants (BCP rubric). Private masses were not allowed. Again, the canons follow the 39 Articles, which insist that communion should be administered to priest and people alike (Article 30) and that word and sacrament should be administered in ‘a tongue … understanded of the people’ (Article 24).

If there was a rule of mediaeval canon law limiting reception of holy communion to once a day, it did not survive the Reformation. There would have been scant opportunity for receiving the sacrament more than once a day in the post-Reformation era. The monasteries had been dissolved, private masses forbidden and the sacrament was generally allowed only in the parish church.

The homilies are commended for their ‘godly and wholesome doctrine … to be read in Churches by the ministers’ (Article 35). Thus even if one of the homilies contained a ‘rule’ limiting the number of times for receiving holy communion, this would be a mere exhortation, without any binding effect.