Holy Communion and the Constitution of the Church in Wales

by Philip Jones

‘And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’ (Book of Common Prayer 1662, rubric)

The bishops of the Church in Wales have just issued a radical Pastoral Letter concerning admission to Holy Communion (September 2016, accessed on the Diocese of St. Davids website on 17th September).  This announces that the bishops ‘are giving permission for all those who are baptised … to receive Holy Communion’.  Confirmation, and even readiness for confirmation, will no longer be required.  As the Pastoral Letter says, this decision means that ‘even the youngest of children [will] be entitled to receive Holy Communion’.

The Pastoral Letter asserts that baptism is the only ‘gateway’ to the Eucharist, so ‘no [further] barrier should be erected to prevent all the baptised from making their communion …’.  Removing the ‘barrier’ of confirmation will ‘readopt the practice of the Early Church with respect to admission to Holy Communion’.

It is not for this blog to comment on the theological merits of the bishops’ decision.  We question only the legal authority for the decision.

The Pastoral Letter says that the bishops have ‘taken [legal] advice … and have been given the assurance that such a step does not require any change in the present Canon Law or Constitution of the Church in Wales’.

This is surprising.  A major and radical change is being made to the administration of the Church’s principal act of worship.  Surely this must require some amendment of the Church’s Constitution?  And what about the 1662 rubric, quoted above?

In the Church of England, Canon B15A(1) provides that ‘There shall be admitted to the Holy Communion … baptised persons who are communicant members of other Churches … and who are in good standing in their own Church’, as well as those referred to in the 1662 rubric.  The intention is that practising members of non-conformist Churches, which lack episcopal structure and confirmation, can still receive the Anglican Sacrament.  Canon B15A was promulged under the Admission to Holy Communion Measure 1972.

That is the English law.  The Church in Wales was constitutionally separated from the Church of England in 1920, as a result of Disestablishment.  Since then it has been governed, as the Pastoral Letter indicates, by its own Constitution.

The Constitution does not seem to contain an equivalent of Canon B15A.  It incorporates a number of ecumenical Declarations of ‘intercommunion’, or ‘full communion’, according to which ‘Each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments’ (September 1966), but such Declarations seem to be restricted to overseas Churches which possess episcopal structures (e.g the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church).  They do not extend to local non-conformists.

However, the Church in Wales Prayer Book 1984 makes a critical amendment of the 1662 rubric:

‘Except with the permission of the Bishop, no one shall receive Holy Communion until he is confirmed, or is ready and desirous to be confirmed.’

The permission of the Bishop.  In the Pastoral Letter, the bishops are jointly giving a general permission to baptised but unconfirmed persons to receive Holy Communion.  The 1984 rubric makes clear that bishops already have a constitutional power to permit unconfirmed persons to be admitted to the Sacrament.  So maybe the legal advice referred to in the Pastoral Letter is correct, and the Constitution does not require amendment after all.

However, it is suggested that there are constitutional difficulties with the Pastoral Letter, whatever its good intentions, as follows:

(1) On its wording, the 1984 rubric indicates that confirmation remains the general rule for receiving Holy Communion.  The Bishop is empowered to dispense from the general rule, i.e allow exceptions in particular cases, but that is all.  He cannot abolish the general rule altogether.  Yet that is exactly what the Pastoral Letter is seeking to do, abolish the general rule of confirmation.  This arguably exceeds, or at least misuses, the bishops’ power, which is merely to permit exceptions.

(2) Canon B15A gives practising non-conformists the legal right to receive Holy Communion.  The 1984 rubric, by contrast, does not confer any legal right on an unconfirmed person.  It provides only for the possibility of permission from the Bishop.  The grant of permission is a matter for the Bishop’s discretion.

The effect of the Pastoral Letter is that any person wishing to receive Holy Communion in future must have either

(1) episcopal confirmation or

(2) episcopal permission under the Pastoral Letter.

Yet there is an important difference between (1) and (2).  Confirmation founds a right to Holy Communion, episcopal permission merely grants a favour.  Confirmation cannot be withdrawn, but permission can be.  If the bishops can grant permission at their own discretion, they can also withdraw it at their discretion.  The ‘barrier’ of confirmation has been lowered for now, but it could be raised again just as easily.  The Pastoral Letter is arbitrary as well as permissive.

It is also doubtful that a mere permission, unsupported by a constitutional right or duty, is sufficient to bind the clergy.  A vicar who disagrees with the Pastoral Letter could not be compelled to give Holy Communion to unconfirmed persons.  Hence different parishes might adopt different policies on the matter.

In short, the constitutional position of unconfirmed communicants will be different, and inferior, to that of confirmed communicants.

Perhaps this will not matter in practice, if the bishops’ decision proves uncontroversial.  However, it is arguable that

(1) the importance of the substantive issue and

(2) the constitutional difficulties discussed here

both demand that admission to Holy Communion be regulated by the Constitution of the Church in Wales, and not merely by Pastoral Letter.

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