The English law of Holy Communion may be conveniently studied under 3 headings
(1) Who may administer Holy Communion
(2) to whom and
(3) how, when and where?
However, to understand the relevant law, it is important not to confuse the Communion with the Eucharist.
Canon B12(1) of the revised canons provides that ‘No person shall consecrate and administer the Holy Sacrament … unless he shall been ordained priest by episcopal ordination’. This echoes s.10 of the Act of Uniformity 1662 (now repealed). The words ‘consecrate and administer’ may mean that the priest must not only consecrate the bread and wine, but must also control and preside over the whole Communion Service, including the distribution of the consecrated elements to the communicants.
The Prayer Book (Further Provisions) Measure 1968 permitted authorised laypeople to assist the priest by distributing Holy Communion to communicants. This lay assistance is now regulated by canon B12(3) and the Admission to Holy Communion Regulations 2015.
Canon B44 allows that a minister of a non-episcopal Church may celebrate Holy Communion in a Church of England church where a local ecumenical partnership has been established ((1)(f)). This provision makes clear that episcopal ordination is, as Paul Avis described it, merely the ‘house rule’ of the Church of England, a rule of discipline, not religious belief. Article 19 confirms that one particular ministerial structure is not essential in the Church, just so long as ‘the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’. However, canon B44 requires that the Anglican faithful be warned of the officiating minister’s lack of episcopal ordination (cf 4(3)(a)(b)).
Baptism alone does not qualify a person to receive Holy Communion. Reception requires
(1) commitment to Baptism
(2) instruction in the faith and
The Book of Common Prayer 1662 required that communicants should be ‘[episcopally] confirmed … or … ready and desirous to be so confirmed’ (rubric). Confirmation candidates ‘being now come to the years of discretion, and having learned what their godfathers and godmothers promised for them in Baptism … with their own mouth and consent … ratify and confirm the same; and also promise that … they will evermore endeavour themselves faithfully to observe such things …’.
Confirmation is therefore
(1) confirmation by the candidate of his baptismal promises and
(2) the assurance of Divine Grace to support the candidate’s commitment to these promises ‘that he may continue Thine for ever; and daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more …’.
There is no reference to Holy Communion in the 1662 Confirmation rite itself, only in the rubric. Confirmation is concerned with Baptism rather than Holy Communion. The phrase ‘ready and desirous’ makes clear that Confirmation is not essential to Holy Communion. (In the old days, bishops were often absent from their dioceses, indeed never even visited them, so a candidate might have to wait a long time to be confirmed.)
Canon B27(3), again echoing the 1662 rubrics, provides that ‘The minister shall present none to the bishop [for Confirmation] but such as are come to the years of discretion and can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, and can also render an account of their faith according to the … Catechism’. Canon B27(2) requires the minister to use his best endeavour to instruct [Confirmation candidates] in the Christian faith and life’.
The modern canon B15A, which now regulates admission to Holy Communion, repeats the 1662 rubric about Confirmation, but allows that other persons may receive Holy Communion too, viz
(1) (b) baptized persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who are in good standing in their own Church
(c) any other baptized persons authorized to be admitted under regulations of the General Synod; and
(d) any baptized person in immediate danger of death.
Thus practising Christians from Churches which lack episcopal ministry and Confirmation may now be admitted to the Anglican Sacrament. This rule, like canon B44, is consistent with Article 19. It is also consistent with Article 25, which teaches that Confirmation is not a Sacrament ‘ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel’. ‘Good standing’ is not defined, but suggests an assumption that such persons will have received sufficient instruction in their own Churches.
The Admission of Baptised Children to Holy Communion Regulations 2006 were made under the authority of Canon B15A(1)(c) above. Young children who are not confirmed, or even ready to be confirmed, may now receive Holy Communion. However, this is subject to the bishop’s discretion. Regulation 5 provides that ‘the bishop must first satisfy himself … that the [child’s] parish … has made adequate provision for preparation and continuing nurture in the Christian life and will encourage any child admitted to Holy Communion … to be confirmed at the appropriate time’. So commitment and instruction are still required.
Although canon B15A may have lowered the bar to Holy Communion somewhat, canon B15(2) requires that ‘The minister shall teach the people … that they come to this Holy Sacrament with such preparation as is required by the Book of Common Prayer’.
The 1662 Prayer Book does indeed insist on careful preparation to receive the Sacrament. Prospective communicants are sternly exhorted ‘to consider the dignity of that holy mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receiving thereof; and so to search and examine your own consciences … and that not lightly …’.
The minister must also invite a penitent prospective communicant ‘who … cannot quiet his own conscience … [to] come to me, or to some other … minister … and open his grief; that … he may receive the benefit of absolution …’. Private confession and absolution are therefore at the option of the penitent, a concession to human weakness, not an obligation.
The Prayer Book rubric indicates that the invitation in the Communion Service to ‘make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees’ is specifically addressed ‘to them that come to receive the Holy Communion’, not to any other persons present.
Cathedral clergy are expected to set an example to everybody else, both fellow clergy and laypeople, by receiving the Sacrament ‘every Sunday at the least’ (canon B13(2)). The lay faithful are expected to receive ‘regularly, and especially at … Christmas, Easter and Whitsun’ (canon B15(1)). This rule follows the canons of 1603, which enjoined reception of the Sacrament ‘oftentimes’ (canon 21) and ‘at least thrice in a year’ (canon 23).
The bishop has power (virtually never used) to order the exclusion of ‘notorious offenders’ from Holy Communion (canon B16). This power is discussed in a separate post, filed below.
How, When and Where?
The provision of bread and wine for Holy Communion is governed by canon B17. The bread may be leavened or unleavened. The vestments to be worn are prescribed by canon B8(2) and (3). The ‘table of the Lord’ (i.e the altar) must be covered with ‘a fair white linen cloth’ (canon F2(2)). The provision and cleaning of communion vessels and linen are dealt with by canons F3 and F4 respectively.
All incumbents, or ‘priests having a cure of souls’, must ‘celebrate, or cause to be celebrated, the Holy Communion on all Sundays and other greater Feast Days and on Ash Wednesday’ (canon C24(2)). Canon B14 confirms that Holy Communion should be celebrated ‘at least’ on those days in parish churches. However, canon B14A permits some variation of this general rule. In cathedrals, Holy Communion should be celebrated ‘as often as may be convenient’ (canon B13(1)), which is usually every day.
Holy Communion must normally be administered in a consecrated or licensed place of worship. It can be administered in any place where there is a sick person who cannot go to church. Other venues require the bishop’s permission (canon B40). Holy Communion may be administered in a private chapel, but ‘seldom upon Sundays and other greater Feast Days, so that the residents … may resort to their parish church and there attend divine service’ (canon B41). This rule stresses the communal character of the Sacrament.
The Eucharist and the Communion
This survey indicates that the sole purpose of Holy Communion in English law is the reception of the consecrated bread and wine by the communicants. The terminology used (Communion, Lord’s Supper) also carries this implication. The Sacrament is never described as the Eucharist.
In Anglican parlance the words ‘Eucharist’ and ‘Communion’ are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct liturgical rites. The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Prayer is the prayer of thanksgiving which includes the Words of Institution by which the bread and wine are consecrated. The Communion rite comes later. Thus, in English law, the purpose of the Eucharist is the Communion which follows it.
Canon 21 of 1603 suggests that some contemporary clergy failed to appreciate the connection between Eucharist and Communion. It ordered that ‘no bread or wine … shall be used; but first the Words of Institution shall be rehearsed, when the said bread and wine be present upon the Communion-table’. Evidently the bread and wine were sometimes administered without being consecrated first.
The modern canon B12 affirms that Eucharist and Communion, though distinct, are inseparable, by requiring the officiating priest always to receive Holy Communion himself.
The English and Roman Catholic laws concerning the administration of Holy Communion are on similar lines (though they are far from identical). However, there is virtually no English law concerning the Eucharist. This is the great difference between the two laws. The Roman Catholic law concerning Holy Communion is but a part of its law concerning the Eucharist: see the Code of Canon Law 1983, canons 897 to 958, entitled ‘The Most Holy Eucharist’. In English law, it is the other way around. The law concerning the Eucharist (such as it is) is part of the law of Holy Communion.
In the Church of England, canon B6 enjoins ‘attendance at Divine Service‘ every Sunday, but not specifically attendance at Holy Communion. Attendance at Morning or Evening Prayer will do just as well. For a long time in England, weekly attendance at Holy Communion was impossible for most people, because the Sacrament was only celebrated once a month (‘Sacrament Sunday’).
In the Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, the faithful are obliged to attend the Eucharist (Mass) every Sunday and on other important Holy Days (1983 Code, canon 1247). Attendance at another act of worship will not fulfill this obligation. However, the obligation to receive Holy Communion is limited to just once a year (canon 920.1). The severe Eucharistic fast from midnight, without even a glass of water, which was only modified as recently as the 1950s, made frequent communion difficult. (Sometimes Catholics would receive Communion at an early service before attending the Eucharist.)
The 1662 rubrics made clear that ‘there shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be convenient number to communicate with the priest … 4 communicants (or 3 at the least)’ are the absolute minimum required.
This requirement does not appear in the modern canons of the Church of England. However, canon C24(2) makes clear that the duty to ‘celebrate, or cause to be celebrated’ the Holy Communion is owed to parishioner-communicants. Priests without a cure of souls have no duty to celebrate the Eucharist / Holy Communion, nor indeed any right to do so.
This is another difference from the Roman Catholic law, which states that ‘priests [i.e all priests] are … earnestly invited to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice daily …’ (1983 Code, canon 276(1)).
The English legal emphasis on reception of Holy Communion has its basis in religious belief, of course. The 1662 Catechism teaches that ‘the Lord hath commanded [the Sacrament] to be received‘. Hence the emphasis on relatively frequent Communion. Also that ‘The Body and Blood of Christ … are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper’.
Article 25 affirms that ‘in such only as worthily receive the [Sacraments] they have a whole effect or operation’. Article 28 draws the Catechism and Article 25 together: ‘to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread … is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup … is a partaking of the Blood of Christ’. It adds that ‘The Body of Christ is … eaten only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith’.
2 actions are therefore required for a communicant to receive the Body and Blood of Christ
(1) consecration of the bread and wine and
(2) worthy and faithful consumption thereof
The teaching in Article 29 is critical: ‘The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth … the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ: yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing’.
This makes clear that the effect of consecration is that the bread and wine have ceased to be ordinary food. They are now a sign and Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Any irreverent use of them will incur Divine condemnation. (Hence the great importance of instruction and repentance prior to Communion.) However, they are not the Body and Blood of Christ per se.
This in turn means that, while irreverent use incurs condemnation, it is also wrong to venerate or worship the consecrated bread and wine, since they are a mere sign and Sacrament. The communicant receives the Body and Blood of Christ only by worthy consumption.
This teaching on the Eucharist is in contrast to that of the Roman Catholic Church, which holds that
(1) consecration alone does constitute the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ. ‘In [the Eucharist] Christ the Lord, through the ministry of the priest … [is] substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine’ (1983 Code, canon 899.1).
(2) reception of communion is not the only purpose of consecration. Canon 901 affirms that ‘A priest is entitled to offer Mass for anyone, living or dead’. Indeed bishops and pastors must apply the Eucharist pro populo, i.e for the people of their dioceses and parishes, every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation (canons 388(1) and 534(1)).
The 39 Articles oppose 2 purposes of the Eucharist affirmed by the Roman Catholic Church
(1) application of the Eucharist for a metaphysical purpose, known as an intention. Article 31 strongly condemns ‘Masses in the which it was commonly said that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt’ as ‘blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’.
(2) worship of the consecrated elements. Article 28 provides that ‘the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped’. Article 25 observes that ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them’.
It will be noted that the condemnation of (1) is much stronger than (2) in the Articles. Purported applications of the Eucharist other than for Communion are dangerous and blasphemous. However, the Prayer Book rubric warns that ‘the sacramental [i.e consecrated] bread and wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored (for that were idolatry …)’.
The ceremonial of modern Communion Services is very similar to that of the modern Catholic Mass. This may obscure the difference of Eucharistic action. Canon B8 permits the ‘customary vestments’, i.e the Catholic Eucharistic vestments, but also makes clear that ‘the vesture worn by the minister … is not to be understood as implying any doctrines other than those now contained in the [historic] formularies’.
In the case of Bourne v Keane (1919) Appeal Cases 815, Lord Chancellor Birkenhead suggested that the application of the Eucharist for a metaphysical intention is the essential difference between the Catholic Mass and the Communion Service (cf p.837). (Nothing to do with ‘smells and bells’ ritualism.) Bl John Henry Newman (a Catholic convert, of course) suggested that ‘the doctrine of intention … viewed in all its parts, constitute[s] a new religion’ (Loss and Gain, 1848).
The belief that the Eucharist can be applied for a metaphysical purpose derives in turn from the belief that the Eucharist is a sacrifice (not just a sacrament) ‘in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is for ever perpetuated’ (1983 Code, canon 897). This is discussed in another post ‘In Persona Christi: Eucharistic Sacrifices’, filed below.
As every schoolboy knows, the Protestant reformers complained (with some justice no doubt) that the metaphysical ministrations of the mediaeval Church, including Mass intentions, were exploited for material gain. (The sale of indulgences etc.)
Modern Roman Catholic law addresses this concern by seeking to prevent ‘even the semblance of trafficking or trading’ in Eucharistic applications / intentions. Multiple Masses are not allowed (canons 905, 953). A priest should not celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation of at least 1 person (an altar-server), though solitary celebration is permitted for ‘a good and reasonable cause’.
Nevertheless the payment of a stipend or offering for a Eucharistic intention is not only lawful, but positively encouraged. Such offerings ‘contribute to the good of the Church’ (canon 946). ‘Any priest … may accept an offering to apply the Mass for a specific intention’ (canon 945(1)). He may not demand a larger sum than that prescribed by local law, but may still accept ‘an offering voluntarily made’, even if it exceeds the local rate (canon 952(1)). Intentions, and the offerings therefor, must be recorded (canons 955, 958). The bishop must see to it that all Mass obligations are fulfilled (canon 957).
In Bourne v Keane, the House of Lords ecumenically held (by a majority) that a fund for the saying of Roman Catholic Masses was a valid and lawful trust in English law. The Lord Chancellor traced the dichotomy between the mediaeval Mass and the reformed Communion Service to the ‘Protestant’ Prayer Book of 1552. The first, ‘Catholic’ Prayer Book of 1549 did not make a complete break between the two, because ‘the name Mass was retained [in that Book]’ (p.836).
The 1552 Book was unambiguous, however. There could be ‘no doubt that this  service was a Communion Service pure and simple, and that Mass had disappeared … from the Book of Common Prayer’ (p.837).
The Elizabethan Act of Uniformity 1559 completed the work of 1552. ‘[Its] effect was to render the celebration of Mass illegal’. By a later Elizabethan statute ‘the saying or singing of Masses was expressly declared to be a criminal offence’ (p.838). (A crime punished by death in some cases.) The result of the 16th century legislation, of course, was that Mass trusts could not be lawful, because ‘such trusts were pernicious and dangerous to the state’ (p.846).
Mass was not decriminalised till the first Roman Catholic Relief Act 1778. Then at last the Relief Act of 1829 was passed, as a result of which ‘the Roman Catholic religion was recognised as one which could be practised without any penal consequences or breach of the law’ (p.852). Thus the law forbidding Mass trusts ‘perished as a consequence of [the Relief Acts]’ (p.857).
In the modern Church of England, ‘catholic’ vicars apply, or purport to apply, the Eucharist for particular intentions, and publicise this in parish newsletters etc, notwithstanding Article 31. It could be argued that this constitutes a ‘reserved’ offence against doctrine under s.14(1) of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963: ‘maintaining doctrines repugnant to the 39 Articles’ (Halsbury’s Laws, vol 14, para 1354).
However, no prosecution for any reserved offence has ever been brought since 1963. Mass intentions are evidently uncontroversial nowadays, no longer considered blasphemous and dangerous.
It would be a different case if a vicar considered the authorised Eucharistic Prayers inadequate vehicles for his intentions, and used a Roman Catholic prayer instead. This would constitute misconduct rather than a doctrinal offence, cognisable under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, ‘doing [an] act in contravention of the laws ecclesiastical’ (s.8(1)(a)). (It would also infringe the Catholic Church’s copyright). Canon B1(2) is clear that ‘Every minister shall use only the forms of service authorised …’. All clergy are required to make a Declaration ‘[to] use only the forms of service which are authorised or allowed by canon’ (canon C15.1(1)). But again, there is no legally reported case of a vicar being disciplined for using the Roman rite.
A vicar who accepted or solicited payments for his intentions should also be liable to discipline, since he has no right to such payments, and his intentions are not recognised by law. Any trust fund similar to that in Bourne v Keane, but for Anglican Eucharistic intentions instead, would arguably fail for the same reasons.
It is argued that Article 28 need not preclude custody of the Sacrament where there is an unavoidable delay between consecration and communion, for example to bring the Sacrament to the sick, or to a congregation which lacks a priest. Christ did not ordain the practice of reservation, but neither did He positively forbid it. Nor, on its plain wording, does Article 28. As discussed earlier, the religious difficulty is not reservation per se, but the danger that it may encourage ‘idolatrous’ adoration or worship of the Sacrament.
It is true, however, that the Book of Common Prayer allows no scope for reservation. The post-Communion rubric provides that leftover consecrated elements ‘shall not be carried out of the church, but the priest and such other of the communicants as he shall then call unto him shall, immediately after the Blessing, reverently eat and drink the same’.
It has been suggested that this rubric was aimed at preventing, not superstitious veneration, but profane consumption, i.e as part of the vicar’s Sunday lunch. The 1552 Prayer Book had sacrilegiously provided that ‘if any of the bread or wine remain [whether consecrated or unconsecrated], the curate [the vicar] shall have it to his own use’. (See Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law, ed T Briden, 4th ed 2013, p.93). But the 1662 rubric still provides no authority for reservation.
The 1662 Prayer Book provides a special service for ‘Communion of the Sick’, but this clearly requires the priest to consecrate the bread and wine ‘[at] a convenient place in the sick man’s house’, and to receive the Sacrament himself. It does not authorise him to bring pre-consecrated bread and wine.
In 1899 the 2 Archbishops jointly opined that reservation was unlawful, even for sick Communion. The combination of
(1) Article 28
(2) the Prayer Book’s requirement of immediate consumption and
(3) lack of any evidence that reservation was practised after the Reformation
all pointed to this conclusion.
The Revised Prayer Book of 1927 proposed that, ‘to secure that any sick person in his last hour may not lack the benefit of the … Sacrament, … the priest, if the Bishop shall so permit, may … reserve so much of the consecrated bread and wine as is needed for the purpose’. The 1927 rubrics were careful to make clear that the Sacrament ‘shall be reserved only for the Communion of the Sick … and … for no other purpose whatever’, i.e not for adoration.
A supporter of the Revised Prayer Book made the reasonable point that ‘at the present time the whole [Communion] service has to be read [to the sick person] and that the priest has to communicate himself. No one can think it right that a priest should be forced to communicate 30 or 40 times a week’ (House of Commons Official Record, volume 218, column 1222).
However, Parliament was unmoved by the difficulty and rejected the Revised Book. Protestant prejudice against reservation was apparently a major cause of this.
For their part, the ecclesiastical courts held that a tabernacle (a receptacle in which the Sacrament is reserved) was forbidden by the famous Ornaments Rubric. In St. Mary, Tyne Dock (1954) Probate 369, the Chancellor correctly held that ‘If [a tabernacle] is not [authorised by the Ornaments Rubric] then the bishop’s sanction cannot save it, for the consent of the bishop cannot render an illegal church ornament legal’ (p.371).
In Lapford Church (1954) Probate 416, the Chancellor suggested that the Ornaments Rubric could be circumnavigated by reserving the Sacrament in an aumbry (a receptacle discreetly cut into the church wall, less showy than a tabernacle, and less suggestive of adoration). He explained that ‘for a long time now, an aumbry has been treated as not constituting an ornament at all, but as part of the furnishings of the church’, and therefore permissible.
The Lapford case actually concerned the introduction of a tabernacle, not an aumbry, so the Chancellor refused a faculty. However, the Court of the Arches granted the faculty on appeal, confidently asserting that its ratio decidendi was ‘common sense’: (1955) Probate 205, at p.214. The Court accepted that ‘All the deviations and additions contained in the [Revised Prayer] Book remained, strictly speaking, illegal’ (p.213), but also observed, no doubt correctly, that ‘the  law as it stood was evidently too rigid … the power of enforcing compliance with the law rested with the bishops’ (p.213-14).
So, if the bishops declined to enforce the law on their clergy on account of its rigidity, and indeed positively approved unlawful practices, then this was nothing to do with the ecclesiastical courts. On the contrary
‘The duty of a diocesan chancellor … is ancillary. He is not responsible for reservation: but if he finds that reservation is in fact practised with the sanction of the bishop … it is his duty to see that the provision [illegally] made for keeping the consecrated bread and wine is both safe and seemly’ (p.214).
On this view, the protection of the illegally reserved Sacrament is more important than adhering to the law. Casuistry rather than common sense.
The modern canon regulating sick Communion, canon B37(2), is ambiguous. It provides that, if a sick or housebound person ‘is desirous of receiving the most comfortable Sacrament … the priest … shall … visit him, and … reverently minister the same’. This wording, of course, allows scope for holding an entire Communion Service where the sick person is, or administering pre-consecrated bread and wine.
The 1662 regime of public worship was finally brought to an end by the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974. The Ornaments Rubric and the rubric requiring immediate consumption ceased to have the force of law. Meanwhile reservation has ceased to be controversial, and now seems to be practised universally. It is impossible to imagine Parliament objecting to it today. And with the 1662 regime gone, the General Synod can legislate by canon, which does not require Parliamentary approval.
Yet reservation is still unregulated by ecclesiastical law. No Measure or canon provides for it. It remains a matter for the discretion of the ecclesiastical courts and bishops on a case by case basis.
There are a number of possible explanations for this. Perhaps there is concern that any legislative recognition of reservation would contradict the Church’s doctrine, or appear to do so. The practice should therefore be managed on an informal, unwritten basis (like remarriage after divorce).
There may be a mistaken belief that the Ornaments Rubric still is part of the law, notwithstanding the Worship and Doctrine Measure. In St Thomas, Pennywell (1995) Family 30, Chancellor Bursell seemed to labour under this misapprehension. He granted a faculty for a ‘Sacrament house’, not on the basis that the Ornaments Rubric was no longer law, but on the basis that the law no longer interpreted the Rubric with its previous rigour. (This case is discussed in ‘Liturgy and the Faculty Jurisdiction’, filed below, under category ‘Liturgy and the Law’).
Or maybe the Church is simply content leave the practice of reservation to the ecclesiastical courts. Certainly this does not seem to have caused any significant practical difficulty since 1974. However, it is arguable that care and custody of ‘the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing’ demand formal legal recognition and regulation.