A dialogue Starter!
Although there is absolutely no rubric requiring it in the various editions of the authentic Book of Common Prayer, it would seem that today most Celebrants at “The Order for Holy Communion” perform what are usually called “the ablutions” immediately after the completion of the distribution of Holy Communion to the assembled flock.
In fact the classic edition of The Book of Common Prayer (1662) has this rubric at the end of the Service:
And if any of the Bread and Wine remain unconsecrated, the Curate shall have it to his own use; but if any remain of that which was consecrated, it 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.
And before this there is another rubric printed after the Words of Administration in the Service and this reads:
When all have communicated, the Minister shall return to the Lord’s Table, and reverently place upon it what remaineth of the consecrated Elements, covering the same with a fair linen cloth.
So the picture is clear. Any consecrated Bread and Wine remaining after the Administration is placed on the Holy Table and covered with a linen cloth. After the Blessing, the cloth is removed and the Bread and Wine are reverently consumed (presumably before the congregation leaves). And we may note in passing that this Anglican style differs from the medieval and Tridentine Roman style, for the latter require reverent and careful ablutions immediately after Communion.
Let us now turn to the latest, authentic, American edition of The Book of Common Prayer, that of 1928. Immediately after Communion, this has exactly the same rubric as the edition of 1662 – cover Elements on Holy Table. Likewise it has the same requirement for the reverent consumption of the Elements after the Blessing.
Finally, let us turn to the last, authentic Canadian edition of The Book of Common Prayer, that of 1962. This is a little different from the editions of 1662 and 1928. Here there is no rubric after the Administration but after the Blessing there is this rubric:
If any of the consecrated Bread and Wine remain,, the Priest and other Communicants shall reverently eat and drink the same, either when all have communicated, or immediately after the Blessing. In the latter case, immediately the Communion the Priest shall reverently place the same upon the holy Table, and cover them with a fair linen cloth.
Here we find both the possibility of the continuation of the practice of ablutions after the Blessing or the novel practice of immediately after the Administration and thus before the final prayers and Blessing.
What has happened to allow the ablutions in a new place for the Reformed Catholicism of the Anglican Way? Is it that doing it after the Blessing holds up the exit of the congregation? Hardly so, because often a hymn is sung and the absolutions can easily be done at the beginning of the hymn and before the processional. No! The obvious answer is the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement, which emphasized the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament (often in the form of transubstantiation) and thus (like medieval Catholicism and Roman Catholicism) emphasized the need to eat and drink every morsel and every drop that remained on paten and in chalice. Thus the great importance of the ablutions themselves as a priestly and diaconal act, and their taking place immediately after the last person had been communicated (to make sure there was no possibility of loss or accident or misuse). The traditional way of Reformed Catholicism insisted (as the words indicate) on reverence and respect, on dignity and carefulness, but it did not work with a doctrine of the objective, permanent presence of Christ in, with or through the Elements.
Today whether Celebrants use the classic BCP Order for Holy Communion or “The Holy Eucharist” of modern service books, they all with very few exceptions do the ablutions after the Administration. However, this is to be seen as the triumph of Anglo-catholic practice not doctrine in most places, even as modern, liberal Anglican churches have accepted what were formerly Anglo-Catholic innovations (e.g. gowned choirs, stations of the cross and calling clergy “father”). This said, it would probably be a good thing for those who see themselves as traditional Anglicans, committed to the Bible and the Anglican Formularies, to recover the traditional practice of doing the ablutions after the Blessing and thereby professing a high view of the Sacrament but in a Reformed Catholic way. This is especially the case if they use either the BCP 1662 or BCP 1928 as these make no provision for ablutions after the Administration.
In fact, the consuming of the Elements at the very end may be seen theologically as stating that the Sacrament is not completed until the prayers after Communion are offered and the Blessing of God (which includes the giving of the Peace of the Lord) is given.
(Added note. Apparently, the classic BCP does not envisage the Sacrament being taken from the congregation immediately at the end of the Service to the sick and shut-ins. When the Sacrament is administered to the Sick it is by means of a new Consecration. Further, the classic BCP does not envisage reservation of the Sacrament for later use in a Deacon’s “Mass” or for adoration. In contrast the 1979 Prayer Book – see pages 408-9, 275 & 282 -- makes provision for a full range of Anglo-Catholic practices [though not doctrine?] and this is probably why it is so highly favored above the classic BCP by e.g., the “Catholic” Bishop and Diocese of Fort Worth in the ECUSA.)
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)