Bishop’s Notebook, June 2013

Communion Cues

There are some basic “cues” to receiving Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church, a tradition to “how we do things” that varies from place to place in its details but which still bears a family resemblance no matter what parish we belong to.

Practice differs in different places as to whether communion is received kneeling or standing, but a reverent and humble approach to the Blessed Sacrament is common to both. It is an old tradition dating back at least to the fourth century to distribute the consecrated bread into the hands, one placed under the other in order to make a throne for Christ. In any case, the hands should be held level as the laws of gravity still prevail in spite of the sacramental presence. Some communicants prefer to receive the consecrated bread directly on their tongues.

The consecrated wine is received in a variety of ways in Episcopal parishes. The most common way, and the most traditionally Anglican, is for each communicant to drink directly from the chalice. Others practice intinction, dipping the consecrated bread in the chalice, done either by the minister of communion or by the communicant. Policies for this are set by parishes, not individuals, and approved by the bishop, but everyone should have a chance to drink from the chalice. Communicants should bear in mind that the Eucharistic bread is to be dipped, not dunked, in the chalice: communicants who want more wine than that will need to drink from the cup!
Questions are sometimes raised about the hygiene of communion practices. It is an old custom of the church for the clergy to be involved in the reverent disposal of the consecrated bread and wine, which in the Episcopal Church means eating and drinking what is left over. Clergy in modern times have been known to be plagued by stress but very rarely by communicable disease, which would seem to undercut fears about hygiene.

Finally, it is an important cue if receiving at an altar rail to remain where you are until the next communicant has received from the cup. Communion is something we do together without rushing off or jostling at the rail. It’s also an old custom to make the sign of the cross before and after receiving communion. “Amen” is also appropriate after the minister of communion says the words of administration to each communicant: the Christian’s  “so be it” in the face of the real presence of Christ. — Bishop John