It is a given of our time that every parish should aim to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. This in significant measure grows out of the liturgical movement of the latter half of the 20th century, of which the Book of Alternatives Services is a fruit. We should be grateful for this witness that the Supper celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection is paramount for a Christian congregation, especially on the weekly day of His resurrection.
Still, it is worth recalling how recently, namely a generation ago, communion once or twice a month was the practice in many parishes. We do well to note some of the unforeseen consequences of that custom’s eclipse. The disappearance of Sunday Morning Prayer means a greater clericalization. Every congregation needs a priest every Sunday. We might offer, by way of contrast, the example of the Anglican Church in the rapidly growing parts of Africa, where a parish priest might oversee a dozen congregations with catechists leading Morning Prayer on Sundays. To be sure, communion usually is celebrated somewhere in an African parish every Sunday. But the priest might not arrive for communion in any particular village more than once every couple of months. Such occasions are filled with anticipation and excitement. Their ministry is more weighted toward lay leadership and catechesis. What if we, like they, had an order of catechists? How might this help us to know our faith better, and help some struggling missions to survive?
There are other unforeseen consequences. Parishes seeking to be more inviting to newcomers flirt with the theologically dubious practice of open communion (giving the unbaptized the sacrament). But at Morning Prayer, the moment at which an inquirer must be barred from receiving never arises; it would seem a better format for a seeker service. Furthermore, the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are jewels of the Prayer Book tradition and distinctives of Anglican spirituality which are now far less known. In this regard, the booklet called What Happened to Morning Prayer? by John Webster and Alan Hayes is worth reconsideration.
One might retort that the dramatic increase in the number of eucharistic celebrations has heightened eucharistic devotion. I wonder. As a young confirmand, I was taught to examine my conscience to receive “worthily.” Such self-preparation is now sparse. Already in the middle of the last century, Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury, bemoaned how “our congregations casually trip up to communion week after week” (Hayes and Webster, pg. 15).
Let me state clearly that we should have no truck with the idea that the church could, for practical reasons, negotiate away the centrality of the Eucharist for its life. The Body of Christ gathered to hear God’s Word and to feed on the very body and blood of our Lord is what the Church is! In this spirit, we should affirm the theologically normative place of the Eucharist for a parish on the Lord’s day, and for many congregations that will probably mean celebration every Sunday.
But we can imagine situations where the Eucharist is celebrated each week somewhere in a multi-point parish, while other outposts or missions lift their orisons to God through Morning Prayer. The normative nature of the Eucharist doesn’t mean it is the only thing we do, nor that it needs to happen every time, everywhere. Ministerially, spiritually and evangelistically, less might actually prove to be more.
The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner is principal of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.