By Drew Nathaniel Keane

Many parishes in the Episcopal Church lack the full-time services of a presbyter, a situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. What should these congregations do for Sunday services? There are three liturgical options open to them, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive: (1) Communion by Extension (i.e., distribution of bread and wine consecrated at a previous Holy Eucharist that was reserved for later use), popularly referred to as a “Deacon’s Mass”; (2) Mattins or Morning Prayer; and/or (3) Antecommunion, which the prayer book (1979) calls The Liturgy for the Proclamation of the Word of God, which is the first half of the  Holy Eucharist. All three options are provided for in the prayer book, though, of course, they all involve a departure from what the prayer book envisions for Sunday morning. This series will consider them all in turn. As I will argue, they are not all created equal. In the end, the best options are Mattins and/or Antecommunion. Let us begin with Communion by Extension.

This option does not have blanket authorization; it requires the special authorization of the diocesan bishop. With the increasing number of parishes unable to support a full-time rector, more bishops are left with the decision of whether to authorize it. I hope they will not.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer leaves Ordinaries with the question of whether to “authorize a deacon to distribute Holy Communion to the congregation from the reserved Sacrament” (BCP, p. 408) according to the form described on pages 408-9. This limitation suggests a lack of doctrinal consensus or (at least) the recognition of lingering questions concerning the appropriateness of this extraordinary provision. At least three reasons account for this lack of consensus in 1979.


First, Communion by Extension risks confusion about the Eucharist. The rubric on p. 408 does not name this service of distribution, raising the question of what it should be called and, therefore, how it should be conceptualized. But, whatever else it is, it is not simply equivalent to the Eucharist. Thus, it does not address the concern of those who read the descriptive rubric on p. 13 as prescriptive. The Church of England gave it the name “Communion by Extension” in 2001, suggesting it should be understood in some sense as a continuation of the Communion service at which the bread and wine were consecrated. It includes much that the Eucharist includes, but not The Great Thanksgiving, the proper liturgical context for partaking the sacrament. Those receiving Communion by Extension would not hear the words of institution, the prayer for their sanctification by the due reception of the sacrament, nor the prayer that they may “worthily receive” (p. 336, or “faithfully receive” in Rite II, p. 363). These words and actions belong together — together they constitute the Eucharist.

Second, it risks confusion about the orders of ministry. It confuses the role of the priest by separating the pastoral and sacramental aspects of presbyterial ministry, which are doctrinally yoked together in the Ordinal (pp. 531, 534, 535). Because the role of the priest in Communion by Extension is entirely invisible, the connection between the presbyterial office and sacramental administration is not clearly expressed. It easily reduces a priest to a mere “dispenser.” It also confuses the role of deacons. The role of the diaconate vis-a-vis the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is to assist the priest (p. 545). It may be argued that the deacon’s function in distributing pre-consecrated elements constitutes assistance to the absent priest, but the physical distance of the deacon from the priest allows for the congregation to see the deacon as functioning in place of the priest.

Third, Extended Communion requires reservation of consecrated bread and wine, which, though contingently permitted in the 1979 prayer book, conflicts with our historic eucharistic doctrine and discipline. Article XXVIII (p. 873) proscribes reservation because it conflicts with the verba Domini. A prima facie reading of the Words of Institution excludes reserving the consecrated bread or wine for later use; the instruction is to take, eat, and drink in remembrance of Christ’s passion. Doing something with the sacramental bread and wine other than what Christ commanded means to risk disobedience.

It has been countered that when the consecrated bread and wine are reserved in order that those who are not able to be present at that sacramental feast may be able to receive it, that does not constitute disobedience but merely a delay in reception or an extension. Historically, this was not a convincing argument — from 1552 until 1979, the prayer book did not allow reservation for any purpose. Those who heard the verba Domini were understood to be bid to consume that over which those words were spoken. The (1552-1662) prayer of consecration confirmed this in a petition for the communicants present: “grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.”

If any consecrated bread and wine remained, it was required to be consumed by the celebrant (potentially with the assistance of communicants present for the service) immediately after the service. While the 1979 prayer book permits reservation under some circumstances, The Great Thanksgiving also refers specifically to the communicants present, preparing to partake of the Lord’s body and blood, using language quite similar to the 1552-1662 text: “vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine; that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood” (p. 335).

Classical Anglican divines express the same caution. Richard Hooker wrote,

Sacraments serve as the instruments of God to that end and purpose, moral instruments, the use whereof is in our hands, the effect in his; for the use we have his express commandment, for the effect his conditional promise: so that without our obedience to the one, there is of the other no apparent assurance. (Laws V.57.5)

Similarly, Lancelot Andrewes wrote,

The carrying about of the sacrament is contrary to the precept of Christ, nor does Scripture anywhere support it. It is contrary to the institution, for as the sacrifice was instituted that it should be consumed, so the sacrament that it should be received and eaten, not that it should be reserved and carried about. Beyond the design of the sacrament, beyond the force of the command no use of it exists. Let that be done which Christ willed to be done when He said, “Do this”; let nothing remain which the priest may exhibit out of the pyx, and the people adore. (Quoted in John Dowden, Outlines of the History of the Theological Literature of the Church of England from the Reformation to the Close of the 18th Century, p. 91)

Given these concerns, it is not surprising that many bishops have been reluctant to authorize Communion by Extension. While it is unfortunate that some would not be able to partake of the sacrament in their home parishes as often as they are ready and desirous, the confusion promoted by Extended Communion is not trivial and the prayer book does not leave these congregations comfortless. As we shall see in the next essay, there are better options that do not require special authorization.

Dr. Drew Nathaniel Keane teaches English at Georgia Southern University. He is a member of St. John’s Church in Savannah and serves on the Liturgical Commission and Commission on Ministry for the Diocese of Georgia. With Samuel L. Bray (University of Notre Dame), he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021) and, also with Professor Bray, How to Use the Prayer Book (forthcoming from IVP), a guide for new users. You will find more of his work at

3 Responses

  1. Doug Simmons

    A question which needs to be answered as the Episcopal Church (and others, no doubt) deal with the number of small parishes who “lack the full-time services of a presbyter, a situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future” is whether or not the physical presence of the priest is required to make valid the words of consecration. In the era of Zoom and other forms of tele-presence (such as my medical consultations via video connection), we have the technical capacity for a single priest to be “present” in many locations simultaneously. Perhaps the modern form of a Deacon’s Mass might be that at small locations (including even house churches) a trained lay person or an ordained Deacon might prepare and then distribute the elements as the remote presbyter speaks the invocation and consecration.

    This is not to suggest that such an arrangement is ideal by any means, as at the very least the sense of “congregation” is weakened or lost when scattered individuals or small clusters of worshipers are separated from each other. I can also foresee other logistical issues arising, not least of which might be how such scattered small groups would work together to support the minister providing the clerical oversight and leadership that such arrangements presume. As the Diocese of Minnesota shifts their focus towards supporting a church in declining numbers (recently announced in their restructuring of the Diocesan training programs), I’m going to follow with interest how they work out these issues.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.