By Drew Nathaniel Keane
As increasing numbers of parishes are left without the services of a priest, decisions about how to celebrate the liturgy on Sundays loom ahead. Part one of this series considered and found wanting the idea of Communion by Extension. In this installment, I consider two far more viable options.
Mattins or Morning Prayer provides the most obvious liturgical measure for a Sunday when the services of a priest cannot be obtained. It does not require a priest, ordained minister, or the special permission of the Ordinary. Indeed, observing Morning Prayer on a Sunday morning, while quite rare now in this country, is what the 1979 prayer book expects. The same rubric that describes the Eucharist as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” also describes Daily Morning and Evening Prayer as “the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church” (p. 13). Thus, it ought to be read Sunday mornings in all churches, whether a priest is present or Communion is celebrated.
The first paragraph of “Concerning the Service” on p. 13 has usually been understood to require that the Eucharist be celebrated in every parish every Sunday at the time when the largest number of people are most likely to attend and the Sunday service in which the most “resources” are invested (which usually means the service for which music is provided). In practice this description has resulted in the near-total displacement of Morning Prayer on Sundays. The rubric, however, is descriptive, not prescriptive; the proposition remains true even when a particular parish is or is not able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on a particular Sunday or major Feast.
Morning Prayer was the mainstay of Sunday worship in parish churches until the mid-20th century. Far from being understood as a discouragement to frequent Communion, it was understood as providing the appropriate context for frequently partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood by facilitating due preparation for the sacrament. Apart from the question of whether Communion by Extension is a good option, our church needs to recover its appreciation for the Daily Office as a means of grace.
The reading and hearing of Scripture, which is the centerpiece of Morning Prayer, is not merely a means of imparting information, but a form of spiritual nourishment. The Homily on the Reading of Scripture (1547) describes it this way:
There is (sayeth Fulgentius) abundantly enough [in Scripture], both for men to eat, and children to sucke. There is, whatsoever is meet for all ages, and for all degrees and sorts of men. These Books therefore ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all in our hearts. For the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls (Matthew 4.4).
That Divine Word on which the faithful feast in hearing Scripture is the very same Divine Word on which we feast in Holy Communion. Thus, John Boys, Dean of Canterbury, wrote (in 1609), “His word is an audible Sacrament, and his Sacraments are visible words” (Works of John Boys, Dean of Canterbury, 1629). The design of the Daily Office facilitates the use of Scripture as a means of grace, by preceding it with confession of sin (preparing the heart to humbly receive) and following it with worship and prayer, a little Eucharist (i.e., thanksgiving).
Because for the past 40 years Holy Eucharist has been the only public service observed at many parishes, Morning Prayer is unfamiliar to many and the lack of access to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday feels like a deprivation. While the lack of access to the sacrament for those ready and desirous to receive it is a deprivation, it does not deprive them of the benefits of the sacrament. While the neglect of the sacrament constitutes dangerous ingratitude and does deprive one of its benefits, lack of access to the sacrament that one is ready and desirous to receive does not deprive one of its benefits, namely “the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life” (p. 859-60). A rubric in the liturgy for the Communion of the Sick assures us that “[i]f a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but … is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine … all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth” (p. 457).
There are, moreover, potential advantages of Morning Prayer with occasional Communion, which could be provided either by an occasional supply priest but, better still, by a circuit rider whose cure would include several parishes (thus allowing a genuine pastoral connection to be formed over time, despite not being present with each congregation each Sunday). These potential advantages include increased preparation for and reverence of Holy Communion. The preparation that is required for beneficial participation in the Lord’s Supper, as the Catechism explains, is “that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (p. 860, expounded in further detail in the Exhortation on pp. 317-18). Morning Prayer provides a form for self-examination and repentance and prompts charitable action (through prayer for others). Its use on Sunday mornings helps communicants better prepare for and benefit from participation in the Holy Eucharist whenever the services of a priest can be obtained.
While frequent Communion is of potentially very great benefit, its having become a weekly matter of course combined with the near-total displacement of other public services can lead to a situation in which the sacrament is taken for granted or treated casually (this is not a necessary consequence, but many have suggested that this is commonly the case). The Exhortation warns against this: “if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. … For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body” (p. 316). A pattern of Morning Prayer every Sunday with Communion presided over by a circuit rider or supply priest once a month (or however often is feasible in light of local resources) could increase the sense of anticipation and reverence toward the Eucharist.
As popular Anglican blogger Laudable Practice (a priest in the Church of Ireland) wrote,
Sunday Mattins … acts as a means of preparing us for the holy Eucharist, shaping and sustaining us by, and orienting towards, a eucharistic spirituality. All of which might make us possibly embrace the counter-intuitive idea that one way of renewing the Eucharistic spirituality of contemporary Anglicanism would be to renew the place of Mattins as a regular Sunday liturgy.
Morning Prayer also presents the potential revitalization of parishes unable to secure the services of a full-time presbyter by encouraging the ministry of the laity. Aside from the doctrinal question marks surrounding Extended Communion, the practice reinforces clericalist thinking. Reliance on an absent priest and a visiting deacon suggests a parish on life support. The identity of a parish should be rooted in its membership, not solely in the clergy it calls to serve there. Because Morning Prayer can be entirely lay-lead, it resists reducing the identity of the parish to the person of the rector. Instead, it promotes the ministry of the laity and the development of lay leadership. A robust parish identity rooted in the ministry of the laity increases the likelihood that a parish will one day be able to afford the full-time services of a priest.
There may be other spillover benefits as well. Promoting lay ministry can prompt some who would otherwise not consider it to discern a call to ordination. This is a well-worn path. Throughout the history of the U.S. Episcopal Church and her mother churches in England and Scotland, there have been many parishes without regular access to a priest for long periods of time. Throughout the 19th century, the Diocese of Georgia grew without a priest in every parish.
Beyond Morning Prayer, the 1979 prayer book presents another option for parishes without a priest that is not widely known: Antecommunion. The Holy Eucharist breaks down into two main parts identified in the subtitle: “The Liturgy for the Proclamation of the Word of God and Celebration of the Holy Communion.” While these typically flow together as one continuous liturgy, the first part can be read without the second when there is no Communion. The Additional Directions on pages 406-09 allow for reading “all that is appointed through the Prayers of the People” when “there is no Communion” (p. 406). It further allows that “A hymn or anthem may then be sung, and the offerings of the people received. The service may then conclude with the Lord’s Prayer; and with either the Grace or a blessing, or with the exchange of the Peace” (p. 407). The rubric allows that Antecommunion may be read by a deacon or lay reader if a priest is not present (except for the blessing, which may only be read by a priest). This permissive rubric derives ultimately from an older prescriptive rubric.
Historically on Sunday mornings, Antecommunion immediately followed Morning Prayer (with the Litany) providing for reading the proper Gospel and Epistle for the day, saying the Nicene Creed, hearing a sermon, collecting the people’s offerings, and the prayer for Christ’s Church, in which the offerings are presented to God at the Holy Table. Generally speaking, the several potential advantages discussed above with relation to Morning Prayer apply as well to Antecommunion. But there are unique advantages of Antecommunion (whether in addition to Morning Prayer or alone).
Reading Antecommunion allows for use of the eucharistic Lectionary. The readings in Morning Prayer come from the Daily Office Lectionary (beginning on p. 934), while the readings for Antecommunion come from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Holy Eucharist (beginning on p. 888). Reading Antecommunion allows for congregants to keep in step with the sequence of Eucharistic propers even when they do not have access to the sacrament.
Antecommunion provides a framework for the sermon and offering. Although the Additional Directions on p. 142 allow for preaching a sermon and taking up an offering with Morning Prayer, Antecommunion provides the usual, familiar context for these components of Sunday morning worship. The value of this familiarity should not be overlooked. Whether rightly or not, most Episcopalians now are only familiar with the liturgy for the Holy Eucharist, so that reading the Antecommunion provides congregations a service that includes more that is familiar to them than Morning Prayer does. Using both Morning Prayer and Antecommunion, however, provides the best of both worlds by increasing familiarity with the Daily Office and providing congregations with at least part of the liturgy that they know best.
Because Morning Prayer and Antecommunion do not require a priest to officiate, they may be observed whether a priest is present or not and, unlike Communion by Extension, do not require special authorization from the Ordinary. Communion by Extension cannot simply be equated to the Holy Eucharist — it too involves a departure from the ideal described on p. 13. More than that, it risks causing confusion about the sacrament and the role of priest and deacon in relation to it. Neither Morning Prayer nor Antecommunion presents such a difficulty. They both offer a means for the faithful to feast on the Divine Word by hearing it read, inwardly digesting it (p. 184), and responding to it eucharistically with praise and prayer and the presentation of offerings to the Lord.
For parishes that are not likely to obtain the full-time services of a priest for an extended period, Morning Prayer and Antecommunion offer a potential path toward parish revitalization by encouraging an understanding of the parish as rooted in the ministry of the laity and by fostering the development of lay leadership.
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 drewkeane.com