When we consider how a minister of the Church of England should order the administration of the Lord’s Supper, our thoughts rightly and inevitably turn to the Book of Common Prayer. We understandably feel that such a minister is bound by the law of the land, and by his own declared assent and solemn oath, to use the form in the said book prescribed. This, for us, determines what the minister ought to do. Our appeal is to traditional and established practice. In strong contrast to such an attitude, it may be good for us sometimes to remember that the Reformers, who gave us our familiar service of the Holy Communion, far from being guided by traditional and established practice, gave to the Church an order of service which was new and radically different from the prevailing use, and which was determined not by inherited Church practice but by a direct appeal to the teaching of the Bible.
For in our day there are many in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion, who wish to introduce and to use an order of service for the Holy Communion which is both in form and content, and in consequent doctrinal significance, essentially different from the form in the Book of Common Prayer. In justification of their action, they appeal to the practice of the early Church of the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, or in some cases to the Church of the middle ages. What those who still prefer the form in the Book of Common Prayer need to appreciate is, that we cannot successfully defend it simply by an appeal to the practice of the Church of England during the last four centuries. For, if Church practice is sufficient to determine the issue, the earlier may understandably claim to take precedence over the later. We shall, therefore, be able to stand our ground against pressure to reintroduce practices which have been in use before, only if we take our stand where the Reformers stood, and make our appeal not to established Church practice, but to Scripture; not, that is, to our Book of Common Prayer, but to the New Testament.
Also, let us notice at once, by reference to the rubric before the Holy Communion service, how startlingly different from prevailing practice was the entirely new procedure which the Reformers ordered. Instead of directing that the priest should stand in the centre before an altar set in the East end of the church, they required that a table should be used and not an altar, that it should stand in the body of the church or in the chancel (that is, where worshippers could gather all round it), and that the Priest should stand at the North side of the Table. It is the purpose of this present article to seek to appreciate the far-reaching significance of the scriptural insight which led them thus to phrase their injunction. For it may still guide us in a day when fresh decisions concerning faith and practice have again to be made.
We shall, however, not fully gain such an appreciation unless we first set ourselves to realize how different were the circumstances in which the Reformers acted from our own. In the situation which we have inherited in the Church of England of our day, it is natural for some virtually to suppose that the unfortunate difference in the administration of the Holy Communion between those who take Eastward position and those who stand at the North side of the Table is one forced upon us by the fact that the Table is against the wall at the East end of the church; and that, if only the Table could be moved out to where both could unite in taking the Westward position, these differences would disappear. Also, the use of the Westward position would pleasingly unite us in practice with our brethren in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Here, therefore, we do well at least to pause to appreciate how differently our Reformers chose to act. For with a table standing in the body of the church or in the chancel, it would have been possible for the minister to take the Westward position. Also, this was the position being adopted in other Reformed Churches. Yet our Reformers did not so enjoin. They freely, independently and deliberately preferred to instruct that the minister should stand at the North side of the Table. We ought surely to seek to appreciate why. There must have been significant reason for passing by the opportunity to do the one, and using the occasion to enjoin the other.
The position thus enjoined for the minister—to stand at the North side of the Table—can be properly understood only if two more important facts are appreciated first; namely, that he is to stand at a table, not an altar; and that the Table is itself to stand in the body of the church, and not against the East wall. Let us then try to arrive at a full understanding by considering these three ideas in reverse order.
First, the Reformers determined to bring the administration of the Holy Communion into the midst of the congregation. This is a practice the fundamental import of which is being freshly appreciated by many. It is obvious, for instance, that in churches which are neither protestant nor evangelical the altar, as those concerned would call it, is being deliberately brought into the midst of the worshipping congregation. Churches are being planned and built with the altar as the central feature and focus.
This is a development which, in principle, we can welcome for our own biblical and evangelical reasons. Indeed, if we only obeyed, as we ought, the rubric in our Prayer Book, which still plainly orders it, the presence of the Table in the body of the church would serve to deliver us from the spiritually unhealthy idea of a sanctuary at the East end.
When His people are gathered together in His Name, Christ’s promise is to be in the midst of them; and that surely is where His Table should be placed, with His people gathered around it to meet Him, and to receive the pledges of His love; and not needing to walk half-way up the church when the time comes to partake.
It is, therefore, not enough just to move the Table out from the East wall far enough to permit of the Westward position being taken by the minister—which is all that some seem to desire to do. The Table ought, whether “in the body of the church, or in the chancel”, to be brought into the midst of the congregation. This is what the Reformers intended; and this is what full compliance with the New Testament evidence surely requires. Nor should the necessity of having to alter the seating accommodation be allowed to stand in the way.
In the second place, the Reformers spoke deliberately of the Table’, not the altar’. They intended it to be used solely for the administration to men of the Christian Passover feast or Lord’s Supper. They did not intend it to be used as an altar on which offerings of any kind are offered to God.
This emphatic distinction still needs to be clearly made. For many in our day, who wish to change the place in our churches where the sacrament takes place, and to bring its celebration into the midst of the people, unmistakably wish to have a central altar on which first, in the offertory, the bread and the wine, and the alms, are offered to God; and on which later the consecrated elements are spread as a sacrifice before God. There is, in consequence, urgent need today for us to appreciate afresh, what the Reformers rightly believed, that genuine evangelical Christianity, which is informed by the New Testament and its apostolic teaching, has no place for such an altar, and for such offering on it.
Let us notice how simply and unmistakably Archbishop Cranmer, who ordered our Communion service in 1552, sought to make such evangelical truth plain. According to the 1552 Prayer Book and its rubrics the alms are to be put in the poor man’s box and not on the Table. There is no mention at all of any formal putting of the bread and wine on the Table; and in the prayer of consecration they are described not as ‘our gifts’ but as these Thy creatures’, which we are to receive, and not to give. Also, although there is some doubt whether side’ can be distinguished from ‘end’ as indicating the longer edge of a rectangular table, there is plenty of evidence of a desire to distinguish a crosswise or altarwise’ position from a lengthwise’ or table position. Certainly, too, most if not all of the Communion Tables with which any of us are familiar are long and narrow; and if they are to be put, for instance, ‘in the chancel,’ they would have to stand lengthwise, not altarwise. And if, in moving them into the chancel or into the body of the church, we turn them lengthwise, we should be visibly demonstrating—as it would appear that the Reformers intended we should that it is as a table and not as an altar that it is to be used.
The Reformers went even one stage further. In strong contrast to the desire of some today to have a fixed and splendid central altar, preferably of stone, the Reformers not only ordered the use of a wooden table to be simply covered with a fair white linen cloth, but they also ordered that it should be carried into the centre only at the Communion time’, thus preventing the Table in itself from becoming a focus of attention and an object of reverence.
In the third place, Archbishop Cranmer enjoined that the minister should stand at the North side of the Table. This new and distinctive arrangement made two truths visibly plain. On the one hand, by moving the minister from the Eastward position, common in the Roman Mass, it made plain that he was not a priest offering sacrifice Godward. On the other hand, by refusing to put him into the Westward position facing the people from behind a crosswise table, it made plain that Christian ministers are not a presiding hierarchy, on which the laity are dependent for sacramental grace.
These two truths still need visible demonstration. For the danger of their contradiction in practice is still with us. Not only do some wish to treat the minister as the special priest’ who alone can offer to God the sacrifice of the consecrated elements, but also others wish to regard the bishop, and the priests with whom he shares his ‘cure’ or care, as a presiding hierarchy. Thought of as seated on his throne in the middle of a crosswise table or altar’, and facing Westward, the bishop is being described as ‘the liturgical person’ or proper president of the Eucharist’ without whom in person, or by properly ordained deputy, a valid sacrament cannot be celebrated.
Such ideas threaten to encroach upon the exclusive rights of Christ Himself, who is the one source of grace, and the only proper high priest, or president of the Eucharist’. By such claims the bishop is made a virtual vicar of Christ, a description more suggestive of a papal presumption than of proper ministerial self-effacement.
By ordering, in strong contrast to this, that the minister should stand at the North side of the Table in the body of the church, the Reformers were visibly indicating that there is no end of the church, or side of the Table, which is holier than or superior to the rest. They were virtually indicating that all sides of the Table are equal, and that the minister is but one of the priesthood of the laity, who all alike have equal access to, and place at, the Table. They were indicating that he is not a priest at an altar, nor a mediator in either direction between God and men, but one with his brethren in Christ as a guest at the Lord’s Table.
We must, of course, fully recognize that ministers in the protestant Reformed Churches may and do take the Westward position in the administration of the Lord’s Supper without any necessary hierarchical claims or presuppositions. Indeed, in the situation which confronts us in the churches, it may be particularly valuable that ministers not episcopally ordained should be doing so so widely. But our distinctive Anglican contribution to the situation should be to preserve the Northside position and to demonstrate afresh its practical value and peculiar appropriateness.
In conclusion, therefore, we venture to assert that for the minister to stand at the North side of the Table is not an antiquated eccentricity to be abandoned as soon as Westward position can be properly authorized; but a relevant and significant use by which, rather than by adopting the Westward position, we may as ministers visibly demonstrate both that we disown misplaced sacerdotal and hierarchical claims, and that we are in the service of Holy Communion one with our brethren in Christ as dependent recipients of His saving grace, and as grateful guests at His bountiful Table.