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Priest Receives Last?

Communion

From time to time I see the priest receiving communion last. Some clergy don’t just do this, but strongly advocate it: priests who receive first are apparently not doing it right; I am told that the priest receiving last is the way I should do it. Apparently, this is a sign of humility. And the irony is missed: “I, by receiving last, am more humble than you!”

Binding agreement for Anglicans, The Book of Common Prayer 1662, has the rubric in the service of Holy Communion:

Then shall the Minister first receive the Communion in both kinds himself, and then proceed to deliver the same to the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, in like manner, (if any be present,) and after that to the people also in order, into their hands

This is nothing new. It’s been there at least since the first English Prayer Book:

Then shall the Prieste firste receive the Communion in both kindes himselfe, and next deliver it to other Ministers, if any be there present, (that they may bee ready to helpe the chiefe Minister,) and after to the people.

[The same rubric is found in the 1928 Proposed BCP]

The symbolism is pretty straight forward: we who share Christ with others should first receive Christ ourselves.

The first revised rite in NZ, in 1966, explicitly kept to the same approach:

The Priest shall receive the Holy Communion himself… Then shall the Sacrament next be administered to the Ministers who assist the Priest and then to the rest of the People.

The 1970 revision was explicitly the same. Other Anglican revisions follow the same understanding (eg. TEC’s BCP page 365).

Some justify the fashion to abandon the tradition by pointing to the host at a meal serving themselves last. This brings up far bigger issues if the presider sees himself/herself as the host of the eucharistic meal and the congregation/laity as the guests!

The tradition that we who share Christ with others should first receive Christ ourselves is ancient and widespread. The Roman Missal also describes the tradition: the presiding priest receives communion first.

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48 Responses to Priest Receives Last?

  1. Well said, sir! I’ve never understood the push for the priest to receive last: it flies in the face of any liturgical logic whatsoever.

    And just because the Roman Missal says the presiding priest (and concelebrants) should receive communion first doesn’t mean that there are some (misguided) priests around who advocate they should receive last. Thankfully they are rare, but they do exist.

    Pax,
    Andrew

  2. I understand the idea behind the approach, i.e. that the host should not eat/drink before the guests. I see it commonly in the diocese I am in up here in Canada (along with putting the chasuble on only for the liturgy of the Eucharist). However, I have always found it odd as I always believed that is was Jesus who was the host of the banquet. For the priest or other to minister Communion without first having receivied strikes me as a violation of the principles, “Nemo dat quod non habet” – one does not give what one has not received.

    • Thanks, Jeff. The BCP Canada 1959 is clear that “then shall the priest first receive the communion…” As to getting changed half way through the service… that is beyond me. Blessings.

      • Marion Hatchett from Sewanee Seminary states thst the clergy should receive first, however that the people are invited to come forward while the clergy are receiving. As clergy we are not to elevate our communion by making the congregation wait.

  3. You are a master at re-framing a question, Bosco. Love it! I once read an article that made a similar argument by noticing that in the synoptic accounts of the feeding of the five thousand Jesus first gives the bread to the disciples, who then in turn give it to the people.

    There is, however, a serious conversation to be had about whether the priest ought to receive the sacrament — whenever that happens — from a hand other than his/her own: Robert Taft, “Receiving Communion: A Forgotten Symbol?” Worship 57 (1983), 412-17.

    For instance, in the eighth-century Ordines Romani, the pope returns to his throne after the Eucharistic Prayer: the deacons break the bread (big job back then) and then a deacon serves the bread to the pope at the throne, after which a subdeacon serves him the chalice. Taft adduces many more traditional examples to suggest that “receiving” (as opposed to “taking”) the sacrament is an important symbol.

    BUT… I’ve seen some priests try to do something similar, no doubt following Taft’s argument: they serve the consecrated bread to a deacon or altar server, and then they hand the paten to the deacon/server so that the deacon/server can give the consecrated bread to the priest. I have to say, it’s always struck me as unnecessarily complicated — even verging on pretentious. The BCP and (modern) Roman custom is straightforward, practical, and unobtrusive. (Or as Edmund Bishop said of the “genius” of the Roman Rite, it is characterized by “soberness and sense”.)

    • Thanks, Jesse. Yes, I think the Taft/receiving conversation is certainly worth having. And, depending on the context, would certainly fit with my own practice. How might you “unpretentious” it? Blessings.

      • It could be made more natural if the priest were not involved in the fraction, but rather retired to the presidential chair. But it would require other adjustments for this to make any sense at all. The fraction would have to be a prolonged action (real bread in substantial quantity — and therefore presuming a large congregation), and there would have to be a deacon. (If we’re going to worry about traditional symbolism, then I think it’s got to be a real, ordained deacon, too.)

        The difficulty is that we try to replicate seventh-century Roman papal/basilican customs in decidedly different circumstances!

    • Jesse, I’m curious about your comment that the presider serving the server/assistant and then handing the patten to the server and being served is complicated and even pretentious. The exchange, which I’ve practiced many times as an assistant/server myself, seems fairly straightforward, practical, and unobtrusive to me. But maybe we’re seeing this happen at different times and with different activity (or lack thereof) going on at the same time.

  4. This all makes sense, but the fact still remains that if you showed a video of both ways — priest receives first, priest receives last — to 100 modern church goers, roughly all of them would say the the first was symbolic of clericalism and the second of christ-like humility. The language of Eucharistic symbolism can change, like any other language. We live in a culture where any appearance of claiming a privilege or honor is noticed and condemned (and I know that’s not what we think we’re doing).

    It’s a little like what’s happening with the present pope. Every time he washes some unexpected feet or confesses before he hears confession, the previous pope’s defenders rush to point out that the tradition wasn’t actually about exclusivity or arrogance. But absolutely everybody sees the present pope’s switches as displaying humility as against the previous lack of it. As a culture, we’re sensitive to these things in a way our forebears were not.

    “Catechesis,” you’ll say — teach people the truth. But when? A third of the community isn’t there on any given Sunday, and who reads the newsletter? And what about the visitors and newcomers?

    Not worth the candle. The deacon and I receive from each other, last, and as inconspicuously as possible. It’s the only rubric I knowingly break.

    • Thanks, Mark.

      I am going to challenge your points.

      One of the recent times I saw presider and team receive last, that took nearly as long as communicating the congregation. Everyone else having received communion was sitting down and watching this proceeding. Compare this with the invitation to communion with people getting up and beginning to process forward to receive, and during the start of that procession presider and team receiving and moving into administering position. Remembering that in liturgy what happens first is often preparatory – in the picture I describe of presider receiving last, it all seems to lead up to everyone sitting and watching the presider finally receive communion! With great humility for all to observe.

      So when you do your film – do a real one: people moving forward for communion and most hardly able to spot the presider receiving; and the alternative, everyone seated watching the presider finally receive. And do a genuine, random poll; then let’s talk about whether you are correct with your contention that “roughly all of them would say [receiving] first was symbolic of clericalism”.

      No catechesis required.

      Blessings

      • Bosco, I see a different film in my congregation. If the presider were to communion himself or herself, or were to communion the assistant and then be served by the assistant before the congregation received, the film would show the congregation sitting and waiting until the presider and assistant were ready to serve the people, or at least moving to their place to do so. Meanwhile, if they receive last, communing one another, it happens when the servers and last communicants are moving back to their places and, often, while the congregation is finishing a hymn sung during distribution. Differences in local congregational custom and custom of tradition and region (in my case Lutheran in the midwest of the United States), might contribute to somewhat different films playing out within otherwise very similar liturgies. Even sleight differences in these films might lead to some significantly different impressions and conclusions. I tend to agree with Mark Preece as to the perception and sensitivity to privilege in our contemporary Western culture.

        Thanks, Bosco, This is a very interesting topic and discussion.

  5. I would agree that the justification of the presider receiving last in the image of the presider as host is problematic. It is the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s table, and it is Christ who is the host here. It is to Christ’s invitation that we come to the table. Placing the presider in the role of host is to lose that important point. However, there is a better, and more apt, image to be used here, that of servant. The presider, seen as the servant of the Lord and of the assembly, might rightly take last after having served the banquet, not as show but as the last to receive and the servers return to their places.

    It might also be fruitful to look at the history of the practice of the presider receiving first. In light of Taft’s pointing to 8th century papal practice, one might rightly wonder if various historical considerations might contribute to understanding practice in some way. How does one get from the pope being served by the deacon in the 8th century papal ritual to the presider always serving himself first in centuries to follow? I wonder if patterns of reception of the sacrament effected the practice. If indeed it became usual for few lay people to receive the sacrament at any particular mass (either out of developed habit or piety, due to requirements of having confession, or other reasons) could there have been simply a reaction to no one else to receive so often? Might the practice of private masses effected the celebration of masses with congregation? Could the shift from versus populum to ad orientem have, in time, effected how the priest was viewed in the mass in such a way that it might also have effected the practice of the presider’s reception? One would want to guard against the possibility that a seemingly good justification, such as the one who share Christ should first receive Christ, might be a back-filled justification made only after the practice became a norm. I honestly don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but it seems worth consideration and research.

      • I’m not sure I’m following your thought here, Bosco. It certainly isn’t that the servant eats first while those to be served wait. Rather, a servant puts his or her service, and those to be served, before the servant’s own self and needs.

        • Metaphors can be pressed to breaking, Mark. The whole Christian community is called to be servant. You want the presider to be a servant, which is nice, but then when you press that servant to eat at the table last I suggest you have pressed the metaphor to breaking. As I said, servants don’t eat at the table. Blessings.

          • I’m not sure where and why you think I’m pushing the metaphor to its breaking point, Bosco. The metaphor of servant is intended to point that a servant put service of others before service to self. It follows from that, rather than being part of the metaphor, that the presider would then partake after others. I can’t help thinking that the move to the idea that servants don’t eat at the table with those served is where the metaphor actually gets broken.

            It seems to me that the presider/pastor/priest as servant is more than merely nice, it is the core of the calling to that ministry. That ministry or role is fundamentally to be a servant of the gospel and a servant of the community. There is the general calling of all Christians to be servants to the world, but there is also a particular calling in the pastor and in the particular role as presider to further service.

            Further, the Christian community is a peculiar kingdom in which the King, through whom all things were made, is a servant. It is a kingdom where the lowly and the mighty are all invited to the table, even the servant who waits at table will eat at the table.

          • I think you are now mixing your metaphors, Mark, to the point where you end up with an ecclesiastical triumphalism of identifying the church with the kingdom just in order to have servants, who normally do not eat at the table of those they serve, eat there. The cost of your efforts is a neo-clericalism in which all Christians are servants but clergy are more especially servants than others… Further: your pressing of these views has to be strong enough to support the contention that for 2,000 years Christians have got this wrong. Blessings.

          • Bosco, I find it interesting that you see a neo-clericalism in my comment, because avoiding clericalism without being anti-clerical is one of reasons I see clergy (generally or specifically as the presiding minister in worship) as servant is an important metaphor.

            As to mixing metaphors, I think we can avoid doing so too much. I may have identified the Christian community with the kingdom of God too heavily (but I tend to think putting too much space between them can be problematic, especially as it can tend to get us and our institutions off too easily) Never-the-less the kingdom of God and the church are not exactly like the rest of the world, nor should they be.

            Lastly, is it really a 2000 year history in play here? I think that pushes known practice a bit too far back. I recall Jesse’s citation of Robert Taft, as an example that suggests it may not be. As children of the Reformation, some critical appraisal of tradition and history is quite appropriate (actually, I’d argue that’s appropriate in any branch of Christianity), especially in light of theological concerns related to ecclesiology, ministry, and Eucharist. Whatever the history may be, even if it is fairly unanimous, I’m not really seeing a significant theological justification for the practice of the presider receiving first, much less self-communication (which would be needed to be really and rigidly consistent on the point).

          • Thanks, Mark.

            “Servant” in our Christian, Christendom, clerlicalist inheritance can be self-agrandising. Sure, clergy are called to be a “servant of the servants of God” – but you and I both know how that particular title has been used over the centuries… We all know within our Christian communities the individual(s) who insist(s) that this or that particular task is theirs alone so that they are visibly the most humble ones…

            Is it really genuine service to abandon the community’s tradition of receiving communion as one begins to distribute it, a tradition embodied in agreed rubrics, and make a big deal of visibly receiving last, and advocating that other clergy are not being humble servants because they don’t overturn this tradition?

            I’m not sure why you think “self-communication would be needed to be really and rigidly consistent on the point”? The rubrics state words akin to “Then shall the Prieste firste receive the Communion in both kindes himselfe” – not that the priest first communicates him/herself.

            Blessings.

  6. One feature I’d put in here (and this is coming from a non-conformist background) is when the whole congregation take the bread and wine at the same time – in these contexts I will join with them in taking at the same time, and will be the last the receive as I’m distributing to others.

  7. I don’t think salvation hangs on this one, Bosco. I wonder if Jesus first ate the bread and then drank from the cup. This i one of those ‘ritual notes’ I think was given for the sake of convenience.

    Thanks, by the way, for presiding at St. Michael’s on Monday and Tuesday. You are helping us to keep up with the wonderful tradition of Daily Mass – wherein Christ comes to us and feeds us with the divine life.

  8. I am glad, Fr Bosco, that you brought this in.

    There’s church history (let’s call it tradition or Tradition), there’s theological reflexion.

    Although I am a traditionalist, I have always abhorred the reception of the communion by the priest first and by himself. If I have something protestant in me, it’s the conviction that the presiding minister should receive the communion at last and from other’s hand.

    In the Byzantine rite, there’s even a break between the communion of the clergy and the communion of the laity. The clergy communicate during the communion chant, then the deacon says: «With awe of God, faith and love, draw ye near!» I like the new fashion in Transylvania: the presiding priest says first: «With awe of God, faith and love, let us draw near!» Then the clergy communicates, then the people. This is, at least, less awful.

    The bishop (or presiding priest) plays two roles. Once he acts as Christ; once he acts as a faithful. When he partakes the holy species, he acts as a faithful; when he distributes them to the people, he acts as Christ. This is why I think it’s important to be served the last.

    It’s like in the confession. He is the first to kneel, because he acts there as a faithful; he rises to give the absolution, because he acts as Christ. In the Roman and Armenian rites, he is the first to say the confession, alone, and be absolved by the concelebrants. Before the anaphora, he says the Orate fratres, and receive permission from the concelebrants, before he recite the anaphora.

    From the earliest sources, we see that the prisiding bishop communicates himself first; then he gives the communion to the presbyterate, to the male deacons, to the female deacons, then to children, then to the virgins, then to the widows, finally to the males, and at the very last to the married women. Nevertheless, this kind of communicating by ranks of dignity has nothing Christian. We have abolished the hierarchical way of giving communion, save for the clergy. Yuck!

  9. There was a time in ministry when I did receive last. I cannot remember what influences were behind this, but I had moved to my first incumbency and was thinking through the liturgy, and this was the result. At the time, I would have stated that this symbolized humility, and a server would give me communion, last. I no longer receive last. I came to realise that rather than symbolizing humility, receiving last was placing greater emphasis on me — it was doing the opposite to what is claimed. The presider does not have a private communion, but leads by example, showing the reception of the gifts. I have come to see that there is actually something more humble in standing behind the altar, in full view of all, and serving myself. I teach that I do this, so that, having received Christ, I am ready to share has sacramental presence with others, and that this models how all Christian evangelism, ministry and service should be done — we receive first grace, before sharing.

  10. It was suggested to me that I receive last and I tried it. (In, I admit, violation of the rubrics.) It only made everyone nervous at the altar. “Aren’t you going to receive?” “Are you OK?”
    However the BCP of the Episcopal Church says, “The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people.” Since, as was suggested in a reply, the people are making their way to the altar rail while the ministers are receiving, it is hardly noticeable.
    The only thing I liked about going last was that if we were one short, I was the one shorted and since we do three services, I wasn’t worried.

  11. In the diocese of California, very early in the aids epidemic, Bishop Bill Swing began a practice of receiving last and encouraged our clergy to do so too – a witness to his trusting us all the cdc report of safety of common chalice.

  12. First, while waiting in line for communion which has been announced as being for me but is not yet offered to any member of the congregation, I often mumble “ceremonial feeding of the waiters”. It is as if banquet waiters all get their trays then sit down to eat their meal before serving those to whom thay are supposed to be ministering. So, this objection is not to the presider eating first, but to inviting the congregation, then having them wait.

    I suggest that at the Fraction all the assisting ministers go to their posts and elevate the elements along with the presider when they are presented to the congregation. Thus, when the presider receives, the first members of the congregation are also receiving. All are participating in the same action at the same time.

    [This could be a reason for the presider to receive last, just because of organization. If the presider is one of the communion ministers on station, then the entire congregation would receive before any of the ministers did, just not to break the flow of the action.]

    Second, the presider is not the host. The entire community celebrates the Eucharist. The presider is the designated leader of a communal action.

    Third, the communion of the assisting ministers need not be a visible separate mini-ceremony, nor need it be done at the altar table. No body else receives there except the presider. When the lines have come to an end, each pair of ministers need only turn to and share with each other, in place. No muss, no fuss, no movement to draw attention.

    Fourth, language changes, whether it is word definitions or body movements. What originated as an effective sign in one culture and survives into another time and culture may convey something entirely different from what it was originally meant to convey. We are not called to preserve particular holy rituals as were the Temple priests. We are called to share the Lord’s Supper, in some cases despite accretions from imperial, royal, feudal, or even puritanical cultures.

    Fifth, the point behind all that I suggest is that the congregation as a whole be and be seen to be the primary pray-ers of the liturgy and those of them assigned tasks be seen as ministering to the assembly, not as being singled out for attention.

    • Thanks, Tom. There’s a lot to reflect on in what you write. You seem to switch between understanding the whole community as celebrating, and dividing congregation from your waiters. The invitation is not merely to your congregation, but to the whole community, including your waiters. Secondly, that you understand the presider as being the only one to receive at the altar table is worth much reflection and may need significant architectural renewal to have the understanding that all receive at the altar table. I have written about the opposite here. Blessings.

  13. I know that several bishops and priest in the Episcopal Church (USA) adopted this method of communion after the people during the beginning of the AIDS crisis in order to show that drinking from the common cup was safe. It seems that a practical pastoral might have appropriated (inspired)a theology after a while.

  14. My father would say ‘the priest must consume first to complete the sacrifice’. I understand the argument about the priest consuming last, the host feeds their guests first, but isn’t it a bit presumptive to assume the priest is the host? I think that agrees with some comments above..! I also have an issue with people who say you shouldn’t ‘do the dishes’ in front of your guests!

    • God is the host, and clergy are the intendants of God’s household.

      What you say here gives me an idea of reconciliation of the two positions (priest frist VS priest last): maybe a deacon or a server should give first the communion to the bishop or presiding priest. Thus, the president of the Eucharist would communicate first; but not as a host-serving-himself, rather as the first served.

  15. Humility is a way of life and a frame of mind, right? Can an act – liturgical or otherwise – be said to be humble when it is done for all the world to see? Francis I’s liturgical humility is compelling because it is consistent with how he lives his life. Plus, when one is an ecclesiastic AND temporal sovereign, one kinda needs to go out of one’s way to downplay one’s personal grandeur. Us regular blokes don’t have that problem, so following the conventionally agreed upon rubrics is probably the most legitimately humble way we can approach the liturgy.

  16. Excellent points. In only one circumstance in my years of worhsip in several Anglican parishes has this even come up. At the graduate school I attended, the Episcopal chapel had two services each Sunday. The morning service was larger and was like any other service. The priest received first, in both kinds.

    The evening service was much smaller and everything other than presiding was done by students. The communion was done standing in a half circle in front of the altar, rather than kneeling at the rail. The priest (same one as the morning service) would receive the bread first and than pass the paten to the first student. Each student received from the one before. With the cup, Fr. Wood gave it to the first student. He then received the cup from the last student. I never thought to ask him why he did that, though I wish I had.

  17. Methinks we make all too big a precious deal of all of this. Whatever works up front is fine with me… and my (as priest) demonstrating to everyone else present what we’re doing and how we do this but eating and drinking first worked pretty well over 40+ years, and nobody ran screaming from the table that I, or whomever was celebrating, was somehow acting “big for our britches.”
    The real point is that it’s the body and blood of Christ… we’re pointing to Christ… and the rest is just how we get there… and very minor messages, compared to that. It’s not about us…

  18. A lot of the discussion seems to be missing the point of why one priest would want to be telling another priest when to receive communion.

  19. Lorraine, It’s not about one priest telling another what to do at the altar, it is essentially a discussion about Eucharistic theology. In my understanding ( derived from an address of Rowan Williams) receiving last reduces the character of the Christian gospel to politeness. For me it goes much deeper than that – the challenge to the world offered through the Eucharist is not about politeness, it is about turning the world upside down. We are not capable of this by ourselves, but only through the gift of the Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus, the priest received first, not as a sign of supremacy, but out of recognition that we can only give, because we have been given to !

    • The problem I see with using a principle that one can only give because we have been given to is that it misplaces the action of giving in the Eucharist and the distribution. It is not the presider (or any of the other assistants or servers) who does the giving, but God. It is Christ who gives himself. Further, even if we understood the owner of the giving to be those who distribute the Lord’s Supper, it wouldn’t be true that the presider, or any of the servers, has not already received that which he or she gives. He or she has been given grace and incorporated into Christ’s body in baptism, and has already received the body and blood in the Eucharist on previous occasions.

      Sticking to that principle also means that the presider would need to commune himself or herself. But this would mean that there would be no one else to pronounce to them the words “This is my body; this is my blood; for you.” And that I find problematic, because that proclamation, and particularly, that it is “for you” are, to my thinking, as foundational to the receiving of Holy Communion as anything.

      I also don’t see how the presider receiving last reduces the character of the gospel to politeness. If the only reason to do so it the idea that the presider is host, then that might be so, along with other problems with that metaphor, in particular, that it is Christ who is the host not the presider. But if one of the characteristics of the gospel is selflessness, given witness in the emptying of the Son even to death, then I’m not sure how that might be so. Perhaps a chance to read Rowan Williams’s argument might be helpful on this point.

  20. In order to find the basis of the “tradition” you need to go back further than the 8th Century. During the early persecutions, Christians could be tortured and martyred just for being Christians. In a gathering, where there might be spies trying to find out who the Christians were, the priest received first to show he was a Christian and those that dared to say they also were Christian then received. Maybe some education of the congregation is in order so silly arguments don’t develop and the reason for the rubric is understood. Since most of the churches print the service in a leaflet, probably few people read rubrics or bother to ask questions about them.

    In some places in the world, taking Holy Communion and thereby identifying yourself as a Christian is still a dangerous practice. Something to think about: If taking Communion could cost you your life, would you still do it?

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Rev. Bosco Peters

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