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Who Distributes Communion?

What is the origin and reason for many (Anglicans) having Consecrated Bread ONLY administered by an ordained person – but not requiring this for the Consecrated Wine?

I posted this question online (here and here); it was viewed by about eight thousand people, and I received about a hundred fascinating and sometimes-surprising responses. I want to share some of the insights here.

Most obviously: the long Western history of denying the Cup to the congregation. So when the Cup was re-introduced, priests, who had beed distributing the Consecrated Bread, continued to do so. But, I don’t think I had picked up the medieval tradition of receiving the Bread and then rinsing one’s mouth of every last Consecrated Crumb with unconsecrated wine!

Priests had (in many traditions still have) their hands anointed with oil at ordination. And there grew an understanding that only such consecrated hands might touch what is consecrated (a view that continues amongst some nowadays who run a spectrum from receiving on the tongue themselves to condemning those who receive in the hand).

I was fascinated to learn that Thomas Aquinas (whose 750th anniversary of his death we commemorated on 7 March) wrote in his Summa Theologica:

The dispensing of Christ’s body belongs to the priest …because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this sacrament. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency…

The deacon… may dispense the blood; but not the body, except in case of necessity, at the bidding of a bishop or of a priest. First of all, because Christ’s blood is contained in a vessel, hence there is no need for it to be touched by the dispenser, as Christ’s body is touched…

Question 82. The minister of this sacrament – Article 3. Whether dispensing of this sacrament belongs to a priest alone?

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979) has:

When the celebrant is assisted by a deacon or another priest, it is customary for the celebrant to administer the consecrated Bread and the assistant the Chalice. When several deacons or priests are present, some may administer the Bread and others the Wine. In the absence of sufficient deacons and priests, lay persons licensed by the bishop according to the canon may administer the Chalice.

Book of Common Prayer page 408

We were told that the authorising to administer the Bread as well was an alteration that came in 1988 [see changes to 5(a).1 here, but, interestingly to this discussion, these laity are “Administering the elements at any Celebration of Holy Eucharist in the absence of a sufficient number of Priests or Deacons assisting the celebrant.” – emphasis mine]

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has similar rules: the priest “gives his brothers and sisters the Bread of eternal life” (#93). “At Mass the deacon has his own part … in distributing the Eucharist to the faithful, especially under the species of wine.” (#94) Acolytes and extraordinary lay ministers may assist (#98 & #100).

In the comments, reasoning included: with the Bread being administered first, and by the pastor – that way the presider is allowing individuals to receive, and there is the option to bar from communion (this was a strong response from Lutherans, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, expressing a ‘concern over communing only those who have properly discerned the Body of Christ or have a “correct” understanding of communion’).

Others noted that some come up solely for a blessing and that only a priest (or bishop) can give one – hence a priest or bishop administers the Bread. I would highlight: in the RC tradition (and others?) a deacon blesses; lay people can pray that God bess someone (eg. in a “may…” form) or even formally (in the subjunctive) see NZ Prayer Book page 737 etc. As an aside – there is a lot to reflect on in relation to substituting a blessing for Communion: all the baptised, whatever their age, whatever their denomination have a right (and duty) to receive Communion; many people do not want our hands on their head (children often do not want to go up week after week to “get my head measured”!); our hand on someone’s head and then using that same hand to give Bread to the next communicant is probably not the healthiest; in many, many places I observe such blessings done taking much longer, with more presence and solemnity, than administering Christ’s Body and Blood!

Penultimately, I have too often seen the priest turned into a magician: solely absolving after the confession, proclaiming the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharistic Prayer), and giving the Blessing at the end – sitting back, for example, during distributing communion to let others do this. In my understanding, the presider clearly leads, and distributing Communion is one of the “tasks” that belongs to this leadership (for more, see in my book Celebrating Eucharist Chapter 2).

I conclude with my own practice: presiding at the Eucharist tended to be very large services for most of my ordained ministry (with several hundred communicants). I always administered the Bread; lay people (or visiting clergy) assisted me distributing either Bread or Wine without distinction. The norm was that those who wanted a blessing rather than Communion would come to me (the blessing was not more “dramatic” than giving Communion); some lay distributors who had someone come to them for a blessing would point to go to me; others were perfectly comfortable (as was I that they did so) to offer a very brief prayer that God might bless this person.

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1 thought on “Who Distributes Communion?”

  1. “Who distributes Communion?”
    It was the Donatist position that if the priest was a notorious sinner, it invalidated the sacrament.
    This an ancient controversy that was resolved in 314 AD by the early church versus Donatism. A bishop’s council met in Arles, Gaul and rejected the Donatists’ argument that a morally unworthy clergyman could not perform valid ecclesial actions and this would prevent the grace of God from working with those present. They ruled that the status of the priest/minister (in any way) has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the sacramental act, which is about God’s grace and the faith of the person involved. Even totally evil priests do not hinder God’s grace according to Anglican Article XXVI. “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.”
    This principle can generalize to unordained lay ministers, to women in an ordained role, or to the works of an apologist, evangelist, or theologian.
    If the logic and theology are valid and consistent with the scriptures, then it does not matter who says them… even a notorious sinner. God will use them. It is the heart of the hearer that matters, not that of the preacher. With the Eucharist, it is the Word and Spirit of God that have the power… through the faith of the one who receives the bread and wine.

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