The Holy Communion service of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 (which is essentially Thomas Cranmer's second revision of the English prayer book, published in 1552 during the reign of Edward VI, in which we see his more mature views regarding liturgical forms) contains an exhortation which is to be read by the minister before the celebration of the Holy Communion. This exhortation is not optional but is to be read every time the Communion is celebrated, while two other exhortations are also included in the same place, to be used on certain occasions. The exhortation to which we refer is a warning to those who are preparing to come to the Table, reminding them of the need for self-examination, or self-judgement, and of the real danger of coming “unworthily”. What is notable about the exhortation is the bluntness and potency of its language. We might say that “no punches are pulled” as the minister reminds the people of the great solemnity of the Holy Mysteries. He is required to say :
For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord’s Body; we kindle God’s wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death.
This is, of course, a clear reference to 1 Corinthians chapter 11 and specifically verses 27-30, where verse 30 reads as follows : “for this cause many are weak and sickly among you and many sleep”. Some of the people in the church in Corinth, having come unworthily to the Table, had become sick, had been plagued “with diverse diseases”, while others, coming it would seem even more unworthily, “slept”, that is, had died. This is a solemn warning indeed.
Let us note three things : the first, that the unworthiness of the Corinthians consisted largely in their treating the Lord's Supper like any other meal. They were eating and drinking to excess, getting drunk, and forgetting the unique and holy character of the Sacrament. They were coming to the Holy Table to satisfy their fleshly appetites, not to receive spiritual sustenance. They also were “shaming” the poor, those who presumably were unable to bring much of their own food to eat. We should recall that in Greek culture in the 1st century it was customary for the rich to sit down at table with the poor, the rich bringing the food and the poor joining in the bounty. This has been called a Love Feast, or Agape Meal. This custom seems to have been taken up by the early church, at least for a time, and the Lord's Supper was then celebrated in such a context, with the rich bringing bread, wine (not Welch's grape juice, please), and other victuals, and allowing the poor to join in. Again, some of the Corinthians had gotten caught up in the “pot-luck” part of the event and forgotten the sacramental part, and had clearly failed in their duty of love towards the poor. They had come unworthily, because they had come carelessly and without reverence for God's Sacrament or for God's people. The reference to this in the exhortation in 1662 is a clear reminder to us that we ought never to come in such a way to the Table. It is the LORD'S supper, not ours.
Secondly, we should note that the warning is for the careless and irreverent, the profane and impudent, not for those who are timid and doubtful and deeply conscious of their own sinfulness. Actually, in a seemingly paradoxical way, one of the requirements of coming to the Table is to BE UNWORTHY ... that is ... to come deeply aware of one's own falleness. No one is, in himself, worthy of even approaching the Table. As Archbishop Cranmer's Prayer of Humble Access says, “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table”, this, too, being a Biblical echo. So, there is unworthiness (carelessness, irreverence) and there is unworthiness (a deep awareness of one's own falleness). The second form of unworthiness is actually required of those who come to the Table, although clearly it the sort of unworthiness that is accompanied by repentance, a desire for amendment of life, a longing for real holiness, and a reliance on the Saviour. So, we need to see that the exhortation is not designed to drive away from the Table those who come knowing they are sinful, but rather those who have no such awareness (like the unbeliever), or the foolish believer (as in Corinth) who has forgotten what he is. The exhortation makes quite clear that it is through faith in Christ, with all that flows (however imperfectly) out of that faith (repentance, love, holiness) which allows us to come to the Sacrament as worthy partakers.
Judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and stedfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men; so shall ye be meet partakers of those holy mysteries.
Thirdly, we should note that while this exhortation remains in place in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 (thus reflecting faithfully Cranmer's own established practice in 1552) it has become optional in most, if not all, other versions of the Book of Common Prayer in use today, including the 1928 American BCP and the 1962 Canadian BCP. In the 1928 American book it is found on page 85, an appendix to the Communion service. It no longer contains any real echo of 1 Corinthians 11, the reference to “divers diseases” and “sundry kinds of death” having been deleted. The rubric makes the use of the exhortation an option (“the Priest MAY say this Exhortation”) but does REQUIRE it to be used on the 1st Sunday of Advent, the 1st Sunday of Lent, and on Trinity Sunday. One wonders how many ministers actually follow this rubric.
In the 1962 Canadian Book the exhortation is likewise an appendix to the Communion service. Some echo of 1 Corinthians 11 does remain (“guilty of the Body and Blood”, “we eat and drink our own condemnation”) but “divers diseases” and “death” are likewise deleted. The rubric indicates that “the Priest MAY say this Exhortation” on any Sunday at Communion but requires that it be used “on a Sunday in Advent and a Sunday in Lent” (Canadian BCP p. 88), somewhat less than is required in the 1928 American book. I know from personal experience (having used the exhortation in Advent and Lent) that most Canadian Anglicans have never heard this exhortation read at all, ever, even those who have attended church for many years. Needless to say, the exhortation is not found in any form at all in the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. Some small portion of it remains in “The Book of Common Prayer”, the 1979 Episcopal book, where it is combined with diluted portions of the other 1662 exhortations, and is an option only, not being required to be used at any time, nor containing any strong echo of 1 Corinthians 11.
In other words, a disciplined preparation for coming to the Lord's Table, something that Archbishop Cranmer insisted on in his prayer book, is now no longer emphasized in many places. It seems clear that a return to the frequent use of the exhortation (I am convinced it should be used every time there is a celebration of the Communion) would be of great benefit to the faithful in our churches. Having used it regularly now in our missions here in Canada and in El Peru, we find that people appreciate it and have even commented on its power and usefulness. Once again, it seems that the “old archbishop” really knew what he was doing.