Wesley and the 1662 Communion Exhortations

In his 1784 Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, one of the changes John Wesley made to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer involved the exhortations required before communion. Wesley eliminated them. 

The full text of the exhortations is here: Communion Exhortations in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. As the exhortations demonstrate, the Lord’s Supper was serious business in 18th century England. It was serious business for Wesley, too, but in a different way. 

The communion service in the Book of Common Prayer begins with this rubric. 

So many as intend to be partakers of the holy Communion shall signify their names to the Curate at least some time the day before.

If a Minister be persuaded that any person who presents himself to be a partaker of the holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance, he shall give an account of the same to the Ordinary of the place, and therein obey his order and direction, but so as not to refuse the Sacrament to any person until in accordance with such order and direction he shall have called him and advertised him that in any wise he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table; Provided that in case of grave and immediate scandal to the Congregation the Minister shall not admit such person, but shall give an account of the same to the Ordinary within seven days after at the latest and therein obey the order and direction given to him by the Ordinary; Provided also that before issuing his order and direction in relation to any such person the Ordinary shall afford him an opportunity for interview.

The Table at the Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel, where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said. And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table shall say the Lord’s Prayer, with the Collect following, the people kneeling.

Wesley retained only a modified form of the rubric about the table. He eliminated the requirement that communicants register with the priest a day in advance and the procedures for excluding someone from the table. In one sense, this was a practical matter. It would be impossible to implement such a plan on the American frontier. Traveling preachers were always on the move and simply offered communion whenever they showed up. They did not reside in the community and would not know all the communicants personally. Bishops live too far away to consult. Methodist organization and discipline took another form. 

The English prayer book placed three extensive exhortations in in the communion ritual, two of which were for use during the week before the service occurred. On the Sunday before communion was to be observed, the minister was required to offer a “warning” to the congregation in the form of a 546 word exhortation. To those who were negligent in receiving communion, there was an alternative 462 word exhortation. Finally, just prior to the communion celebration, the priest was to give a 400 word exhortation followed by the following invitation to the table: 

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.

Wesley kept only the invitation.

The first pre-communion exhortation warned of “the great peril of the unworthy receiving” of Holy Communion. To take communion unworthily was “dangerous” and a presumption on the mercy of God. The minister exhorted parishioners to use the intervening week to examine their lives in the light of God’s commandments. The guilty were summoned to “bewail” their sins committed in “will, word, and deed,” words that will echo in the ritual’s prayer of confession. They were also called to use the time to make amends to those whom they had harmed, to forgive those who had harmed them and to be reconciled to their neighbors. 

Parishioners, then, were not supposed to do all their repenting and reconciling during a prayer of confession or the passing of the peace (the latter being absent from the 1662 communion ritual), but to focus intently on these tasks during the week before the communion observance.  Without this, “receiving of the Holy Communion doth nothing else but increase your damnation.” 

The exhortation immediately prior to communion continued the theme. 

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.

It was a fine balancing act that the prayer book was trying to maintain. Come to the communion table; it is Christ’s commandment and a great blessing from God. But it’s mercies don’t come automatically to everyone who eats and drinks. It’s not magic. God’s grace is received through true repentance and a living faith. Moreover, Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians loomed large in mind of the Reformed Christians. 

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 (KJV)

The church recognized that the exhortations scared some people away from the communion table, thus the need for an alternative exhortation for those negligent in their duty to commune. If taking communion too lightly pissed off God, so did ignoring his command. The exhortation to the negligent recalled Jesus’ parable of the banquet, and the master’s judgment on those who refused to come to the supper he had prepared. The appeal was different, but the tone the same. Warnings of judgment called parishioners to repentance. 

A few observations are in order. First, in the Book of Common Prayer, private self-examination takes the place of private confession to a priest in the Catholic order. The preliminary exhortation ends by telling parishioners that they can speak to a “minister of God’s word” if they cannot quiet their own consciences through self-examination, repentance and reconciliation with their neighbors. The may minister may provide them with comfort and counsel from the Bible, which will then bring them a sense of absolution and freedom from doubt. The minister, however, has no priestly function in the forgiveness of sins. For Wesley, however, private confession to a priest and private self-examination were not the only options.

Second, Wesley had no quarrel with the need for confessing one’s sins, amending one’s life, or reconciling with one’s neighbors. These are the very matters mentioned in the invitation to communion that Wesley retained. With the Book of Common Prayer, Wesley recognized that this work involved much more than repeating a few words during a worship service. Methodists, however, approached these matters continually and corporately, not sporadically and privately. Early Methodism demanded a high level of commitment from its adherents. Members were accountable to the societies, classes, and bands to which they belonged. Confession and counsel took place corporately. Members were encouraged by the testimonies of others. The entire Methodist system was designed to transform lives.

Third, the Anglican practice was not built for frequent communion. The church required that members take communion only three times yearly. Wesley favored taking communion as frequently as possible. 

Fourth, I imagine that the exhortations had a large psychological impact on the hearers. “Come, take this great gift from God, but if you haven’t put yourself in just the right spiritual state, it will damn you and cause you misery.” There are some mixed messages there. Communion was so dangerous that one should probably not take it too frequently. Every trip to the communion table was another opportunity to offend God. If you dared to come to the table, you had better make sure that you were right with the Lord. Had you been negligent in your piety? If so, did your repentance move you to tears? How many tears? Did you truly believe and have no doubts? Who could trust that their own inward gaze revealed the true state of their soul? Who could be sure that they repented sincerely enough or thoroughly enough, or that their faith was deep enough or strong enough? Who could know with certainty, in other words, that they were receiving communion worthily? For many, the risk was surely too great. Wesley took a different approach to the issues of worthiness, assurance, preparation, and frequency in one of his published sermons. We will look at that sermon in a future post.