The Duty of Constant Communion as a Response to the Book of Common Prayer

Considering this as a command of God, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no piety; considering it as a mercy, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no wisdom. 

John Wesley, The Duty of Constant Communion

In 1788 John Wesley published a communion sermon first written 55 years earlier for students at Oxford. “The Duty of Constant Communion” encourage readers to receive the Lord’s Supper as frequently as possible. The sermon has a simple outline: 

Christian should take communion as frequently as possible because:

  1. Christ commands it
  2. There are great benefits to it 

Don’t miss an opportunity to receive communion because:

  1. You don’t believe that you are worthy to receive it.
  2. You don’t have time to prepare.
  3. You might be tempted to treat it less reverently.
  4. You tried it and didn’t get anything out of it.
  5. The church only requires it 3 times each year. 

Several of Wesley’s arguments have a particular focus that is not readily apparent until the sermon is read in the light of the communion ritual in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This was the ritual in effect in the Church of England during Wesley’s life, and the foundation of the ritual that he sent to the American church in 1784 in The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. As I noted in a previous post, Wesley excluded the exhortations addressed to the congregation prior to reception of the sacrament.  The full text of the three exhortations is here: Communion Exhortations in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

The Duty of Constant Communion” takes direct aim at some aspects of the prayerbook and its theology, especially those found in the exhortations and rubrics. Wesley’s purpose is similar to that in the Exhortation to the Negligent, to encourage individuals to take communion more frequently, but his approach is very different.  

On Worthiness

The first communion exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer promises that Jesus is “spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament,” but then it adds a warning.

Which being so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily; my duty is to exhort you in the mean season to consider the dignity of that holy mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receiving thereof; and so to search and examine your own consciences, (and that nor lightly, and after the manner of dissemblers with God; but so) that ye may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that holy Table.

Similarly, the second exhortation begins:

Dearly beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. 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. 

Worthy reception is life. Unworthy reception is death. At least that’s how many heard the warning, conflating (as the text itself does) the adjective “worthy” with the adverb “worthily” and confusing “in a worthy manner” with “in a worthy state”. 

The exhortations flowed from a Reformed understanding of  Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-31. 

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)

In his sermon, Wesley attacks the Reformed interpretation of Paul head-on.

If you think God himself has told you so by St. Paul, let us hear his words. They are these: “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.” …

Why, this is quite another thing. Here is not a word said of being unworthy to eat and drink. Indeed he does speak of eating and drinking unworthily; but that is quite a different thing; so he has told us himself. In this very chapter we are told that by eating and drinking unworthily is meant, taking the holy sacrament in such a rude and disorderly way, that one was “hungry and another drunken.” But what is that to you Is there any danger of your doing so,– of your eating and drinking thus unworthily …

However unworthy you are to communicate, there is no fear of your communicating thus. Therefore, whatever the punishment is, of doing it thus unworthily, it does not concern you. You have no more reason from this text to disobey God, than if there was no such text in the Bible. 

Wesley makes Paul’s exhortation moot. Communion in the Church of England is a solemn ritual with tiny wafers and sips of wine. It could never be confused with a Greco-Roman banquet. There’s no danger of anyone over-eating or over-drinking. Everyone gets the same morsel. “You cannot possibly do what Paul condemns,” Wesley’s argues, “so don’t worry about it.” 

If then you fear bringing damnation on yourself by this, you fear where no fear is. Fear it not for eating and drinking unworthily; for that, in St. Paul’s sense, ye cannot do. But I will tell you for what you shall fear damnation;– for not eating and drinking at all; for not obeying your Maker and Redeemer; for disobeying his plain command; for thus setting at nought both his mercy and authority. 

Wesley agrees with the premise that we are unworthy, but instead of that driving him away from the table it drives him toward it. 

You are unworthy of it, it is sure, and he knows it; but since he is pleased to offer it nevertheless, will not you accept of it He offers to deliver your soul from death: You are unworthy to live; but will you therefore refuse life. He offers to endue your soul with new strength; because you are unworthy of it, will you deny to take it What can God himself do for us farther, if we refuse his mercy because we are unworthy of it? 

Wesley continues this first argument for several more paragraphs. You’ve sinned? Well, then, repent before you come to the table. Abstaining from Christ’s life-giving gift in communion isn’t a form of penance! You don’t think you can live up to what you are professing in communion? Well then it’s not a matter of frequency, it’s a matter of whether you ought to commune at all. Christ demands no less if you commune once in a blue moon than if you commune daily. He demands no more in communion than he demands in baptism. 

All of Wesley’s arguments related to worthiness flow from his initial premise. It is our duty to receive the Lord’s Supper because Christ commands “Do this in remembrance of me.” You don’t atone for one sin by committing another. Refusing to obey Christ’s command to “do this” doesn’t make your more worthy, it makes you less. 

And it is our duty to receive the Lord’s Supper because of the benefit God bestows through it. In the “tokens” of Christ’s body, God nourishes our souls and makes us more able to live the lives to which he has called us. 

In this world we are never free from temptations. Whatever way of life we are in, whatever our condition be, whether we are sick or well, in trouble or at ease, the enemies of our souls are watching to lead us into sin. And too often they prevail over us. … The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.

Wesley was no less concerned about matters of sin and holiness than were the authors of the Book of Common Prayer, but Wesley thought that the prayerbook had things a little backwards. By focusing so heavily on the issue of worthiness to receive communion, the prayerbook scared people away from the one thing that would actually make them more worthy followers of Jesus. Those who feed on Christ at the Lord’s table are empowered to live more Christian lives. 

Wesley’s main argument, then, is related to his understanding of communion as a converting and sanctifying ordinance. We will look at the background of that belief in a future post. 

On Preparation

The prayerbook’s remedy for unworthy reception was serious self-examination, repentance and reconciliation with one’s neighbor. The need to prepare oneself spiritually for communion was so great that the priest issued a warning a full week before offering the sacrament. 

Wesley thought that taking time to prepare spiritually for communion was good, but not at the cost of missing an opportunity to receive. 

It is highly expedient for those who purpose to receive this, whenever their time will permit, to prepare themselves for this solemn ordinance by self-examination and prayer. But this is not absolutely necessary. And when we have not time for it, we should see that we have the habitual preparation which is absolutely necessary, and can never be dispensed with on any account or any occasion whatever. …

Examining yourself, and using private prayer, especially before the Lord’s Supper, is good; But behold! “to obey is better than” self-examination.

Wesley’s comment on “habitual preparation” relates to the Methodist way of life and holiness. Methodists practiced regular disciplines of self-examination, repentance and prayer as a condition of membership in Methodist societies, classes and bands. These practices were the warp and woof of Methodism. They were inherent in the rhythm of Methodist life, not something to be practiced a few times each year before receiving communion. 

The communion ritual invites to the table those who truly and earnestly repent of their sins, who love their neighbors and who intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. Wesley’s sees these conditions as sufficient preparation.

All the preparation that is absolutely necessary is contained in those words: “Repent you truly of your sins past; have faith in Christ our Saviour;” (and observe, that word is not here taken in its highest sense;) “amend your lives, and be in charity with all men; so shall ye be meet partakers of these holy mysteries.” All who are thus prepared may draw near without fear, and receive the sacrament to their comfort. …

If you resolve and design to follow Christ, you are fit to approach the Lord’s table. If you do not design this, you are only fit for the table and company of devils.

When Wesley parenthetically notes, “that word is not here taken in it’s highest sense,” he appears to be speaking of faith. What is he trying to say? Karen Westerfield-Tucker writes, 

Faith needed to be present in order to receive and appropriate grace, but it might only be miniscule, like a seed. In a 1755 letter, Wesley noted “that a man who is not assured that his sins are forgiven may yet have a kind or degree of faith which distinguishes him not only from a devil, but from an heathen; and on which I may admit him to the Lord’s Supper.”

On Frequency

Wesley’s final argument addresses the objection that communion is only required three times yearly. That belief, too, was grounded in a rubric in the Book of Common Prayer

And note, that every Parishioner shall communicate at the least three times in the year, of which Easter to be one. And yearly at Easter every Parishioner shall reckon with the Parson, Vicar, or Curate, or his or their Deputy or Deputies; and pay to them or him all Ecclesiastical Duties, accustomably due, then and at that time to be paid.

Not only does the rubric minimize the requirement to take communion, it associates Easter communion with the requirement to pay one’s church taxes! No wonder communion wasn’t popular. 

To this objection, Wesley briefly responded “so what.” God’s expectations matter more than the church’s. 

If, then, you receive three times a year because the Church commands it, receive every time you can because God commands.

And you’re wrong if you think that the church only wants you to commune three times each year. The church offers communion every week and wants you to receive it. Those in Holy Orders are required to commune every week. The church thinks communion is great! 

On Reverence and Efficacy

The two remaining parts of the sermon have nothing to do with the Book of Common Prayer. Rather, they come out of human experience. What if I don’t feel anything when I take communion? What if I don’t think I’m any stronger spiritually? I think Wesley offers some important insights, which I will let speak for themselves.

A Third objection against constant communion is, that it abates our reverence for the sacrament …  Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts: Either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to our faith, or to the love or fear of God. Now, the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural. And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper, the constantly receiving of it must lessen. But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.

A Fourth objection is, “I have communicated constantly so long, but I have not found the benefit I expected.” This has been the case with many well-meaning persons, and therefore deserves to be particularly considered. And consider this: First, whatever God commands us to do, we are to do because he commands, whether we feel any benefit thereby or no. Now, God commands, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This, therefore, we are to do because he commands, whether we find present benefit thereby or not. But undoubtedly we shall find benefit sooner or later, though perhaps insensibly. We shall be insensibly strengthened, made more fit for the service of God, and more constant in it. At least, we are kept from falling back, and preserved from many sins and temptations: And surely this should be enough to make us receive this food as often as we can; though we do not presently feel the happy effects of it, as some have done, and we ourselves may when God sees best.