“Draw Near”

A moment in the Communion service has fired my imagination for the past three years.

Then shall the Priest say to them that come to receive the holy Communion,

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,[1] and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.

It marks a transition in the service, or serves as a kind of fulcrum that, while still quite recognizable today, was much more pronounced in earlier times. Liturgy, of course, is more than the words, just as a play is more than its script, though the words have pride of place. The actions of the participants within the physical space designed for those words and actions are irreducible components of the liturgy. Some details regarding the arrangement of the church and the movements or actions of participants are prescribed in rubrics, others arise out of custom. Those that are specifically prescribed warrant close attention, as they were considered significant enough to not be left open to the possible chances and changes of custom. Those components of physical arrangement and action correspond to the scripted words, reinforcing their meaning to the edification of the body. There are many moments in the Prayer Book in which these components intersect in wonderfully effective ways. What follows is an attempt to understand the affective potential of one such moment in the 1662 Prayer Book office for the Lord’s Supper, this one phrase, draw near, through a close look at how words, the physical arrangement of the church, and the actions of the participants interact.

The transition marked by these words is that between Ante-Communion and Communion. Because Ante-Communion (that is, before Communion) is so little known now, it warrants consideration in a brief digression. Constituting a complete service in itself, the macro-structure of Ante-Communion corresponds to that of the Daily Office. It begins with confession of guilt, proceeds with proclamation of the gospel of grace, and concludes with an expression of gratitude, a thank-offering.[2] For Sundays and red-letter days, the Prayer Book prescribes that Ante-Communion follow Morning Prayer (read daily) and the Litany (read at the end of Morning Prayer on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays); for this reason it was very often called the Second Service (the Litany being considered part of Mattins — its long ending, rather than its short ending).

The Second Service provides the framework for two invariable elements of Sabbath observance that are not found in Morning Prayer, namely the sermon and the offertory. On a typical Sunday, the morning liturgy culminates with the offertory, the coda of which is the prayer for the church militant, through which the people’s thank-offerings are presented to heaven’s throne along with supplications for the congregation and all the blessed company of all faithful people throughout the world.[3]

On Sacrament Sundays, however, there is a fourth movement to the Sunday morning liturgy: the holy Communion. The rubric which marks the beginning of Communion proper reads:

At the time of the celebration of the communion, the communicants being conveniently placed for the receiving of the holy sacrament, the priest shall say this exhortation.

Modern Anglicans may wonder why this rubric is necessary, since most of the reasons for its inclusion are now quite uncommon. What it aims to do is now rarely done. First, “[a]t the time of the celebration of the communion” indicates that this was not something that happened as a matter of course every Sunday, as is typically the case now. Indeed, a look at the rubrics after the liturgy shows this to be the case. The first post-service rubric requires the reading of Ante-Communion on all Sundays and other feasts when there is to be no Communion. The second stipulates that the sacrament can only be administered when, in the judgement of the minister there is a “convenient” (that is, appropriate) number of people to do so. The third specifies the minimum number as “four (or three at the least).” The eighth rubric requires that all parishioners must communicate at least thrice annually, of which one occasion must be Easter. The decision to communicate was not one that could be made last minute — say, while the sermon was being preached — no, indeed, the first rubric in the liturgy requires that would-be communicants inform the minister at least one day in advance. Subsequent rubrics then indicate for what cause the minister may need to exclude some parties from the table.

Second, this rubric speaks only to “the communicants” who are distinguished from “the people” generally (addressed in the preceding rubrics). Apparently the rubric does not expect that everyone present for Ante-Communion — “the people” — is also present at this point. Why? Where did they go? The rubrics in 1662 do not plainly answer that question, but a rubric in the first Prayer Book (1549) does. Following the offertory, a rubric in the 1549 text says:

Then so many as shall be partakers of the holy Communion, shall tary still in the choir, or in some convenient place nigh the choir, the men on the one side, and the women on the other side. All others (that mind not to receive the said holy Communion) shall depart out of the choir, except the ministers and Clerks.[4]

The origin of the phrase “conveniently placed” in the 1662 rubric is visible here, “in some convenient place nigh the choir.” The choir refers not to an ensemble of singers, as it usually does now, but to the chancel. Medieval churches were usually built as two rooms: a nave, in which the laity assembled; and, to the east of that, a choir, in which, at the east end, the high altar stood (the space around which was called the sanctuary). The clergy and those in religious orders assembled in the choir, near the altar, divided from the the laity in the nave by a cancelli, also known in England as a rood screen (named for the crucifix — or rood — fixed to it). The lattice screen that marked the division between nave and choir, the cancelli, became another name for that space, the chancel. Far from being invited to draw near to the holy of holies, the laity were to peer through chinks in the screen.

This 1549 rubric radically altered the experience of the liturgy, particularly for the laity. Rather than do away with the screen altogether, Cranmer’s liturgy keeps the chancel but changes how it is used.[5] Communicants were invited into it, to gather around the Lord’s table. The old stone altar that stood against the eastern wall of the chancel was replaced with a wooden communion table, moved to the middle of the chancel (or, otherwise, in the nave),[6] usually lengthwise (that is, with the short sides facing east and west, the long sides north and south).[7]

Not all those who gathered for Sunday morning worship remained for the Lord’s Supper on every Sacrament Sunday. The 1549 rubric spells this out clearly: those who did not intend (and were not prepared) to partake of the Lord’s Supper when it was offered were required to depart at this point. It was “not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon… but that we should duly use [it]”[8] as the Lord commanded: take and eat. Those not prepared to take and eat should depart lest they profane the sacrament, like those of whom the Lord spoke to the prophet Isaias, who “draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me.”[9]

On the Sunday immediately preceding the celebration of the holy Communion, the Prayer Book prescribes an exhortation be read during Ante-Communion, describing how communicants are to prepare. The communicant must examine her life and conduct, repent of her sins, and, if necessary, make peace with those whom she has wronged, “or else come not to that holy Table; lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of all iniquities, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul.” Though the exhortation has been widely neglected for the past sixty years or so, Elizabeth Anderson explains in a recent article, “The bible and Christian tradition are filled with warnings about what might be called liturgical presumption, cautioning us that holy things are often dangerous, not merely consoling.”

Upon Sundays when the holy Communion was celebrated, while the rest of the congregation departed, those who had duly prepared repaired to the chancel, kneeling around the table, as depicted in a famous woodcut from Day’s 1578 A Booke of Christian Prayers.

(Richard Day, A booke of Christian Prayers. London: Printed by Iohn Daye, dwellyng ouer Aldersgate, 1578. Photograph of the copy held in Dunfermline Carnegie Library, George Reid and Erskine Beveridge Collections)

Considering the way in which the Prayer Book makes use of the chancel, it is surprising that most of the first English churches built specifically for the reformed liturgy — namely, those designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the great fire of 1666 destroyed eighty-seven parish churches in London — lacked a clear distinction between nave and chancel. Though even without the division, the people could still draw nearer to the table at the end of Ante-Communion, as non-communicants exited.

William Beveridge commented on this new design in “A sermon concerning the excellency and usefulness of the Common-prayer” preached at the opening of St. Peter’s Cornhill, London, on 27 November, 1681. Some parishioners of St. Peter’s Cornhill objected that their new building did not follow the fashionable one-room design of Wren’s other churches. This was no accident, as the rector, Beveridge (later Bishop of St. Asaph) has insisted that Wren include a chancel screen in the design. Addressing those who objected, he said, “some perhaps may wonder why this should be observed in our Church, rather than in all the other Churches which have been lately built in this City, Whereas they should rather wonder, why it was not observed in all others as well as this.” Beveridge then argues for the logic of the arrangement:

[I]t must needs be more convenient for those who are to enjoy Communion with Christ, and in him with one another, in this Holy Sacrament, to meet together, as one Body, in one Place, separated for that purpose, than to be dispersed, as otherwise they would be, some in one and some in another part of the Church. Or in short, it is much better for the place to be separate, than the People.

Furthermore, It is not only convenient, but in some Sense necessary, for every Communicant to observe and take special Notice of the several Circumstances which our Lord hath ordained to be used in this Sacrament, as the Breaking of the Bread, and the Consecrating both that and the Wine, to represent his Death, the breaking of his Body, and the shedding of his Blood for our Sins; that so our Hearts may be the more affected with it, and by consequence our Souls more Edified by it. But this cannot be so well done, except there be a place set apart for it, where they may all be placed, about or near the Communion Table, and so behold what is there done at the Consecration of the Elements. Hence also it is, that the Seats there, are and ought to be so ordered, that all that are in them may still look that way, and contemplate upon their Blessed Saviour, there evidently set forth as crucified for them.

The chancel serves as a kind of “upper room,” like that room in which Christ and the Twelve gathered for the Last Supper. It is a smaller, more private, more intimate space — a space for drawing near.

After the communicants were “conveniently placed,” the minister exhorted them, reiterating the requirements read the previous Sunday,

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.

Before inviting them to come, this exhortation addresses those who have planned to partake, who spent some of the preceding days in interior preparation. This exhortation gives would-be communicants one last chance to examine themselves before proceeding further — one last chance to withdraw. Combined together with the general adjournment and the movement of communicants from nave to chancel, this final warning conveys unmistakably the awe of approaching the holiest place. Awe, of course, is precisely the appropriate response to holiness; as Anderson so aptly put it, “the holy is located at the boundary of longing and fear. It is good, but it is far from safe.”

Following the exhortation, the Communion proper begins, as both Morning Prayer and Ante-Communion do, with an invitation to confession, expressed in those compelling words which are the subject of this close reading:

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.

Like so many of the Prayer Book’s best passages, the words “draw near” echo the language of (the common English translations of) the Bible.[10] Perhaps Cranmer had in mind a passage from Jeremiah describing the restoration of Jacob from captivity, in which the Lord said through the mouth of the prophet, “I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me?”[11] It also calls to mind this familiar passage from James, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.”[12] Most of all, though, I think Cranmer had this passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews in mind:

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.[13]

This passage, the Epistle appointed for Good Friday,[14] the annual commemoration of our Lord’s Passion, aligns precisely with the entry into holy Communion, the perpetual memory of his precious death, which unites the redeemed to our great high priest in his one oblation of himself once offered — that full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.

The words “draw near with faith” mark the beginning of holy Communion (properly speaking); they are the very gate, as it were, into the sanctuary. The rubrics show that this is not only a spiritual imperative, but one physically enacted in the movement of communicants from the nave, behind the screen (“through the veil”?), into the chancel. “Draw near” is the invitation to come and gather around Christ’s table, where he presides (the minister being but his servant, not host of the feast) and offers himself as our true food. So then, this phrase not only invites us to the Lord’s Supper, but expresses the substance of communion, the mutual drawing nigh of God and man.

  1. The modifying phrase “with faith” was added in 1662. This was not indicative of a doctrinal change, as the necessity of faith to receiving the sacrament was already spelled out very plainly in the Communion exhortations, in the Catechism, in the Articles of Religion, and in the homilies.
  2. For further discussion of this structure see this essay by the late J. I. Packer and this essay by Gavin Dunbar.
  3. For those whom necessity keeps from resorting to the holy assembly on a Sunday or other Holy Day, it is worth noting that Ante-Communion may, like the daily office, be read by a lay-person in the absence of an ordained minister.
  4. I have updated the spelling for ease of reading.
  5. Of course, not everyone favored (or understood?) Cranmer’s design. Many of the Marian exiles who returned upon Elizabeth’s accession were keen to tear down screens along with the roods (which were required to be removed). Elizabeth’s bishops proscribed removal of the screen, as Yates (2000) explains, Archbishop Parker’s 1566 Advertisements, “ordered the rood-screens to remain but all above the beam, the loft and the figures of Christ with Our Lady and St. John, to be removed and replaced by the Royal Arms.” (Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900, p. 31).
  6. See the fourth rubric before the Communion liturgy.
  7. The ceremonialists sought to alter this arrangement, having the table stand permanently at the east end, where the altar had stood, and, under Charles I, Archbishop Laud sought to enforce that arrangement. After the Restoration, despite the 1662 retaining the old rubrics which stipulate otherwise, it became the usual arrangement.
  8. Article 25.
  9. Isaiah 29.13.
  10. The “common” English translations are those stemming from William Tyndale’s remarkable work, which profoundly influenced the development of the common tongue we know as Modern English. He published his English NT in 1526, but did not complete work on the OT. Myles Coverdale and John Rogers completed the OT (following, as much as possible, Tyndale’s style), publishing a complete English Bible under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew in 1537. Coverdale’s 1539 Great Bible (the first authorized version), the immensely popular Geneva Bible, the Bibshop’s Bible (the second authorized version), and the version authorized by King James VI/I in 1611 (the third authorized translation), all closely follow Tyndale. Nielson and Skousen (1998) estimate 84% of the NT and 76% of the NT of the 1611 Bible is identical to Tyndale (“How Much of the King James Bible Is William Tyndale’s?,” Reformation, 3(1), 49-74, DOI: 10.1179/ref_1998_3_1_004).
  11. Jeremiah 30.21.
  12. James 4.8.
  13. Hebrews 10.19-25.
  14. It is also read thrice in the course of the 1662 Table of Lessons for the daily office — at Evensong on Apr. 8, Aug. 7, and Dec. 4.

Drew Keane

Drew Keane is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. He served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2018. His current research focuses on residual orality in 16th C. English religious prose, and he is a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews.


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