A Liturgy of Comfort

A Liturgy of Comfort

(By the Revd. Benjamin Crosby. Ben is a priest of the American Episcopal Church serving in the Anglican Church of Canada and a PhD student in ecclesiastical history at the McGill University School of Religious Studies. His research focuses on the doctrine of the church in the thought of John Jewel and Richard Hooker. Ben is a member of the Prayer Book Society of Canada and a grateful recipient of a PBSC bursary. You can find his popular writing in “Plough Quarterly”, “Earth & Altar”, and at bencrosby.substack.com.)

In the fall of 2022, I began offering a weekly service of Holy Communion according to the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer in the gorgeous but little-used chapel on the second floor of McGill’s religious studies building, where I work as a PhD student. We celebrate the service in an unashamedly traditional Anglican manner: I am vested in cassock, surplice, tippet, and hood; the service is conducted from the north end of the Holy Table; communicants do indeed “draw near with faith” before the confession of sins, kneeling around the altar for the service of the Table proper. The point is not anachronism for anachronism’s sake, of course. Indeed, I will confess to a few innovations in gesture that are unlikely to have featured in 18th century Holy Communion celebrations, primarily the sign of the cross at the Absolution and Benediction. The point is to inhabit and be formed by the public worship of God in the mode that was normative for Anglicanism through most of its existence, trusting in the Spirit’s power to work through our tradition, even today, to draw people to God. After a few months of leading weekly worship, I feel ready to write something on it. This is partly an apology (in the original sense of “defence”) of the old liturgy, partly personal reflection on the experience of leading worship according to the old rite with the old ceremonial, and partly suggestions about how to celebrate it. What regular celebration has made me realize is that the dominant state of mind that this service seeks to instill is not, pace its critics, a sort of despair at sin or an overwhelming sense of unworthiness next to the terrifying holy otherness of God. No, the Prayer Book service of Holy Communion is above all a liturgy of comfort, a form of worship which seeks to remind the congregation, in word and sacrament, of the free gift of salvation that they have received in Jesus Christ.

Here, a brief digression is needed. When we hear the word “comfort” today, we often think first and foremost of soothing reassurance. But that does not quite capture what I mean; rather, I have in mind something closer to how the Prayer Book uses the word. When the Prayer Book liturgy itself uses the word “comfort”, it is hewing back to an early modern English meaning closer to the Latin confortare from which it is derived. Confortare means “to strengthen”. Now, we need not set these two definitions of “comfort” in simple opposition to each other. As we will see, the Prayer Book strengthens us through assuring us again that our sins really are forgiven, that Christ really is a saviour for us. But this reassurance is not given to leave us soothed but unchanged; no, we are given reassurance to strengthen us in our faith, that we may grasp all the more tightly our Lord Jesus Christ and live a holy life of loving our neighbour in thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us.

This orientation towards comfort is particularly clear in the second half of the service, following the Intercession, when the communicants move from the pews to gather kneeling around the Holy Table. This movement is quite uncommon today even in otherwise strictly Prayer Book settings, but it is what the English Prayer Books from 1549 to 1662 required. We still see a hint of this older practice in our current Prayer Book when the priest invites the people to “draw near with faith” in the invitation to Confession. And so this is what we do. I have been pleasantly surprised by just how intimate it makes the service feel. There is something profoundly comfortable in gathering together around the Table of the Lord to feed together upon his Body and Blood. The sense of comfort in this gathering around the Table is mirrored by the language of the Prayer Book itself. The exhortation that is sometimes used before the invitation to Confession declares that Christ has ordained Holy Communion for “our great and endless comfort”. In the invitation to Confession, too, the people are directed to “take this holy Sacrament to your comfort”. The exhortation (when used), the invitation to Confession, the physical movement within the worship space: all together convey that the Sacrament is a means of comfort.

The invitation to Confession is followed by the General Confession itself, and it is here that critics of the old rite as unnecessarily penitential and gloomy about the human condition will lodge their complaints. To be sure, the language is rather more extravagant than that to which we may be accustomed: as the 1662 BCP has it, “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”, “provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us”, “the remembrance of them [i.e., our sins] is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.” Indeed, perhaps out of sensitivity to this worry, the 1962 Canadian BCP omits the latter two of these quotes, regrettably, to my mind. I will grant that taken in isolation these passages may seem a bit much. But – and this is key! – within the context of the rite, they are not in isolation. No! The Law is always followed by the Gospel, confession always followed by absolution. And so it is here! We confess our sins and are reassured that we are forgiven. Remember, too, the priest’s words that “Almighty God…have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life…” are said in our service not from the altar to people out in the nave, far away. No: I say them to people gathered closely around the Table who have drawn near to receive the Lord’s benefits. I still speak in this moment as a representative of God and by his authority, but somehow the tenor is different, gentler, more tender, when I pronounce the Absolution to my fellow Christians assembled around the Table.

In the old rite, next follows something largely omitted from post-liturgical movement Anglican services of Holy Communion: the “Comfortable Words”, a set of four Scripture passages that emphasize God’s love and mercy given to us in Jesus. They are called “comfortable” for a reason: the priest’s absolution (or declaration of pardon, if you prefer) is underscored by the very words of God in Scripture, reassuring the people that the forgiveness received is in fact God’s forgiveness! I have been experimenting with the best way to deliver these words, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve settled on a clear preference. At present I have been leaving the north end of the Table (from which I kneel for the Confession and then pronounce the Absolution) and walking across the chancel in front of the Table while I say them, in much the same way as I do when administering Communion. I luxuriate in these verses, saying them somewhat slowly and feelingly. And as I walk across the chancel, I look each communicant in the eye so that I can tell each one, individually, the good news conveyed in these verses. I time the recitation of the Comfortable Words so that I am back at the north end of the Table when the words are finished in order to begin the Sursum Corda.

This leads us to the eucharistic prayers: the Sursum Corda, the Sanctus, the Prayer of Consecration, the Prayer of Humble Access (which the 1662 book puts before the Prayer of Consecration, immediately following the Sanctus and the 1962 book puts immediately before the Communion). Then we get the Communion itself, followed by the Lord’s Prayer and the post-Communion prayer. Again, I am struck by the comfortable intimacy of the rite. The people are gathered close around the Table, able easily to observe my minimal manual actions. I myself neither stand ad orientem (facing east, in front of the altar), with my body blocking visual access to the elements except at the elevation of the Sacrament, or versus populum (facing west, towards to congregation), framing the elements with my body. I am off to the side; the elements themselves come into focus, not as something far off and forbidding but as God communicating his benefits, his very self, to us in the homely, comfortable elements of bread and wine. Furthermore – and this is particularly important – Cranmer moves the “high point” of the rite from the elevation of the consecrated elements to their reception. This, it seems to me, explains an otherwise curious feature of the old Anglican rite, namely, the placement of the Lord’s Prayer after Communion. I have been convinced by my advisor, Torrance Kirby, that this is an absolutely brilliant liturgical move by Cranmer. The adoration of the consecrated host and chalice, exhibited by the priest far off at the altar to the congregants back in the nave, is replaced by the actual reception of the bread and the wine by Christ’s people gathered together around the Table. And so the Lord’s Prayer follows not the elevation at the Consecration and the second elevation at the closing doxology, as in the Roman rite, but the actual reception of the Sacrament. It’s not that there is no mystery, no awe before God’s tremendous gift of himself in the Sacrament: portions of the Prayer of Humble Access, the Prayer of Consecration, and the post-Communion prayer speak eloquently to this. But the rite – and especially its shift of emphasis to the reception proper – does, it seems to me, convey precisely the comfort which the invitation to Confession announced as its aim: in Communion, Jesus shows that he is God for us by giving us his very self.

This is especially true in the administration of the Sacrament itself. At our service, our numbers are small enough that I can say the entire words of administration to each person, rather than (as is often the practice that I have observed in larger congregations) splitting up the words among four people. And I have come to so love doing so! I particularly appreciate the “for-us-ness” of Cranmer’s words of administration, the way they convey the core Protestant emphasis that God has chosen to be unalterably and forever pro nobis in Christ Jesus. Thus the words of the administration of the bread: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” When I say them, I find myself ever so slightly emphasizing the word “thee”, and taking care to look the person to whom I am administering the bread in the eyes as I do so, to try to emphasize that both the Sacrament itself and Christ’s death of which it is a memorial are entirely for us, given for our benefit by our gracious Saviour.

I hasten to add that there is nothing incorrect about “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven”, the words of administration I most commonly hear in Rite II services in the Episcopal Church, the church in which I was ordained. But I miss the emphasis that the Body of Christ is given for us, that the Blood of Christ is shed for us, that both Christ’s death on the cross and his gift of the Sacrament of his Body and Blood are for us, for our comfort, to be a means of our drawing near to him. In fact, the experience of regularly presiding at the 1962 BCP Holy Communion has changed how I administer the Sacrament when celebrating according to the contemporary language Canadian Book of Alternative Services. I find myself defaulting not to “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven”, but to another option that the BAS gives: “the Body of Christ, given for you…the Blood of Christ, shed for you”. I still miss the fullness of the Prayer Book words of administration, the way that their length allows you to tarry with each communicant and pray for them as you administer the Sacrament, the injunction to thankfulness. But it does, I think, enable me to preserve precisely the most comfort-bringing aspect of the Prayer Book’s words, the reminder that both Christ’s death and the sacrament by which we remember his death are for us.

As we have seen, the pre-Communion exhortation in our Prayer Book says that the Lord’s Supper is for “our great and endless comfort”. What I have found over months of weekly celebration of the 1962 Communion rite according to traditional Anglican ritual and ceremonial is that the old rite is carefully designed to convey precisely this truth. Communicants gather together close to the priest and the Table to receive Christ’s benefits via the Absolution and Comfortable Words, the partaking in Christ’s Body and Blood, and the Benediction. The Law in the Confession is followed by Gospel in the Absolution and the Comfortable Words, in which the people are assured of God’s forgiveness and graciousness to them. The Prayer of Consecration is not something that happens far off but near at hand; north-end celebration places the focus on precisely the humble and ordinary means that Christ uses to feed us with himself. The “high point” of the service is not the elevation of the host. Instead, the elevation is explicitly replaced in focus by the reception. The words of administration themselves emphasize the Sacrament, and Christ’s redeeming death, as pro nobis, for us, precisely in order to bring us comfort, to reassure us that we belong to Christ.

I love the old service for many reasons: for the beauty of its language, for the sense of connection to Anglicans throughout time and space, for the devotional traditions that the very stability of its language has allowed to flourish, for the way that the hieratic language instills a sense of awe before God as mysterium tremendens. But – somewhat to my surprise – what I have found that I am struck most deeply by, and love the most, about the old Holy Communion rite is its focus on comfort, the way it reassures us of God’s love and mercy in order that it might strengthen our faith. When I come to worship, sick and needing a healer, weary and needing encouragement, sinful and needing forgiveness, dead and needing resurrection, I find a service chock-full of comfortable words, a service whose word and movements seem all perfectly designed to convey to me the good news that God is for me in my gracious saviour, Jesus Christ, and that God assures me by his Word and by his sacraments that my sins are forgiven and I am his. Thanks be to God!

A Liturgy of Comfort