At my confirmation on Advent Sunday in 1954, the parish gave me a small book of private prayers, My Prayer Book (for Men and Boys). First published in 1915, it was intended “for the younger sons of the Church of England”. With its camp and tent prayers, it had obviously been first intended for use by soldiers in action in the Great War. “After appointing someone to hold a lantern for him, if he needs light, the NCO shall say, ‘Company, silence for prayers’.”
Other parts had been much updated by my 1953 edition (by which time more than a million copies had been printed). An early section in My Prayer Book is headed “What Every Churchman Should Know and Do”, and requires knowledge and observance of four (not three) key festivals: Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Whitsun. This is followed by a section on the importance of daily private or public prayer, and the need to worship in church on Sundays.
It is nevertheless realistic. “If the service seems long or dull, try and mean some of the prayers and hymns . . . you will come away feeling that, any rate, you have done something. We go to give, as well as to get.” The conclusion to that section is slightly more threatening: “God is on the look out for you. He misses you when you stay away, and so do the people in church.”
As to frequency of attendance at holy communion, My Prayer Book suggests that a good rule “to begin with” is once a month. The 1948 Report on the Spiritual Discipline of the Laity may have proposed no more than three occasions as a minimum, but it also stated: “Communion is a duty, not an inclination.”
As a boy brought up in a family where weekly communion was natural, prepared for confirmation by the Revd Oswald Holt (a wise and long-suffering “perpetual curate”), and rapidly enlisted as a server, I, too, soon became a weekly communicant.
There was said holy communion at 8 a.m. — chiefly, it seemed, for “old maids” who bicycled to church (George Orwell’s phrase before it was John Major’s) — but, on most Sundays, the principal morning service was usually matins or “matins with litany”.
The Parish Communion Movement to re-establish the eucharist as the central act of Sunday worship may have begun in Anglo-Catholic circles long before the Second World War. As late as the early ’60s, there was still some way to go. In 1961, A. G. Hebert SSM published a book, Liturgy and Society, looking forward to the day “when we have learned again to celebrate the Lord’s service thus”.
I am sure that, if we had achieved that in the 1950s, we would have been seen as trying to be “high”. On the second and fourth Sundays, however, our matins was followed by ante-communion, a truncated version of holy communion.
It was either a family legend, parish myth, or a genuine fact that, the first time this happened in a new vicar’s reign in the late 1940s, one churchwarden (as was his custom) ceremoniously rose and marched out at the end of matins. The story goes that the new vicar called after him: “Only one man walked out on the Lord’s supper, and he hanged himself.”
From my memories of serving in those days, I am certain that almost every confirmed Anglican in our parish (regular churchgoer or not) made his or her communion at least on Easter Day: it was widely believed that if you did not, you were no longer a Christian. Similarly, the majority of the congregation seemed to accept the Prayer Book rubric (stressed in the Report) that it was “binding on everybody to communicate three times a year”.
Until very recently, I continued to be a weekly communicant and to receive the sacrament on principal holy days. For most of my life, holy communion has shaped my week. Then, I thought of it (perhaps still do) as making “my communion” rather than as participating in a corporate action.
Perhaps that is why I find a lengthy exchange of the Peace disruptive and why I haven’t been back to a nearby church where, when I knelt at the rail to receive the host, my neighbour nudged me with the words: “Chilly today, isn’t it?”
Partly because I have spent 20 of the past 30 years in sometimes sprawling group or team ministries, I admit to becoming lax. If all the services within ten miles are homemade versions of morning prayer, led by Readers, I feel excused. If the clergy feel that a fifth Sunday means that they need take only one service (and that may be an improvised liturgy called “family worship”), I feel excused.
Well-staffed, thriving parishes are confident parishes. Their priests make it clear what they expect of their flocks. In those areas where one priest is serving several churches, he or she seems so glad to have a congregation at all that there is no question of “upsetting” the faithful few by expecting too much or by being authoritative.
Such clerics have history on their side. The records of the Church Assembly debate about the report show that many members feared that the Church might become a sect if too much was required of churchgoers. That was prescient. The rise of the parish communion has made church much more daunting for those on its periphery. It does not, however, mean that every cleric has to be so “nice” to those inside that he or she should shrink from laying down a few precepts.
David Self is a former BBC radio producer who writes for the TES.