Tucked away at the end of the BCP Communion service is a fascinating text, which runs as follows:
Whereas it is ordained in this office for the Administration of the Lord's Supper, that the Communicants should receive the same kneeling; (which order is well meant, for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgement of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers, and for the avoiding of such profanation and disorder in the holy Communion, as might otherwise ensue;) yet, lest the same kneeling should by any persons, either out of ignorance and infirmity, or out of malice and obstinacy, be misconstrued and depraved: It is here declared, that thereby no Adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ's natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ's natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.
This rubric has a rather troubled history.
In 1552, the Forty-Two Articles had made clear, in response to the teaching of Trent, that ‘the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped’. This remains the doctrine of the Church of England today: no transubstantiation, no reservation, no elevation, no adoration.
But later in 1552, an unfortunate controversy was stirred up. John Knox, that irreverent old cove, preached a passionate sermon condemning the practice of receiving the Communion while kneeling, on the basis that it implied an adoration of the consecrated bread and wine that was contrary to the Articles.
Cranmer acted quickly to prevent the dispute escalating further. He wrote to the Privy Council, explaining that kneeling at Communion was a good and seemly practice, and that no Romish sacramental adoration was betokened by it. The Council ordered an official Declaration along these lines to be added to the Prayer Book of 1552, which was in the process of being published. This happened so late in the day that the rubric had to be printed on a separate leaf, in black ink rather than red (hence its name, ‘The Black Rubric’).
The rubric was omitted in the 1559 reissue of the Prayer Book, but then reinserted in 1662, where it remains to this day. It was, in fact, at the behest of the Puritans that the Black Rubric was reintroduced, since, in the aftermath of Laudian ceremonialism, they were keen to ensure that kneeling was not misconstrued as adoration.
So much for the history. How might the Black Rubric guide our thought and practice at Communion services today?
Firstly, it reminds us that the doctrine of the Church of England clearly rules out both Roman and Lutheran understandings of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord Jesus Christ remains true man as well as true God, and as true man he is possessed of a true body, though a body now risen and glorified. As the Rubric puts it, ‘the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ's natural Body to be at one time in more places than one’. The consecrated bread and wine are not changed in their substance (as Rome teaches), nor is Christ’s body present ‘in, with and under’ the elements (as the Lutherans teach). To adore the bread and the wine, then, is straightforwardly idolatrous, and ultimately undermines an orthodox Christology.
Secondly – and perhaps less comfortable for many of us to hear! – the official teaching of the Church of England is that kneeling to receive Communion is a good and godly practice. It can therefore be encouraged in any church that claims to be Anglican. The Black Rubric is very clear that kneeling in no way implies adoration, but rather signifies our ‘humble and grateful acknowledgement of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy receivers’. We come to the Lord’s Table as sinners with empty hands, entirely dependent on God’s saving grace, poured out for us on the cross of Calvary. Kneeling, then, is surely a most appropriate posture: to receive standing might suggest that we are confident of our own merits, contributing something to our salvation; to receive sitting might suggest a slovenly or ungrateful attitude towards so great a redemption.
So how’s this as a challenge for ministers: one Sunday soon, take a few minutes during a Communion service to actually explain what the Church believes about the Lord’s Supper, and why we receive it in the way we do. And if you’re really keen, you could even quote the Black Rubric as you do it!