Thinking allowed

Parish Communion

It’s hard to ima­gine what the Church of Eng­land was like before the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment — and yet the move­ment itself is vir­tu­ally unknown today. Through the major­ity of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, cer­tainly right up until the 1960s, the move­ment was act­ive in pro­mot­ing its vis­ion of life and wor­ship in the Church of Eng­land, attract­ing sup­port from bish­ops and syn­ods. But it very quickly faded from the scene, so that even those of us who grew up in the 1960s Church may well not have come across it.

At the same time as the Litur­gic­al Move­ment was grow­ing across the Roman Cath­ol­ic Church, recov­er­ing a sense of the cor­por­ate nature of the liturgy, the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment (as it came to be called) was born and grew in Eng­land. The two move­ments seem to have begun and developed inde­pend­ently, though even­tu­ally they came into contact. 

The his­tory of the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment is told in Don­ald Gray’s book Earth and Altar: Evol­u­tion of the Par­ish Com­mu­nion in the Church of Eng­land to 1945 (Alcuin Club Col­lec­tions 68, 1986). Its roots lie in the Anglo-Cath­ol­ic reviv­al and the Oxford Move­ment, begin­ning with John Keble’s Assize Ser­mon in Oxford in 1833. The res­ult­ing interest in sac­ra­ment­al wor­ship led to an increase in the cel­eb­ra­tion of Holy Com­mu­nion, fre­quently with an increas­ing use of cere­mo­ni­al. Because of the require­ment of many Anglo-Cath­ol­ics that the sac­ra­ment should be received fast­ing, it became the cus­tom for the main cere­mo­ni­al cel­eb­ra­tion of the Euchar­ist in many such par­ishes to be almost entirely a non-com­mu­nic­at­ing act. Only the priest and per­haps one or two oth­ers would receive Com­mu­nion. For the rest of the con­greg­a­tion, attend­ing after Sunday break­fast just as they had pre­vi­ously atten­ded Mattins, this was a chor­al, cere­mo­ni­al and devo­tion­al high-point, but one in which they were pass­ive rather than act­ive par­ti­cipants. For the more ‘devout’ there would typ­ic­ally be one or more early cel­eb­ra­tions at 8am and per­haps 7am so that they could receive the sac­ra­ment before break­ing their fast. 

At the same time, Anglo-Cath­ol­ic priests were noted for their work in impov­er­ished and neg­lected areas, par­tic­u­larly in the slums and dock­lands of large Eng­lish cit­ies and ports, and vari­ous group­ings of Chris­ti­an social­ists and oth­er act­iv­ists came and went.

The Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment com­bined two main aims:

  • it strove to make the cel­eb­ra­tion of the Euchar­ist the primary ser­vice on a Sunday morn­ing in each par­ish church, and to insist that it was a ser­vice at which the con­greg­a­tion should receive the sacrament;
  • and it emphas­ised the link between that cel­eb­ra­tion of the Euchar­ist and social action

Social action was con­sidered to be very closely aligned with the Labour move­ment, which itself was grow­ing in strength dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. At a time when the Church of Eng­land was still very widely regarded as the Con­ser­vat­ive Party at pray­er, the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment might be regarded as the Labour Party at pray­er.

In order for the con­greg­a­tion to receive the sac­ra­ment before break­fast­ing the time of the ser­vice had to be one that was earli­er than the norm of Mattins or High Mass at 11am, but late enough for them to have a bit of a lie-in on their weekly day of rest. 9am or 9.30am became a pop­u­lar time. Par­ishes which still have their main Sunday morn­ing Euchar­ist at this time were quite likely ones that par­ti­cip­ated in the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment. Fre­quently the ser­vice was fol­lowed by a par­ish break­fast. Not all those asso­ci­ated with the move­ment were insist­ent on fast­ing before com­mu­nion — but its lead­ers and advoc­ates were adam­ant on this point.

And what about ‘social action’? This oth­er import­ant part of the life of the Church was focussed on a weekly ‘par­ish meet­ing’, per­haps in the middle of the week, at which such issues could be dis­cussed and sup­port giv­en to vari­ous ini­ti­at­ives, wheth­er loc­al, nation­al or international.

What the pro­moters of the Par­ish Com­mu­nion emphas­ised was the cor­por­ate nature of the Church, the cor­por­ate nature of the Euchar­ist, and the essen­tial and cor­por­ate nature of the social action that was intim­ately bound up with them. The great mani­festo of the move­ment was a col­lec­tion of essays, The Par­ish Com­mu­nion, pub­lished in 1937, edited by the Revd Gab­ri­el Hebert. Momentum grew, and after the Second World War Par­ish and People was estab­lished as a group to cam­paign for the goals of the move­ment. With the real­ity of a major­ity Labour gov­ern­ment from 1945, per­haps the polit­ic­al angle of the move­ment changed. By 1962, when Par­ish and People was cel­eb­rat­ing the 25th anniversary of the pub­lic­a­tion of The Par­ish Com­mu­nion, the Chris­ti­an Social­ist Move­ment (CSM, recently renamed Chris­ti­ans on the Left) was being set up. There was much over­lap between the two groups, and the CSM fol­lowed on from a pleth­ora of sim­il­ar social­ist group­ings, but gradu­ally the two move­ments sep­ar­ated. By the end of the 1960s, hav­ing to a large extent achieved its litur­gic­al aims, Par­ish and People had faded, although it con­tin­ued to exist until the end of 2013.

What then did the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment achieve, and what can be learnt from it? Primar­ily it reminded large chunks of the Church of Eng­land (and oth­er Anglic­an churches too) of the cent­ral­ity of the Euchar­ist, and of the import­ance of a cor­por­ate cel­eb­ra­tion at which all received the sac­ra­ment. It was suc­cess­ful in pro­mot­ing this ideal not only across much of the Anglo-Cath­ol­ic world in which it ori­gin­ated and across the more cent­ral groups in the Church, but also into the more cent­ral-evan­gel­ic­al parts of the Church, so that a par­ish com­mu­nion on a Sunday morn­ing came to be seen as the norm. It linked this fun­da­ment­ally with what it saw as the social justice agenda of the Church’s mis­sion — though as social­ism was tried in the sec­u­lar world this per­haps became a party-polit­ic­al pos­i­tion that did not always sit well with those who were hear­ing the litur­gic­al mes­sage. It fell short, per­haps, in a lack of atten­tion to evangelism.

These three strands — the liturgy, action for social justice, and con­cern for evan­gel­ism — are the areas that we shall explore in this blog. The social justice agenda itself will largely be left to our sis­ter Think­ing Anglic­ans blog: here our con­cern is how that is linked to the liturgy. Sim­il­arly the top­ic of evan­gel­ism itself will be explored in the con­text of the liturgy: of what we do in Church, how our build­ings serve us as loc­al centres of wor­ship, justice and evangelism.


  • Thomas Rightmyer says:

    It might be inter­est­ing to trace con­nec­tions between the Eng­lish Use move­ment (Dearm­er­’s Par­son’s Hand­book) and the Par­ish Com­mu­nion move­ment. I was raised as a Pray­er Book Cath­ol­ic and my ser­mon blog is

  • The fact that “a par­ish com­mu­nion on a Sunday morn­ing came to be seen as the norm” had a down­side as well as an upside. Look­ing at it from the out­side, a ser­vice of Holy Com­mu­nion is very much for the com­mit­ted believ­ing Anglic­an: for those of us who are not, it can be some­what excluding.

    Which does­n’t mat­ter at all in an urb­an con­text where it’s easy enough to find a church or chapel of one’s own tra­di­tion – but it’s not so easy in rur­al areas. I’m lucky to live three miles away from my loc­al Quaker Meet­ing in rur­al N Lancs – but if going to Meet­ing meant a ten-mile drive into the hor­rible traffic of Lan­caster I’m not sure what I’d do. Walk to my par­ish church, sit at the back and avoid recit­ing the Nicene Creed, maybe? 

  • Frank: it will be the con­ten­tion of this blog that the Euchar­ist, appro­pri­ately cel­eb­rated, is as much a ser­vice of mis­sion as a ser­vice for the com­mit­ted. I don’t dis­agree with the points you make in the con­text of the way that the Euchar­ist is cur­rently nor­mally cel­eb­rated in many Anglic­an and oth­er places. Nor am I sug­gest­ing that the Euchar­ist is the only act of worship. 

    The ques­tions of what makes a ser­vice wel­com­ing, what makes a ser­vice suit­able for the uncom­mit­ted and the out­sider, and more import­ant what a ‘ser­vice’ actu­ally is – these are all good ques­tions to be explored.

  • James A says:

    Steph­en Cot­trell wrote a very help­ful piece on the Euchar­ist as a mis­sion-ori­ent­ated liturgy about 15 years ago. He recog­nises that, if you’re not part of the cul­ture of the Church, EVERY act of wor­ship is dif­fi­cult – not least the ‘Fam­ily Ser­vice’ which can be excru­ci­at­ing for those bey­ond the com­mit­ted life of the church because it offers no anonym­ity or space to grow into the church at your own pace. He likened non-Euchar­ist­ic fam­ily ser­vices to Brech­tian drama: before you know it, you’re on the stage! It was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Anglic­an world; but it may have also been in one of the Aff Cath journ­als. It would be worth post­ing on TL.

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