The Self-Communion of the Clergyman

KARL HEINRICH MEUSEL


(From “Sumptio,” Kirchliches Handlexikon (Leipzig: Verlag von Justus Naumann, 1900), Vol. VI, pp. 488-89; quoted in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3 [July 1968], pp. 199-200, 188, 200.)


It is still necessary to touch upon a question which recently has come in for much discussion in the Lutheran church, the question of the so-called self-communion of the clergyman, i.e., whether the clergyman distributing the Sacrament, in the event that no other clergyman is present who might give it to him, is authorized to give it to himself (se ipsum communicare). From the earliest days the custom prevailed without being questioned that the officiating clergyman as a rule communed along, and in this way that under the circumstances referred to above he received the Sacrament from himself. With the appearance of the custom in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages that the priest celebrated private mass (Winkelmesse) this led to the abuse that the officiating clergyman was the only communicant, and the false interpretation that in the reception of the Sacrament he in his person was representing the congregation.
At first the Lutheran Reformation raised no objections to the self-communion of the clergyman in connection with the communing of the congregation. Luther in the Formula missae of the year 1523 expressly says: Deinde communicet tum sese tum populum. Cf. CA XXIV, 34: “Now since the mass is not a sacrifice for others, living or dead, to take away their sins, but is to be a communion in which the priest and others receive the Sacrament for themselves, this manner is observed among us that on festivals and otherwise, if there are communicants present, mass is celebrated and some who have the desire are communed.” A number of Lutheran church constitutions (Kirchenordnungen) of the 16th century have in part allowed, in part even called for self-communion. But at first opposition to the abuse of the private mass caused Luther to have second thoughts which were unfavorable to self-communion: “It is a confusion of offices if one communes himself, just as if one were to baptize himself.” Compare also Art. Sm. Part II, Art. II, 8. Furthermore at least instinctively the opposition to the Reformed trend helped along. For in Reformed churches the participation of the ministrant in the meal of the congregation was specifically ordered, and that in this way that he, as he gives the chalice and the paten to another of the communicants, in turn for his part receives it from one of them. Here too the above mentioned conception of the Sacrament found expression, one which contradicts the dosis in the Lutheran sense. Over against this most of the Lutheran church constitutions quietly abolished the self-communion of the clergy and in part expressly forbade it (so, as the first one, Bugenhagen’s church constitution for the city of Goslar, 1531: “No one shall administer or give the Sacrament to himself”), so that even in the course of the 16th century this custom gradually disappeared and especially since the middle of the 17th century only appears as an exception which was hardly tolerated.
The main reason for this strange phenomenon that the Lutheran church dropped such a venerable and common custom is expressed in an opinion of the theological faculty of Wittenberg of 1612, that for the Lord’s Supper both dosis and lepsis are requisite. (cf. Joh. Gerhard: “Since two people are needed for the Lord’s Supper, one who distributes and one who receives, the clergyman would act more correctly and more in accordance with Christ’s institution if he were to receive the Sacrament from another and not from himself.”) Still the fact has never been overlooked in the Lutheran church that the liturgical dosis in itself is an adiaphoron, and very prominent theologians like Chemnitz, Gerhard, and Hunnius have asserted that the self-communion of the clergyman is permissible at least in an emergency, with the argument that the clergyman even when receiving the Sacrament for himself is still functioning as collative organ of God.
Recently, especially in the 1850s, since receiving the Sacrament has again come to be appreciated more, the demand has been raised in the clergy that self-communion be permitted either as a general practice or at least under certain conditions. For it is evident that the prohibition of self-communion has made a more frequent reception of the Sacrament impossible for the great majority of the clergy, and with it the possibility has been removed by one’s own example to encourage the congregation.
The obstacle to granting the request seems to be that the reception of the Sacrament is attached to the confession and absolution which precede. The objection was raised that this prerequisite is not absolutely necessary, that the clergyman may include himself in the general absolution, furthermore that he might still as before let another clergyman grant him absolution and the Sacrament. If nevertheless ecclesiastical authorities in the main have resisted the demand, the decisive factor seems to have been consideration for the congregation, for whom the self-communion of the clergy must appear to be offensive and contradictory.




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