The Self-Communion of Pastors

PETER ANTON WIDVEY

Read at the Pastoral Conference of the Norwegian Synod, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 22-28, 1901


The self-communion of pastors was under provisional consideration at the Northwestern Wisconsin Special Conference in 1899. Since it was taken for granted that it would be of value for pastors as well as for congregations, that the prohibition by our church ritual should be lifted, and that the Norwegian Synod, also with respect to the self-communion of pastors, should -- in Christian liberty -- go back to the old Lutheran paths, it was agreed that this matter should be referred to the judgment and further direction of the general conference, if a change in the existing prohibition was deemed useful. I did not like to be the essayist in this matter, so long forgotten and therefore even more difficult. But since it was placed upon my shoulders, I will have to do as well as I can.

In our Church Ritual of 1685 in Chapter 5, page 68, we read: “No pastor may commune himself (not even on his sickbed if he can have someone else do it), but ought in such case let himself be served by another, even as others do.” This is the prohibition. In defense of our Church Ritual and Altarbook -- and therefore also of this prohibition -- Bishop Hans Bagger writes in his preface, “We stand in liberty according to the admonition of the apostle, and since God has given his church power to arrange by itself all such outward adornments, it has come to pass that Christendom has chosen for itself certain ceremonies and customs, as might best and most conveniently be determined for each place. ... For God has never thought to place upon us any serfdom by their example in such positions, since their doctrine alone binds us, but not their customs and ceremonies” (Preface, p. viii). “He therefore shall do both himself and us great injustice who will either attack our ceremonies, or condemn them outright, because they are not like those of the apostles in bygone times” (p. x). “And perhaps their [the fathers’] credit should be even greater with some, if we had their liturgies, which were used in those days, and the old books of ritual had come undamaged and complete into our hands” (p. xix). In a note, attention is called to Peter’s, James’, Andrew’s, Mark’s and all other common liturgies.

Even though in this defense, or preface, there is much talk about the “liberty” of the Christian congregation, and that “God has never though to place upon us any serfdom,” yet there is this one fact, that it was not with the knowledge, will and consent of the pastors and congregations, that the church ritual came into being and use, but alone by royal command. The histories of Norway and Denmark clearly show that from 1607 the aim and purpose of the monarchy was to tie the church directly to the secular authority. This took place step by step in part almost unnoticed, until it finally reached its goal in 1688, when the Ritual and Altarbook were by royal command designated for exclusive use in the congregations.

It is clear enough that the committee, which consisted of Bishop Vandal and Bishop Hans Bagger, Court Pastor Leth and Professor Nold -- later also augmented with Bishop Kingo and Provst Bornemann -- must have had their special reasons for turning away from the old church and old Lutheran practice with respect to the self-communion of the pastor together with the congregation; but what these reasons were is not mentioned.

It is a fact that from the end of the 16th century the Papists and Crypto-Calvinists, each in their own manner, began to draw the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark over to themselves by secret emissaries. Therefore the word “true” in the distribution formula of the Sacrament was introduced in defense against the Calvinists. And therefore the denial of the pastor’s self-communion with the congregation was enacted in defense against the Catholics, who, according to the resolution of the Council of Trent “had to” partake of it. It is certainly not so unreasonable that from this fact consent was given to the order of the ritual in chapter 5 prohibiting the self-communion of the pastors, especially when attention is given to the command of March 27, 1686, which commands “the common day of fasting, repentance and prayer.” The occasion for the introduction of this day among the holy days of the church is namely said to be, “The great tribulation, under which in these times God’s congregation sighs by reason of papistic intrigues, and the cunning of false teachers.” The fear of relapse into the Catholic Church should thus be the reason that in this one point, namely the self-communion of the pastor, there had to be deviation from the old observances and ceremonies! This complete prohibition of the pastor’s self-communion with his congregation, and well-nigh complete prohibition when on the sickbed, should thus be the apex of all the restrictions, which little by little were introduced into the Dano-Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in the 17th century. Even in the year 1632 it was, with respect to the diocese of Ribe, expressly permitted the pastors to communicate themselves, but forbidden them to absolve themselves. At a meeting in Zealand in 1640 the pastor was on the other hand not only forbidden to communicate himself, but even to distribute the Holy Supper to his family and his house folk, except in case of utmost need.

But however reasonable, from one point of view, this supposition may be, yet it is hardly to be believed that fear of a possible falling away could thus have seized the king and his council, that they would thus cast away the use out of fear of the Catholics. The biggest danger of the Catholics’ resumption of church power was now past; for as early as the year 1643, Christian IV gave all foreigners in Bergen the free exercise of religion, and nothing is said of any later revocation. In like manner the Reformed and other religious groups received freedom in Denmark by royal proclamation of April 17, 1685. Is it not rather possible that indifference toward the use of the Holy Supper in that time of stiff orthodoxy has had this result that it was deemed a harmless thing to deprive the pastor and congregation of a right for which there was no longer any demand in the church? That the self-communion of the pastors was also, though somewhat later, discontinued in the German Lutheran Church, points also in the same direction, unless it be supposed that in that place the congregations were so richly supplied with pastors that the self-communion of the pastors with the congregations was therefore deemed unnecessary.

It is not surprising that in our day the question has arisen as to the benefit of the pastor’s self-communion, for it is a common complaint within the entire Lutheran Church, also within our synod, that the Sacrament of the Altar is neglected to a disquieting degree. But what avails this complaint, when among other things the pastor is cut off from the opportunity to set a good example for his congregation by participating with them in the reception of the Holy Supper? The power of example is certainly greater here than many will admit.

When the pastor proclaims to his hearers God’s way of salvation, when in the Aaronitic benediction he absolves the congregation, then he himself can also be along, then he can serve himself at the same time that he serves his congregation. But when the climax is reached in the divine service, when the congregation is to enter the holy of holies to receive that food and drink which gives the tired, languid, and dejected soul the right strength and refreshment, then, yes then, he is like one who does not belong with the communing congregation.

It is of course true that we pastors can turn to our neighbor pastors or we can partake of the Lord’s Supper at our pastoral conferences, circuit meetings and synod conventions. But thereby we hardly become completely what we should be for our own congregations. With reference to this we may read in the Brandenburg-Nurenburg Agenda of 1535: “The servants of the church shall also accustom themselves, as has been the custom in the time of the apostles and everywhere in the churches, that they communicate also, and do this as a good example for the churches and congregations. [A. L. Richter, Die ev Kirckenordn. des 16en Jarh. I, p. 208.]

Now if that restraining band, which, by the prohibition of the ritual, is laid upon pastors and congregations can no longer be said to be for the benefit and edification of God’s kingdom -- whatever it may have been in the church of our fathers -- then it ought to be possible to remove the prohibition and to go back to the old paths -- or, if it be found serviceable, to substitute something better. Concerning all such changes the Epitome of the Formula of Concord says, “We believe, teach and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God. Nevertheless, that herein all frivolity and offense should be avoided, and especial care should be taken to exercise forbearance towards the week in faith” (Epitome X, 2,3. Compare also SD X, 9). It is probably with reference to this that Dr. [C. F. W.] Walther in his Pastorale says with reference to the self-communion of pastors, “The congregation shall naturally always be given prior instruction as to the lawfulness of self-communion, that thereby offence may be warded off” (p. 198). When the lawfulness of the pastor’s self-communion with the congregation is sufficiently announced, then the offense is warded off. But “the lawfulness of self-communion” is not based upon any express command given in God’s Word, but is based upon this, that no prohibition is given in God’s word against the self-communion of pastors and that in the church’s practice in the first 1600 years of its existence, the right to communicate has never been taken from the liturgist.

The following testimonies should come into consideration in dealing with this matter:

1) Christ has himself commanded all his disciples to receive the sacrament and has given no prohibition with respect to the one who administers the service of consecration, and who distributes the holy gifts, not as though from his own hand, but as from the hand of Christ, and therefore the liturgist also has the right to be along.

2) The apostles have not given any prohibition that the “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” should be cut off from serving themselves with the gospel and the sacrament of the altar, and thus the “servants of Christ” must have the right to be along. [In his Examen David Hollaz (d. 1713) says, “Just as the servant of God’s word can and ought to comfort himself with the divine word, so also there is nothing to hinder that he strengthen himself by receiving the sacrament which he himself distributes.”]

3) If we consider St. Paul’s own method of procedure in Troas, Acts 20:11, where we read that he “had broken bread, and eaten,” and that the congregation “came together to break bread,” v. 7, then it appears most clearly not only that there is nothing in God’s word which forbids the self-communion of pastors with the congregation (cf. Acts 2:42-46) but the lawfulness of being along is also confirmed by the example of St. Paul.

4) When furthermore, the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 not only rebukes the Corinthian congregation for the misuse, but also arranges for the correct use of the sacrament of the altar, he says, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.” And so neither here is the liturgist forbidden to be partaker, when he fulfills the conditions for a worthy participation. And so, when

5) The apostle Paul adds to his written orders these words (1 Corinthians 11:34), “the rest I will set in order when I come,” then we have the right among other things to conclude that the essentials, which lie at the bottom of the oldest churchly liturgies, have their origin with the apostles; for “God is a God of order.” To these testimonies from the Scripture can be added,

6) The testimony from the church’s oldest times. In the liturgy of St. James we read, “The pastor says this prayer before he himself communicates: Lord our God, heavenly bread, the life of all things, I have sinned against heaven and against thee, and am not worthy to take thy pure mysteries, but make me, merciful God, worthy, without falling into thy condemnation, to receive thy holy body and thy precious blood for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

In the liturgy of St. Mark we read: “The pastor says: The Lord be with you all! The answer: And with thy spirit! The pastor says: May He bless it! Thereupon the pastor communicates during an audible prayer or Psalm 42: ‘As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.’ etc. And when the pastor begins the distribution, he says: “This is the holy body -- the blood of our Lord and God and Savior.”

In the Liturgy of Clement (from the end of the second century) we read, “Thereafter shall the bishop also partake of the Lord’s Supper.”

According to the liturgy of Chrysostom, (from the end of the fourth century) the pastor takes a piece of the holy bread and says: “The precious and holy body of our Lord God and Savior is given to me for the forgiveness of sins and an eternal life.” While he drinks three times of the cup, he says, “The precious and holy blood of our Lord and Savior is given to me for the forgiveness of sins.”

In the First Apology of Justin Martyr (written about the year 139 A.D.) we read: “The apostles had in their records, known as gospels, delivered to us the command which Jesus...gave them, namely that he took bread, gave thanks and said, ‘This do in remembrance of me!’ and likewise took the cup, and gave thanks and said: ‘this is my blood!’ whereupon he let them -- only them -- partake of the supper. As soon as we have finished the prayers, then there is brought forward bread, wine and water. The leader sends up prayer and thanksgiving. ... Then comes the distribution of the gifts which have been dedicated by thanksgiving, and each one partakes of them” (First Apology 65-67). [Concerning the mixing of wine and water, which the oldest church as well as the later used at the Lord’s Supper, Luther says: “It suits me better, to have wine alone used without any mixture with water, for the meaning of such a mixture seems to me an evil thing, for Isaiah 1:22 says Thy wine is mixed with water; for pure wine signifies the pure, unadulterated doctrine of the Gospel.” Luther’s Works W (Old Walch), X, 2757. “Wie es bey Ausspendung des h. Abendmahls zugehen sole.” WA Br 3, 195-197; Luther’s Works, American edition, 49, 57-59.] See also The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, X[, 3] for what Cyril says concerning the Lord’s Supper).

7) That also the oldest Lutheran church joins itself to the old church is shown, apart from what is previously adduced, by the following testimony:

In Formula missae of 1523, Luther says: “Thereupon he distributes the sacrament both to himself and to the people, while the Agnus Dei is being sung. -- A Bishop or pastor is also free to choose the order in which he will receive or distribute both elements. For he can bless both, bread and wine at the same time, before he partakes of the bread, or between the blessing of bread and wine, he may partake and give to others as much as they desire of the bread; thereafter also bless the wine, and likewise give all to drink” (Richter I, 4, Luther’s Works X, 2760,2761) [See note 3].

In a letter to Anton Lauterbach, dated the fourth day after Katherine [November 28], 1539: according to the sound of this letter, Luther desired the abolition of sick communion. He says: “But since this matter is not yet determined, so do what you can and let the sick communicate alone, when you do not wish to communicate with him (Luther’s Works XXI, 1300 ff.). [Luther’s rule is thus diametrically opposed to the rule of our church ritual: das sie die offentlichen sünder durch den Bann vom Abentmal.] But this permission is given by Luther under protest, and he does not wish that such shall recur.

Likewise it plainly appears from Luther’s two letters to Simon Wolferinus in Eisleben in 1543, that it was customary at each celebration of the Lord’s Supper for the officiating pastor also to communicate, for he says, “You can, like the rest of us always do, drink up and eat up with the communicants what is left of the sacrament.” “The ceremony lasts until the communion is finished, the cup entirely drunk up and the bread eaten up” (Luther’s Works XX, 2010,2013 [WA Br X, 348 f.]). Although Luther later on, namely, January 11, 1546, at the end of a letter to Nicolaus Amsdorf, says concerning bread and wine, that “apart from the real use there is no sacrament, just as the baptismal water, apart from the use, is no baptism” (Luther’s Works XXI, 1561), yet no one from these words can force the conclusion that Luther in his last days departed in the least from his earlier teaching concerning the pastor’s self-communion with the congregation. So far the testimony from our old fathers, in whose steps we surely ought to walk.

Seemingly, but only seemingly, the above quoted testimony of Luther seems to be contradicted by what Luther says in the second part of the Smalcald Articles [II, 2,8], where we read: “But if any one should advance the pretext that as an act of devotion he wishes to administer the Sacrament, or Communion to himself, he is not in earnest. For if he wishes to commune in sincerity, the surest and best way for him is in the Sacrament administered according to Christ’s institution. But that one administer communion to himself is a human notion, uncertain, unnecessary, yea, even prohibited. And he does not know what he is doing, because without the Word of God he is obeying a false human opinion and invention. So, too, it is not right (even though the matter were otherwise correct) for one to use the common Sacrament of the Church according to his own private devotion, and without God’s Word and apart from the communion of the church to trifle therewith.”

It certainly ought to be clear that Luther does not here have in mind the pastor’s self-communion with the congregation, but on the contrary only the pastor’s reprehensible or wrongful self-communion excluding the congregation in the so-called “Private Mass” or “Sacrificial Mass.” It is this which is forbidden in the Smalcald Articles, because it is “trifling” which is done “without God’s word and apart from the communion of the church.” The testimony of Luther, given above, deals on the other hand with the self-communion of the pastors together with the congregation, and therefore with the use of God’s word within the fellowship of he church, and this use is not only permitted, but much rather is regarded as self-evident. And if we compare Article 2 of the Smalcald Articles of 1537 with Luther’s letter to Lauterbach in 1539, we will be convinced of the most complete unanimity between these two. According to Luther’s opinion, there must be at least two, so that there shall be “communion,” and only then can the “sacrament be distributed according to the institution of Christ; let this be noted. (See also the citation of J. B. Carpzov in Walther’s Pastorale)

In our confessional writings no direct mention is made of the self-communion of the pastor with the congregation. It was not necessary. Yet our glorious fathers were farsighted enough to make an indirect acknowledgment of it. In Augsburg Confession XXIV, this fact is mentioned, “The Mass with us had the example of the church, taken from the Scripture and the Fathers,” and therefore, “We are confident that it cannot be disapproved, especially since public ceremonies for the most part like those hitherto in use, are retained.

In accordance with this proof for the right of the pastor for self-communion together with the congregation, I have come to the definite opinion, that the prohibition in Chapter V of the Church Ritual should be crossed out, for the sake of the congregations as well as for the sake of the pastors. It is true enough that because this prohibition is only a human prohibition, each local congregation can at any time break it, if it thinks to find that to its advantage, or if its pastor under special circumstances may influence it to lift the prohibition, so that he also can be partaker of the treasure of the church. But with such a way out there will always be this drawback that the different congregations in the same fellowship will be following different rules, and this will cause disturbance and confusion, because of such a misunderstanding. Therefore let all of us pastors not only be everything we can for our congregations, but let us also be along in the use and enjoyment of all the treasures and rights of the congregation. Let us therefore regain that right, which our Church Ritual of 1685 by royal decree took away from us.


This essay was originally published (in Norwegian) in Teologisk Tidskrift (April 1905). The English translation that appears here (prepared by Nils Oesleby) was published in The Confessional Lutheran Research Society Newsletter, No. 14 (Easter 1989).


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