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The Rubric Driven Life: Part I

By Fr. Glenn Spencer

Editor's Note: Here at All Saints, we often say that we live a rubric driven life: that is, our life follows and pays attention even to the small details of the Prayer Book. Rubrics are the italicized directions for how each service should be celebrated. If you were to read through the rubrics, you would be amazed at how many different topics they address, from hand positions to making sure people add the Church into their wills. And yet, there is a remarkable amount of direction that is left out by the rubrics in our BCP. So, in order to learn more about the rubrics and how we are to interpret them, we will be writing an occasional series of posts specifically on rubrics. You will never read those italicized words in the same way again!


The rubrics of our Book of Common Prayer exist for a purpose similar to canon law: that we may order our common life in the Church according to the will of God. In the case of the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer the issue is decency and order in our common life of worship. Some lesser rubrics may be mitigated by temporary or permanent modification. Greater rubrics are incontrovertible in their intention, albeit the means of achieving the intention may be thoughtfully tempered with restraint by the Ordinary. There are grades of rubrics just as there are grades of canons, just as there are grades of laws in a nation. Not all laws are equal nor are all rubrics equal. If all the laws of a nation were equal then the penalty for violating any law would be equal — the penalty for littering would be equal to the penalty for murder. The Church has ordered her common life with regard to rubrics and canons by bringing a measure of pity, fairness, justice, and aggiornamento to her application of rubrics and canons in specific cases for the good of both individuals and the Church as a whole, while honoring the intention of the rubric or the canon. As Bishop Robert Mortimer wrote, “The Fathers were perfectly familiar with the idea that it is not always wise or even possible to insist on the full severity of the law on every occasion. And whenever they mitigated the law, whether in the interest of an individual or of a class, whether for a fixed period or an indefinite time, they called it a dispensation, or an indulgence or an act of pity, necessitated by the particular conditions in which the found themselves” (Dispensation in Practice and Theory with Special Reference to the Anglican Churches, Bishop Edwin James Palmer, editor - 1944).

The rector in his parish exercises dispensational authority with regard to rubrics and canons by virtue of the jurisdiction bestowed upon him by his Ordinary when he was instituted as rector, and he applies dispensations nearly every day or certainly with great frequency. (See An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches, pages 569-574, BCP 1928.) One difference between the Ordinary of the diocese and the rector of a parish is that the rector’s authority to dispense, real as it is, is derived from the Ordinary at his Institution. The Ordinary’s authority is infused, imparted, and transmitted as a mark of the character of the Episcopate — even so, an Ordinary may exercise such authority only in a specific jurisdiction, namely his diocese.

Rubrics that instruct an action at the discretion of the priest (e.g., those found on page 60 or page 67) are not dispensations. Dispensations are judgements, by an appropriate authority holding jurisdiction, with regard to suspending or palliating what would be a normative standard of actions laid down in canon law or the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.

There are rubrics that the rector may dispense, and there are those he has no authority to dispense. Some rubrics require specific actions from rectors toward parishioners that eventually involve the Ordinary as the chief pastor of the diocese — the rubric in the second paragraph on page 85 is such a rubric. In the case of repelling a parishioner from the altar, the rector must give a full account to the Ordinary within fourteen days, and obviously the rector cannot grant himself a dispensation that releases him from such an unambiguously stated responsibility.

Nevertheless, the Ordinary may moderate the requirements based on information he receives from the rector through some medium other than a written letter, such as a phone conversation or an email. This moderation is a dispensation. The gravity of the sin and the gravity of the discipline of all parties involved are measured by the fact that the Ordinary has the entire matter laid before him as the final authority. Such rubrics as this one, that have to do with the state of grace and thus the final salvation, are generally incontrovertible in their most necessary elements and intent. The Ordinary would not be able to dispense the requirement of a full explanation from the rector concerning his actions, nor can one imagine under what circumstance he would wish to do so.

The rubric on page 84 provides an example of a rector’s true dispensational authority. What are we to make of this rubric that states that any consecrated Bread or Wine that remains after the Holy Communion shall not be carried out of the Church but shall be reverently eaten after the final blessing? It is certainly imaginable that the rubric could be followed literally after every Sunday Mass. But there are other parish exigencies that, once taken into consideration, may call for a pastoral dispensation — especially if the literal interpretation given above is the only meaning. Should the rector take this rubric to mean that the consecrated hosts not be reserved in order that the Holy Communion may be provided to a parishioner too ill to attend the Sunday Liturgy, or that the rubric is meant to prevent the rector from providing the viaticum to a parishioner who is in danger of dying?

But the rubric on page 84 is focused not on parishioners, but entirely on the consecrated element of Bread that remains after the Holy Communion. The rubric actually declares a very high view of the Holy Communion and a high view of Holy Orders, such that decency and order with regard to the consecrated elements ought to be in the foreground for the priest, and he must see to it, as a watchman, a guardian, a custodian, that the consecrated Body of Christ is not profaned by taking it out of the parish church and using it for some purpose other than the end our Lord intended. The rector, exercising his dispensational authority, far from transgressing the intention of the rubric to reverence and secure the consecrated elements, may reserve the consecrated hosts for the purpose of communicating the sick and providing the viaticum for the dying. But one can imagine a parish in which the rector follows the rubric literally (as priests always do with regard to the precious blood), and he too would be faithful to his office in doing so.

In dealing with the rules that govern Holy Matrimony, we have what is probably the occasion in which most rectors or priests-in-charge have had real-life experience with dispensations, and that in a rather complex manner as it may involve the rector, a man and a woman who wish to be made husband and wife, the Ordinary, and frequently, a marriage tribunal. Remarriage after divorce is to be avoided because it is frequently a grievous sin and it may become the occasion for continuing in sin — but it is not necessarily so. There are two possibilities when it comes to a man and a woman who wish to marry in the Church when one of them has had a previous marriage that ended in divorce. One possibility is to determine whether or not there was a fatal flaw in the first marriage that would render it null and void. The second possibility is for the Ordinary to grant the couple a dispensation — or what the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to as an Economy. This is not the place to go into all the details necessary to render a decision of nullity but to only say that if there is a true impediment, a cause of nullity, it is required that the Ordinary declare the matter, not the rector, and that he do so with specificity and discretion. In the matter of granting a dispensation the Ordinary recognizes that the former marriage was valid but, taking into consideration the history of the couple and others associated with them, as well as a statement from the priest, he may, for the salvation of the people and the good of the Church, grant a dispensation and permit his priest to solemnize the union. It is also a fundamental principle that we should keep in mind that an Anglican priest may not be compelled to solemnize Holy Matrimony under any circumstance whatsoever, and he may refuse without giving cause.

Our last example is the incontrovertible rubric on page 83 of the BCP that declares, “If the consecrated Bread or Wine be spent before all have communicated, the priest is to consecrate more according to the Form before prescribed; beginning at All glory be to Thee, Almighty God, and ending with these words, partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.” This rubric directs the priest to begin with what we know as our Lord’s Words of Institution, followed by the Oblation, and concluding with the Invocation. The directions literally require the priest to consecrate in both kinds, that is both Bread and Wine, regardless if only one was depleted. That is significant because in the western Church, generally speaking, when something was discovered to be askew in the Mass with one of the elements, it was required by canon law that the remedy was to consecrate more in both kinds, since that is the manner in which our Lord instituted the sacrament. The 1662 book also directs the priest to consecrate in both kinds except it only requires the Words of Institution. Given that the Holy Communion (along with Baptism) is a sacrament universally necessary for salvation, the theologians and priests who framed our Book of Common Prayer took utmost care to see that no occasion for doubt arise concerning the consecration of the elements that were depleted. The Church of God requires not probability, not even high probability, but absolute certainty when it comes to the validity of the sacraments.

However, various shortcuts have been invented and occasionally practiced, such as pouring either unconsecrated water or wine into a chalice containing the sacrament of Christ’s blood with the assumption that mingling the two will automatically “consecrate” the wine; or that one may place a consecrated host into a chalice of unconsecrated wine and the host will automatically consecrate the wine. Such shortcuts are theological and liturgical errors, and they most certainly do not replenish the sacrament. Thomas Aquinas, representative of the general understanding and practice of the western Church, states that adding either unconsecrated water or wine to a chalice containing the sacrament of Christ’s blood absolutely does not increase the volume of Christ’s blood, but in fact such an action corrupts the sacrament, and if enough unconsecrated water or wine were added to the depleting chalice, “the blood of Christ will remain there no longer” (Summa Theologiae, Question 77: Article 4). That is, of course, what a priest assumes to be the case when he purifies the chalice after the Holy Communion. If it were not the case, the priest would be in a state of perpetually consecrating any water and wine that was poured into the chalice.

So here we have a rubric that is incontrovertible, which means the aberrations mentioned above are strictly forbidden. The Church of God requires not probability, not even high probability, but absolute certainty when it comes to the validity of the sacraments, and it is the duty of the Ordinary and his assisting bishops, as well as the priests, to superintend and secure the integrity of the sacraments of the Anglican Province of America. But there is, in my opinion, an opportunity for the Ordinary to moderate, by dispensation, the action required by the rubric in question, while maintaining the intention to guarantee the absolute certainty of validity. Such a dispensation would require the priest to consecrate more in both kinds, while permitting a restrained abbreviation of the Form prescribed (similar to the 1662 rubric) beginning at, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God,” and ending with these words, “do this as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.” There are three advantages to this sober refinement of required words: first of all it is the general consensus in the western Church that the moment of consecration is with the Words of Institution. Secondly, it keeps both the Bread and the Wine together at the moment of consecration as our Lord did at the institution of the sacrament. And thirdly, it shortens the time needed to complete a valid consecration within an ongoing Holy Communion.

All that being said, priests do not have the authority to sidestep the rubric on page 83 and engage in probabilities and speculations like those mentioned above. Moreover, priests do not have the authority to truncate the rubric in the manner that I have suggested may be appropriate, inasmuch as only the Ordinary may declare so radical a dispensation of a sacrament necessary for salvation. And we would all do well to keep in mind that there is a limit to the Ordinary’s authority as well, for he cannot undo the theology of sacramental consecration which absolutely requires the Words of Institution. When it comes to the salvation of our parishioners absolute certainty is required.

Such are some examples of how the rubrics may help us order our common life in the Body of Christ and specifically how we may do so in this portion of the Catholic Church we know as the Anglican Province of America.

1 Comment

Gene Godbold
Gene Godbold
Nov 12, 2019

This was very helpful; thank you.

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