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In our 1962 Rite, we have become accustomed to moving to “The Offertory” after the sermon.   The placement of the offertory and the understanding of what was being offered had vital significance to the early reformers and has changed over time in the heritage of the Book of Common Prayer.

But!, even before we start looking at the offering, another part of our liturgy, now all but forgotten in most churches, needs to be introduced: the Exhortations.  As we have already heard, one of the first significant innovations that Henry VIII introduced to worship in England was that Mass (or Communion) would be received in both kinds.  Not only was this a challenge to the Roman Catholic tradition of withholding the cup, but it also emphasized that Christians were now expected to receive communion, and more than once a year.  The actual suggested frequency has changed many times over the centuries, but the principle of ‘regular communion’ was established.  This would have been a radical change for late medieval Christians who had been ingrained to believe that even after a year’s preparation including regular private confessions and acts of penitence, they were barely worthy to receive the host once a year.

This change in theology and liturgical practice led to confusion and much misunderstanding.  Were we as Christians suddenly more worthy than we were last week, or was the communion not as significant as it once had been?  Cranmer addressed these concerns by adding two teaching points, called “Exhortations” to the Communion service.  In the 1549 Prayer Book, these exhortations came right after the sermon and before the offertory.  From 1552 until 1962 they moved to directly after the offertory and, in 1962, were moved to pages 88-92. Although recommended to be used ‘regularly’ (whatever that means), these exhortations are almost universally ignored in the vast majority of Anglican Churches.

The first exhortation, meant to be read at least every Sunday, reminded the congregation of the importance of being prepared to receive communion by living godly lives and making peace with one another.  There was a not-so-subtle warning, and I quote, “the danger [is] great, if we receive the same [communion] unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own condemnation.”   The second exhortation seemed to be an antidote if the first exhortation was working too well and no one had indicated that they were intending on receiving communion.  It was a reminder that it was the duty of each person to receive communion “whereby alone we obtain remission of our sins, and are made partakers of the kingdom of heaven.”  Kind of a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation, isn’t it?  Thankfully, the second exhortation offered the congregation the opportunity to come and meet with the Priest in order to be given whatever guidance was needed in order to be prepared to receive.

Whether these exhortations happened before or after the offertory, this moment was the real hinge of the entire communion.  In first hundred years or so of the Book of Common Prayer, this was the moment when the congregation split into two parts.  The first, made up of those intended to receive communion, moved to the chancel area.  The remainder were free to leave since the rest of the service was not for them.

It is in this hinge moment that we hear talk of offertory, alms, and oblations.  In our modern ears, we are apt to see these three words as synonyms.  They are not.

Simply put, “offertory” refers to the act of making an offering, whereas alms and oblations refer to what is offered.

Let us start with the easiest concept, “alms,” which comes from the Greek word for mercy, “eleos.”  Alms were those things offered, usually in the form of coins, which the Church was meant to use to bring mercy to the poor.  In the Medieval Church, the action of giving alms for the poor was NOT part of the Mass.  A small ‘poor box’ was available at the back of the church for people to make their alms if they so desired.  In 1549, the poor box was clearly mentioned in the liturgy for the congregation to use as it either entered the chancel or left the church.

The second word, “oblations” comes from the Latin, “offering” and refers to two things: the money given to the curate as is due for the support of the church and the bread and wine which is used in communion.  Let’s deal with the ‘dues’ first.

Each person who claimed to be part of the local church was expected, according to their means, to financially support the work of the church.  There were certain Sundays throughout the church year which were considered Offering Sundays when these dues were expected to be paid.  Although the Medieval church did not include this form of offering as part of the Mass, The Book of Common Prayer, from the 1549 edition onward has indicated the collection of these oblations at the time of the offertory.

The second type of oblation is more controversial in the Reformation Period of the church: the offering of the bread and wine used for communion.  We will get more into the particulars of this controversy when we look at the Prayers, Confession, and Eucharistic Prayer. In simplest terms the controversy was over the Roman Catholic theology of the ‘Sacrifice of the Mass.’ Simply put, every time mass was celebrated, the bread and wine were sacrificed by the priest, bringing salvation to the world.  In the Medieval mass this was the whole and total meaning of the Offertory.   According to Reformers, this theology did not have any justification in scripture and so was clearly omitted in all versions of the Book of Common Prayer…until our 1962 version.  Surprisingly, the 1962 rite reinstated the offering of bread and wine, as part of the gifts brought forward by the people. Maybe there was a hope that 450 years was long enough for us to put the theology of the sacrifice of the mass behind us.

Note: The image above is meant to offer a diagram to differentiate the different meanings of alms (the Poor Box) and Oblations (Offering Plate and Bread and Wine).