Holy Communion for the Housebound Aged
Many other parsons must have known it all along; but it is only since my own retirement that I have realised how much aged and housebound people can appreciate a short 'Sick Communion' Service! I discovered it first in the pair of Geriatric Wards which the Rector of Rugby allotted to me when I had offered to give some regular help. The patients were recovering, or not recovering, from 'Stroke' and similar afflictions. My routine is to spend 45 minutes 'going round the ward', and then to take the Holy Communion Service according to the card supplied by Coventry Diocese, and to take the Blessed Sacrament to those in their beds or chairs who wished to receive it. The Card, while not impeccable, is brief and clearly printed, and uses words from the 1662 Service that come naturally to those who have enjoyed that Service in times past.
I have been much impressed and moved by the way in which many Of those patients with whom I had been unable to hold a rational conversation while 'on my round', have audibly joined in our Service and then received the Sacrament with evident reverence and joy. And there have been several who have remarked on the sad fact that they had not been able to take Communion in the years since they had become too frail to go to a Service in Church.
Then I had a request from the Churchwardens of two of the many parishes at present vacant in the Leicester deanery in which I now live. They enjoyed the Sunday Services organised for them by our efficient (and also 'retired') Rural Dean. But their former Vicar had been very good at arranging monthly 'Sick Communions' for elderly folk in these parishes. "Could I take them over?" "How many?", I said. There seemed to be about eight, in addition to the two, one blind and one totally deaf, to whom the Sacrament had been taken after the Vicar's monthly Service at 'The Square' (a group of Almshouses in one village). All this, some nine miles away, seemed too much for me with my former accustomed practice of separate 'Sick Communion' Services - and never more than three in a morning. Then I thought again. If I took the Communion Service at 'The Square', I would already be taking the Sacrament to two ladies in their rooms. Perhaps I could take the opportunity to consecrate the wine in my Sick Communion flask, and then, with the use of the Hospital Card that I had found so satisfactory, I might take Communion to the others in their houses without irreverent haste - or personal exhaustion. And the Sequestrators would only have to pay for one Service and one return journey (a mundane point, this, but important)! So I told the Churchwardens that, if one of them would give me lunch, and an opportunity for my usual 'post retirement' after lunch rest (flat on my back for half an hour, normally asleep): and, if they would show me the houses to visit, I would see what could be done!
Now I have done it four times, and I want to pass on the experience. The Chapel in 'The Square' is comfortably filled with fourteen alms-persons when I take the (1662) Communion Service at 11 a.m. Eight take Communion. It is now, during this long vacancy, a monthly event. Then, after greeting the departing congregation, I go, in Surplice and Stole, with the Vessels, first to Miss A. We exchange smiles, and she is ready straightaway to take Communion: then, after a decent interval, she begins the Lords Prayer in a shrill tiny voice, and I keep time with her, and place my hand on her head as I pronounce the Blessing. In spite of total deafness, Communion with our Lord and with another representative of His Church has been real and very happy. Then I go to Mrs B who is blind: there we can also have a brief prayer before Communion. Both give grateful Alms.
I go across to the Matron's flat, sign the book and confirm the next date: I go back to the Chapel and pack my bag, including the Consecrated Bread & Wine, and am off, in my cassock and my car, two miles to the next village. First I go to Mrs C, who is 93 and recently had a big operation. She lives with her daughter (who still goes out to work) and a big Alsatian. She puts the Alsatian out in the yard, and we have the Service in the warmth of her modern kitchen. She appreciates the Service Card, and joins in keenly. Like the other communicants in this rather 'Low Church' village, she seems perfectly happy to receive the Sacrament in the form of a wafer dipped in consecrated wine. What matters to her is that a 'Vicar' has called and the Lord is with them. We had a short informal prayer, praying for the world about us, including the newly elected rulers of Rhodesia and the other communicants in 'The Square' and the two villages. Then, after asking about her daughter, I am off down the road to park my car outside the Churchwardens house: the other calls are within walking distance.
Mrs D is next, and there is time for a friendly word or two before I unpack my case, put on my surplice and stole, and set out the Elements. She is in her middle eighties and joins in happily; but this very short Service is as much as she could well manage. Then down the road to Mr & Mrs E. She is nearly blind and he very deaf; but, between them they join in effectively, as they sit, side by side, on the sofa on which they spend most of their long days. I pass on greetings from Mrs C and Mrs D, and we feel that we have been united in the Lord. And so, I pack my bag again to cross the road to visit Mr & Mrs F. He opens the door as I approach, and, unlike his wife and the others, he is reasonably fit. Though well on in his 'eighties' he had walked round to remind the others that I was coming, and in other ways, sometimes with the help of his wife's cooking, does what he can to look after the village 'old people'.
And so to lunch, in the very agreeable company of the Churchwarden and his wife, and then my rest. I came in just before 1 p.m. and had not felt pressed for time. I had asked whether I ought to try for an earlier time; but the reply had been that it seemed to be quite convenient to all concerned. So, at just before three, I drive off to the third of my Leicestershire villages. Mrs G, just opposite the Church is blind. Mr & Mrs H come from Wales, and he is the frailest of the frail. Mrs I, Mrs J, and Mrs K live in the same row of almshouse cottages. Really they ought to come together for this; but the little parlours are so tiny, and the ladies so assorted, that I think this question may be properly left to the new Vicar when he comes! And, so, finally to Mr L, an old friend from my days as an Industrial Chaplain. He is very frail now and a little forgetful; but he rejoices in the familiar words and in the Real Presence. Then I have a leisurely cup of tea with him before I make my way home.
You will see that there were more than eight. In addition to the two at 'The Square', there were in fact thirteen in a population of well under a thousand - proof of good shepherding by the departed Vicar. This is a far greater number than I had achieved in my far larger parishes.
I had several to whom I took Communion after Easter and Christmas, a very few to whom I went monthly, and I did my best to pay regular calls on those who could no longer get regularly to Church; but the mere length of time that had to be spent on my old style of 'Sick Communion' inhibited me from persuading the housebound to accept it as the norm. Yet this is evidently what it could be, even for some who in the days of their strength may have been too busy to bother to go to meet their Lord. Yes, if I were beginning my ministry now, this is one of the things that I would hope to do better!
An article sent to the Church Times in May 1980 but not published.