Friday, January 4, 2013

On Anglican Eucharistic Theology

The teaching of the Church of England and her daughter Churches has been slowly muddied by several toxic wastes over the past two centuries. The first being the Tractarian Movement, a movement which sought to reintroduce Roman teachings and ceremonial into the English Church and the second being the modern Liberal movement, which has sought to eliminate any association of the Lord's Supper with the atoning work of Christ which in turn results from a fear of Atonement theology among liberals. These muddied waters cut to the core of the "Anglican problem" -- that being a (nearly) complete identity crisis. These toxins can come in varying forms and in varying degrees. Often times, the theology of the formularies is plainly denied and an alternative theology is presented instead. This is a problem, clearly, yet it is slightly favorable to the other option, that being that an alien doctrine is presented as if it were authentically Anglican doctrine (this is termed "neo-Tractarianism or neo-liberalism"). 

The plain denial of Anglican teaching in addition with varying forms of "neo" theologies present a series of problems relating to the core of Anglican identity. First, faulty Eucharistic theology was at the heart of the Reformation and we need not forget that the English Reformers lost their lives for denying the teaching of Rome and promoting the true Gospel teaching on this subject. Secondly, there exists a certain tendency to read the theology present in the Articles in such a manner to deny that it actually presents a coherent doctrine therein, this is equally wrong because the Articles and Prayer Book do present a clear teaching on this matter. Thirdly, the talk of "Real Presence" is purposefully vague and was a term avoided by the Reformers and most Anglican divines. The key is to avoid theological muddiness, which has somehow come to be a "virtue" in Anglicanism.

I intend to lay out Anglican Eucharistic in an easy to follow manner, following the structure of the Article touching on this subject. I see the Article divided up into four sections.  The first defines what the Sacrament is, the second defines what it is not, the third defines how the Sacrament is what it is, and the fourth describes various abuses related to the beliefs tied to section two.  My sources will be the Prayer Book, the Articles of Religion, and the Homilies.

First, the question of terminology must be addressed. The terms associate with this Sacrament in the Prayer Book are the Lord's Supper (or the variant, the Supper of the Lord) and the Holy Communion (or just Communion). The first is based on the Scriptural title of the event (in addition there were terms such as the breaking of bread or Lord's Table), the second focuses on what the intention of this Sacrament is, that being communion with our Lord. The most common term in the Middle Ages (and acceptable in the 1549 Prayer Book) was The Mass, which is ironically the least informative in a theological sense, considering that this title derives from the Latin dismissal, ite missa est, and has no theological significance. This term was later rejected, due to its association with Medieval doctrine. The most common term today (at least in the Episcopal Church) is The Eucharist, which is an ancient title, referring to the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in this Sacrament. 
The first question which needs to be addressed is, what is the Sacrament?  What happens in the Lord's Supper?  The Article addresses this,

"The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ."

The Article address many important points.  First, it acknowledges that the Sacrament is a sign of unity among Christians but it is also much more than that.  It is also a sign or sacrament, the latter meaning an effectual sign, i.e. carrying about what it signifies yet remaining separate in nature, of our Redemption. This is important for the Reformation was not intent upon denying the presence of the Lord in the Sacrament, the question was if that presence was confined to the elements and if so, how. This is further specified to mean a partaking of Christ's body and blood by those who receive worthily, in faith. The latter points will be discussed in further detail below.  The question that remains after revealing what the Sacrament is, is, how are Christ's body and blood present in relation to the bread and wine?  

The Article continues by first explaining what does not happen in the Lord's Supper,

"Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions."

The Sacrament is a partaking in the body and blood of Christ but it is also a sign of these things, meaning that the bread and the wine are not overturned by the consecration.  Earlier statements in the formularies reveal what a sacrament is and the nature of transubstantiation denies that the sacrament can be an effectual sign because the distinction between the sign and the thing signified is broken.  Transubstantiation and memorialism are actually two sides of the same coin.  The former overthrows the nature of a sacrament by conflating the sign and thing signified; the latter overthrows the nature of a sacrament by completely divorcing the sign and the thing signified. This proper distinction between sign and thing signified refers back to the theology of St. Augustine, who establish this line of thinking, and ties the English Reformation to the Swiss Reformation.

Having described what does not happen in the Sacrament, the Article describes what does happen,

"The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith."

First, this statement denies any local presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. In other words, the presence of Christ is not a physical or carnal presence.  In this manner, this statement could be grouped with the former in that it denies a further error in relation to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, that being the Lutheran understanding of sacramental union, in a localized sense.  The body and blood of Christ are not contained in, with, or under the bread and wine.  This error stems from a different source than transubstantiation or memorialism.  The former stem from a faulty sacramental theology, this error stems from a poor understanding of Christology because it denies Christ a proper, human body, in the sense that his body is denied a true, local presence at the right hand of God.  This issue is found in the "Black Rubric',

"Whereas it is ordained in this Office for the Administration of the Lord's Supper, that the Communicants should receive the same kneeling; (which order is well meant, for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgement of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers, and for the avoiding of such profanation and disorder in the holy Communion, as might otherwise ensue;) yet, lest the same kneeling should by any persons, either out of ignorance and infirmity, or out of malice and obstinacy, be misconstrued and depraved; It is hereby declared, that thereby no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be 'at one time in more places than one.”

This rubric actually addresses a few different points.  First, it was intended to answer the question as to why Anglicans kneel to receive the Sacrament, which some thought implied an adoration of the elements.  The rubric denies that any adoration is given and explains why it is wrong to adore the Eucharistic elements.  The reason for not adoring the elements is that no change of substance occurs in the sacrament and the bread and wine remain such in their natural substances, set apart for holy use, but no change in them has occurred, nonetheless and to adore the elements would be idolatry, since adoration is only due to God alone.  Further, the natural body and blood of Christ are not "here" meaning at the table.  Christ's natural body and blood are in heaven, at the right hand of God.  

The statement affirms what is called the "spiritual presence" (although I am not fond of that term).  This means that the manner in which we receive Christ's body and blood is "heavenly and spiritual" only.  In contrast to the Lutheran idea of "oral manducation" or taking Christ's body and blood into our mouths, the Article clearly explains that the means by which we receive the body and blood is faith.  This means we do not take Christ into our digestive system, which is a gross and distorted theology of the Eucharist.  This ties to the first statement made in the Article which defines that in order to receive the thing signified, or the body and blood, the elements must be received in faith, or worthily, by the recipient.  This begs the question as to what happens if the elements are not received in faith.  Luckily, the formularies also define what happens in this instance, in Article 29,

"The wicked and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as S. Augustine saith) the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ, but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing."

This means that unbelievers or those who do not receive worthily, do not receive Christ's body and blood, only the elements. This is possible via the distinction between sign and thing signified. Transubstantiation errs in eliminating the distinction by conflating the two things. Memorialism fails by divorcing them completely. Consubstantiation fails by muddying them together. Only Reformed theology ("spiritual presence") correctly distinguishes these two things, yet acknowledges the union between them. Because of this, an unbeliever can receive the sign, yet not the thing signified. 

Lastly, after correcting these faulty understandings of the nature of the presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament, the Article addresses some abuses which had (and still do) arise due to bad theology,

"The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped."

If the Sacrament is a sign of Christ's body and blood, it is idolatrous to worship, adore, or intend any such veneration of the signs themselves.  This last statement speaks against such practices such as elevating the host at either the consecration or at any other point during the Liturgy, for adoration.  It speaks against the reservation of the Sacrament, which implies a localized presence of Christ's body and blood in the elements.  In modern terms, it condemns the following "popular" practices: reserving the Sacrament for worship services or prayer "with the Blessed Sacrament", Corpus Christi festivals, Elevation of the Host during the Liturgy, etc. 

These errors relating to the Lord's Supper are truly dangerous errors to be made because they cut to the core of the Anglican identity problem. This identity crisis has expressed itself in two ways, as described above, either in open rejection of Anglican standards or in an attempt to subtly change their teaching and present this newness as the original message. Both of these approaches are flawed and lead to the problems we are facing today in the Anglican Churches. The only way to fix these problems is to return to our standards and be honest about who we really are.


Anonymous said...

How does this Anglican understanding reflect the Ante-Nicene Fathers' statements that we are really eating the Body and Blood of Christ? Or St. John the Golden-tongued when he says the Eucharist smears the doorpost of our mouth with the Lord's blood?

From my layperson perspective, it appears the Fathers did not view Communion as a spiritual presence but a physical one-albeit, they certainly did not define this physical presence as transubstantiation.

-Discerning Anglicanism or Orthodoxy

The Hackney Hub said...

There were a wide variety of views held by the early Church Fathers. Some held to views that could be classified as more realist, such as Ambrose. Yet, many held to the realist-symbolical interpretation adopted by the English Reformers, such as Augustine. I recommend C.W. Dugmore's "The Mass and the English Reformers" for a further discussion of the Fathers in relation to the Reformers.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I will certainly read Dugmore's work. Do you have any guidance as to how the Eastern Orthodox have erred? It would greatly help this former evangelical low churchman in my search for the liturgical Church.

-Discerning Anglicanism or Orthodoxy

The Hackney Hub said...

I'm not very familiar with the peculiarities of Orthodox theology but essentially they agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine, without being bogged down in philosophical terms. The main error, of those two Communions, is placing the real presence in the elements and subsequently in the mouth, rather than focusing on the real presence in the believer and the soul.