Earlier this week I had a conversation with a friend who has just been recommended for ordination training. He has been meeting with someone else going through selection, and they have been working through the ordinal together. ‘It’s funny—we couldn’t find all that Catholic stuff in the ordinal—it comes over as quite, well, if not evangelical, then quite reformed.’
Earlier this week, Andrew Goddard posted a wonderful quotation from Hensley Henson, who was Bishop of Durham 1920–1939:
The truth is that, under the description ‘the Anglican Communion’, there are gathered two mutually contradictory conceptions of Christianity. How long the divergence of first principles can be concealed remains to be seen. Sometimes I think the rupture is very near. (Retrospect, ii.270).
Whereas we might now consider the ‘rupture’ to be between Evangelicals and Liberals, in Henson’s day it was between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals over ecumenism and the South India Scheme. Henson was a supporter of the 1927/28 revised Prayer Book, which was accepted by the Church but rejected by Evangelicals in Parliament.
These two incidents demonstrate a constant but curious feature of life in the Church of England: the common gap between the official position of the Church, expressed in the texts of its canons and liturgy, and the assumed practice in many parts of the Church.
I came across a third, striking, example this week, in reading a blog post by Dr David Ison, who is Dean of St Paul’s. David recounts a conversation with someone from a Pentecostal background about the problems with the Church of England, and part of the conversation covers what Anglicans believe about Communion.
In his view, the Church had erred by treating the bread and wine with too much reverence, identifying it wrongly as Christ’s body and blood – Jesus had said that we should do this in remembrance, so it was an action of remembrance only.
My response was that I didn’t believe in transubstantiation either! I explained that this was because I saw it as an Aristotelian medieval attempt to quantify a mystery, but added that I do believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, and that I do so for two reasons. Having started with the evangelical teaching that the Lord’s Supper is about remembrance and made valid by an individual’s worthy reception, I explained that over the years I’d seen in pastoral practice the way in which God has touched people’s lives through the sacrament without them understanding what it’s about. The other reason I explained is scripture. Paul and the Gospels quote Jesus as saying ‘This is my body’ of the bread, and that the wine is his blood, before he gives the command to do this in remembrance; and Paul also writes of the importance of discerning the body in the sacrament.
There are four slightly odd things about this comment. First, the term ‘Real Presence‘ (especially when capitalised) is indeed usually associated with transubstantiation, since it has long been used to refer to believe that Christ is present ‘in reality or substance’ rather than ‘merely symbolically or metaphorically.’ (You can see what problems we are going to get into, when we are drawn to talking about anything being ‘merely metaphorical’ since metaphor is a primary way that language talks about reality.)
The second thing that is slightly odd is David’s identification of a ‘receptionist’ theology of Communion as ‘evangelical’. It is actually rather squarely Anglican. The relevant Article is XXVIII:
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.
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 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.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
The Articles are often treated as of historical interest, rather than making demands or shaping contemporary Anglican practice. But the striking thing about Common Worship Eucharistic Prayers is that, read together, they reflect this receptionist theology. In the epiclesis (the calling of the Spirit), the prayers consistently invoke the Spirit ‘on us’ that these gifts of bread and wine may be ‘to us’ the body and blood of Christ. And this is complemented by the repeated affirmation that we are ‘making this memorial’. This is Anglican theology, and its focus is on how we receive the bread and wine—in faith.
The third odd comment comes in relation to the biblical texts. Jesus did indeed at the last supper say ‘This is my body’—and of course the one thing that he cannot have meant was that he was in any ‘real or substantial’ present in the bread since he was real and substantial in his personal presence! The bread was the unleavened matzo, a sign both of the suddenness of God’s unlikely deliverance of his people at Passover, and the life of holiness (without the leaven of sin) which God called his people into as they left slavery and headed for the promised land. Jesus himself now becomes the sign of God’s deliverance and his call to a new, holy way of living. We often struggle with the extreme nature of Jewish uses of metaphor; we just need to remember that our hearts have eyes (Eph 1.18) and that both our hearts and ears can be circumcised (Acts 7.51)! To suggest that Jesus’ words in the gospels give any warrant for believe in ‘real presence’ seems to me to be guilty of dumping a whole history of theological debate back onto the texts, rather than reading them in their historical and canonical context and allowing them to shape our theological thinking.
David makes another mistake in his citation of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11.29 about ‘discerning the body.’ Historically, these words were used to defend the notion of ‘real presence’, arguing that Paul is urging the Corinthians to recognise that what is here is different from ordinary food. But (as Fee notes in his commentary) this must be ruled out ‘as totally foreign to the context’ of Paul’s discussion about the social context of the meal where rich and poor are being treated differently instead of as equal members of the one body.
The Lord’s Supper is not just any meal; it is the meal, in which at a common table and with one loaf and a common cup they proclaimed that through the death of Christ they were one body, the body of Christ; and therefore that they are not just any group of socially diverse people who could keep those differences intact at the table. Here they must ‘discern/recognise as distinct’ the one body of Christ, of which they are all parts and in which they are all gifts to one another. To fail to discern the body in this way, by abusing those of lesser sociological status, is to incur God’s judgement. (NIC, p 564)
The final oddity is David’s use of experience. His observation in pastoral practice was that God had touched people through the sacrament ‘without them understanding what it’s about.’ Appeal is made to experience increasingly often in contemporary debate, as if experience is something neutral and value-free, and the appeal to experience is simply an appeal to the facts, to ‘how things are’, which are then non-negotiable. Anyone denying the argument from experience appears to be in denial of reality and therefore clearly unreasonable. In fact, experience is a philosophically complex thing, since no experience comes to us unmediated. Whenever we recount our experience, we are drawing on an implicit set of assumptions that shape our outlook on the world and give a context which translates the events of life into bearers of meaning—though because they are implicit, they are often hard to spot and tease out.
In this case, David makes three implicit moves. He sees some sort of response as people receive Communion, and interprets that (not unreasonably) as ‘God touching their lives’. He makes the further move that this encounter is one that involves repentance and faith at some level. The largest interpretive leap then comes in deducing that there is something objectively real in the elements, beyond their mere reception, to which he gives the title ‘Real Presence’. All three of these moves are open to scrutiny. I have no doubt at all that ‘something happens’ when people receive Communion, even without understanding, and that is hardly surprising. Bring people to a communal event (where such things are relatively rare in our culture); immerse them in a multi-sensory experience of sight, sound and smell; present them with some of the most beautiful and engaging music every written; involve them in some primal ritual moves, not the least the basic human gesture of holding out hands to receive a staple food—and it would astonishing if nothing happened. The question is, how much of this is personal, emotional and psychological, and how much spiritual and theological.
But the most striking thing about the appeal to experience is that, as in other contexts including biblical interpretation, it silences all other voices. The perspective of the man with whom he is in conversation now has no purchase, since this person is either ignorant of or does not understand these observations ‘from experience.’ And the voice of Scripture is either silenced or made to conform to the argument from experience—as has constantly happened with the Pauline phrase ‘discerning the body’. As in so many other debates, the appeal to experience trumps them all—and ends up making universal claims about the nature of reality and of theology.
In celebrating Communion, the memory of Jesus’ offering shapes our reality by bringing the past of his death and resurrection into the present. The metaphor Jesus used, ‘This is my body’, reconfigures our world to locate this event within the great redemptive acts of God in history as we remind ourselves of it. As we invite him in, the Spirit pours God’s love shown in Jesus’s giving of himself into our hearts once more. And this sacrament of bread and wine is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spirituality reality. That’s all real enough for me—and, as it turns out, it’s actually pretty Anglican!
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