Do Anglicans believe in ‘real presence’?

Host-Elevation-1Earlier 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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31 thoughts on “Do Anglicans believe in ‘real presence’?”

  1. I see no ground to disagree with anything you say in this blog, Ian; yet a good deal of me wants to cry out “But…!” This “blest sacrament of unity” above all demands that we discern the Body of Christ – God’s people gathered, along with the wider unity of all God’s people scattered over time and space: the Body of Christ is really present, and it is not merely a psycho-social reality, but it is genuinely mystical. Almost by definition that implies something we are not going to put easily into words.

    Back in 1970s I was discussing whether it would be possible for someone like me, an Evangelical Protestant, to receive communion in a Roman Catholic prayer group. The priest, a lecturer in systematic theology in the Roman Catholic Seminary in Sydney, and no mean scholar, said there were two criteria, Baptism and “an acceptance of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament”. After that I felt comfortable receiving Communion in certain Roman Catholic contexts, viz. where that kind of criteria were recognised. Perhaps significant that there was no mention of transubstantiation, nor of subscription to any particular doctrine of how Christ is really present in the sacrament. At the time I remembered Studdert Kennedy’s poem “At the Eucharist”, in which the opening lines are
    How through this Sacrament of simple things
    The great God burns His way,
    I know not — He is there.

    Even further back, around 1964, I recall overhearing a conversation between two theological students of Moore College, at a training weekend: one tried to argue for the semi-mystical view I mentioned above, and the other insisted, “It’s only a memorial.” I did not speak, as I wasn’t part of that conversation; but I knew then I could never be a Zwinglian. So I am not arguing for my subjective conviction, nor from 36 years ordained as a priest and the thousands of faces I have watched receiving what seems from those faces to be beyond preciousness; nor from the observation and participation in Eucharistic worship with people ranging from Catholics to Pentecostals, Baptists and house churches of very similar reactions. I am simply reflecting that the Lord’s Supper reaches very deeply, and to plumb its depths is as risky as trying to comprehend the Holy Trinity.

    For us benighted theologians both investigations are necessary. Wisdom requires, however, that we know where to allow the curtains to close gently against us, and retire to a glass of something warming.

    • Thanks, Peter, both fascinating and poetic.

      I am drawn to being Zwinglian, but as I hint and that end (and also reply to Simon), the problem with Zwingli and the person you mention is that ‘It is only a memorial’ underestimates the power and reality of memory.

      I worry that need to add ‘spiritual/mystical’ as an addition to the ‘psycho-social’ colludes with a materialism which says that the material is inadequate to communicate the spiritual without the addition of a (possibly Aristotelian) extra layer of something else. Apart from anything else, it undermines our understanding of the incarnation.

  2. Last weekend a group of final year Ordinands and tutors from SEITE visited the Roman Catholic seminary at Bovendonk in the Netherlands, as we do each year. Once again we (that is Anglicans and Catholic students alike) wrestled with the painful reality of being unable to share in Holy Communion together – the very thing that should be a symbol of our membership together in the Body of Christ.

    This continues to cause pain and sadness, especially in the context of constructive dialogue that constantly reveals how much we share in terms of faith, motivations and desire to serve Christ in ministry.

    One Catholic student in particular spent the weekend asking as many Anglicans as he could: ‘Do you believe in transubstantiation?’ Circumstances did not permit nuanced conversations, but many of us wanted to ask in response ‘What does that mean anyway?’

    My own response was to say, ‘No, but I do believe in Christ’s presence.’ (Note the lack of capitals, not so evident in speech!) For me, to view Holy Communion as a sacrament means to see it as something more than a memorial. God is active in it – the ‘inward and spiritual reality’ – and I have no qualms therefore seeing Christ as ‘present’, especially if that builds a bridge to the parts of the Body from whom I am painfully dislocated. (Pardon my mixed metaphors.)

    • Thanks Simon, very interesting.

      But I question the language of ‘more than a memorial’ just as question the language of ‘mere metaphor.’ When I celebrate my birthday or my wedding anniversary, is that a ‘mere memorial’? When soldiers remember fallen comrades in Remembrance, is that ‘mere memorial’?

      No, it is a world transforming bringing of the past into the present, so that past is ‘real’ in the here and now. That is how sacrament and symbol work; we don’t need to invent new categories of reality to account for it. Hence my closing paragraph. Memory, metaphor, sacrament and the presence of the Spirit are enough to make things ‘real’!

      • Thanks Ian.
        Sorry if I’m missing your point, but what (if anything) makes a sacrament distinct from any other memorial or symbol?
        You use the phrase ‘and the presence of the Spirit’ – is that it?

  3. Thank you for this Ian, as ever, it is one of my biggest ponderings, not the theology of it as such, as I am pretty much in concurrence with your view, but how to discuss it with people from different perspectives without seeming to stamp all over their ‘experience’ and seem to be too clinical and technical about what is for me, as much as them, an incredibly significant and sacramental (i.e. Encounter with God) time in gathered worship.

    I have found the information about the unleavened matzo particularly helpful, that is the kind of thing that speaks to me as I receive at the Communion table!

    I also agree with you about how much previous experience and inculturation can have on someone’s ongoing experience of Communion. I have faithful Christian friends who have grown up in Anglo-Catholic worship who would argue that of course it is the real presence, and they could not imagine how anyone could describe it as ‘mere memorial’ (which I think even Zwingli would be perturbed by) and they always experience the true body and blood of Christ (after the appropriate part of the liturgy has been spoken by the priest).
    But of course they would in the sense that you have argued above – they have been taught that, they have expected that and in ritual and metaphor and all those other ‘beyond-literal-language’ that is to all intents and purposes what is put forward to be happening. I imagine that to question that on biblical interpretation grounds and change one’s theological (or perhaps ‘mechanical’) understanding of what is happening would be very hard to do and still maintain the same sense of experience of God’s presence, at least at first, if not for a very long time.

    I also have friends who have grown up with more standard CW HC (arguably ‘middle-of-the-road’, which I would cheekily suggest is part of the problem, as that ‘tradition’ rarely puts forward any distinctive theological understanding of anything liturgical), who have found a new more Catholic experience (which I have found often to involve a multi-sensory, reverent experience of celebrating Communion) incredibly moving and significant. But again, I think this could be more because of the contrast in experiencing the reverence and significance of that moment of the service that maybe the Anglo-catholic worship sometimes does better at than other traditions, rather than they have suddenly changed their theology of Real Presence.

    Finally, I think while much of this discussion is still among established traditions, there is an important missional aspect when thinking about the many many people who may (or will!) come to Christ afresh in the coming years in the Anglican church, who have no prior experience of Communion. Catechism that is rooted in Scripture, highly relational within the faith community and, arguably, deeply Anglican will be a crucial element of this. Obviously this will depend on which churches they come to faith in, and how those traditions will influence the teaching about communion, but I think your argument is a strong one in suggesting that if we want to pass on Anglican theology of communion, we need to challenge ourselves on what that is according to our inherited liturgical texts and liturgies. We also need to continue to be creative, relational and reverent in our Communion practice so that people are brought into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection in the present, and forever changed.

  4. Thank you for this. Very helpful!
    What I’ve written elsewhere is that the Lord’s Table has both a communal nature and sacramental nature. Consider:

    The Communal Nature of the Holy Eucharist
    The Holy Eucharist is a communion with God and with one another. As a corporate activity, the Holy Eucharist is a response of thanksgiving for the work of redemption that Christ achieved for his Church. Because it is corporate, our orientation is not merely vertical as we individually look up to Christ in thanksgiving, but also horizontal and communal as we collectively look out to one another in love. As such, our personal standing with God is not the sole focus of the Holy Eucharist; our standing with one another is also in view. It is by the “one loaf of bread” and the “blood of Christ” that we are united to Christ and to one another (1 Cor 10:17; Eph 2:12-15).

    Participating in the Holy Eucharist, therefore, while knowingly experiencing estrangement from other members of our spiritual family would be an instance of partaking in an “unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27-33). To be sure, the abuse at Corinth was in failing to “discern the body of Christ” (1 Cor 11:29), which involved a disregard for other members of their community. To depreciate those who are sanctified by Christ is to take what is holy and treat it as if it were profane. The Apostle Paul’s charge to “examine” ourselves first (1 Cor 11:28) involves, at least, evaluating our solidarity (cf., 1 Cor 10:16-17) as reflected in the ways we relate to and treat other members of Christ’s body.

    Collectively remembering and partaking of Christ’s broken body and shed blood (1 Cor 11:24-25) unites us in a number of ways. The Holy Eucharist shows our common need for a final and sufficient atonement for sins. It manifests our common status as undeserved recipients of his costly grace and it demonstrates our common confession of Christ as the communal Host for the meal.

    The Sacramental Nature of the Holy Eucharist
    To appreciate the sacramental nature of the Holy Eucharist, it is important to recall the backstory from Scripture. Passover is the commemoration and celebration of Israel’s deliverance from slavery to Egypt and their freedom as a nation. In the tenth and worst of the plagues on Egypt, God instructed the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes. This led to Pharaoh’s release of the Israelite slaves and to their subsequent freedom. The Passover event was to be celebrated annually by the whole community as a common and unifying experience for the nation. It defined the nation of Israel and fixed their identity as a people chosen by God (Ex 12).

    Passover came to mark a season of transitions. The old year transitions to the new (Ex 12:2), from the rainy season/winter to the dry season/summer. The old leaven is cleared out to make way for the new, which symbolically portrays Israel’s transition from bondage to freedom, from death to life (Ex 12:15-20). Doorposts marked with the sacrificial blood of a lamb show the transition from God’s judgment outside the threshold to his life-preserving favor inside. All these things, and more, are illustrated in the Holy Eucharist.

    Jesus celebrated the Passover Meal with his disciples (Lk 22:15-20) and no doubt the images of the first Passover were present to them. Jesus leverages the bread and the wine to portray his impending death. Just as Israel was saved from slavery in Egypt by the death of a Passover lamb (Ex 12:21), so believers in Christ are saved from slavery to sin by the death of our Passover Lamb (Jn 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7; Rev 5:12). As with Israel’s Passover lamb, Jesus too was without blemish or defect (Ex 12:5; 1 Pt 1:19). The disciples all drank from one cup and ate from one loaf emphasizing their solidarity and identity as God’s people (Lk 22:17). Through these events and symbols, the whole community experiences a common and unifying spiritual experience in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, our Passover. Moreover, the Supper binds us, not just to all those present to us, but also to the invisible Church of God, our eschatological community whose presence we will one day enjoy. In this solemn act of eating the bread and drinking from the cup, we declare our transition from death to life eternal, from estrangement to adoption, from solitude to solidarity with the people of God, and from bondage in sin to freedom in Christ.

    How, then, might this spiritual experience in the Holy Eucharist be known? It is not in the administration of the elements alone, nor the mere mental recollection of all that Christ has done, to which the elements point. Neither is Christ’s presence localized in the bread or the wine, just as he is not present in the words of Scripture. Instead, we commune with and are nourished by the redemptive presence of Christ when the Holy Spirit unites our faith with those acts of eating and drinking. When we consume the symbols of Christ’s body and blood our union with Christ and with one another is both manifest and renewed. The repeated experience of the Holy Eucharist also elicits perseverance of the saints as God’s Spirit makes us aware, again and again, of the depth and extent of God’s love shown to us in the cross of Christ. In all these ways and more, the Holy Eucharist is God’s way of mediating his grace to us and in us as he continually transforms us after his image.

    Insofar as we eat the bread and drink the cup in faith, then we not only remember the benefits of Christ’s death, but we also reenact our original surrender to God’s irresistible love as shown in Christ’s death (Rom 5:8). Although this reenactment is a historical reminder, it takes place in the current unfolding of our lives and serves to strengthen our resolve to love Christ more. All that remains is heartfelt gratitude (hence “eucharist” = “thanksgiving”) for so great a salvation that is offered by our Passover Lamb of God. As a people chosen by God’s sheer mercy and grace we proclaim our transition from death to life until one day he comes to feast with us in eternity (Lk 22:18; 1 Cor 11:26; Rev 19:9).

  5. Being neither a trained minister nor an Anglican I can only say that what you’ve written resonates strongly with my own understanding and I thank you for it.

    Having said that, for me the language of “sacrament”, “presence” and others is great for this context (a discussion between a group of people who by and large share the same knowledge of technical language) but largely useless to the increasing number of people who will encounter it with no prior frame of reference for what is happening, by which I mean, the largely un-churched population. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on how this would be articulated to a broader audience?

    As a last point, I think the aspect of communion you’ve missed out, which I feel Catholicism put more emphasis on (rightly so) is that of communion being a meal of commissioning; the recognition that in taking and receiving we are symbolically proclaiming a great truth. There is almost an element of defiance to it, a declaration even, that I think we forget. In declaring that Jesus is Lord, we are also implicitly stating who is not. I think it’s only when you combine all three (memorial, presence, purpose) that you’ve got it right…

    If I had to summarize my own view of communion that’s how I would do it. In a simple a form as possible I’d say;

    There is a past element (memorial, refection, remembrance of an event)
    There is a present element (because of that event, and our sharing in it there is status, unity, perseverance, power)
    There is a future element (and because of the present reality we can discover and overflow into purpose, proclamation, declaration and mission)

    And I don’t think that excludes anything anyone has said above. Communion is a symbolic action, but

    • “..Communion is a symbolic action, but…”

      It is not lessened by being that, it is strengthened by it. It makes it no less real, no less potent and no less NECESSARY for the church.

      I cut off my own post by accident.

  6. When I was researching for my MPhil and remember spending a day in St John’s library looking at the history of the liturgy around this. I have never seen it referenced anywhere else but (and I am writing from hazy memory) I read that, prior to the 1662 revision, there was significant debate around the need for a supplemantry prayer of consecration should additional supplies of bread and wine be required . Prior to 1662 it was enough for the congregation to have heard the words of institution and then faithfully receive the elements without the need for a further prayer. However 1662 does contains a rubric instructing additional consecration, which was controversial because it represented a move away from a wholly receptionist understanding. A quick look today seems to confirm that there was indeed no such rubric in 1559 …

  7. I don’t know, Ian. Are the CW Eucharist prayers really receptionist? It is not clear that the epiclesis in CW is always “on us” rather than on the gifts. It is only so explicit in prayer D, and the epiclesis was added due to the influence of 20th century liturgical reform, which emphasized calling down the spirit upon the gifts (as it is in so many historic Eastern liturgies).

    CW prayer A: “Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine may be to us his body and his blood.” B: “Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit and according to your holy will these gifts of bread and wine may be to us his body and his blood.” C is modernized BCP, with an added “by the power of your Holy Spirit.” D: “Send your Spirit on us now that by these gifts we may feed on Christ…” E: “Send your Holy Spirit that broken bread and wine outpoured may be for us the body and blood of your dear Son.” F: “…by your Holy Spirit let these gifts of your creation be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” G: “Pour out your Holy Spirit as we bring before you these gifts of your creation; may they be for us the body and blood of your dear Son.” H: “…send your Holy Spirit that this bread and this wine may be to us the body and blood of your dear Son.”

    No doubt the ambiguity was deliberate, but all of these differ significantly from the BCP’s “we, receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood…”

    Also, the CW prayers must be interpreted alongside the authorized words of distribution, such as “the body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ”, instead of the BCP’s required “the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy body and soul in everlasting life; take this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful.” (One might add other authorized texts into the mix as well.)

    Finally: “Real Presence” was a term frequently used in the nineteenth century precisely to distinguish Anglicans from Roman Catholics. It has perhaps travelled (in some circles) so that it now signifies to some a position like transubstantiation, but that’s not really what it means. I

  8. I agree with Queen Elizabeth I,

    “Christ was the word that spake it.
    He took the bread and break it;
    And what his words did make it
    That I believe and take it.”

    It’s often assumed to be evasive temporising, but it’s theologically profound.

  9. Ian,

    two questions and two comments, if I may.

    On what basis do you say that the bread was unleavened? The Gospels simply say bread (artos – which can mean any kind), don’t they, rather than azumos for unleavened bread in particular? The Orthodox Churches use leavened bread precisely because their reading of the Gospels is that it was not a Passover meal – i.e. they prefer John’s chronology.

    Second question, what do you make of John 6? This passage seems to be hugely Eucharistic (and linked to the lack of an institution narrative in John, I’d say). Jesus says that one must masticate his flesh to have life. If this was “merely” symbolic language why do many of Jesus’ disciples leave him at this point (v.66)?

    And my comment – I’ve always found the language of “Real Presence” to be distinct from “Transubstantiation.” Real Presence at least as used by Anglicans has always seemed to me a way of asserting something more than symbol or metaphor, up to and including Transubstantiation, but with no commitment to that or any particular doctrine. Thus my experience (!) of Anglicans is that “Real Presence” is used precisely to distinguish their views from Roman catholic insistence on Transubstantiation.

    And last, I’ve thought that “heavenly and spiritual manner” in the Articles means something “real” none the less. Is the body of Jesus after the Resurrection not heavenly and spiritual (cf 1 Cor 15.35ff – and hence it can Ascend)? the Resurrection body is no metaphor or symbol – it eats fish.

    • Hi Bernard,

      You asked: Second question, what do you make of John 6? This passage seems to be hugely Eucharistic (and linked to the lack of an institution narrative in John, I’d say). Jesus says that one must masticate his flesh to have life. If this was “merely” symbolic language why do many of Jesus’ disciples leave him at this point (v.66)?

      Although posed to Ian, please permit me to comment. If this was a reference to the Eucharist, it would imply that Holy Communion is a sine qua non of salvation. This would further imply that eternal life was and is conditional upon the consumption of Christ’s body through Holy Communion. Yet, without it, Christ assures redemption to Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross. It would appear that they had no need to ‘masticate his flesh’ in order to have life.

      Just to clarify his meaning, Jesus said: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh conveys no benefit. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63)

      The evidence through other examples is that the disaffection of those who deserted Christ (in John 6) was due to a literal misunderstanding. The apostles made a similar mistake in misinterpreting Christ’s warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. Nicodemus also misunderstood Christ’s explanation of spiritual re-birth. These examples give a clear indication of the significant difficulties that many of Jesus’ hearers had in understanding spiritual realities, which could only be conveyed in metaphorical language:
      ‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:3,4)

      Christ’s answer is quite pertinent to your question: ‘Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’

      Why woul maintain the vital difference between Spirit and flesh here, only to conflate it in John 6. It doesn’t make sense.

      That said, your point about ‘merely symbolic’ is well taken by me. There is a danger that, in avoiding the literal, we end up conflating the metaphorical (merely linguistic and cultural devices used to describe a transcendent reality) with the mystical (an identification with the redemptive work of Christ by which He has promised to impart supernatural moral sustenance).

      Both baptism and Holy Communion involve expressing faith through physical identification. As such, the rites are intensely incarnational. The participation in the Eucharist proceeds by disciples passing Christ’s invitation to join the inner circle of those who, despite their shortcomings and doubts, concurred with St. Peter: ‘Lord, to whom shall we turn, you have the words of eternal life’

      As St. Paul explains about identification with and ownership by Christ: ‘We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

      To proclaim the Lord’s death is to proclaim what His death accomplished. In Eph. 2:14 – 18, St. Paul clearly explains the victory secured by the Lord’s death. More than just personal redemption, in recognition of our common need, His sacrifice brought unity to those estranged by race and ancestral differences: the assurance that our common destiny to reflect the eternal glory of God will be fulfilled:
      ‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.’

      It provides the key clue to understanding how Corinth’s segregated congregation was insidiously subverting Christ’s victorious death. For, instead of being a microcosm of the new humanity united in the knowledge of God through the one faith, ‘once delivered unto the saints’, they had poisoned the proclamation of the Lord’s death by segregation. It was a direct affront to the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice.

      Let’s be honest that this happens today wherever churches disregard the scriptures and unofficially collude to maintain a particular racial, cultural or economic hegemony.

      There is great danger in discussing and participating in the Eucharist as only a remembrance concerned with Christ sacrifice for oneself and those who are like us, while aiding and abetting, or just doing nothing much to reverse segregation among Christians. Paul’s solemn warning needs to be re-iterated: ‘He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself’.

  10. Do Anglicans believe in ‘real presence’? A simple, direct and objective answer to that question is easily arrived at: some Anglicans do, and some Anglicans don’t.

  11. Hi Ian
    I echo Bernard Randall’s observation/question re John 6 whose real absence from the post may represent a lapse in memory?

    My evangelical, memorialist, receptionist sympathies hit John 6 and I come over all Real Presence!

    • Question is, Peter – is John 6 about the Eucharist, or is the Eucharist about John 6? It makes a difference.

      It seems to me that the foundational verse in John 6 is v.35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In other words, the way we consume the Bread of Life is by coming to him and believing in him.

      In verse 40 Jesus says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”. Similarly in verse 47, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life”. We don’t hit the ‘Whoever eats this bread will live forever” language until verse 51, and it’s clearly metaphorical for what has gone before.

      So my evangelical receptionist sympathies hit John 6 and come away affirmed. I feed on the Bread of Life by coming to him and believing in him. Receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion in faith is one way I do this, and when I do so, I do indeed ‘feed on him in my heart by faith with thanksgiving’. But I don’t think John 6 is exclusively about the Eucharist. I think its the other way around. I think the Eucharist is about John 6.

      • Dear Tim, how does your Anglican Receptionist (?) theology deal with the verse of Scripture that say “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you” ? Or, do you think that is just adiaphora?

        • And how did Christ assure forgiveness and eternal life to the thief on the cross? When did the latter partake of the Eucharist before entering paradise?

        • Hi Ron. I think a literal identification of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood with the act of receiving Holy Communion would lead us to believe that (a) it is the act of receiving Communion that makes it possible for us to live forever (6:51), and (b) unless we receive Communion we have no life in us (6:53), and (c) our receiving eternal life is dependant on receiving Communion (6:54), and (d) it is by receiving Communion that we abide in Jesus, and he is us (6:56).

          This, then, would be in direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching earlier in the passage, that ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (v.35), and “This is the all of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (v.40).

          It seems clear to me from this that when Jesus talks about ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood’, he is not talking about anything different from the ‘coming to him and believing in him’ mentioned in v. 35. THat’s what I mean when I say that I don’t believe John 6 is about the Eucharist. I believe it’s the other way around – the Eucharist is about John 6. Pure faith is difficult for us, so God give some a concrete act by which I can express and embody my faith – participating in Holy Communion. but it cannot be the only way I receive those benefits – if it were, my Salvation Army friends (many pdf whom follow Jesus in a much more exemplary way than I do) would be lost – not to mention those who celebrate Holy Communion outside the apostolic succession, which some in the Catholic tradition appear to see as suspect as well.

  12. Fantastic post Ian. I will re-read it tomorrow because there is so much in it.

    You said / quoted: “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.”

    I have never thought of that before but in the context of the Eucharist we often mess up when it comes to bread. Anglo-Catholics often use a wafer which doesn’t seem like bread. Many other churches use bread itself but virtually no church use unleavened bread, but why not? Unleavened bread reminding us of Christ’s suddenness of moving away from our lives and towards the promised land has such real meaning.

    I have long though of the Eucharist as an anamnesis, in parallel to the passover concept, in which we celebrate the last supper as described to us (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11) and in which we are also participating in the last supper. That is different from trans-substantiation.

  13. Because the Eucharist is an action – a liturgy – rather than a ‘thing’ I have always found it more helpful to speak of Christ being really present in the whole celebration (of which the elements taken, blessed and consumed are the focus) rather than ‘thingifying’ The Real Presence (with or without the ‘substance’/accidents’ baggage). I know this does not answer all the questions, but it’s a useful corrective.

  14. A great post Ian. And it’s a difficult subject to air because a lot of people have the whole style and substance of their ministry entwined (imprisoned?) by what they believe about the Lord’s Supper. It can become a lot more personal than other areas of theological discussion, so it’s another case for humility all round. I do agree that there is plenty of scope for confusion if you start with assumptions based on centuries of theological assertions before you read exactly what is written in the Bible about the Lord’s Supper. A couple of thoughts:

    The first Passover in Egypt was a one-off event, not so much for sustenance but as a mark of obedience which conferred a life-saving identity on those who trusted in the forthcoming deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It would be re-enacted yearly for remembrance, (and it would have a completely new significance for Christians after Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of himself). Daily sustenance thereafter was provided as manna, a different food which many of us would see as equivalent to Jesus’ words for post Ascension Christians (John 6.63).

    People may indeed use the word ‘mere’ when arguing that the Eucharist is about remembrance but that is to stress that there is no literal change to the bread and wine and thereby countering a temptation to superstitious belief; considering that what is being remembered is the greatest event in human history a better phrase might be ‘momentous remembrance’. If that is what it is, would an annual celebration be more appropriate and far more significant, and reduce the risk of over familiarity? Could over familiarity be a serious cause for failing to discern the body (1 Corinthians 11.29), ie partaking of the Lord’s Supper while not having one’s mind fixed on the enormity of the cost of salvation? But there is of course uncertainty about what Paul meant here.

    • Don,

      Anamnesis is more than re-enactment. In the passover the Jews are present at the passover supper as well as re-enacting the past. So it is with the Last supper, with Jesus’ words I suggest we are present as well as remembering, after all Jesus had the last supper in passover week.

  15. Ian, I wonder what “Catholic stuff” your ordinands were looking for and failing to find in the Ordinal? Perhaps there is a misapprehension here of what “Catholic stuff” might be. According to Pius XII, the laying on of hands by the bishop, with prayer indicating the order being conferred, is all that is necessary for ordination. No difference there from Anglican understanding. Contrast continental Reformed practice in appointing ministers (at least, before the liturgical movement) such as the right hand of fellowship from the presbytery, or delegation from the congregation. Those things are not in the Ordinal, the “Catholic stuff” is.

    As regards the Real Presence, as has been noted, some Anglicans believe in it, some don’t. The Church of England doesn’t impose any particular view, but does expect us to live together with our differences and recognise each other’s ministries. To which end observance of the rubrics and Canons by everyone, whatever their theological opinion, is in my view of the utmost importance.

  16. I believe believe in the real presence in the Eucharist, not in the bread and Wine per se.

    The whole rite is consecratory, not a moment in it…. and I am what I eat, as Augustine and Chrysostom said.

    Which is clear in the epiclesis in Eucharistic Prayer G, for instance, though not in all the epiclesis (what’s the plural of epiclesis?), it’s true.

    Ephesians is the real key to Eucharistic theology.

    But yes, it’s never been a point of definition of an Anglican, though some kind of Real Presence has mostly been part of the broad centre, I guess.

    Too much over definition? It’s not mathematics, after all.

  17. Article XXVIII is just one of the reasons most catholic-minded Anglicans have rejected the 39 Artifacts as a definition of the beliefs of modern-day Anglicans.

    After all, even for the Sola scriptura crowd, Jesus is reported to have said – of the bread and the wine of the Eucharist: “This IS my Body; This IS my Blood’. Therefore, even a mere ‘memorial’ needs to take these Dominical words into account.

    • Ron, he also said “I AM the gate for the sheep’, “No one can become my follower without giving up all they have”, and “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’.

      Jesus was a master of parable and metaphor. When he said ‘This is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ (and by the way, according to our oldest account, he didn’t say ‘this is my blood’ but ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood’, which suggests an entirely different angle) he was standing right in front of them – his blood still pulsing through his body. A literal interpretation would have been impossible at the Last Supper.


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