Shrine of St. Frideswide, Christ Church Cathedral Oxford.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Anglican Eucharistic Theology: Essentially Compliant with both High and Low-Church Traditions.

     A topic much discussed and argued over, this is more of a reflection on my struggle to find what the Eucharist is to me as a devoted, orthodox Anglican -I am glad if it helps others who are also looking for an explanation. I am not a theologian, trying to define Eucharistic theology, but a layman, trying to uncover it for my own beliefs. I must say that before I begin writing on this much debated subject that I am personally drawn to the Orthodox way of looking at the Eucharist as the 'Holy Mysteries' this solves a lot of problems the worst of which being that we quarrel over the Eucharist, a gift from Christ, at all. 
     What I have read over the past days and months has allowed me to view the celebration of the Eucharist in Christian worship as both a sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ and as a memorial. I will argue that there is discrepancy between the medieval, Roman Catholic term transubstantiation and the proud and unchristian followers of the destructive reformation in Switzerland and Germany, but that there should be no discrepancy between the high and low church visions of the Eucharist within the Anglican Church.
     First,  I will establish the Anglican Church's position within Christianity. The Anglican Church is different in many ways from other Protestants -it should not really be labeled as such. These included its organization, its initial intentions for reform and what little doctrine it does have. It's reformation, as Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth, expressed it, was more like the African or Oriental Orthodox Church, which split from the rest of the Church in its refusal to recognize the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in its attempt to become more like the primitive Church. This is why Anglicanism retains episcopacy, its succession from the apostles, and the Eucharist as its main worship unlike other protestant churches which protest even the primitive Church -and thus almost all of historical Christianity, by rejecting the Eucharist as main worship and by rejecting episcopacy. Anglicanism's attempt to stick to the Christianity of the early Church is reflected in its use of the creeds as its main, if not only universal source of doctrine outside the Bible and Book of Common Prayer.
     So the Anglican Church is one of the four ancient Christian Churches, the other three being the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. But what of it's worship?
     By the 14th and 15th centuries, the belief of the Church was of transubstantiation in the Eucharist -the chemical change of the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. But this was a misinterpretation of the use of the word transubstantiation by the so famous theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. It seems that the understanding of the word 'substance' in transubstantiation came to mean something other than that which was written by church doctors. Tyndale puts it this way:

"As concernyng the transsubstanciatyon I thinke that such a speche was among the olde doctours though they that came after vnderstode them amysse."
-From the OED definition of the word 'transubstantiation,'

     Anglicans wanted to restore the meaning and worship in the Eucharist back to its stance in the early middle ages, to clear out the 'superstition,' a favorite of   English reformers, from the worship of Christ. They were not like the iconoclasts in Switzerland who tore up and trampled upon the Blessed Sacrament- never among the English- but they did not want people to view the sacrament as a literal piece of Christ's flesh that, then, could heal and restore anyone or thing from a saint to an unrepentant sinner to livestock. Today we cannot see the Eucharist in these ways either. We cannot say that the bread and wine are chemically changed into Christ's Flesh. It all goes back to the misinterpretation of the word transubstantiation. 'Trans' of course mean 'change,' but substance is where things get confused. In Latin, it literally means below the surface, inwardly. In medieval literature, the word substantially is used to describe the togetherness of the Holy Trinity:

"He herd angels steuen And seiȝe Fader and Sone and Holi Gost In on substaunce, in on acost." 
-From the OED.

Just as the Trinity is not of one material but Three Persons of once substance or essence, the Blessed Sacrament is the Body of Christ in essence. This is how Cranmer, the first reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, explained the Blessed Sacrament:

"The true Body of Christ is present to those who truly receive him. Inwardly we eat Christ's body; outwardly we eat the Sacrament. Yet the Body of Christ is in the Sacrament both by substance and by efficacy."

This is the definition of the Church Fathers of the early Church so this is why Cranmer insists that this be the definition of the Eucharist for the continuing Anglican Church. Cranmer clearly states that Christ is present in the Eucharist. But he is trying to say that at the same time that the Eucharist is substantially, or in essence, the body of Christ but is not chemically flesh. It is also the body of Christ in efficacy -or potency, the consecrated Eucharist is no longer 'just bread;' it is the body of Christ in essence. But he is also saying that Christ is present only to those who truly accept him, the sacrament is no use to a person who does not have faith.
      Similarly, John Donne, the beloved 17th century poet and dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, took the view of the Blessed Sacrament based on the writings of the Church Fathers and of Cranmer and supported it drawing directly from the Gospel of John. He explains this in his poem Divine Poems: on the Sacrament:

"He was the Word, that spake it:
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it."

     If more 'Low Church' Anglicans prefer doctrine based solely on scripture then John Donne gives us a direct explanation based on scripture in support of Cranmer's and the Church Fathers' version of Transubstantiation.
     On this note, Anglican Eucharistic doctrine is clearly defined by the first of the Anglican Church's great theologians (Cranmer) while it is also scripturally supported. Doctrine on the nature of the Eucharist should not be disputed between the Anglican High and Low Church traditions. The consecrated bread and wine is in essence the Body and Blood just as the Trinity is in essence one being. The superstition of the later middle ages is cut out with the fact that there is no chemical change in the Eucharist, only an essential one. High church Anglicans may say that the 'Mass is a Sacrifice,' while low church Anglicans may say that it is only a 'memorial.' My answer to this is, based on Cranmer's definition of the Eucharist, that the Mass is both a sacrifice and a memorial. It is a sacrifice in the way that it is a meal which we have all gathered at and that this is the Body of Christ sacrificed for those who believe in him. But it is not a repeat of the Crucifixion, the ultimate sacrifice, it is a memorial of the Crucifixion. Christ has already died, risen and ascended to heaven so the sacrifice of the Eucharist recalls his Body and Blood in a memorial of these things.
     High and low church Anglican definitions of the Eucharist can be one. The Mass is a sacrifice -the Body and Blood of Christ is recalled by the priest essentially in the sacrament of bread and wine, and a memorial -Jesus Christ has already sacrificed himself on the cross and risen from the dead. This definition is in accordance with the holy tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church from primitive times and with the theology of the Anglican reformers, namely with the explanation of St. Thomas Cranmer.

But I still think that the best way to see the Eucharist is to see it as a Holy Mystery and not to let ourselves become mixed up in the politics that we have created over the gift that is still Holy whatever we decide.

No comments:

Post a Comment