Tuesday, 9 June 2015

'Only' Spiritual?

On Sunday, we celebrated Corpus Christi, and I preached briefly on how Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: if you missed it, you can read it here. I thought that it might be useful to build a little on last Sunday's teaching in this parish email.
First, it's important to recognise that Christ is present in the Eucharist in four different ways: First, in us, His gathered Body; second, as the Divine Word in the human words of the Bible, and especially in His words recorded in the Gospels; third, in the priest who represents Him at the Altar; and fourth, in the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine.

At the Reformation, the fourth of these modes of Christ's presence became controversial. Protestant thinkers questioned the precise definition of transubstantiation as it was taught by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, whereby the entire substance of the gifts is replaced with the body and blood of Christ, leaving only the outward appearance or 'accidents' of bread and wine. Still, almost all the Reformers held to what was clearly the belief of the earliest Christians, namely that Christ is really present in the gifts in some way. The disagreements were about exactly how.

At the most extreme end, the Swiss Reformer Zwingli argued that the bread and wine are bare signs conveying none of the grace of Christ's body and blood at all: the Lord's Supper was merely a commemorative meal. It should be said that this teaching is explicitly rejected in the Church of England's 39 Articles of Religion.

Luther, meanwhile, devised a teaching called 'consubstantiation:' the belief that the bread and wine remain but are simultaneously the body and blood of Christ. This theory has the merits of echoing Christ's status, agreed by the whole Church, as 100% human and simultaneously 100% divine.
Calvin, on the other hand, maintained that Christ was truly present in the sacrament only when it was received in true faith, a doctrine known as 'receptionism.' Archbishop Cranmer subscribed to this view at one point, and there is much evidence of it in the Book of Common Prayer. Article 28 of the 39 Articles of Religion maintains that "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" (I do have difficulty with the word 'only' in that sentence).

However, this is not the end of the story. The Prayer Book contains many ambiguities, and some of it suggests that an objective change is effected in the gifts during the Eucharistic Prayer. For a start, the Eucharistic Prayer is called 'the Prayer of Consecration.' At the end of the service, the Priest is firmly prohibited from throwing away any consecrated left overs, but must 'reverently eat and drink' them there and then. If they are 'just' bread and wine, why should this be?

There has been room in the Church of England since 1662 at least for a range of opinion on how and for whom Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but one teaching is clear: He is present in them somehow - and if we can train the eyes of our souls to see Him in ordinary bread and wine, then we should see Him all the more clearly in the ordinary encounters of our daily lives.

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