“The holy communion, or supper of the Lord, is the most sacred, mysterious, and useful conjugation of secret and holy things in the religion,” wrote Jeremy Taylor in his 1660 treatise The Worthy Communicant. Taylor points out that many men have stared into the plain words of the New Testament on the subject of the Eucharist and have seen many different things there, much in the same way that two men staring at the same cloud might see different shapes. “So it is in this great mystery of our religion,” says Taylor, “in which some espy strange things which God intended not, and others see not what God hath plainly told.”
Taylor goes on to sketch out a typically Anglican theology of the Eucharist which he believes to be superior to that of other traditions for its reliance upon the plain words of Scripture and the Fathers. Of course, all of the theological traditions that emerged from the sixteenth century, post Tridentine Roman Catholicism included, claim to be simply interpreting the plain words of Scripture on the Eucharist. What is remarkable from the vantage point of our own day is not so much that Taylor makes this claim for his own tradition, but that Taylor believes that his own tradition has a teaching on this matter. As with so many other misunderstood doctrines, the multiplicity of viewpoints on the Holy Eucharist that can be found in modern Anglicanism has led to the common notion that Anglicanism has no real teaching on the subject, at least not any that is binding upon its adherents or that is not borrowed whole cloth from some other source. In fact, Taylor believed that what he was defending was a quintessentially Anglican teaching, what he called the Catholic teaching, as found first and foremost in Scripture read through the lens of the Fathers, but also as expressed forthrightly by the Anglican formularies. And this teaching was neither Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, nor Roman Catholic, though it had things in common with the teaching of those other traditions in so much as they were working from the same original sources.
I have had many interesting and complicated questions sent my way in recent months regarding the Anglican teaching on the Holy Eucharist. Rather than go through the same material many times, it has occurred to me that a full series on the Eucharist is necessary to lay the groundwork for answering any future questions that may come about. I will not say that comprehending the Anglican position is easy. The Anglican Reformers and Divines utilize a different vocabulary when talking about the sacrament than their contemporaries do, which makes for difficult reading for those of us who have been taught to understand the Eucharist in the typical categories that we have inherited from the sixteenth century. Unsurprisingly, it is my contention that the reason that much of this is difficult for us to grasp today is because the Anglican tradition reaches back beyond the concerns of the Reformation to the worldview of the Fathers of the early Church. The desire of the Reformers and Divines was less for philosophical precision than for fidelity to the Bible and to the spirit of the patristic age.
The manner in which we will proceed is this: First, we will look at some of the primary texts in scripture that inform our understanding of the sacrament, bearing in mind the way the Fathers understood them. Next, we will examine the teaching of the prayer book in light of the scriptural and patristic teaching. We will then see how this teaching of the prayer book compares with the teaching found in the 39 Articles, paying special attention to the question of what the Articles mean when they speak of a “heavenly and spiritual” manner of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood. Finally, we will return to Taylor and a few others to look at how this teaching informed the great Anglican divines and where it has gone since the close of the classical era.
I am not sure yet how much of this will be written and how much will be done by video. If you have a preference, please let me know in the com box. My hunch at this point is that I will write out the first and last parts but make videos for the middle portions. However, as I dig in, I may find that the project lends itself more suitably to one medium or the other, so I reserve the right to change my mind.