It has to be acknowledged up front that the Black Rubric is an embarrassment. At best, it is an unclear statement of a partial truth about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. At worst, it is an out and out denial of the Real Presence that was grandfathered into the prayer book for reasons of political expediency rather than theological clarity. Nevertheless, it needs to be examined by those who wish to embrace classical Anglicanism, not just because it is a part of Anglican history, but also because, seen from the proper perspective, it sheds light on the very thing that it attempts to darken, the Anglican view of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.
Ye Olde Anglican Fudge
The Black Rubric, so called because it was accidentally printed in black rather than in the customary red, was an addition to the Book of Common Prayer in 1552, largely at the demand of the growing Calvinist party in the Church of England. It reads as follows (with translation):
Although no order can be so perfectly devised, but it may be of some, either for their ignorance and infirmity, or else of malice and obstinacy, misconstrued, depraved, and interpreted in a wrong part: And yet because brotherly charity willeth, that so much as conveniently may be, offences should be taken away: therefore we willing to do the same. Whereas it is ordained in the book of common prayer, in the administration of the Lord’s Supper, that the Communicants kneeling should receive the holy Communion, which thing being well meant, for a signification of the humble and grateful acknowledging of the benefits of Christ, given unto the worthy receiver, and to avoid the profanation and disorder, which about the holy Communion might else ensue: Lest yet the same kneeling might be thought or taken otherwise, we do declare that it is not meant thereby that any adoration is done, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental bread or wine there bodily received, or unto any real and essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood. For as concerning the Sacramental bread and wine, they remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored, for that were Idolatry to be abhorred of all faithful Christians. And as concerning the natural body and blood of our savior Christ, they are in heaven and not here. For it is against the truth of Christ’s true natural body, to be in more places than in one, at one time.
This rubric attempts to wrap a Calvinist interpretation of the Eucharist in Catholic ceremonial, arguing that the fact that the people are instructed to kneel for Communion should not be taken to mean that Christ is locally present in the bread and wine. It was the sort of thing that we imagine today as being typically Anglican, the great theological fudge that leaves no one happy. Those who wanted to maintain a more Catholic understanding of the sacrament were appalled at the way that this language strips away the Real Presence from the elements. But the Reformers who held to a more Zwinglian understanding were not appeased either, both because the ritual of kneeling still remained and because the rubric did not deny the Real Presence altogether but merely the Real Presence in the elements. Rather, the rubric expressed the Calvinist understanding that in the Eucharist true believers are swept up into heaven to feast on Christ’s Body and Blood. Even this was a bridge too far for the Zwinglians.
The Classical Anglican Rejection of the Black Rubric
The original rubric had a short lifespan. In 1553, less than a year after the promulgation of the second prayer book, Queen Mary took the throne and the Church of England swung back towards Rome. As I have argued here before, this volatile period prior to the Elizabethan Settlement represents something of the birth pangs of Anglicanism, but what we call classical Anglicanism today only really takes shape after Elizabeth becomes queen. The 1559 Book of Common Prayer is based largely on 1552 but with some careful additions and subtractions. These changes were specifically designed to remove any doubt that the teaching of Anglicanism is that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, spiritually and yet also locally, in and with the bread and wine. To that end, the Black Rubric was removed and relegated to the dust bin of history, where it remained for more than a century.
The rejection of the Black Rubric by the Elizabethan Settlement should not be misinterpreted as an overall rejection of Calvinist Eucharistic doctrine. On the contrary, as we have seen, Calvin’s understanding of the spiritual reality of the Resurrected Body and the need for communicants to have faith to properly receive Eucharistic grace are inherent in Anglican teaching. Moreover, Calvin’s sense that in our celebration of the Eucharist on earth we are lifted up into heaven is reflected in the Sursom Corda – “Lift up your hearts / We lift them up unto the Lord.” Nevertheless, Anglican Eucharistic doctrine is not purely Calvinist but retains a sense of the local, tangible reality of Christ in the sacrament that is characteristic of both Catholic and Lutheran doctrine. The consecrated bread and wine really are the Body and Blood of Christ and not merely symbols of something going on elsewhere. The removal of the Black Rubric from the classic prayer book is a sign of the way in which Anglicanism sought to chart a different, more faithfully patristic course.
The Empire Strikes Black
The Black Rubric returned to the prayer book in 1662. England had been ripped apart by the Civil War and the period of the Commonwealth which followed. Upon the restoration of the monarchy and consequently of Anglicanism, there was a spirit and a hope in the nation that reconciliation between Anglicans and Puritans (who held largely to the Zwinglian position) could be forged in a new revision of the Book of Common Prayer. For the most part, however, this was not to be the case. All the major revisions in the 1662 prayer book–the restoration of prayers for the dead, the strengthening of the distinction between the three orders in the ordination rites, the rubric for manual acts at the celebration of the Eucharist, etc.–highlighted the historic and Catholic character of Anglicanism and rejected the novelty of Puritanism. The one exception is the return of the Black Rubric, which seems to have been added in the hopes that it would appease the Puritans. While in general, the revisions of 1662 enhanced the Anglican teaching that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is both spiritual and local, the return of the Black Rubric added a sharp note of discord in what was otherwise straightforward and clear.
The Black Rubric Re-Interpreted
And yet, the Black Rubric that returned to the prayer book in 1662 was not the same as what was removed in 1559:
WHEREAS it is ordained in this Office for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, that the Communicants should receive the same kneeling; (which order is well meant, for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgment of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers, and for the avoiding of such profanation and disorder in the holy Communion, as might otherwise ensue;) yet, lest the same kneeling should by any persons, either out of ignorance and infirmity, or out of malice and obstinacy, be misconstrued and depraved: It is hereby declared, That thereby no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.
The word “corporal” replaced the words “real and essential.” The difference is an important one. Denying any “real and essential presence” in the elements means that the elements are just symbols and that they are thereby rendered almost accidental and unimportant to what is really going on in the Eucharist. Taken to its extreme, this view becomes Gnostic, denying the importance of the body and rejecting the physical world in favor of some sort of secret, intangible reality. However, denying any “corporal presence” in the bread and wine serves only to underline the Anglican, patristic, biblical teaching that the presence of Christ in the sacrament is spiritual because the Resurrection Body is a spiritual Body. It also further emphasizes that, unlike the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, as Anglicans we are allowed to acknowledge that the sacramental bread and wine are still bread and wine even as they are also the Body and Blood of Christ. Taken in this light, the rubric can be seen as an explanation that we do not worship or adore bread and wine even as we worship and adore the true Body and Blood of our Savior that comes to us in, with, and through bread and wine.
None of this is to say, however, that the Black Rubric, even as revised, does much good. It is largely confusing and adds little to what the prayer book so eloquently expresses through the liturgy. Though the prayer books that exist around the Anglican Communion today are largely patterned off of the 1662 prayer book, almost none of them have retained the Black Rubric. Queen Elizabeth I would be appalled to find that the rubric she personally lobbied to excise had found its way back. If the Church of England is ever able to revise the prayer book again, the removal of the Black Rubric should be at the top of the list of priorities.
Be Not Afraid
That said, even as it stands, the Black Rubric as revised does not overthrow or undo the teaching of Anglicanism about the sacrament. Understanding the history helps us to be prepared, as Anglicans, to answer the objections of both Zwinglians inside the Church today who want to stake their historical claim and those outside the Communion, such as confessional Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, who occasionally try to use the existence of the Black Rubric as an example of why Anglicanism’s commitment to the teaching of the Real Presence is questionable. Taken in its proper context, while the rubric remains unhelpful, we need not hide in shame from it. The teaching of classical Anglicanism, from the Elizabethan Settlement to the present day, is consistently a teaching of the Real Presence. Far from denying this, the history of the Black Rubric confirms it.