Ask an Anglican: Eucharistic Adoration

Piggybacking on my last post on the 39 Articles, the always insightful BC of Catholicity and Covenant writes:

It would be good to read your views specifically on Article 28. What of those of us who do reserve the Sacrament? Who worship Christ sacramentally present at the elevation? Who practice eucharistic adoration?

For those unfamiliar with it, here’s what Article XXVIII says:

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 it 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.

Real Presence vs. Transubstantiation

As I said in the previous post, the 39 Articles are neither a confession nor a creed, but rather they are simply commentary on Anglican principles, meant to differentiate the Church of England from Rome, Calvinism, Anabaptists, and Independents. We see the markings of this in Article XXVIII as clearly as anywhere. The article starts out with a firm rejection of radical Protestant notions about the Eucharist. It is not merely a sign or a symbol, not merely a memorial, but a true sacrament in which the faithful do truly receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In this regard, Anglicanism and Rome are on the same page. Yet in the very next breath, Anglicanism is differentiated from Rome through a rejection of transubstantiation.

To many people today this seems like a non-sequiter, precisely because we have come to think of transubstantiation as a synonym for Real Presence. But that is not what transubstantiation means. Transubstantiation is a very specific method by which the medieval Roman Catholic Church sought to understand and explain how Christ could be present in the sacrament. It is the teaching that the eucharistic prayer enacts a change in the bread and wine that is both physical and metaphysical, resulting in the substance of the bread and wine being transformed into flesh and blood, even though the accidents or outer appearance of bread and wine remain. There is nothing substantial left of bread and wine once the consecration is done. This idea was built upon a structure of pre-Christian Greek philosophy, using the work of Aristotle in particular to try to define the terms of what happens to the bread and wine. This is what the designers of the Articles found so problematic, the specificity of transubstantiation as a theory for understanding Real Presence.

Classical Anglican Eucharistic Theology

Anglicanism has always affirmed that Jesus Christ is truly present in the sacrament. The person who receives the Eucharist in faith receives the true Body and Blood of Christ, while the person who receives without faith or in a state of grave sin or blasphemy eats and drinks unto his or her own damnation (1 Corinthians 11:23-29). This is clear from the text of the article, but it is made even more clear in the classic prayer book liturgy. The exhortation given by the priest in advance of the celebration of Communion tells the people to prepare carefully before coming to receive Communion because the Sacrament conveys to us the sacrifice of the cross through which our sins are forgiven. “Wherefore it is our duty to render most humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God our heavenly Father, for that he hath given his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.” Those who have sins that they need to repent of are encouraged to make a private confession for the sake of their conscience before approaching the altar. The Eucharistic prayer itself repeatedly reminds us that we will receive the true Body and Blood of the Lord in the Sacrament. The more Protestant 1552 BCP had changed the words spoken by the priest after he hands the communicant the blessed elements. Rather than saying “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life,” which clearly indicates the Real Presence, the 1552 book had the priest say, “Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” The 1559 revision put both phrases together, effectively subsuming the purely memorialist language within a larger context that points unmistakably to the Real Presence.

Still, the concern to avoid the specificity of transubstantiation pervades not just the liturgy, but also the popular writing of the later Reformers and the Divines, even as they vigorously upheld the Church of England against the charge from Roman Catholics of abandoning the doctrine of the Real Presence. Responding to an attack by Cardinal Bellarmine, Lancelot Andrewes points out that, “Christ said, ‘This is My Body.’ He did not say, ‘This is My Body in this way.'” In other words, the problem with Transubstantiation is not that it affirms the Real Presence but that it tries to define it beyond that which is revealed in scripture and the Fathers. “We are in agreement with you as to the end,” says Andrewes. “The whole controversy is as to the method.”

Eucharistic Adoration

Which  brings us to the heart of BC’s question, the practice of eucharistic adoration. He asks about reserving the Sacrament, honoring the Sacrament in the elevation during the Eucharistic prayer, and other practices of adoration, presumably including things like Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a practice that developed in the Roman Catholic Church in the late thirteenth century in which a consecrated host is placed in a monstrance and held up in front of the people for worship. Article XXVIII does not explicitly ban these practices but does add a note of caution about them by pointing to the fact that none of them are biblical. Bishop Andrewes also addresses the subject of adoration in his refutation of Bellarmine:

Our men believe that the Eucharist was instituted by the Lord for a memorial of Himself, even of His Sacrifice, and, if it be lawful so to speak, to be a commemorative sacrifice, not only to be a Sacrament and for spiritual nourishment. Though they allow this, yet they deny that either of these uses (thus instituted by the Lord together) can be divided from the other by man, either because of the negligence of the people or because of the avarice of the priests. The Sacrifice which is there is Eucharistic, of which Sacrifice the law is that he that offers it is to partake of it, that he partake by receiving and eating, as the Savior ordered. For to “partake by sharing in the prayer,” that indeed is a fresh and novel way of partaking, much more even than the private Mass itself.

According to Andrewes, the problem is that worship of Christ in the consecrated host which does not follow the actual pattern of the Eucharist itself, as commanded by the Lord and laid out in Scripture, can easily morph into a superstitious totemizing of the elements rather than a true partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Andrewes acknowledges here that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, something that would probably surprise a great number of modern Anglican Evangelicals who attempt to categorize the Eucharist in strictly Calvinist, Lutheran, or even Zwinglian terms. Nevertheless, as Andrewes says, “Take away from the Mass your Transubstantiation and there will not long be any strife with us about the Sacrifice. Willingly we allow that a memory of the Sacrifice is made there. That your Christ made of bread is sacrificed there we will never allow.”

None of the practices that BC names are forbidden by Anglicanism. Likewise, none of them can be required. Reservation of the Sacrament in a tabernacle has become common in many parts of the Anglican Communion in order to allow the Sacrament to be brought to those who are sick or otherwise absent from the Eucharistic gathering. Though it has not always been a part of Anglicanism, it seems to me that there are no grounds within classical Anglicanism to reject this development. The same can be said of the elevation of the host during the Eucharistic prayer, in so much as it emphasizes the sacrificial character of the Eucharist that Andrewes so elegantly commended.

Benediction is a bit more complicated. In principle, an orthodox Anglican can affirm that Christ is present in the Sacrament even in display, that it is not merely bread being placed within the monstrance but Jesus Himself, but there is also an unintentional danger of impanation or the belief that the divinity of Christ is united with the substance of the bread in such a way that God becomes bread. Similarly, there is a danger of creating a condition in which the people begin to perceive the presence of Christ as a mere object. This is particularly hazardous when the service of Benediction is not accompanied by an actual celebration of the Eucharist in which the people are invited to receive the Body and Blood. The actual eucharistic character of the sacrament is lost. Instead of receiving Christ in an act of graceful obedience through the rite that Christ ordained, for the remission of our sins and the renewal of our souls, rather we stare at Him from afar and make note of His presence while having it denied to us.

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m laying down a hard and fast rule here. There are many different ways of doing Benediction, and some of them are better to able to allay the concerns I’ve raised than others. I have personally benefited from the practice of Benediction in the places where I have experienced it. Indeed, one can even argue that there are passages in the Old Testament that might be seen to prefigure the kind of worship that goes on in Benediction. However, Anglicans ought to proceed with caution, always prepared to ask important questions about the context of what is happening. The Anglican Reformers and most of the Divines probably would be shocked by it and they would question whether such a practice requires a belief in the specific philosophy of transubstantiation. However, many centuries have passed since this debate began, and a fuller, richer understanding of what the Roman Catholic Church means by transubstantiation today makes it hard to see how such a belief can be at odds with the Anglican understanding of the Real Presence.

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5 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Eucharistic Adoration

  1. BC says:

    Many thanks for this Fr J – a challenging account of classical Anglican eucharistic doctrine. I will post on my own site later today on the back of this, reflecting on how the ARCIC agreement on the eucharist may somewhat change the context for reading Article 28. That said, the most important thing is that Anglicans read the Articles!

  2. Fr. Jonathan says:

    That ARCIC document is good stuff. I look forward to your reflection.

  3. C. Wingate says:

    You don’t address the matter (so to speak) of consubstantiation here but I have long held that if one holds to a modern scientific theory about the nature of substance in the first place, one tends to get consubstantiation anyway in a theory of substantial change, because in modern terms substances are their accidents. In any case it seems to me that it is the twin issues of presence and permanence that are more important than the particular theory that allows or denies them. If Christ is present in the consecrated matter outside of the Eucharist itself, then it seems to me that all the issues of how that presence should and may be treated in that matter arise and need to be addressed regardless of the nature of that presence. One could for instance advance the argument that the presence merits and even requires worship even though the matter remains bread.

    The argument you make about benediction is the reverse of the same coin, and I do not think it fails to apply even if one does accept transubstantiation.

  4. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Part of my concern still remains if transubstantiation is true, but not the whole of it. While it is still possible under transubstantiation to reduce or objectify Christ, the concern about impanation (which is really a concern about idolatry) need not apply since there is no bread, only God. Of course, the problem then becomes one of apollinarianism.

  5. C. Wingate says:

    The thing is, though, that this only works through a sort of ontological cheating. Someone who accepts modern physics (as is generally proper) is perfectly within their rights to identify the consecrated matter as bread, because on this level physics does not accept a substance/accidents distinction. And we know a lot more about what’s going on underneath, so that one considers a molecule of consecrated starch and may ponder how its constituent atoms are now not those of simple sugars but instead are those of fats and proteins. It’s not unreasonable to say, “Look, the way we talk about things being bread now, it is no longer reasonable to say that is or is not bread anymore, because the way we do the ontology now, the way that actually works as an examination of natural order, doesn’t give us answers to that. The best we can do is distinguish between substantial change and theories which don’t involve such a change.” Switching from modern to Thomist ontology just for this is really unjustifiable; I think we can insist that, whatever else one argues about the matter, modern ontology remains applicable and the elements remain (in the modern sense) bread and wine.

    I note in passing that the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on impanation is misrepresenting the matter. Since the Body starts out as bread, it cannot be (as they say) Deus panis factus; it must instead be panis Deus Factus: the bread is made God. The fault, it seems to me, is that they are taking as given the kind of substitution that is the mechanism of transubstantiation; but if the end of one’s explanation is not that sort of substitution, there is no need for it as a means either. It’s telling that Catholic sources like to assign impanation to Osiander, but I have yet to find any substantiation of this claim.

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