Anglicans today have a variety of perspectives on the Holy Eucharist. The Anglican formularies allow a certain latitude for this, but it is not inexhaustible. Broadly speaking, Anglican eucharistic theology and piety is wide enough that Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin can all have a seat at the table. Whether or not they would actually wish to sit at the same table is another matter entirely, as is the question of whether or not this degree of breadth on something so central is a good idea. But even given that breadth, there are limits. While Calvin might be able to take a seat (though not all who followed him and use the name Calvinist, let the reader understand), poor Zwingli is left out. Whatever else can be said about classical Anglican eucharistic theology, it is certainly a theology of Christ’s real and objective presence. Any notions of stark memorialism are excluded by the formularies.
Not everyone today agrees though. In a recent blog post called “Do Anglicans believe in ‘real presence’?“, the Rev. Ian Paul argues that Anglicanism is receptionist, meaning that while the bread and the wine are mere symbols, the person who receives those symbols with faith also receives Jesus, though it is not entirely clear how receiving Jesus in this context is any different from receiving Him in our own private prayers, away from the community, with no bread and wine present at all. In other words, the bread and wine do not really matter. They’re incidental to what’s really going on which is something internal, abstract, and potentially different for every person in the room. The bread and wine may be helpful symbols but they are not the Body and Blood of Christ.
Paul rests his argument upon the Anglican formularies and Holy Scripture. I have dealt with some of the relevant Scripture before here and therefore will not reinvent the wheel. But what of this claim that the formularies deny the Real Presence? That we can take up presently to show definitively that this claim is false. To do so, let us look at three things: the sentence of administration in the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Catechism.
This or That
The words of administration–the words spoken by the priest as he gives Communion to the faithful–caused some controversy in the early period of the Anglican Reformation. Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer had the priest offering the consecrated bread while saying, “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” Similarly, the wine was offered with the words, “The Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” The Reformed party found these words suspect and rightly so. Here was affirmation that what the priest was giving to the faithful was Jesus’ own Body and Blood, offered once upon the cross but made present for us now in the concrete action of receiving bread and wine. Cranmer himself seems to have agreed that this was a problem. In 1552, the offending words were replaced. Now the priest said instead, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving” and “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” While there is nothing in either phrase that rules out the Real Presence, there is also nothing there that explicitly affirms it. Drink “this” and eat “this” without any further explanation leaves open a whole realm of possibilities for what this might actually be.
The Elizabethan Settlement changed that, and Queen Elizabeth I herself seems to have been one of the chief instigators of the change, precisely because she wished to preserve the language of Real Presence. The 1559 BCP included both the sentence from 1549 and the sentence from 1552 together, which continues on in the 1662 BCP and other prayer books based upon it ever since. By restoring the 1549 language and placing it alongside the 1552 language, the latter was effectively modified so that this now refers to the Body and Blood. Along with the removal of the Black Rubric, this move ensured that whatever we think might be going on in Holy Communion, it is clear that when the priest gives the consecrated elements to the faithful he is giving them not merely bread and wine but the very Body and Blood of Our Lord.
Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs
The prayer book is not, however, the only formulary to address the matter. Paul argues that Article XXVIII settles the matter in a memorialist direction. The article begins:
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 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…
First things first, the Article begins by explicitly denying memorialism in almost as stark a way as it will go one to deny transubstantiation. The Eucharist is not only a sign of love between Christians as Anabaptists were arguing. It is rather the “Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death.” How so? Because when we receive it in faith, we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. This does not mean that it is only the Body and Blood for the faithful though. On the contrary, Article XXIX states:
THE Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.
Those who are evil or who lack faith are not partakers of Christ even though they do receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Rather, by receiving the Sacrament, they receive condemnation, which would be a strange result if all they were doing was munching on a light snack.
Article XXVIII goes on to say:
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.
Again, there is nothing here that precludes the elements from being truly Christ’s Body and Blood. I have dealt before with what it means to eat and drink spiritually. Suffice it to say that no Catholic would ever suggest that faith is not the means by which we receive the Body of Christ. The Catholic’s only caveat, if there be any, would be that it is not only by faith, or rather more plainly that faith is part and parcel of what happens when we actually do eat and drink. The two realities cannot be separated from one another as receptionism posits.
“You Got Grace in My Sign!” “You Got a Sign in My Grace!”
The Catechism also helps to make this clear. The Catechism draws a distinction between the “outward part or sign” and the “inward and spiritual grace” that take place in each Sacrament. Yet while we can speak in the abstract about these two different dimensions of a Sacrament, they are not any more separable than the human and divine natures within Our Lord. The Catechism defines a Sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof” (Emphasis mine). The Sacrament contains both a sign and the thing signified. A Sacrament is not only a reminder, not only a symbol, but the actual means through which the thing that is signified is made manifest. To draw an analogy, a stop sign signifies to us the action of stopping and encourages us to make an internal decision to stop. But the stop sign cannot actually stop us. If the stop sign were sacramental, it would be as if the stop sign simultaneously reminds us of stopping and stops us. The sign would become the action.
With respect to Holy Communion, the Catechism says that the outward part is bread and wine while the inward part is “The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.” The bread and wine feed our bodies even as the Body and Blood nourish our souls. They cannot be experienced apart from one another. If a Hindu or an atheist were to walk into one of our churches and receive the Holy Communion, what he would chew and swallow would be the Body and Blood of Christ as much as what the Christian chews and swallows, though he would not truly partake of Christ but may very well do himself some degree of harm if done with intention to deceive.
Mystery Loves Company
None of this is to say that the Anglican formularies give us the fullest possible picture of Catholic eucharistic theology. The purpose of the formularies, much like the creeds, is not to say all that can be said but to create the fence within which the conversation is to be held. Once the Real Presence is abandoned, we are outside of that fence. Lancelot Andrewes, writing in opposition to Cardinal Bellarmine, put it this way:
We believe no less than you that the presence is real. Concerning the method of the presence, we define nothing rashly, and, I add, we do not anxiously inquire, any more than how the Blood of Christ washes us in our Baptism, any more than how the Human and Divine Natures are united in one Person in the Incarnation of Christ.
What we need, in my opinion, is a fully formed Catholic theology, grounded in the Scriptures and the historic teaching of the Church, that goes along with a bold Evangelical witness and proclamation of the Word to give us the fullest, deepest, richest possible expression of what Christ has given us in the magnificent gift of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Anglicanism has the capacity for this and the formularies provide us with a wonderful starting point. But until we can say without flinching that “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” mean exactly what they sound like they mean, we will never do more than spin our wheels.