Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Anglican unity and the doctrine of the Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist

There is obvious and lamentable disunity among those who consider themselves to be faithful, orthodox, and catholic Anglicans. Part of this disunity stems from differing views on the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Where are we to find harmony on this very important issue of Christian doctrine and fellowship? As Anglicans I believe we must first go to the Scriptures, where we are told by St. Paul that the “. . .Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread;and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner also He took the cup when He had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in My blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death until He come. Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and then let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body” (1 Cor 11: 23-29). Similarly, St. Paul declares to us that “The cup of blessing which we bless: is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break: is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread” (1 Cor 10: 16-17). The writings of the Church Fathers, especially the Apostolic Fathers, declare likewise without any great philosophical speculation. The truth of Christ’s words, and the words of St. Paul, are accepted through faith.

When we turn to the formularies of classical Anglicanism (the 1549-1928 Prayer Books, the Articles, and the homilies) what are we told about the Eucharist? We are told that it is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” the outward part being bread and wine and the inward part being Christ’s Body and Blood. The Articles declare likewise that the “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.” In the homilies we read of “the due receiving of the blessed Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ under the form of bread and wine.”

Here, in the classical Anglican documents, we have a very Scriptural teaching which conforms as well to the teachings of the Church Fathers. All, I would hope and pray, could unite around these truths as plainly taught. However, some wish to press beyond these points of agreement and engage in all manner of scholastic inquiry, sowing disunity where there ought to be concord. Some will ask the manner of Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament? Is it bodily, physical, carnal, corporal, localized? Even Saint Thomas Aquinas, the elaborator of transubstantiation, denies these points. If it is “substantial and essential” (which many Anglican divines affirm) does this not require that the substance of the bread and wine cease to be, taken over wholly by the substance of the Body and Blood? Here only Aquinas answers in the affirmative, leaving only “accidents” and “appearances” of bread and wine. The words of St. Paul cannot support this (“The bread which we break: is it not the communion of the body of Christ?"), and numerous Church Fathers can be quoted against it, many of them arguing on Christological grounds. Indeed, to take this stance we must allow a Thomist interpretation of Aristotle’s logic to completely supplant the Scriptures and the Fathers.

Great Anglo-Catholics like Kebel, Pusey, and Gore deny the metaphysical annihilation of the bread and wine, as do many great theologians in the Orthodox Communion. Sadly, I have heard of priests in one Anglican jurisdiction refusing to receive the Eucharist from priests in another (or condemning them as heretics) because they have inquired into their personal doctrine of the Presence and found that they do not affirm some element of Aquinas (such as the annihilation of the bread and wine) or elements that go beyond Aquinas (such as a carnal or corporal presence).

My plea is to find unity in the teachings of the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and the Articles. Points of unity should be identified and affirmed among traditional Anglicans using our common heritage; various sacramental theories with no consensus from the undivided Church should be left to the individual’s consideration and debate, but the individual should not unbendingly assert his theory as though it were that of the Church.

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