Friday, July 06, 2007

Where I am Now: 3. Liturgy and the Eucharist - Part Two

I did think that I wouldn't have a lot to say in this post having said most of it previously! However, I discover I have more to say than I thought!

It is the end of term here and I have loads of services and other school events to lead and attend. I was invited to two more today, I am afraid enough is enough! We are looking forward to our holiday which is creeping up at the moment. I hope to have more blogs posted before then though.

Have a good weekend!

Where I am Now: 3. Liturgy and the Eucharist - Part Two

When I became a Christian, and for many years afterwards, the Eucharist did not feature very highly in my life. My background was such that other aspects of worship were much more important. Even at St Andrew’s, the first Anglican Church I went to, the Eucharist was not a central part of church life or mine. At London Bible College, I started to think more seriously about it and, as I have mentioned previously, I came to see it as important.

I was, however, very much on the Protestant end of the spectrum in understanding its significance, not believing that anything particular happened in it. It was a memorial meal, that and nothing more. It was really only when I went to Banchory and was celebrating the Eucharist regularly as well as trying to bring some renewal in our services that I found myself thinking more seriously about what it actually meant.

A major consideration for me was Church history and tradition. The Eucharist has been at the heart of the Church’s worship in much the same form since at least the second century. It was sidelined as a consequence of the reformation in many Protestant churches. Protestants often played it off against the Bible and preaching and were highly critical of the Roman Mass. Calvin, one of the leading reformers, while critical of the Roman Mass, believed that the Lord’s Supper should be at the heart of the Church’s life and worship. An aspect of his teaching that most of his followers ignored!

Indeed, Calvin, in his belief and teaching that Communion should be offered to believers weekly, was ahead of most people at the time, Catholic or Protestant. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, people took communion very infrequently, often no more than annually. Calvin not only believed in frequent Communion, he also had a high view of what was happening in the Eucharist. He certainly did not believe in transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, but nor did he see the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal and no more. For Calvin, there was a real partaking of Christ in the Supper, but spiritually and by faith. Calvin’s negative comments about the Mass, as it was celebrated and understood in his own day, have perhaps meant that people have missed the emphasis that he actually does put on the importance of the sacrament.

I also think that Protestants today forget that the Roman Catholic Church of the present is not the Church that Calvin criticised. Roman Catholicism has changed and has perhaps come to express its teaching in a less crude way than was the case. I, personally, differ somewhat in my own understanding to the official Catholic teaching, but reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Eucharist again just now, I am struck by how reasonable and balanced it is, and how much I find myself in agreement with it. Now the way it is expressed is somewhat different to how I would put it. And there are things I am not exactly comfortable with such as the veneration of the host outside of the Eucharist and the belief that the Eucharist has benefits for the dead, but in its treatment of the Mass as a sacrifice, which has traditionally been a problem for Protestants, the catechism is very cautious in how it expresses itself.

For example, let me quote in full paragraphs 1365 and 1366:

1365 Because it is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.’ In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:

[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper ‘on the night when he was betrayed,’ [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.

This last paragraph is a quote from the Council of Trent of 1562 in which the Roman Catholic Church first attempted to respond to the Reformation.

The language in these two paragraphs isn’t language Protestants would use, but is it really so objectionable? The word ‘transubstantiation’, so hated by Protestants, is only used once. I am not trying to defend Roman Catholicism just to point out that many are reacting to a Roman Catholicism that no longer exists, if ever it did.

Roman Catholics believe that Jesus is ‘truly, really and substantially’ present in the Eucharist. Having also read Calvin again on this before writing this blog, I am sure he would agree. The issue between Calvin and the Roman understanding would seem to be not whether, but how? On a personal level, this remains the difference between my own understanding and Roman teaching. For the Roman Catholicism of the catechism teaches that Christ is physically present. For Calvin, he is spiritually present.

My problem with Roman Catholic teaching is that I cannot for the life of me see how physically eating Christ can be of any spiritual benefit. The RC catechism itself says that we are spiritually fed in the Eucharist, but if we are spiritually fed what use is Christ’s physical flesh? Chewing on Christ while he was alive on earth, if I can express it crudely, would have had no benefit whatsoever. Why would it make any difference now?

And yet given that the RC position is that in the Eucharist we spiritually feed on Christ, does it matter that some may believe he is physically present? It’s not something to fall out over surely? And not something that we ought to allow to divide us. What I am trying to say is that I think Calvin got it right, but that the present RC position is nearer to Calvin than that of many who call themselves Calvinists! Having quoted the RC catechism let me quote Calvin. He is talking about how Christ is present in the Supper:

‘Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53ff.]. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.’ (Institutes, Book IV, CH. XVII, paragraph 32)

This is the best one paragraph statement of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper I know. And while I am quoting Calvin, let me quote another helpful paragraph from him. Having criticized what he sees as a misunderstanding of the Supper, he writes:

‘But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper-and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.’ (Institutes, Book IV, CH. XVII, paragraph 19)

Anyway, this was the understanding I came to at Banchory. Furthermore, I came to believe that the problem of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer wasn’t that it was too traditional; the common accusation against the Prayer Book, but that it was not traditional enough. The Book of Common Prayer while expressing a Calvinist approach to the Eucharist was moving liturgically away from the tradition and practice of the Church. It was prevented from moving further by the death of Edward VI and the eventual coming to the throne of Elizabeth I, which rather froze things where they were. This was how basically they stayed in Anglicanism until comparatively recently. The liturgy we use here at Christ Church, derived from what is known as Common Worship, I believe expresses a Calvinist understanding of the Eucharist while remaining in liturgical continuity with the great liturgies of the Church of the past. There is, I hope, nothing in it that a Roman Catholic would find offensive.

Would Calvin like it? I suspect not. However, not because he would object to it theologically, but because, I suspect, he was more austere in his approach to worship. Would he ‘freely accept’ it as expressing the ‘true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord’ he also believed in? I hope so and would like to think so. I think he, like me, would be appalled at how lightly believers value the Sacred Supper and how casual they have become towards it.

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