This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 31 states:
XXXI. Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross
The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.
Article 31 is distinctly one of reformation of malpractice rather than an affirmation of historic practice. The high regard in which the Sacrament of Holy Communion was held had eventually become exaggerated. The offering of the Body of Christ for the life of the world (John 6:51) had come to focus too much on its sacramental presentation at the expense of the once-for-all-time historic death of Christ on the Cross. Some of this was due to superstitious laity, some of it was due to uneducated priests, some of it was due to unbalanced teaching in the Church; whatever the cause, the end result was that many treated the Sacrament as if it were an effective sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins alongside Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
This Article 31 identifies as “blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits,” for it leads one to put one’s hope in the offering of Masses rather than on the actual death of our Lord. This has been reacted to in approximately three different ways.
- The reaction of many Protestants since has been to do away with any and all mention of the concept of sacrifice from the celebration of Holy Communion: Jesus made the sacrifice, and we simply remember it. This is a little extreme, and is not a part of Anglican teaching.
- Other Reformers kept the concept of sacrifice in the celebration of Holy Communion, but kept it restricted to our offering a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” This phrase has been present in Anglican liturgies to this day.
- The most conservative of Reformers, however, were content to continue to speak of “the sacrifices of Masses” with the refined understanding that in Holy Communion the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented to God by his faithful people in the knowledge that His self-offering on the Cross is what is being communicated to is in the bread and wine; we are drawn back to the foot of the Cross as we kneel to participate in His Body and Blood.
As already noted, the first reactionary view is not substantially present in the Anglican tradition; it smacks of an anti-Catholic agenda overruling the pro-Scripture agenda. The second and third views, respectively, are found in the low church and high church traditions of Anglicanism. And although they can overlap, theologians who champion one view tend to see the other as anemic or excessive. Thus, as interpretation of Article 31 may vary, we are also bound by the words, rituals, and theology of the Prayer Book to flesh this out further. While this does not force complete theological unity in every detail, it does provide with a common language in which we can worship together with integrity and in peace.
It is fair to note, as an aside, that the Roman teaching on the link between the Mass and the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross has been cleaned up a great deal in recent times. Many of the medieval superstitions and excesses surround this doctrine have been dealt with. But even still the efficacy of the Mass for the benefit of souls both living and in purgatory continue to defy the scope of what Scripture teaches, and thus Article 31 remains as a necessary reform to keep on the table.