A couple weeks ago I wrote about a range of views held by various traditions concerning Eucharistic Doctrine, or the understanding of Holy Communion. There, I outlined three families of views (realist, spiritual, and absenteeist) with a number of specific perspectives within each, and ventured to point the reader in the direction of the range of views held in the Anglican tradition. Now I’d like to return to that subject, asking another question – one which is especially likely to be asked by those who are of an evangelical, especially non-denominational, bent.
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At the end of the day, how much of this really matters?
This is a tricky question. On one hand, it is not good to overcomplicate matters: a church that is obsessive about details and chasing after heady intellectual pursuits will quickly frustrate and lose its less-educated members. Too much emphasis on details can also cloud one’s vision of the greater whole. But on the other hand, the question of “how much matters” can be a dangerous question. One of our cultural traits, as modern and post-modern Westerners, and especially as Americans, is utilitarianism. We value the usefulness of a thing, we value cutting back on “the extras” and focusing on “what’s important.” If God has revealed or taught something in his Word, we should be more attentive to its Truth than trying to rank how important it is compared to other truths. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in one of my favorite hymns, “I believe whatever the Son of God hath told; what the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.” If Jesus said “this is my body” and he meant for us to discern his presence in the bread and wine, we would be foolish, disobedient, maybe even blasphemous to ignore such a gift. If Jesus was speaking only in spiritual terms, then seeking to explain a mode of presence that isn’t there would be ignoring the purpose of the Sacrament, namely to feed on him by faith.
Although the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion lean in the Spiritualist direction, chasing the then-popular teachings of John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer, the Prayer Book liturgy gives us a more cautious balance. Since the Prayer Book of 1559, under Queen Elizabeth I, Anglican priests have been saying these words as they minister the bread: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” The first part of that statement smacks of realism, suggesting the bread is, or contains, the Body of Christ; the second part of the statement smacks of spiritualism, telling us to feed on him in our hearts by faith. Similarly, in serving the wine: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” Again there is a hint of the realist doctrine, and an emphasis on spiritualist application – we are to be thankful for Christ’s death on our behalf.
At the end of the day, the formularies of the Anglican tradition leave the door open both to Calvinist and Lutheran views. I know clergymen who would tell you that this isn’t so, that Anglicanism is definitely Reformed and Lutheran ideas simply don’t belong in our church. I know other clergymen who scoff at Calvinist teaching and insist that Anglicans must believe in the real presence along with the Lutheran, Eastern, and Roman churches. For myself, I am sympathetic to the latter; I prefer the more Catholic Lutheran interpretation, but I recognize that our tradition leaves this particular question open a bit wider than I personally would deem necessary.
So, whether you choose to believe Christ’s Body and Blood are to be found in the communion elements or not, the underlying invitation that we all receive from Christ is the same: come, eat and drink; His Body and Blood will nourish your souls and strengthen you toward eternal life. Whether it is the Word and presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine, the invisible operation of the Holy Spirit upon your soul, or some combination of both, come and feed. Receive Christ there, that he may dwell in you, and you in him.