Discerning the body?

thismybodyFrom time to time it can be a little hard to see exactly what point any particular one of the Church of England’s articles is making. As short statements, they are relatively free of a discourse context. This is to some extent the case with the twenty-ninth article. Is it directed against an antinomian position, and seeking to reinforce the importance of moral behaviour for worthy reception of the sacrament? Or is it directed against strongly realist views of the sacrament, by stressing the importance of faith for worthy reception? (The title makes me think it is this latter.) Whichever of these be the primary force of the article, it also needs to be asked whether it ends up putting too much stress on the worthiness of the one who receives, and not enough on the grace that transforms.

XXIX. Of the Wicked which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper
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.

The quotation from Augustine comes from his homilies on John 6, a fairly discursive commentary. Rather like the Johannine discourse on which it is based, it veers between strongly realist language and statements about the need for faith. An earlier quotation from the same homily offers a slightly different nuance:

Believers know the body of Christ, if they neglect not to be the body of Christ. Let them become the body of Christ, if they wish to live by the Spirit of Christ. None lives by the Spirit of Christ but the body of Christ.

Here, Augustine, following St Paul, links recognition of the sacramental body with participation in the ecclesial body. He develops the interweaving of these themes of unity in the one body signified by eating the one body (made of diverse grains of wheat), stressing that through both together there is participation in Christ. It is only then that he comes to the argument quoted by the article.

Consequently, he that dwelleth not in Christ, and in whom Christ dwelleth not, doubtless neither eateth His flesh [spiritually] nor drinketh His blood [although he may press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ carnally and visibly with his teeth], but rather doth he eat and drink the sacrament of so great a thing to his own judgment, because he, being unclean, has presumed to come to the sacraments of Christ.

For Augustine, this is not then about directly either wickedness or faith per se, but about someone who is not properly part of the ecclesial body attempting to receive the eucharistic body. That may be because they have estranged themselves from the body by broken relationships, or not yet entered properly into the one body of the Church. Proper sacramental participation is not judged directly on either the faith or morality of the individual, but determined by their relationships in the life of the body. This in turn, though expounded here as a commentary on John, is drawn essentially from St Paul.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! … Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22, 27-30)

Seeking to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist while disfiguring the relationships that it is meant to create, signify and seal, is a failure to discern the Lord’s body. Discernment here in Paul, I think, is not a question of *either* the true significance of the broken bread, *or* the true identity of the fellowship as Christ’s body. No, for Paul, discernment of the gift of Christ celebrated in the bread is inseparable from discerning the presence of Christ in those who are gathered together in all their diversity into one by his Spirit.

There is a a dual vision of the Lord’s body, eucharistic and ecclesial, and neither can be properly celebrated apart from the another. Likewise in every celebration of the sacrament, there is a dual communion, with God in Christ, and with one another in Christ. I can never make my communion, without also being part of the we who celebrate one communion in Christ. While the article can be interpreted in a way consonant with this view, it seems more directed to the validity of individual communions: “do I have faith and good behaviour so that by my receiving I will commune with the Lord?” It seems to me that receptionism may well tend towards individualism, and away from the dual nature of sacramental communion.

Paul, in my view, is far from receptionist here in the Reformation sense of the term. Proper reception for Paul is about recognizing the body in both its ecclesial and eucharistic forms. The church and the eucharistic body are there prior to the recognition. They are not created by it, but are gifts of God to be rightly discerned and participated in. Not discerning the body renders it dangerous rather than salvific. Improper reception is a violation of the integrity and purity of the body of Christ, and so in turn the integrity and purity of one’s own body is violated: the offending participant is laid open to invasive illness.

The idea of bodily integrity owes something to both Jewish purity and ancient medicine. Paul is not working with mere symbols: “mere symbols” is essentially a modern category. Paul’s thinking seems to presuppose a reality that is violated, and one cannot separate the sacramental from the social body in his language.

Augustine (who can be ambiguous about the sacraments) offers some support for this article, but even so is still far more relational than Cranmer’s implications. Paul, on whom Augustine directly, and Cranmer indirectly, draw, offers very little. His language is not only even more strongly relational, but inescapably realist, and, on this point, uncomfortably close to the magical.

A strong sense of faith in the reality of the Eucharist often does seem to slip over into what would seem to us to be magical views, not simply in the mediaeval period, but in the early period (St Cyprian, in De Lapsis 25,26 offers a notable example). That can be traced back to this passage of Paul, which has been softened through repeated reading and theological schemes, so that we scarcely notice the implications of his language. I do not want to defend such views, or argue for them. I think we need the interpretative work of Augustine and others who seek to place this in a broader and more organized framework.

It does seem to me, however, that both Scripture and early tradition are more strongly realist than the Reformation tradition has been comfortable recognising. If our ideas of the mystery of the sacrament are always going to err in one way or the other (and who can fully understand it?!), better that they err in this direction than away from it. But above all, Paul and Augustine together testify to the strong insistence that recognition cannot be severed from relationship. The life of Christ is given to us in his body, a body that is both sacrament and church. The discernment of his life given and shared in the one is mutually interpreted and reinforced by the way it is given and shared in the other.