This great sacrament revere?

cup_paten_spiritIn a comment on a prior version of the preceding post on the twenty-eighth article (a comment now lost in cyberspace), an evangelical friend asked rather tartly, “Do you have nothing to say about the last paragraph of this article, which is blatantly ignored by Anglo-Catholics?”

The last paragraph of the article (to save you looking it up) reads:

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped.

I have spent too long on this one article already, but I did promise to get to this point eventually. Of course, the article does not really say enough to make its point explicit: “And therefore you shouldn’t do it.” Catholics and Protestants can quite happily agree that none of these behaviours were or are done “by Christ’s ordinance.” So in that sense, Anglo-Catholics don’t ignore what the article says; they ignore what it may reasonably be assumed to have intended, but never quite gets around to saying explicitly!

More seriously, I would judge reservation of the sacrament seems relatively uncontroversial nowadays. In the parish where I most recently worked, for example, there were about ten people on average in any one week who receive Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament. These acts of worship and pastoral care are led by lay people in the homes of the sick or housebound, or residential care homes.

The Church of England provides official rites for this, and also for the use of “Extended Communion” where Holy Communion is administered from the reserved sacrament in public Sunday worship where there is a shortage of priests. This latter use is intended for unusual circumstances, and not as a routine matter. The former use of communion of the sick is generally routine. The provision of rites for both implies some form of reservation. Many evangelicals would want to stress the functional nature of this, and try for as short as possible an interval between the full celebration, and the reception of the consecrated elements. But many parishes, and not only traditionally catholic ones, have aumbries or tabernacles (and occasionally a hanging pyx) for permanent reservation.

If reservation has become increasingly unexceptional, the question is then what one does with the reserved sacrament. I have argued in the preceding post that the idea of change in the elements, however (un)precisely conceived, needs to be seen both in the context of the eschatological transformation of all things, and as a sign of that work of the Spirit who is our present foretaste that God will be all in all. I would suggest that once the elements have been consecrated, they should not be treated as anything else than vehicles of Christ’s presence in the church as the crucified and risen Lord. His word of promise is irrevocable, and the repurposing of creation for the new creation is not something we should be going back on. At a minimum that requires treating them with reverence at all times.

But the Eucharistic elements powerfully represent how Christ is always given to us, and what the Church is in relation to his life. It is his risen body that makes us one body, and it is his sacrificed life given to us that makes us alive. In that sense continuous reservation witnesses to what the Church truly is, a Eucharistic community gathered in prayer and praise around the cross of the risen Lord, journeying towards the future of God’s restored creation.

Therefore, I see no reason why meditation in front of the reserved sacrament, reverencing and worshiping the Christ who gives himself to us in this Eucharistic gift, should be regarded as a problem. The hymn from which I take the title for this post is used in services of such meditation and prayer before the sacrament. The last two lines of the verse are worth noting here:

Faith our outward sense befriending,
makes our inward vision clear.

This practice, which some find execrable and others dubious, is one I and many find helpful, precisely as a focus for our faith in Christ, and on his gift for us and to us.

As for Corpus Christi processions and the like, I’m not convinced that they lead to reverence. I think they tend to a triumphalism at odds with the humility of self-giving represented in the sacrament. So I’d be very dubious about engaging in them. But I would note that some historians, at least, seem to think that in the high mediaeval period they were a significant reaffirmation of corporate Christian society, and a celebration of its communal life constituted by equal access to and gift from Christ and not simply by the feudal structures. (The book to read on this is the now fairly venerable revisionist history, Christianity in the West 1400-1700, by John Bossy)

I don’t know enough history to know how well supported this view was. But I can see, if this is true, why neither the rising class sense of the merchant bourgeoisie, nor the absolutism of the Tudor monarchs would have been terribly comfortable with it. I don’t think I’m prepared or equipped to argue the rights and wrongs of it historically, any more than I would want to argue for doing it today. Then again, when it comes down to it, I’m just not that into carnivals, processions, or political marches either.

5 Replies to “This great sacrament revere?”

  1. Given a noticeable (in my view) tendency through these reflections to be sympathetic to a Catholic rather than Prostentant view of theology, church and sacraments, what is it that distinguishes your approach to Christianity from Roman Catholicism?

    1. I don’t normally quote myself, but let me reply first with two brief quotations from posts in this series. The first is from the first post on this very article:

      At the same time, I want to err on the side of delineating mystery rather than trying to explain it away with over-precise theories, and that perhaps, is one reason why I remain an Anglican.

      The second is from one on article 22:

      The second objection is to the particular language of devotion that seems to put the saints – particularly the Blessed Virgin – in God’s place. All technical distinctions between latreia (worship) given to God alone, and doula (veneration) given to saints, tend to vanish in the extravagant affection of devotional practice. A good example, at least to my ears, is the Salve Regina: “vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra” (our life, our sweetness and our hope) are phrases that properly belong to the persons of the Trinity, not to our Lady. Devotion to the saints is an example of the problems that can be created when the lex orandi (rule of prayer) is allowed to run free, and not corrected by the lex credendi (rule of faith).

      What I think I’m doing is arguing for a vision of Anglicanism as a biblical catholicism, that is accepting of (and even sees as something of a theological virtue) the mess and muddle of our human ability to interpret what we believe to be the truth as truthily as we would like, far less to live it as we would like!

  2. Prof Miri Rubin wrote a book length study on the place of Corpus Christi celebrations in uniting society called ‘Corpus Christi’; published by CUP in 1991 it is still in print.

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