Communion in faith and the Eucharist of history

breadsMy first thoughts on the thirtieth of the Anglican articles were somewhat unhelpful: a) I couldn’t think what there was to say about it, since the point of its polemic is now history, and b) the pleasure at thinking there were only nine more articles to go. On further reflection, however, I felt there were some more or less tangential observations to make.

This is not, however, despite the title, anything like even an outline of all the ways in which people have constructed the historical roots of the Eucharist in (or indeed not in) the Last Supper, or a discussion of the issues involved in such a reconstruction. Continue reading “Communion in faith and the Eucharist of history”

The presence of the future

cup_paten_spiritThis post follows on from yesterday’s on the twenty-eighth article about the Eucharist. I don’t particularly want to get stuck in the Reformation debates. As I noted in that post, the development of Anglican spirituality in Eucharistic hymnody, as well as the development of theology in the structure and content of Eucharistic rites, has moved beyond those debates in many respects. Sometimes this movement has meant recovering parts of the mediaeval tradition, more often it has entailed returning to the liturgy of the patristic era.

The single most influential text in this reshaping of modern liturgies is the historically problematic Apostolic Tradition, once almost universally attributed to Hippolytus and located in early third-century Rome, but now disputed as to both provenance and date. The Eucharistic Prayer from the ordination rites described in this underlies both the English Anglican Eucharistic Prayer B, and Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer 2 (= South African Anglican Prayer 3) and provided a pattern more generally.

In the days when our liturgies were being revised, scholars tended to see a mainline development within the Church towards a common structure. Nowadays, as in biblical studies, and early Christian studies more generally, the fashion is to stress historical diversity, in theology, in liturgy, and in life. Something of that diversity has begun to be reflected in the Common Worship prayers, with their more varied structures.

There are still recognizable theological differences between RC and Anglican liturgies, but it is nonetheless possible to talk of a common Western rite. In this rite there is a renewed emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and the eschatological horizon. As noted yesterday, in Anglican rites, there is also something of a move away from a “magic words” approach to the narrative of institution, although the way the words are performed puts more or less emphasis on particular parts of the prayer.

In some of Common Worship’s eucharistic prayers the invocation of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements precedes the institution narrative, in common with the Roman rite. This is most noticeable in prayers B & E. There a greater focus on the words and actions of Jesus with the elements remains relatively natural, and fits the logic of the prayer.

In two others (F & G) this epiclesis (invocation of the Spirit) noticeably follows the narrative and anamnesis (remembrance), after the fashion of some Eastern rites. In these two examples most clearly, the whole prayer is treated as consecratory, rather than any particular element within it, so that it is the response of God to the prayer that is seen as efficacious and transformative. This logic is not always well reflected in the ceremonial, which is often identical with the previous (and more traditional) pattern, or some variation on it.

The Reformation debates, by contrast, focussed heavily on the words of institution alone. This was always going to be problematic at one level. In Jesus’ words as narrated in Paul and the synoptic gospels, we have a metaphor (the language of body and blood) applied to symbols (bread and wine) representing an event yet to happen (the sacrifice of Calvary).

The early seeds of rationalism had already been sending up their first green shoots in the Renaissance, which would come to full flower in the Enlightenment. At the time of the Reformation people are already beginning to struggle with this combination of metaphor, symbol and representation. So one ends up with the entirely inappropriate and wooden literalness of discussing whether Jesus’ risen body can only be in one place at one time.

In this post-Renaissance context, transubstantiation had itself become problematic. First, of course, because it was poorly understood, and seemed to the new humanists to encourage magical views and superstition. Secondly, because it was always problematic to envisage substance (inner intelligible reality) independent of its accidents (material outward appearance). Thirdly, and perhaps above all, because the new humanists had no patience with the Aristotelian metaphysics from which these categories were taken, but were often neo-Platonists in a new guise. As such they seemed to miss the point that for St Thomas, transubstantiation insisted that the change in the elements could only be known by faith, and not by the senses.

In reframing this question it seems to me that the forward-looking direction (to God’s final kingdom) of the Eucharistic celebration needs to be taken into account quite as much as the backward-looking direction (to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross). This is part and parcel of the biblical narratives in the Synoptics and Paul:

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves;  for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:15-18 – the last verse is paralleled in Matt and Mark)

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)

This future orientation also picks up the Passover theme, which is a historical remembrance of a liberation into future freedom. I place myself with those who see “remembrance” as having a forward looking dimension. When God remembers things, he acts in the present and future according to his past pledges. And in prayer, God’s people may invite him to remember these promises (see e.g. Ps 20:3-4, Ps 74:2, Ps 132:1, 1 Macc 4:10, 2 Macc 1:2) and be faithful to himself.

There are interesting parallels (for those of us who think Paul’s language in Rom 8:32 and Gal 2:20 justifies them) in later Jewish traditions about the Binding of Isaac. In those, the prayers not only assume Isaac’s binding is an effective sacrifice, but invite God to remember this sacrifice and respond favourably to his people. It is, I judge, impossible to think in terms of any remembering of Jesus and his sacrifice that is not also a remembering before God, and therefore an invitation to God to act in accordance with this ultimate example of his faithfulness that Christians call a new covenant.

The supper, then, has a prayerful and forward-looking orientation, which is precisely why the work of the Spirit is invoked in its celebration. The Holy Spirit is the mode of our participation in the resurrection of Christ, and the one through whom we begin to experience the life of the world to come. Our language of transformation used about the elements, that they may truly feed us with the life of Christ, the bread of heaven, is seen against the horizon of the power of God who promises, in fidelity to his work in Christ, to transform all things.

Christ is truly present in the elements, because his life is the life we share by the Sprit now, and in eternity. They focus the promise of God’s transformation on real material things, real food and drink, as a foretaste of the promise that the world has a future in which we shall be nourished by Christ without sacramental mediation, and that’ God’s continuing remembrance of and response to Christ’s sacrifice, and his own covenant promises, will change all things.

These tokens of creation are transformed as vehicles of Christ’s presence, as a promise that we will be saved not out of the world, but with all creation. It is in this context that we may speak of (Schillebeeckx’s rather ugly term) transfinalization, not simply as a change in purpose, though it is that, but as a change oriented towards that final horizon when God will be all in all, and all creation’s substance will be shot through with the divine life.

Of tongues and translations

17C BCP Title PageI did wonder whether to simply pass over the twenty-fourth of the Anglican articles, not only because it is so brief, but because the principle it enshrines is, at least in the Western Church, more-or-less universally accepted: public worship should be in a language understood by those worshiping. Ideally this will be one’s mother tongue or a lingua franca. As you will have gathered, I resisted this temptation not only in favour of thoroughness in this series, but because there are some things worth reflecting on in the article.

XXIV. Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

There is a certain irony that just as this Reformation principle was winning acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II, the charismatic movement in all the mainstream churches was beginning to promote the use of tongues not “understanded of the people” within the worshipping life of the Church.

First, of course, the common interpretation of “tongues” in Paul as the arational phenomenon of glossolalia, and not as other languages, means that prayer in other languages is not quite so “plainly repugnant to the Word of God”. The Word of God, it seems, was talking about something else, even if there are relatively straightforward hermeneutical moves to get from the Scriptures to the Reformation position.

The encouragement of a means of prayer and praise which relies not on reasoned speech and understanding, but affective (and almost phatic) communication, was bound up with the initial (and long-standing) evangelical opposition to the charismatic movement. Much of it the emotional and arational praise and prayer conveyed by tongues could also be paralleled by the practice of prayer at Taizé, whose popularity was growing in the same period. The use of Latin, especially, but many other languages in repetitive chants (also not dissimilar from some uses of choruses) had a similar purpose in focusing the heart while calming the mind.

Nor can these phenomena be divorced entirely from the wider cultural shift in the West which moves away from a simple emphasis on reason and the life of the mind, to embrace attitudes that give greater attention to the body and the feelings, and no longer accords reason its dominance in either church or culture. Understanding is often underplayed, while affective participation is played up. It is, perhaps, ironic that it is amongst those who would most often stress their Reformation inheritance that the charismatic movement and affective religion has become most influential. Nor can one neglect the popularity of certain á-la-carte selections from the earlier tradition, whether of incense of Gregorian chant, amongst the most contemporary forms of “alternative” worship.

I generally want to welcome this valuing of the affective and non-rational aspect of worship as an important recalling of the relational nature of our faith, and its treating us as whole persons, not disembodied minds. Though I note we are confused about it: a great many churches which use Taizé chants in Latin seem baffled by singing in tongues, and vice versa. Liberal and Catholic Anglicans appear to have arthritic shoulders and can never left up holy hands in praise, while Evangelicals have arthritic legs, and can never bow the knee. (There are as always exceptions to prove this rule!)

But this rather odd confusion should not make us ignore the danger of devaluing understanding. It is right and good to stress the bodily and the affective as part of the worship of the whole person, but the whole person must continue to include the mind, the reason, the understanding, that in the end lies behind this article. Despite the long hegemony of Latin (or Tudor English), we must not forget that the initial use of Latin (or Tudor English) was precisely so that people could worship and hear in their own language, with understanding.

One of the most distinctive points about the early Christian movement was their easy abandonment of the reading of Scripture in Hebrew (which appears to have been shared with at least some Diaspora Jews). There is no one holy language in the Church, (and this remains a significant difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Islam and Judaism on the other) but just as God is God of all peoples so he is God to be praised in all languages, and the God who speaks to us in our own tongue.

While this point is not, in itself, simply about understanding, it certainly includes the love of God with the mind. We should not forget, even if we exegete the text differently, that there is a significant tradition of it being our reason which makes us to be in the image of God. Understanding, and the exercise of the rational faculty, properly belongs at the heart of our worship, reasonable human beings relating to the one whose reason became flesh for our sake.