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.

Anyway, on to the article.

XXX. Of both kinds
The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

This has ceased to be a point of division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches reformed at, or having grown since, the Reformation. It does remain to some extent a point of division within the contemporary RC Church. There are, however, some other issues around the practicalities of administration which might generally be worth subsuming under this heading. The argument of the article is grounded primarily in what happened at the Last Supper, sharing one loaf (unleavened, presumably) and one cup with his disciples. It is less grounded in any theological dispute over the nature of the sacrament, although such issues are related. And it is in the area of theologically informed practice that I want to keep my observations.

First, I note what I see to be an unfortunate side-effect, that has almost created a doctrine out of receiving in both kinds. You see it when people, having a cold or some other transmittable illness (or themselves having a weakened immune system), hold on to their wafer and then dip it in the chalice. Certainly with everyday bread, and even with broken wafers, this runs the risk of leaving lumps in the chalice for someone else to swallow. Yet so important has reception in both kinds become, that people seem unable to do the obvious thing, which is to receive under one kind alone. It does seem to me that one needs to emphasise that Christ is wholly given in either species. Christ and his self-gift are not divided, with one benefit coming from the host and the other from the chalice.

Second, there does seem to be a strange irony in inter-traditional criticism. Many of those who are critical of the practice of using wafers are quite happy to have individual miniature cups of grape juice. Those most critical of the grape-juice thimbles, are appalled by the use of a single ordinary bread loaf or roll.

(I’m not aware of any real argument that can say what unleavened bread looked like in the first century Mediterranean world, though I suspect that the bread of the Last Supper would have been more like chapatti than matzos.)

Yet it does seem to me that a shared loaf and a shared cup – the apparent practice of the Last Supper – convey something about what the sacrament is not only in terms of its origins, but in terms of its efficacy as a sacrament of unity. Neither individual wafers nor individual cups serve that symbolism so well. In churches like those I’ve served in, which for the practical reason of reservation, as well as a traditional attachment to unleavened bread, use wafers, we have for this reason adopted the use of very large wafers, so that everyone shares communion with pieces broken from a larger whole. (For those who do things with statistics, wafers which break into a known number of pieces also make the business of keeping an accurate count of communicants fairly straightforward.)

Finally, there is the difficult area of inculturation. If we are at least to some extent to be governed by the practice of Jesus, is the use of bread and wine (indeed, wine mixed with water) absolutely essential? I note that there are ways in which we are not governed by the practice of Jesus. We do not only celebrate this meal annually, in the context of a seder. Many Protestant communities have long ceased using wine, and substituted unfermented grape juice or (less commonly) some other fruit-based drink. Most of them (as also many Anglican Evangelical churches) do not have a mixed cup of wine and water, although that would seem to have been the norm for wine in the first centuries of the church. In the majority of communities that do use a mixed cup, additional symbolic meaning has somewhat obscured the link with normal first century use. But where are the limits to how far churches should go from treating Jesus’ institution as normative?

The use of bread and wine, as also the use of a whole range of linguistic symbols in Scripture, are embedded in the culture of Israel, and the history of God’s specific dealings with his chosen people. Just as I would argue for continuing to use the metaphor of shepherd, even in cultures that don’t know what a sheep is, and develop appropriate footnotes, teaching and explanation, so I would argue for continuing to use bread and wine. I do not say that one can never celebrate the Eucharist with something else. I can easily imagine times and places when bread or wine is simply unavailable, and I do not think that ought to prevent a Eucharist taking place. I am speaking here of normal and normative practice.

The meaning and practice of the Eucharist is not merely found in some generic human practice of shared hospitality, even if it is deeply related to it. It is not even found only in the general communal meal practice of Jesus’ ministry, with the Last Supper as an extension of all those other suppers he ate, though it is certainly informed by them. It is found in the specific history of Jesus, as narrated in the synoptic gospels and earliest church tradition as handed on by Paul. This is specifically the history of the one who interpreted his death in the light of Israel’s Passover. Bread and wine root the Eucharist in that story. (And even more so unleavened bread and a mixed cup!) In that sense, the essential instinct of this article, that Jesus’ practice should inform our celebration, offers wise guidance.