Now my tongue the mystery telling

BCP 1559I take the title of this post from the most common translation in Anglican hymn books of one of St Thomas Aquinas’ great Eucharistic hymns. We have arrived, with article 28, at the first of a mini-series within the 39 articles about the Eucharist. The presence of this hymn, Pange lingua, gloriosi, in Anglican hymnals for well over a century is a reminder that the developing tradition of Anglicanism has (whether others judge this as right or wrong) re-appropriated much of the Eucharistic devotion of the pre-Reformation Church, even if, perhaps, transposing it into a new key.

Anglicans interact with this (and subsequent) articles from a diverse Eucharistic spirituality that has not been in every case constrained by the controversies of the Reformation. St Thomas’ Eucharistic theology was not confined simply to the Anglo-Catholics. Through Hymns Ancient and Modern, the most popular Anglican hymnbook of the 20th century, many Anglicans became acquainted with a wider range of Eucharistic theology than could be found in the prayer book. At the same time, most saw nothing inconsistent in continuing to reject, usually in a garbled form, the doctrine of transubstantiation – though poorly understood, it served to distinguish them from Roman Catholics. The background for approaching these articles is therefore complex.

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped.

I will save the discussion of the place of faith, and the question of worthy reception, to a later discussion of the twenty-ninth article, and here concentrate on the understanding of what change happens in the sacrament. Of course, there are those who say that no change happens in the sacrament, but only in the hearts of those who receive it in faith.

This was almost certainly Cranmer’s position in 1552. By the time we reach the 1662 revision of the BCP, we have been pointed away from this. 1559 dropped the most Protestant rubric, and added the words of distribution from 1549 (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you …”) before the words of 1552 (“Take and eat this in remembrance …). By the time we reach the definitive 1662 edition they have also entitled the prayer over the elements “The Prayer of Consecration” and placed a firm “Amen” at the end, separating the consecration from the communion. In Cranmer’s 1552 revision, the one led seamlessly into the other in a single act.

Following these revisions, it seems clear “something” was supposed to happen, though that something was itself unclear, and could be interpreted minimally or maximally. And generally, outside a particular strand of evangelical tradition (not shared by all evangelicals) most Anglicans seem to have thought something does happen. Anglicanism as a whole, however, has tended to be reticent about spelling out what that something is, whether of political necessity at the time of the Elizabethan settlement, or out of reverence for the mystery of God’s working beyond the reach of words. In that sense, the saying attributed to Elizabeth I still holds some force and appeal for Anglicans.

Christ was the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

There is in those words a reluctance to embrace particular theories of consecration which has tended to characterise Anglicanism, whether those theories be Protestant or Catholic. Before we pray the Eucharistic Prayer, we speak of the elements as bread and wine; after we have prayed it we speak of them as Christ’s Body and Blood given for us. And we are not, on the whole, particularly interested in exactly how God accomplishes this. It is enough that he does.

On the other hand, in common with the mainstream Western tradition, Elizabeth’s words reflect an overwhelming emphasis solely on the words of institution as having power to consecrate. Modern Anglican rites have tended to move away from this, in favour of a renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit.

Calvin was the only reformer to seek a significant role for the Holy Spirit, but his interest was more, I think, in preserving God’s sovereignty than asking about what happens. Modern rites, Anglican and Roman, learning from the early Church and the Orthodox, have returned to making more space for the work of the transforming Spirit in the Sacrament. (Although Roman ritual very definitely focusses the moment on the words following the invocation of the Spirit, some Anglican prayers reverse the order.)

With this renewed emphasis on the Spirit, modern liturgies also affirm more clearly the eschatological context of the Eucharist. It not only points back to the sacrifice that makes our peace with God, but to the eternal celebration of the life which is the fruit of that peace, in the feast of the kingdom.

It seems to me that this eschatological reframing of the Eucharist, together with a due attention to the work of the Spirit, are key elements in allowing us to move beyond the debates of the Reformation. In a subsequent post I intend to develop this further.  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.