Anglican Eucharistic Devotion & Practice

The Anglican tradition in general, and the American Episcopal tradition in particular, has developed over time greater belief in and devotion to the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It was, however, not always so. In fact the original architect of our prayer book tradition itself, Thomas Cranmer, was (at various stages of his career) beholden to a quite “low” view of the presence of Christ: memorialism after the fashion of the Reformer Zwingly. Since Cranmer’s day, however, our tradition has heightened its view, and development is seen in at least three ways: the words of administration in the Eucharist, the American church’s adoption of the Scottish Eucharistic tradition, and the presence of the epiclesis (sometimes known as the “invocation”). All of this makes Anglicanism’s embodiment of the Eucharist unique to the global, ecumemical Church of our day and of the future.

The tradition involving the words of administration is quite telling. While it is true that Cranmer’s – and indeed the tradition’s – first iteration of the prayer book included relatively robust words of administration (“The body / blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”) nevertheless three short years later, in 1552, these words were changed in a strongly memorialist direction: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ’s [body] was [broken] for you; feed on him in your heart by faith…..” Now, the key point here is that the tradition – especially in the Scottish – American tradition but also in subsequent English tradition, moved away from the 1552 version and embraced (to some extent) the 1549 version. The 1637 Scottish book of the Nonjurors simply rejected the 52 version and opted for the 49; as for the English tradition, Elizabeth in 1559 mollified the previous (ie, 1552) language by combining it with that the 1549 book. In both cases, then, it is clear that the shift is toward the objective body of Christ which is key, and not simply (though this is not simply negated) the subjective faith of the recipient (where nothing is happening to the elements), as the main emphasis of the language.

Second, the growing devotion of Christ and his true presence (now in the American tradition) is seen in the American church’s adoption of the Scottish tradition’s version of the Eucharistic prayer. We have already noted that this tradtion rejected the 1552 words of administration in favor of those of 1549 (although the Nonjurors did include the prayer of worthy reception). More important, perhaps, even that this however, is a development conserning the shape of the Eucharistic prayer overall. Thanks to the scholarship of the day (a sort of “proto-liturgical-reform-movement) and thanks to the ecclesial / political situation in Scotland (ie, the Scottish church was “underground,” without official Episcopal oversight) the Nonjurors were able to do two things at once. Their discovery of ancient eastern liturgies (liturgy of St. James, etc.) combined with  their freedom to create directory-like “Wee Bookies” (thus rearranging material in ways which conformed to the ancient eastern patterns) allowed them to discern a fundamental structure of the Eucharistic prayer, that of:

[Words of Institution] → [Oblation] → [Epiclesis]

This pattern or shape put this church in deep solidarity with ancient eastern churches and allowed to perceive the “deep structure” of the Eucharistic prayer, and Christ’s true presence with that context.  (Note: the Scottish and American churches also rejected the Black rubric from the outset.)

We have already mentioned the epiclesis, but this point is so important (for the Scottish-American tradition) that it merits a consideration of its own. What’s going on here is that the Scottish-American tradition simply started out by adopting a strong epiclesis (consistent with Cranmer’s 1549 book, but with the epiclesis now located later in the prayer, toward the end). The theology behind this move comes primarily from Calvin (and, in turn, his reading of the eastern fathers), and it is shared by (the early) Cranmer and the Scottish-American tradition alike. (Note that the Eucharistic liturgy inherited by Cranmer, the Roman mass and the Sarum rite, had no epiclesis.) The epiclesis (from the Gk kaleo) presupposes that the Eucharist is all about the action of the Holy Spirit. It is the role of the Spirit to unite things that are far apart (by space and by time), and so the Spirit unites us to Christ who is “in the heavenlies.” It is the priest’s (nay, the entire congregation’s) ritual action – a movement through time – which invokes the spirit to do his sanctifying work, both of the elements (the corpus mysticum) and of the people (the corpus verum). So then, this Eucharistic theology is deeply pnuematological: the Spirit makes Christ truly present by bringing us to where he is.
In all these ways and more we see that, over time, the Anglican tradition, particularly in it Scottish-American form, has grown into a deeper grasp and understanding of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is not identical to “the Roman view.” It is not identical to “the Eastern view.” It is certainly not identical to “the Protestant view.” Indeed it is (part of) our unique contribution to the Christ’s larger oikonume of faith.

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