The Eucharistic Sacrament

Sunday 12th August 2018
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Woodmancote
1 Kings 19 1-8
John 6.35; 6:41-51

There is a lively contemporary debate about perception and reality in the retail trade which revolves around the question of whether what matters is what is true or whether what matters is what consumers perceive to be true. In this age of fake news, the rubbishing of experts, the ranking of personal experience over data and the belief that all opinions are of equal value, this is an important issue which sees businesses fleeing from the burden of explaining the factual to shaping customer perception. Is this thing I am being sold real or is it only an illusion? And, last week, even more seriously, a widely cited author claimed that the whole of natural science is simply a self-generated perception.

The terrible consequences of ranking perception above reality flits across my mind every time a Eucharistic President uses Eucharistic prayers A, B and E which say: "May this bread and wine BE FOR US the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ" when the whole of my being cries out, "Well, is it, or isn't it? It surely doesn't depend on my perception!"

The history of the Eucharist is as long as the history of Christianity and is by no means straightforward. In the first thousand years, particularly in the Latin West, the term "Body of Christ" was taken to mean, in line with the writings of Saint Paul, the collective entity of Christ's gift to the earth in the form of his Church. It was only in the period from 1000 to 1250 that the idea evolved that the bread and wine, consecrated by the Priest at the Eucharistic altar, became the body and blood of Jesus Christ, a doctrine nailed down by Saint Thomas Aquinas as part of his framework of alloying Christian theology with the philosophy of Aristotle.

The Church of England's entanglements began at the Reformation when Archbishop Cranmer was ordered to write a new set of services, including the Eucharist, which would embrace both the Puritan and the Catholic concepts of Eucharist; and this is why the Book of Common Prayer and, to a lesser extent, its successor, Common Worship, is equivocal about the nature of the Eucharist: are we to accept the doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas, still promulgated by the Pope; are we to regard the Eucharist as a simple re-telling, not a re-enactment of the Last Supper, proposed by Puritans and accepted today by self-styled Evangelicals; or are we to please ourselves whether the elements are, for us, the body and blood of Jesus or not? Does what happens at the altar depend on what the celebrant believes or, as all legitimate Eucharistic Prayers specifically state, are we to accept that whatever happens at the Eucharistic altar happens because the Holy Spirit is invoked in an act of Epiclesis?

That, I accept, is a very large and knotty bunch of questions, so let me come clean about where I stand.

One of the key issues in reading the Bible is working out when to take it literally and when not; so, for instance, many Christians take the creation story in Genesis literally but understand the Words of Institution at the Last Supper as merely symbolic. I am just the opposite. I don't believe that God created the world in six days some 4000 years ago, but I do believe that when Jesus says, "this is my body", that the "Is" is central. Likewise, when Jesus says "do this in memory of me" he is not saying "say this in memory of me"; his command requires his followers to do something.

Taken together with his statement in our Gospel Reading today, repeated three times, that Jesus is the "bread of life" it seems pretty clear to me that there is something very special about the Eucharist: we are commanded to re-enact, not just remember or talk about, the institution of the Eucharist in which the body and blood of Christ are given for us and to us, under-written by Jesus' self-identification as "the bread of life". Further, the Church of England accepts that the Eucharist, along with Baptism, is a Sacrament which is, technically, an outward sign of inward grace ordained by Jesus Christ so that, just as in Baptism something physical happens, some words are said, and something changes: in baptism the person changes from being a mere human being into being a follower of Jesus; in the Eucharist, the person of Jesus Christ is made present to us in a particularly immediate and powerful way.

For the last 500 years the theological debate has largely turned on whether the priest at the altar performs an act, which Saint Thomas Aquinas termed "Transubstantiation" whereby the bread and wine literally became, in substance, the body and blood of Jesus while retaining their natural appearance, their accidence but, it seems to me, this is a bit of an Aunt Sally to be knocked down by the sceptics. The doctrine of the Sacrament of the Eucharist does not depend upon the formulation of transubstantiation; it depends, critically, as all Sacraments do, regardless of Christian denomination, on the effect of the Holy Spirit.

But I have some sympathy with the Puritans, and their successor Evangelicals if only in this: as it is the Holy Spirit which effects Sacramental transformation there is no clear reason why this can only be invoked by a priest; any Christian, after all, can invoke the Holy Spirit in Sacramental Baptism. The idea of non-ordained Eucharistic Presidency is advanced by self-styled Evangelicals precisely because they believe nothing happens at the Eucharist and that, by logical extension, it is not a Sacrament at all; but my reason for challenging ordained exclusivity is that, quite simply, there was Eucharist for at least 100 years before there were ordained Ministers in the sense we understand that term. Of course, we may want to accept that doctrine changes over time; but it seems to me that priesthood has steadily moved away from the "Royal Priesthood" of all of us (1 Peter 2.9) to the ordained priesthood of a few of us. And, at a much more practical level, the priestly Eucharistic monopoly, properly treated with scepticism, has had an immensely damaging effect on Christianity: combined with the power to forgive sins, it has made clergy immensely powerful; and power, as we know, corrupts which, in our case has meant massive clerical child abuse in which clerics have protected clerics, for which we are all paying, morally and financially.

Finally, however, to return to my major theme: without being a star-rated theologian, it is still important that, when we attend a Eucharist, we have some idea what is going on which justifies our being there and, although it goes against the grain, we might also need to establish for ourselves what we think is going on. It isn't my way of approaching the subject but I have to accept that it is the contemporary way.