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In Search of Eucharistic Theology in the Episcopal Church

For the first forty-one years of my life I was an Episcopalian. For most of that time I believed in consubstantiation, a belief I thought I shared with all Broad and High Church Episcopalians. Consubstantiation, first defined by Martin Luther, asserts the coexistence of bread and wine with the Body and Blood of Christ in the consecrated Eucharist. This Lutheran doctrine was rejected by the Council of Trent when it defined the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which means the bread and wine cease to exist and become instead the actual, corporeal Body and Blood of Christ. In my experience, those Episcopalians who did not believe in consubstantiation identified themselves as “Protestant,” a term I was forbidden to use as a child when referring to the Anglican Communion.

Recently my Episcopalian mother lamented yet again that I have never received Communion with her since I “changed denominations. “I don’t know why your church doesn’t allow it,” she said. “We all believe the same things.” Ten enlightening minutes later she had learned about the doctrine of transubstantiation, and I had learned that she had never believed in—nor even heard of—consubstantiation.

The Episcopal churches I attended as an adult celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi with impressive three-hour masses and held evensong and benediction every Sunday evening. Clearly, the little white disk in the monstrance was being worshiped, a wicked thing if one subscribes to the Anglican Articles of Religion: “The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshiped” (Book of Common Prayer, art. 28, para. 4).

But do Episcopalians believe Christ is physically, substantially present in their Eucharist?

I asked the dean and rector of a nearby Episcopal church who is considered by some people in the area to be the local authority on all things Episcopal. Some excerpts from our conversation:

Q. What is the definition of a sacrament in the Episcopal Church?

A. The simple definition that you teach children in confirmation classes [is]: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” So what we say is, there are two parts to the sacrament that you can actually see going on, like the joining of hands, the exchange of rings. . . . The bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ that are distributed at the holy Eucharist. And then the inward part of what really is happening. And, of course, at Eucharist, the theology of the Episcopal Church is that the bread and wine actually become the Real Presence of Christ, and that when you receive that Sacrament you receive his Body and Blood, not bread and wine.

Q. In reality? Or spiritually?

A. In every way except physically.

Q. I know Episcopalians who believe in consubstantiation.

A. The theology in the Episcopal Church talks “Real Presence” and what that goes for is that Jesus said, “This is my body.” He didn’t say, This is a memorial of me.” He didn’t say anything other than simply, “You take the bread, you bless it, you break it, you give it to the people. You take the wine, you bless it, you give it to the people. And it is my body and it is my blood.” He doesn’t say in which way it is. . . .

If you take the Catholic sacrament—or an Episcopal sacrament or Baptist or anybody else’s—and run it through a chemical lab, it’s still going to be bread and wine. In the Roman Catholic theology they have what they call the “accident” of the sacrament, and they don’t mean, “Oops, you caught us.” They mean accident like it’s an underlying thing that it really is the Body and Blood of Christ, even physically, except it’s all underlying. It’s got this bread and wine that still sort of show up somehow.

And in order to avoid that sort of complicating how-are-you-going-to-explain-it mess, we say it’s Christ’s Body and Blood in every way except physically. Because we know when you run that chemical test and prove it’s not flesh and blood, it’s still bread and wine.

The Episcopal priest gave me three booklets. One, Twenty Questions About the Episcopal Church by Francis John Moore, confirms that Episcopalians like to avoid how-are-you-going-to-explain-it messes. “Episcopalians do not try to explain philosophically how the real presence of Christ occurs. . . . [However] for nearly two thousand years Christians have met week by week, believing that in sharing the bread and wine they are in communion with Christ” (7).

As if further effort were needed to avoid messes, the booklet Took, Blessed, and Broke by Sister Mary Michael offers this view: “If, as they do, the bread and wine on the altar represent all we are and do and suffer, then they show us that all our life in its manifold and often petty detail can become God’s Real Presence with us” (emphasis added). In other words, clueless but optimistic, Aquinas, Clement, Gregory, and all that glorious company shared bread and wine, and their dull, boring lives became the Real Presence.

A more serious commentary is offered by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. “[The priest] also asks that the Holy Spirit will make holy both us and the bread and wine so that they will be the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior,” says its booklet The Holy Eucharist.” The real presence of Christ in the sacrament is the answer to our prayer, that he may dwell in us and we in him” (7).

The implication, perhaps unintentional, that the recipient must be made holy in order for the holy bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, along with the insistence on the insubstantial nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, are consistent with the Anglican Articles of Religion: “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; likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ” (28).

I next turned to the three books I relied on as an Episcopalian for spirituality and inspiration. The first book, The Practice of Religion, has this to say about Holy Communion:

“Under the forms of bread and wine we receive our Lord really and objectively present, but after a spiritual, mystical, and supernatural manner” (emphasis added). This is something my Episcopal priest friend could agree with. Yet this book’s claim that Episcopalians “receive our Lord whole and entire” in the Eucharist makes one wonder what constitutes whole and entire. The Practice of Religion also contains a chapter, “Adoration and Intercession to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament,” implying a kind of Eucharistic devotion, but with no mention of a monstrance or exposition. In conformity with paragraph three of Article twenty-eight, the book’s theology nevertheless breaks with paragraph four. Clearly the Lord is more “present” here than the Articles allow.

The most intriguing proclamation of Anglican Eucharistic faith is found in the book of devotions, St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (Augustine of Canterbury, not Hippo), a favorite book among High Church Episcopalians in New York: “Behind the form of the sacred host I believe that thou art present, in all the perfection of thy manhood and divinity” (144, emphasis added)

Could this be a veiled reference to a Lutheran doctrine, the doctrine that dare not speak its name? Just as the reader suspects that St. Augustine’s Prayer Book might support consubstantiation, we read about “Our Lord’s real, objective presence in the Blessed Sacrament.” The same words are used in The Practice of Religion, which denies Christ’s physical, substantial presence.

Neither A Manual of Catholic Devotion nor Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book proclaims a specific Eucharistic doctrine. Both books make use of ancient Eucharistic prayers (by Aquinas, Bonaventure, Ignatius, and Ambrose), implying that there is no difference between Anglican and Catholic Eucharists. However, searching through both books, I could not tell whether or not the authors believed in the physical, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The books also both contain the “Anima Christi” of St. Ignatius. The Practice of Religion contains a paraphrase of the “Anima Christi” that goes like this:

Blood of Jesus, streams of life,
Sacred stream with blessing rife, . . .
Blood of Christ, my succor be,
Miserere Domine. 

This doesn’t have the ring of ” Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” which is the translation in the other two books. Bearing in mind that The Practice of Religion specifically states that Christ is received every way but physically, and the other two books avoid stating any such thing, the contrast between the two versions of the “Anima Christi” is revealing.

There is a tendency among Episcopalians/Anglicans to trivialize Catholic patristics, history, and doctrine while ignoring their own glaring deviations from those things. Transubstantiation becomes “sharing bread and wine,” and the “Anima Christi” proclaims the wonder of the insubstantial presence of Christ. But why the reluctance to plainly state a Eucharistic doctrine in two books wherein the Articles of Religion have no more relevance than a book of nursery rhymes?

Anglican Eucharistic theology today is all over the map. The consecrated host is not supposed to be worshiped and carried about, but it is worshiped and carried about. It is the Body and Blood of Christ, not bread and wine, but it is also bread and wine, not the Body and Blood of Christ—in the same conversation. The Puritan Westminster Confession echoes the Anglican Articles of Religion, but Anglican Eucharistic devotion mimics that of the Catholic Church. Christ is present in the Eucharist only mystically, but he also dwells on earth in visible form in the same Eucharist.

There is a gulf between the different sets of beliefs that cannot be bridged by any sense of ecumenism. Discussion of doctrinal differences among Episcopalians often degenerates into shouting matches, of which I have been a participant several times in my life. As a Catholic I am more confused than ever as to how I learned of consubstantiation, from whom, and when.

Perhaps because I’m a Catholic now, I want labels, names, definitions—something—to explain what I’m reading. The Articles taught with conviction and were quite clear about what was and was not allowed. They are now safely tucked away into a chapter at the back of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer—”Historical Documents of the Church”—where they can’t scare anybody. Although they have influenced some contemporary beliefs, the Articles no longer carry the weight of authority. Sister Mary Michael ignores them. So does every High Churchman I ever knew.

High Church theology is couched in elegant English, but I have found little clearly stated doctrine. The mainline Episcopal Church seems to want to say something profound about the Eucharist but can’t; the High Church says little but says it profoundly.

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