What Anglicans have not always held about Communion, part 5: summary and conclusions

This post concludes the series in the previous posts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. It is also intended to be a summary of the whole series for those who don’t want to read it all.

The series started with the Bishop of Chelmsford’s reply to my Open Letter to him, including the words

It has always been the case that Anglicans hold that receiving Communion in one kind we receive the full blessing of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

His words are based on these commended by the Archbishops:

when [Communion] is received only in one kind the fullness of the Sacrament is received none the less.

My argument is that this is not correct. Anglicans have held a wide range of views about Communion, as I described in parts 2 and 3 of the series. Certainly one of those views is the one set out in the Thirty-Nine articles, which was held by the founders of the Church of England as a separate entity in the 16th century, and is still held by many Anglicans today. I have sought to argue that Anglicans who take this view of Communion cannot consistently agree that “when it is received only in one kind the fullness of the Sacrament is received none the less”, and so that the existence of this view among Anglicans demonstrates that the Archbishops and the Bishop of Chelmsford are wrong.

This also implies that their advice on swine flu is theologically flawed and damaging to the Church. I also believe that it is scientifically flawed, because the risk of catching swine flu from the Communion cup is much less than from all the other interaction at a typical church service – but in this series I am concentrating on the theological issues.

Note carefully that I am by no means trying to impose on my fellow Anglicans this view from the Thirty-Nine Articles, which is similar to my own view. I am merely pointing out that it is a genuinely Anglican view which should not be ignored or marginalised in the Church of England today.

So, what is that I find so objectionable about the Bishop of Chelmsford’s advice to his clergy? It is the words “the fullness of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion”, whereas the Archbishops, and Bishop N.T. Wright, referred only to “the fullness of the Sacrament”. As we saw in part 2 of this series, there are different ideas about in exactly what sense Christ is present in the sacrament. On my own view, and that of the Thirty-Nine Articles, he is present only spiritually, not in any kind of material form. And on that view of course his presence and activity does not depend on me actually consuming anything. So one might expect me to agree with the various bishops that actually drinking the wine is not necessary for the communicant to receive the full blessing of the sacrament.

Yet I cannot agree with this. It is not because an individual does not receive the wine that that person does not receive the full blessing. Rather, in the way I see it, the individual misses out on the blessing because the congregation in general does not receive the wine. So on my view if people with specific health problems, or concerns about the risk of infection, decline one or both of the elements, that does not affect the blessing they receive. What does affect the blessing is when the wine is not offered to the people as a whole, but to no one, or only to a small group of clergy and their assistants.

Why? Because the communion is not being offered according to Jesus Christ’s ordinance. These are his words of institution, as recorded by Matthew:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”27 Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. …”

Matthew 26:26-28 (TNIV)

If the cup is not offered to the assembled people so that all of them can drink from it, if they wish, then the Communion is not being offered as Jesus instituted it. And if the Lord’s ordinance is not followed, then the Communion is nothing but bread and wine, and the Lord’s blessing cannot be presumed on.

Looked at from this perspective, the Archbishops’ advisor’s words are incoherent. He notes, correctly, that

communion in both kinds is the norm in the Church of England, in faithfulness to Christ’s institution,

but then goes on to recommend a different form of Communion which is clearly not “in faithfulness to Christ’s institution”. Surely the Archbishops don’t intend to commend this advice to disobey Jesus Christ? But that is what these words imply. Did Bishop N.T. Wright really intend to give the same advice? But that is what his very similar words amount to.

It is the Bishops of Rochester and Tonbridge who have offered the correct advice, writing that

the Anglican tradition places high spiritual and theological value on sharing in the common cup.

I appeal to all of the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England to endorse these words of Bishops Nazir-Ali and Castle and change their swine flu advice accordingly. They should withdraw their recommendation that the cup should be withheld from lay people. Instead they should advise that, whereas churches may use intinction by the priest if they prefer, and while those who prefer not to take the cup on health grounds should be given a decent option of declining it, the recommended practice in the Church of England remains that of Article 30 of the Thirty-Nine, to offer to the whole congregation the Communion in both kinds.

3 thoughts on “What Anglicans have not always held about Communion, part 5: summary and conclusions

  1. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » What Anglicans have not always held about Communion, part 3

  2. The problem seems to be that the Bible doesn’t actually say that Jesus is ‘present’ in the bread and wine.

    I know, I know; “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”, but just to state the obvious, it was not literally His body when He was standing before them.

    Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me”. The implication I get from that (and the verses just prior) is that the actions are to act as a memory prompt.

  3. Well, Glenn, there is also 1 Corinthians 10:16 which states that as we eat the bread and drink the cup we share in the body and blood of Christ. But I agree that this does not imply any kind of objective presence of Jesus, rather that we partake only by faith.

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