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Holy Communion goes by many names: The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or simply Communion. It is described article XXXVIII in two parts. The first is a positive description of our view of The Lord’s Supper. The Second is brief discussion of what we do not believe about the Lord’s Supper, followed by a “mopping up” action in which we try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here is the text of the first part:
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 it 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.
This part of Article XXXVIII affirms what has already been stated about the nature of sacraments, in that the supper is both a sign and sacrament. It makes clear that Anglicans hold what is called a “receptionist” theology. This is we believe that the sacraments are used by God to convey grace only to those who receive them by faith. Of course, as Reformational Christians, we believe that faith is a gift of God. This part also affirms that to take the bread is to partake of the body of Christ and to drink the cup is to partake of the blood of Christ.
But this is where the writers and rewriters of the Articles got nervous. They knew that in their century, the 16th, the Roman Catholic Church believed, and required its members to believe, in something called “transubstantiation” and so this Article goes further:
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.
“Transubstantiation” is then described as the bread and wine actually changing substantively into flesh and blood. No one in that day believed that the bread and wine would look in appearance like flesh and blood. But the Roman Church believed that the substance or reality of the bread and wine had been replaced by God with the flesh and blood of Christ, and that in this replacement Christ was offered back to God by the priest and to the people for sacrifice. The Reformation opposed this belief, rejecting the idea that the bread and wine were objectively flesh and blood. But Anglicans, for the most part, were concerned not to give away too much, especially since it was Christ himself who picked up the bread and said “This is my body…”
So the solution was to affirm that the bread and wine are his body and blood in a spiritual manner, and then to qualify that although the meal is heavenly or spiritual, it is nonetheless a true partaking of the body and blood of Christ. The believer is to approach the table in this faith, that Christ is giving himself to his people through this bread and wine. This is made possible by the Holy Spirit making him present in the bread and wine, thus making this meal a true participation in Christ.
The simplest phrase used to express this nuanced view is the phrase “real presence.” This is an affirmation that what is happening during communion is real, it is objective, and it is assured by God. It affirms also that God is present, and that we are to believe and trust that he is. But this phrase deliberately avoids describing the mechanism of howexactly God does this. How Christ is made present, then, is left in the realm of mystery. That is God’s business. We are to approach his table with faith, trusting that he will do as he promised and make himself present to us in the breaking of the bread. In this environment of mystery, Anglicans have cherished a broad range of sentiments from near Memorialism (symbolic remembrance) to consubstantiation (Christ is with and under the bread and wine), while avoiding an overly technical theology of Eucharist.
The actual practice of receiving Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) has a varied history. Christians in the early days gathered every day for a love feast, followed by the ceremonial meal of bread and wine, usually in the evening. Over the centuries as clergy began to dominate worship and the bread and wine were increasingly seen as objectively powerful, the people began to fear reception. In the Middle Ages, most Christians received only on Easter Day, after the forty day period of repentance during Lent, which was believed to have most safely prepared them for the Lord’s body and blood. But during the Reformation many within and without the Roman Catholic Church began to work toward a restoration of the ancient view that the Communion should be an assurance of grace, not an instrument of condemnation. The people should be encouraged to receive, and receive regularly. This reality, even in Protestant churches, was a long time in fully being realized. It was not until the mid-19th century that Eucharist was offered more regularly. And it was not until the last century that the churches of the many traditions of Christianity began to celebrate weekly communion. Today in Anglican churches weekly communion is the norm.
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