Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is Receptionism?

that is, what is it if we are to discuss it in purely Anglican terms?

XXIX. Of the wicked which do not eat the body of Christ, in the use of the Lord's Supper.

The wicked and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as S. Augustine saith) the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ, but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing.

What does this mean? And what might it have to do with the popular charge that Anglicans taught, or at least allowed, some doctrine called Receptionism? And, what if they did-what would that have meant? We know what it would have meant to a Calvinist or a Zwinglian, but what would it have meant to an Anglican?

To answer this we need to look again at one of the formularies, the Homily on the worthy Receiving of the Sacrament.

Take then this lesson (O thou that art desirous of this Table) of Emissenus a godly Father, that when thou goest vp to the reuerend Communion, to be satisfied with spirituall meates, thou looke vp with fayth vpon the holy body and blood of thy GOD, thou maruayle with reuerence, thou touch it with the minde, thou receiue it with the hand of thy heart, and thou take it fully with thy inward man (Eusebius Emissenus, Serm. de Euchar.).

This needs to be considered along with both Article XXIX, and with two parts of the scripture that require serious thought. That is because a careless reading will lead one to think that the scriptures contradict themselves on a matter of doctrine, and that St. Paul had a "high" sacramental theology, but that St. John must have had a "low" one. Modern people might indeed fall into the trap of pitting their words against each other, if not for the fact that both are part of scripture. Furthermore, we must look at history as well.

In fact, we shall begin with that history. By the time of the different Reformations (my use of the plural is quite deliberate) the people who attended Church were content to "hear Mass" as they generally ignored the actual Latin service. Historians have written of people doing everything from praying to conducting business, and even of gambling. But, when the bell was rung, they looked at the elevated sacrament, crossed themselves, and then went back to whatever they were doing. Only on rare occasions did any of the people go forward to receive the sacrament. The pioneer, among the English, who first taught the value of frequent communion, was Thomas Cranmer himself, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of King Henry VIII and his son Edward.

Along with prayers in a tongue that the people can understand, and the Bible in their own language as well, Cranmer sought to emphasize that the purpose of the sacrament was not adoration from a distance, but the actual receiving of it. For this reason the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) gave the service a long title with a new name: "The Supper of the Lorde and holy Communion, commonly called the Masse." This was shortened later, and it is customary for Anglicans to call the Mass, Holy Communion. Frankly, this is a better name, since it means something of theological significance that the older name simply lacks, and because it is drawn out of scripture.

The Anglican emphasis on receiving the sacrament required, however, sober attention to what St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians chapter 11:

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. (vs. 26-31)

Therefore, this exhortation was written into the Holy Communion service of 1549 (and a modern version can be found in every edition of the Book of Common Prayer, though later it was reserved to be read only on certain Sundays):

Derely beloved in the Lord, ye that mynde to come to the holy Communion of the bodye and bloude of our savior Christe, must considre what S. Paule writeth to the Corinthians, how he exhorteth all persones diligently to trie and examine themselves, before they presume to eate of that breade, and drinke of that cup: for as the benefite is great, if with a truly penitent heart, and lively faith, we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eate the fleshe of Christ, and drinke his bloude, then we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, wee bee made one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the daunger great, yf wee receyve the same unworthely; for then wee become gyltie of the body and bloud of Christ our savior, we eate and drinke our owne damnacion, not considering the Lordes bodye.

This brings us to the problem of a simplistic reading of St. Paul and St. John.

Jesus said: "
Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:54) Nonetheless, St. Paul warns that one can eat and drink damnation to himself, the opposite of salvation and eternal life, the opposite of being raised with the immortal and glorified Christ when he comes again on the Last Day. A simplistic reading of John's words could make that salvation appear all too easy, just as easy as the Baptist revivalist who thinks that one public act of "accepting Jesus" absolves him of all past, present and future sins. It could create in the mind a high sacramental version of "once saved always saved-perserverence of the saints- eternal security." That is, presumption on the grace of God that life in Christ need not involve repentance, or any moral effort whatsoever.

Anglican formularies that teach the need to receive the sacrament with faith, to receive it in a spiritual manner (a spiritual manner while receving physically through the mouth), are quite consistent with the text of John's words: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life." (vs. 47, 48) It is very obvious that Jesus spoke of believing in him in the context of following him as one of his disciples, and this most certainly does involve repentance and moral effort. So, it is that in our Holy Communion service no one is actually invited to receive the sacrament without meeting the requirements specified in the General Confession and Absolution. We all know those words, and they are summarized best from the Absolution: "Hearty repentance and true faith."

Because Jesus said so very simply, "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day," all of the Prayer Book statements, and Article XXIX, are undoubtedly quite true. Frankly, we need this understanding to reconcile the words of St. John with the words of St. Paul. On one hand, the person who receives Communion without "hearty repentance and true faith" cannot possibly be eating and drinking in such a way as to receive Christ in the sacrament, for then he would have eternal life and a certain hope of the resurrection. Whatever this may do to "transubstantiation" and the "Real Presence," it is undoubtedly the only possible conclusion.

And yet, St. Paul does teach that the Real Presence was a reason why the person who receives in an unworthy manner receives damnation: "For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (reflected in the Exhortation, "so is the daunger great, yf wee receyve the same unworthely; for then wee become gyltie of the body and bloud of Christ our savior, we eate and drinke our owne damnacion, not considering the Lordes bodye"). It is the Lord's body he has eaten, and yet he has not fed on Christ, the Bread of Life. Whether or not one likes Article XXIX, one cannot dismiss it, for it says nothing different from what may be drawn out of scripture, and thereby proved true. This doctrine, which one may call Receptionism of a certain kind, neither contradicts the Real Presence or the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI when he modifies the definition of "transubstantiation" in a very Anglican manner.

The problem is this: Attempts to explain the sacrament perfectly to the satisfaction of the human mind are futile, as are attempts to explain the Incarnation and the Trinity. We will never remove the mystery from the Mystery. Christ's Real Presence in the sacrament itself cannot really be explained; and why would we even want to explain it? I am content to know that if I played chess with God, I would lose. I do not want to try to put God under a microscope and describe him, or his mysteries. I must take and eat, I must drink, with hearty repentance and true faith. What needs a thorough transubstantiation, after all, is me.


Canon Tallis said...

Amen and Amen! Beautiful.

Sandra McColl said...

Fr Hart, an excellent job of explaining what we believe from sources about which we need not be in the least embarrassed.

I am as guilty as any, but it would appear that we have been confusing the pre-Reformation mischiefs.

There were two main ones:

1. the institutional mischief of not allowing or expecting the people to receive Communion frequently (which still persists among our Eastern Orthodox brethren, whom I have observed happily standing outside and smoking until the liturgy gets to the business end); and
2. the non-institutional, unofficial, popular mischief of believing that the consecrated elements became the body and blood of Christ in a physical and corporeal, if disguised, way.

The correction of both mischiefss, but in particular the overcorrection of the second of the mischiefs, gave rise to a widespread popular mischief in itself, whereby the Sacrament of the Altar, while it remained on the altar or in the hands of the priest, was not looked up upon with faith and marvelled at, even by those about to receive It. To my crude and untutored eye, it is well and truly alive in the 1552 version of the BR, and was not fully and explicitly corrected in the 1662 version. For that reason, I believe that even the 1662 BR doesn't really fit with other genuine Anglican sources, and that rather than do a Tract CX on it, it's probably better to offer an historical demonstration of how it got there, admit it's a little embarrassing, admit it's part of a legacy as embarrassing as the popular misunderstanding of transubstantiation (or as embarrassing as the latter should be), and move on.

"Attempts to explain the sacrament perfectly to the satisfaction of the human mind are futile, as are attempts to explain the Incarnation and the Trinity. We will never remove the mystery from the Mystery." Amen to that.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Remember that the Black Rubric was slipped in after the bishops refused to allow it. It would have been better if they had been obeyed (also inasmuch as they were the lawful authorities). It is useful, as I say, for historical purposes: "Here's what Anglicans meant when they said 'transubstantiation.'"

welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

Please excuse and disregard the long, silly, rather embarrassing email question I sent earlier today. This post on Receptionism pretty much ties up any loose ends I had remaining from the previous exchange on Transubstantiation and the BR, plus a number of other questions I hadn't even asked.

God bless your continued ministry.


Fr. Robert Hart said...


Your e-mail was not at all burdensome. I will say here what I replied, brief as it is. Sacraments signify what they effect, and effect what they signify.

I believe this puts them in a unique category.

Matthew Nelson said...

The key to understanding Article XXIX is the word "partake" in the body of the Article.

In short, unfaithful people, though they may literally and materially consume the sacrament, do not thereby become "partakers of the divine nature" as St. Peter puts it.

Therefore, nothing in Article XXIX (or the BCP) conflicts with an objective view of the Real Presence.