It is quite impossible to understand, however, how a man who was ordained in the Episcopal Church back in the 1950s, as this priest was, could have stood at God's altar, and have said the words of our Mass, the Holy Communion service in the Book of Common Prayer, defend the older version many times for its beauty (as he has done), and yet reject the Gospel that is so very clearly set forth every time it is celebrated. This blindness is a double tragedy for him and for all who fail to believe; for not only is the service of Holy Communion powerful in its proclamation of the Gospel, but quite effective for all who enter into it fully, as the means whereby the Savior pulls them out of sin and death. Not only does it give the message of salvation; it imparts salvation to those who pray, hear, confess and receive. Our Holy Communion service powerfully draws us out of the depths of sin and death, and brings us face to face with the Lord our Salvation. 4
Liturgical history of salvation
The liturgy of Anglicans comes from the Tradition common to the whole Church, even though obvious differences of expression are to found in the Divine Liturgy of the East, the Latin Mass of Rome and the Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer. The differences are less significant than the things these Eucharistic liturgies have in common. They fit the pattern I mentioned in my book review of The Spirit of the Liturgy by (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. In that review, summarizing points made in detail by the author of the book, I said:
The Liturgy itself, and the whole life that it envelops, is connected to the Incarnation of God in Christ, the ultimate revelation. Our words and actions should be faithful to the intention of doing everything the right way, but not as an end in itself; rather, for the sake of the truth and of the presence of God. The Liturgy is written in words larger than any printed page can hold. It is written in history, the redemption history of Israel leading to the salvation history of the New Covenant.
In the Book of Common Prayer this reaches its most important point right at the beginning of the Canon of Consecration:
"All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious the death and sacrifice, until his coming again..."
This follows a recitation of salvation history that includes readings from scripture and reciting of the Nicene/ Constantinopolitan Creed; and it is followed by the Words of Institution and more of the Eucharistic prayer. This includes these words:
"...having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same."
Because salvation history is not merely recorded, but revealed, this is the only history that includes the future, which we find in those words, "until his coming again," that speak of the resurrection to immortality that is the hope and faith of all believers.
Liturgical provisions of grace
The power to absolve is so important that it is specifically mentioned in the Ordinal (in The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests) during the laying on of the bishop's hands:
"Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."5
The Anglican Holy Communion service offers one additional aid to the worshiper, and that is the opportunity to confess sins and receive at least the General Absolution. The General Confession may not be sufficient to relieve the conscience of all known guilt; and every Anglican priest is obligated to hear confessions and give, when appropriate (as we hope and pray it may be in every case), the sacrament of Absolution. Nonetheless, it is very obvious that the General Confession and Absolution is no mere ritual, but a provision for the sacrament that is based on the revelation of scripture, 6 and that makes use of Right Reason in establishing a form in which the Church may rightly appropriate and make available the grace of God through this sacrament. Jesus gave this power to the men in Apostolic ministry without directing the details of how they may hear confessions and absolve sins. Although one form of this sacrament has been most commonly understood since the early Middle Ages, we must remember that it evolved long after the Church was established and had been administering this sacrament with other forms for centuries.
Therefore, and also inasmuch as the Absolution is spoken only by the priest, the General Confession and Absolution is sacramental, not merely ceremonial as Francis Hall had taught. Yes, we want to make the private Confessional available for many good reasons; but we do not exclude from the altar rail those who have made use of the General Confession with proper self-examination before coming to Church. The purpose of self examination is so that the believer may, with good conscience, come forward and receive the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, as St. Paul wrote: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup." 7
Since the very first Book of Common Prayer (1549) this provision has been a means by which the individual may receive the sacrament, even if he has not been able to make private confession. Can it be abused? Yes; but so can the private confession. The issue is one of sincerity, and for this reason the conditions for actually receiving the grace of Absolution are stated in the Invitation and in the form for the General Absolution itself. The Invitation is the real Altar Call of Catholic Christian faith, with a real altar, unlike the "altar call" of revivalists. This Invitation clearly appeals to the heart and conscience as it commands genuine repentance in the clearest of terms:
"Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling."
What could be more clearly and directly stated than this call for a true conversion? After the General Confession, the words of the Absolution are conditional, so that the priest does not presume some magic power to absolve just anyone, but rather truly Absolves the sincerely penitent:
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
The appeal is to the heart and conscience of each person who plans to come forward and receive the Holy Communion. One of the very unfortunate problems of the American revision of 1979, which Episcopalians wrongly call a Book of Common Prayer, is that all of the conditions were removed from both their Invitation and Absolution (in their Rite II), suggesting nothing more than a magical power of priestcraft. But, the genuine Book of Common Prayer tradition is entirely conditional, requiring "hearty repentance and true faith." That is, it calls the worshiper to true reconciliation with God, requiring this necessary part of experiencing and receiving salvation itself. This is not a mere ritual or ceremony, but a call for true conversion and repentance, with actual forgiveness of sin offered and given. It is a form in which the sacrament of Absolution, with the full grace of that sacrament, can be given and received.
Eating and drinking salvation
As we have seen many times, the Anglican emphasis on receiving the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood was about the need of each believer to feed on the Bread of Life. Very little needs to be added to the posts that I have already written on this very blog, drawing from the connection I have made between John 6:54 and the recently deleted clause of our Prayer of Humble Access (deleted, that is, by the Revisionists of 1979). The soteriology of Scripture establishes clearly that our catechism is right to teach that two of the sacraments, baptism and communion, are "generally necessary to salvation." These two are set apart from the other five sacraments as "sacraments of the Gospel" because Jesus established them in his Church for every believer, and because they are established in the Gospel itself, in fact in the Four Gospels; but the other five were sacraments established in the Old Testament, now modified and given new meaning in the fuller revelation of the New Testament.
However, we must add this consideration. For too long Anglicans have allowed outsiders to explain to us the contents of our doctrines, even to the point of allowing them to replace Anglican catechesis with their own misinformation. So it is that the very good and necessary emphasis on receiving Christ in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, which emphasis is everywhere to be found in our liturgy, has been twisted into a thing called Receptionism. Because the English Reformers knew that the people needed to come and receivethe sacrament, and because they taught frequent communion (which was first taught by Archbishop Cranmer, after centuries of abuse had caused reception to be seldom, or never, a part of normal Christian experience), modern writers and critics of Anglicanism have mistaken this, as they have mistaken the Articles and other statements about transubstantiation as understood in the 16th century, to mean that they rejected belief in an objective Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament. But this is, as I have said, misinformation.
A close examination of the prayers does not reveal any notion of eating mere bread and drinking mere wine that upon being received is, somehow, thereby transformed. Rather, a close examination of the Eucharistic prayers, whether from the Canon of Consecration or the Prayer of Humble Access, reveals (however out of fashion such knowledge may be) that Cranmer and any others who worked on the liturgy were quite sure that the bread and wine was so transformed, in some mysterious and spiritual way, that it had become the Body and Blood of Christ. However, to be received in such a manner that each communicant receives Christ in the salvatory (soteriol) manner of John 6:54, so that receiving imparts grace instead of judgment, the prayers in our liturgy speak very clearly of our need to so eat and so drink, that we are saved by taking the sacrament. To twist this into Receptionism, and create a distinction without a difference between what they believed about Christ's Real Presence in the sacrament, and what the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has always known by revelation, is an unfortunate practice on the part of both some Roman Catholics and some modern Anglican Evangelicals who seem unable to pay close attention to the actual words of the primary sources (such as the actual service itself). 8
A major Reason to come to church
We need to forget the critics and religious squabbles when we prepare to come to his altar, and simply be glad for the gift that God has given to us. We need to appreciate the words and actions of the Holy Communion service, above all our action of receiving Christ in his Body and his Blood. We need to pay attention to its message, and believe that Jesus Christ will meet us there with his mercy and grace as we seek nothing less than him.
(Originally posted on Dec. 8, 2008)
1. See Matthew 1:21
2. John 8:23
3. Genesis 3: 15 "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." this is why Jesus called his mother "woman" twice in the Gospel of John (2:4, and 19:26). He identified himself thereby, and affirmed his miraculous conception.
4. Isaiah 33:22
5. Drawn from John 20:22,23
7. I Corinthians 11:28.
Now, as for the sacramental intention of the General Confession and Absolution, it is quite clear that the purpose of this form was meant to be equal to private Confession and Absolution. This is obvious from the Exhortation in the Holy Communion Service from 1549:
"And yf there bee any of you, whose conscience is troubled and greved in any thing, lackyng comforte or counsaill, let him come to me, or to some other dyscrete and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confesse and open his synne and griefe secretly, that he may receive suche ghostly counsaill, advyse, and comfort, that his conscience maye be releved, and that of us (as of the ministers of GOD and of the churche) he may receive comfort and absolucion, to the satisfaccion of his mynde, and avoyding of all scruple and doubtfulnes: requiryng suche as shalbe satisfied with a generall confession, not to be offended with them that doe use, to their further satisfiyng, the auriculer and secret confession to the Priest: nor those also whiche thinke nedefull or convenient, for the quietnes of their awne consciences, particuliarly to open their sinnes to the Priest: to bee offended with them that are satisfied, with their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche. But in all thinges to folowe and kepe the rule of charitie, and every man to be satisfied with his owne conscience, not judgyng other mennes myndes or consciences; where as he hath no warrant of Goddes word to the same."
8. Many of the posts in the "Sacraments" of this blog section explain the teaching in detail.
9. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." Hebrews 10:25