24 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (16) Sacramental theology

If it was Thomas Cranmer’s intention to have Morning and Evening Prayer said daily in every parish, it was the intention of all the Reformers that Holy Communion should be the primary act of worship each Sunday. Unfortunately, medieval superstition made this impossible and what occurred most Sundays was “ante-communion”, that is, Morning Prayer, the Litany and then the Holy Communion up to the end of the “Prayer for the Church Militant” (Prayers of the People), followed by one of the “table prayers” which are printed after the communion service in our Prayer Book.

Debate over the nature of the Lord’s Supper was one of the central issues of the Reformation. The mediæval church had come to see it as a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, in which the elements of bread and wine were transformed into his own physical body and blood. Some of the more radical leaders in the Reformation viewed it as a bare memorial, with the bread and wine as symbols representing Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. However, most of the Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer, stood somewhere in between.

An Anglican understanding of Holy Communion is clearly expressed in the Exhortation printed after the communion service in our Prayer Book. While some may balk at its length and its dire warning of God’s judgment, the Exhortation is in reality unsurpassed as a meditation on the meaning of the sacrament. It bids us come to the Lord’s Table “with a true penitent heart and living faith”—

for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us…

Here we see the sacrament of Holy Communion as a spiritual act involving the heart and will of every worshiper, and not merely a priestly ritual. The words of the service are important, but equally important is that every worshiper should come to the Lord’s Table in the right frame of heart and mind. The reading and proclamation of God’s word, the affirmation of our own faith in Christ in the creed, prayer for the church and the world, and the confession of our sinfulness are not merely preludes to the eucharistic prayer, but vital and essential aspects of that abiding in Christ of which the partaking of the bread and wine of Holy Communion are the expression. As we receive the bread into our hands and take the cup to our lips, it is an opportunity to open our hearts ever wider to Christ and to his love, who gave himself for us on the cross.

Before we leave the service, we offer ourselves to him, as he has offered himself for us, to serve him in his power in the world.

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