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Virtual Last Supper


Virtual Last Supper

This is the second post in response to the paper by Bishop Tim Harris: The heart of the matter: Holy Communion, effective participation and virtual reality — some guidance from historical Anglican sacramental understanding.

Read this earlier post first.

The heart of Tim’s paper is the theological exposition of the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist as presented by the Book of Common Prayer 1662. In essence, the paper argues, the authors of BCP 1662 understood this sacramental presence to be of the bread and wine undergoing a change “not in substance, but in use.”

One can think of taking pieces of cloth, cutting them, and stitching them together to become a flag. The cloth has changed “not in substance, but in use.” The cloth has changed significance. “Transignification” could be a shorthand term for this. People pledge allegiance to this transignified cloth. People die for, and are prepared to die for, this transignified cloth. People have rituals around this transignified cloth: it may not touch the ground; it is to be treated with respect; burning this is significant sacrilege.

The paper speaks of ‘Christ’s real presence “spiritually in the hearts of the communicants”‘ without any explanation about this. I think this is not unimportant. Christ is present at the right hand of the Father. A discomfort with understanding Christ to be present in and under the form of bread and wine – and perennially seeking to understand how that could possibly occur – and to deny it – seems to be completely lacking in the parallel of understanding Christ to be present in the heart of the believer. In fact, there does not even appear to be the need to qualify that by “heart” is not meant the physical blood-pumping organ, etc. I struggle to understand why a similar comfort with mystery and metaphor is not availed to the bread and wine about which Jesus said, “this is my body; this is my blood”. Taking Jesus at his word meant that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” (John 6:66).

In the paper, there is a regular denial of “any physical (carnal) presence in the bread and wine”. Fair enough. But it is to be noted that no thoughtful Eucharistic theology argues that there is a physical (carnal) presence of Christ in the bread and wine! Just as one can find plenty of misunderstanding and mis-proclamation of Christian doctrine on the nature of Christ, His divinity, His humanity, the Trinity, and so forth, so, obviously, one can find plenty of misunderstanding and mis-proclamation of the orthodox teaching of the presence of Christ in and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Arguing against “any physical (carnal) presence in the bread and wine” is one thing; to think that thereby one has done away with (or needs to do away with) Christ’s presence in and under the bread and wine is simply arguing against a straw sacrament.

The paper notes that at the time of formation of the BCP “no authorised liturgy included an epiclesis over the bread and the wine.” What I cannot see is the acknowledgement that this was the Western norm until Vatican II. The absence of an epiclesis over the bread and wine is no argument against an understanding of Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread and wine.

The authors of BCP 1662 may very well have held to a transignification model of the Eucharist. But the dense theological argument that was required by Tim in his paper to demonstrate this thereby underscores that the theological position of the authors is relatively opaque – possibly on purpose by the authors, and through this ambiguity the texts accomodate Anglican diversity rather than demanding a monolithic viewpoint.

Anglicans are not required to hold the particular viewpoint that the author of a particular liturgical text holds. What we are required to do is follow our vowed agreements to use the agreed text and follow our agreements on how to conduct and participate in a service.

To conclude today’s post, in my own province, our binding A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa  on page 541 has words that cannot be understood in the perspective that Tim’s paper argues for:

Praise and glory to you creator Spirit of God;
you make our bread Christ’s body
to heal and reconcile
and to make us the body of Christ.
You make our wine Christ’s living sacrificial blood
to redeem the world.

ANZPB/HKMA page 541

To be continued…

As well as the previous post in this series
Remote Consecration Part 1 (3 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 2 (5 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 3 (5 minutes reading time)
Remote Consecration Part 4 (4 minutes reading time)
Spiritual Communion
I encourage you to read
Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist and

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4 thoughts on “Transignification”

  1. Peter Carrell

    (For me) you are highlighting that any theory of Eucharistic presence needs to account for the requirement for bread and wine for the experience of Christ’s presence in this particular manner (in Anglican terms explain how Christ’s presence in the eucharist is different to Christ’s presence in Evensong) and needs to explain how the presence of Christ is not confined to the bread and wine in its effect on the recipient (explain that the feeding on the bread and wine of communion is different to and more than the effects of eating bread and drinking wine at any other meal).

    It is not easy!

    1. Thanks, Peter. You will appreciate the (mathematical) value of models, which (to my mind) is a model for understanding Christ’s Presence in/at the Eucharist. All the different theological approaches are models – the reality is mysterious, and cannot be appreciated “neat”, we need models to mediate the reality to our minds. I appreciate that the authors of BCP 1662 may have been working out of one model. I do not think that means we are obligated, thereby, to only view things through the lens of that particular model. Even the difficulty of working to see what model they worked within (and possibly they have purposely made that difficult to view) points to the Anglican approach that we are free to view the reality through any number of lenses/models. Some denominations, of course, restrict members to a specific model. I think Anglicanism is not one of those denominations.

  2. I commented earlier in this thread. However, it has not appeared. So, here goes for a second try.

    Am I correct in saying that that in his comment here, Bishop Peter asks us how we might address the question of: How the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist can be understood to be any more ‘real’ than His presence at Evensong?

    In our New Zealand context, I would have thought that the ‘epiclesis’ offered on page 423 of our NZPB would have provided one answer to this important question. Here is the extract:

    “Send your Holy Spirit that these gifts of bread and wine which we receive may be to us the body and blood of Christ, and that we, filled with the Spirit’s grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom”.

    In all of the mailine Christian Churches, where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is always at least one point in the Liturgy where the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the bread and wine, so that these together are perceived to contain the presence of Christ is a special and unique way – that is different from any other ‘presencing’ of him in our human experience here on earth. If I am not right about this, then I would wonder why we bother with our public recognition on the ordained ministry, one of whose mandated tasks is to preside at the presencing of Christ at the Eucharist..

    This gives me pause for thought about the new evangelical proposition in the Church of England to plant ‘10,000 Lay-Led Church communities – presumably alongside the currently operative parish church communities. How would the sacraments of the Church, in that situation, be celebrated in these communities?

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron, for developing the discussion. No earlier comment from you appeared here, sorry. Blessings.

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