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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