Anglicans and ‘the Real Presence’ at the Eucharist

Anglicans and ‘the Real Presence’ at the Eucharist

Sermon preached by the Revd Michael Graham
at St. Peter’s, Drogheda
on Sunday 23rd April 2006

Jesus said to Thomas ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ John 20: 27b, 28

You may be aware of an interesting ecclesiastical event which took place just 7 days ago on Easter Sunday here in Drogheda which held the attention of the Irish media for a goodly part of the past week. Indeed some of you – some of us – were active participants in that event.

I refer, of course, to the invitation issued to us by Fr. Iggy O’Donovan and the members of the Augustinian community to partake fully in the Eucharist of Commemoration and Reconciliation, including the full participation of myself as Rector in concelebrating the Eucharist.

Before I say any more I have to record that I found the service itself to be awe-inspiring and uplifting to a tremendous degree. As one correspondent put it, it was an occasion on which Holy Spirit Power and People Power came together in a way which brought this act of worship alive so wonderfully. Truly God did move in a mysterious way God’s wonders to perform, and I suspect that the presence of God was self-evident to all who were there.

There has been much said over the past few days, all of it coming from people with deeply held, if different, convictions. I’m very glad to say that the overwhelming majority of views expressed to me personally have been positive and I thank all those who have contacted me to offer their support, and also those one or two who have offered their reservations which I fully understand and appreciate, not least from Archbishops Brady and Eames. As Patsy McGarry put it in his article in the Irish Times on Thursday these are both wise and decent men and I thank Archbishop Eames for his wise counsel to me as pastor pastorum – pastor of the pastors, shepherd of the shepherds.

But one thing has concerned me deeply in many of the comments which have been made. And that is when a commentator tells me what it is that I, or indeed the Church to which I belong, believes about the central act of worship which is the Eucharist. Not all of those commentators are outside the Church of Ireland. And so this morning, briefly, I would like to address just what it is that we, as members of that Church of Ireland and, indeed, the wider Anglican Communion do believe about the Eucharist or Holy Communion which we share in common with other churches who, in the words of the Nicene Creed, are part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

I am indebted to a sermon preached by the late, dearly beloved Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, the Very Revd John Paterson, at the time of a debate on what Anglicans believe during a controversy over schooling in Dunboyne some four years ago now. I am no theologian nor liturgist – Dean Paterson was both – and so with the greatest of respect to his memory I will quote extensively from that sermon. This issue crops up constantly and I make no apologies for raising it yet again. It is vital that WE, as members of the Church of Ireland, know and understand what our church’s position is so that we can respond to those who misinterpret that position.

Of course, being Anglicans, we may not necessarily agree with everything that we hear! But I hope and pray that our Communion is broad and tolerant enough to accept differences within ourselves as well as between us and others outside.

Kevin Myers in the Irishman’s Diary section of the Irish Times said at that time:

There is a single, central difference between the Catholic Church and the main reformed religion here, the Church of Ireland, and that difference has remained unbridged and unbridgeable despite 40 years of the ecumenical movement. No amount of pussy-footing … is going to change the towering importance to the Catholic Church of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Roman Catholic dogma is that during the consecration, the host actually becomes the body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Redeemer of All Mankind; not symbolically, not in a complex piece of imagery, but in full reality.

Dean Paterson said that Mr. Myers is right in saying that belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is the Anglican position on this subject?

Mr. Myers’ quoted remarks at that time, and indeed many correspondents over the last few days, imply that for members of the Church of Ireland, the Eucharistic consecration is simply symbolical, as Mr. Myers said, ‘a complex piece of imagery’. But as the Dean said:

He’s not the first person to believe that the Anglican Eucharist is a watered down version of the real thing – all about symbolism and spiritual presence. Indeed even members of the Church of Ireland have sometimes been so afraid of Roman Catholic belief in that real and essential presence of Christ in the Eucharist that they themselves have almost spiritualised the presence out of existence. More religious battles have probably been fought on the manner of how Christ is present than on almost any other subject.

Dean Paterson continues:

Yet the belief that in the Eucharist Christ is present and that in it he gives himself to us is as much a statement of the Book of Common Prayer as it is of the Roman Missal. The Thirty-Nine Articles certainly didn’t like the medieval definition of transubstantiation. But those same Thirty-Nine Articles do declare and make clear that sacraments are indeed ‘effectual signs’ – they effect and they give what they proclaim. And nothing could be more definite than the words used when [we] receive the sacrament …… ‘The body of Christ keep you in eternal life’, ‘the blood of Christ keep you in eternal life’. I believe it to be true Anglican belief and tradition to affirm that, in this sacrament we shall have a life-giving sacramental encounter with the risen Christ. As the hymn says, ‘Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face.’

Dean Paterson and some correspondents have made mention of the 39 Articles – those historically-conditioned tenets of belief which many of us would have read as children during the boring bits of Sunday services – even, dare I say, during the sermon?! They can be found in the new Prayer Book on page 778 and following – but they’re not for reading during this or any other of my sermons!

Dean Paterson said,

I would also want to affirm what the Articles mean when they say that in the Eucharist the means by which we receive Christ’s presence is ‘by faith’. [This is not to say that] in any sense whatsoever our personal faith creates Christ’s presence, but that our personal faith recognises it.

I would want to go still further and affirm, as the Dean did and as the Church of Ireland has agreed in its, somewhat grudging, acceptance of internationally agreed texts between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, that:

the presence of Christ is conveyed by the Eucharistic bread and wine to the faithful communicant. We receive Christ in answer to the prayer of the Church and in fulfilment of the promise of Christ. So that the presence isn’t only in the devout communicant, it’s also in the consecrated elements themselves. As to how it happens Anglicans have always expressed a reverent agnosticism – we would tend to say that an explanation of divine things using human language can never be precisely accurate, let alone totally adequate. That it does happen, however, and that it isn’t something created by our personal faith, we affirm as truth.

So, together with the late Dean, I say:

please, and I say this to all journalists and to all who write letters to the papers, please stop putting into print the (unintended?) misinformation that Christ’s presence in the Anglican Eucharist is ‘merely’ spiritual. ‘Spiritual’ does not mean unreal and certainly not ‘the real absence’.

And I would say to you, to all members of the Church of Ireland, understand our Church’s teaching on this subject, and be ready to make a defence of it if challenged.

To paraphrase Jesus’ words to Thomas, ‘Do not doubt [that my body and blood are truly present with you in the bread and wine of communion] but believe.’ And let us, like Thomas give thanks for that true presence of ‘My Lord and my God!’