Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “Ethics” frames what he believed is the leading question for the Church in every age, “how may Christ take form among us today and here”? That form should be consonant with the apostolic teaching and the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures. It should also be engaged with present reality in order to discharge the responsibility of the Church to set forward the claims of the gospel “afresh” for this generation.
This return to the sources and responsibility towards the present is all for the sake of the coming of the Kingdom for which Jesus prays in the Lord’s Prayer. In the power of the Spirit we are enrolled in opening a fissure in the consciousness of our world so that the future, which God intends, can exert its transforming influence on present reality.
The New Testament describes a community which rehearses the past and engages with the present for the sake of the coming Kingdom. Admission to this community is through baptism. Jesus said – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” [Matthew XXVIII: 19-end]
The risen Jesus also demonstrated the action that was to be at the very heart of his community by revealing himself to the travellers on the road to Emmaus as they ate bread together. The community is nourished by Christ’s own body and blood which is really present when we enact the last supper which he shared with his friends on the night in which he was betrayed. Among the very few commandments that he gave to us is “Do this in remembrance of me”.
As the community celebrates the liturgy so we are built up into the body through which Christ can engage with our times. We re-member him in a dynamic sense. We do not merely recall his teaching and appearing long ago and far away. We re-member him among us amidst the dis-membering forces of our world. We become “very members” of the body of Christ and members one of another. The truth is that Christ “re-members” us as a community in which all other distinctions are transcended by our new life in Christ.
The Eucharist is performative and not merely illustrative. “We take not Baptism nor the Eucharist for bare resemblances or memorials of things absent, neither for naked signs and testimonies assuring us of grace received before but for means effectual whereby God, when we take the sacraments, delivereth into our hands that grace available unto eternal life.” [Richard Hooker Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V: 57.]
It is by this grace that the Eucharist builds the Church. The Holy Communion is not something the church “puts on” to cater for our “religious” needs and feelings. It is the way appointed by Christ in which the world itself is “re-membered” through the growth of his body.
Christians have in the past argued about precisely how this happens. Polemics in the 16th century centred on various attempted explanations of how the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was communicated.
When questioned about her beliefs on the Eucharist in the reign of her sister Mary, the Princess Elizabeth simply replied:-
“Christ was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it:
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.”
Others, however, wanted to define the mystery more narrowly. In an age when Aristotle’s analysis of objects in the physical world as being composed of “essences and accidents” was widely accepted, transubstantiation was seen to have value as a picture of how the eucharistic elements were transformed. In the Windsor Agreed Statement which emerged from the first series of international discussions between Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians, transubstantiation appears only in a footnote as “affirming the fact of Christ’s presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place.” This focus on the universal belief of the Christian community since the earliest times whilst avoiding over definition of the mystery is a contemporary re-statement of the teaching of Richard Hooker.
The Windsor Statement established a good deal of common ground on the Christian understanding of the sacrament which was reinforced by the Lima texts emanating from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in 1982.
The Eucharist is celebrated in many different ways and the various names in common use indicate contrasting emphases. But for all of us the Eucharistic liturgy is a meaningful statement to the world of who we are and hope to become.
The word “liturgy” is derived from the practice of Greek City States in Jesus Christ’s own day. Public liturgies were undertaken at the command of civic authority. Citizens were assembled typically in order to build a road or a temple.
Our liturgy is one which arises from the command of Jesus Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me” not in order to build a temple made with hands but to build his body which the gospel writers say has replaced the physical temple.
It follows from all this that obeying his command is an integral part of Christian discipleship. In this context there are a number of aspects of our own church life which deserve urgent consideration at the present time.
In some parts of our church it can appear that the service of Holy Communion is an appendix to services of the Word and not accorded the central significance which the express command of Jesus would seem to warrant. The reformers of our own church, Cranmer and Ridley [as Bishop of London] desired more frequent communion than was the practice in the late mediaeval Western church. Calvin also commends weekly eucharistic practice in his Institutes [IV: xvii. 46], “At least once in every week the table of the Lord ought to have been spread before each congregation of Christians.”
Despite the teaching of the early Reformers their intention was overtaken later in the 16th century by a near exclusive focus in some parts of the church on the ministry of the Word.
The recent conclusion of more than twenty years work has resulted in a wealth of provision for celebrating the liturgy. Styles will differ in tune with the culture of different parishes and communities and provision has been made for rich variety but there should be a common core and not least our celebrations of the Eucharist on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection.
The Eucharist builds the church while at the same time establishing her unity with Christ and with other parts of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to which we, as members of the Church of England, claim to belong. We know of course that the church is fragmented as a result of human sin. The one Church for which Jesus prayed was present in the Upper Room and it is also our destiny. The One Church belongs to God’s future and prayer and work for Christian unity is not an optional hobby for ecumenical enthusiasts but an integral part of our prayer for the coming of the Kingdom.
A Diocese represents a developed form of the local church in which all the fullness of Christian truth and life is present. Through the bishop the local church strives for communion with the Church throughout the whole world. Within an individual local church one of the ways in which unity is established is by celebrating the Eucharist in every case in solidarity with the bishop. In the Diocese of London that means offering every Eucharist in communion with the Diocesan Bishop and the appropriate Area Bishop.
Remembering the bishop by name in prayer during the celebration of the communion is more than an act of charity [though it is of course never less than that] but it is an action which strengthens and embodies the unity of the church to act together in the service of the gospel. There is always a tendency especially for flourishing parish churches to retreat into introversion. But the disturbances in the summer showed us how much this Diocese needs and longs for the solidarity of the Eucharistic fellowship – rich with poor, young and old, thriving congregation with those who struggle. We shall only be able to touch the life of London in all its parts and in all its networks and structures for the sake of Jesus Christ if we “put on the lord Jesus Christ” together. [Romans XIII: 14]
Power in the Church of England is mercifully dispersed. Few members of our church pine for a clerical dictatorship but we owe those whom the community has chosen as our pastors and whom the bishop has ordained as ministers, the tribute of careful listening and attention.
The responsibilities of bishops, priests and deacons are likewise to listen deeply to the promptings of the Spirit expressed by fellow members of the body especially those who are vulnerable and oppressed. The London Challenge affirms that “the poor are our teachers”. The Sermon on the Mount teaches us that in discerning the will of God, the proper perspective for Christians is from below.
Our part of the Church is not alone in having spent a great deal of effort on liturgical reform. At Advent, our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church will be required to use new liturgical texts. We can always learn from the example of other members of the Christian community and indeed our own liturgy has been reformed by reference to the testimony and practices of the Church of the first centuries.
In former times before the liturgies of our Church had fully recovered these early forms, some of our priests adopted the Roman rite as a sign of fidelity to the ancient common tradition and an expression of our unity in Christ. At best their intention was to contribute to the recovery of a tradition which is both Catholic and Reformed, while pointing the way to the liturgical convergence we now enjoy, not least through the work of the international English Language Liturgical Consultation. They also recognised the proper place in the liturgy of prayer for leaders in the world wide church in addition to our own Archbishop. This is especially true of the Pope, who is undeniably the Patriarch of the West and as head of the Roman Catholic Church is charged with awesome pastoral and missionary responsibilities.
Much has been achieved and the debates of previous generations have influenced the Church’s liturgical practice and contributed to a convergence of eucharistic doctrine and rites. So it is with some dismay that I have learned of the intentions of some clergy in the Diocese to follow instructions which have been addressed to the Roman Catholic Church and to adopt the new Roman eucharistic rites at Advent.
The Pope has recently issued an invitation to Anglicans to move into full communion with the See of Rome in the Ordinariate where it is possible to enjoy the “Anglican patrimony” as full members of the Roman Catholic Church. Three priests in the Diocese have taken this step. They have followed their consciences.
For those who remain there can be no logic in the claim to be offering the Eucharist in communion with the Roman Church which the adoption of the new rites would imply. In these rites there is not only a prayer for the Pope but the expression of a communion with him; a communion Pope Benedict XVI would certainly repudiate.
At the same time rather than building on the hard won convergence of liturgical texts, the new Roman rite varies considerably from its predecessor and thus from Common Worship as well. The rationale for the changes is that the revised texts represent a more faithful translation of the Latin originals and are a return to more traditional language.
Priests and parishes which do adopt the new rites – with their marked divergences from the ELLC texts and in the altered circumstances created by the Pope’s invitation to Anglicans to join the Ordinariate – are making a clear statement of their disassociation not only from the Church of England but from the Roman Communion as well. This is a pastoral unkindness to the laity and a serious canonical matter. The clergy involved have sworn oaths of canonical obedience as well as making their Declaration of Assent. I urge them not to create further disunity by adopting the new rites.
There will be no persecution and no creation of ritual martyrs but at the same time there will be no opportunity to claim that the Bishop’s directions have been unclear. All the bishops of the Diocese when visiting parishes will celebrate according to the rites of the Church of England allowing for permitted local variations under Canon B5.
“How may Christ take form among us today and here?” One of the most encouraging developments in the life of the Diocese is the growth and vigour of many traditional parish churches. The current London Challenge expresses the commitment of the Church in London to maintain and strengthen the network of parish churches but at the same time to complement their service by even more local neighbourhood or network expressions of church life.
These developments raise in an acute way the question of our understanding of the conditions in which Christian groups meeting regularly together for study, worship and mutual encouragement can be identified as churches in the fullest sense, local manifestations of the body of Christ. One of the conditions for such identification is the celebration of the liturgy by an ordained minister in communion with other ministers assembled around the Bishop.
The Canons of our Church make generous provision for Eucharistic hospitality for all those who confess a Trinitarian faith but the inner life of the Church and our capacity together to present Jesus Christ today and now is nourished by our participation in a common eucharistic celebration. I pray for a renewal of this dimension of our life together. I look for ways and opportunities to do this and to enrich our church traditions in a common witness to the gospel.
“Jesus said to them, I tell you the truth, unless you can eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.” [John VI: 53-4]