|E. S. Hughes and others at St Peter's, Melbourne, c. 1900|
Before the Church of England was reformed in the 16th century, the Eucharist or Mass was celebrated often, but participated in little. Medieval Christians were more focused on the character of the Mass as an sacrifice, offered for them by the priest, than on its character as a banquet to which God’s people were all called.
The protestant reformers, including the framers of the first Books of Common Prayer like Thomas Cranmer, believed correctly that ancient Catholic order commended regular eucharistic participation; but their contemporaries were unable to overcome their sense that the solemnity of the sacrament was not to be trifled with by receiving it too often. Thus Anglicanism took on for some centuries the accidental and quite novel shape of a Church that worshipped in Word far more than sacrament; this is still the fate of much contemporary Protestantism, ironically to be deeply medieval by downplaying eucharistic participation, and hence failing in a core aspect of Christian discipleship by not presenting the Eucharist as the characteristic act of Christian worship.
It is not so long ago however that the Fathers and Mothers of Anglo-Catholicism recalled us to the centrality of the Eucharist; and it is this sacramental re-focussing, rather than its ritual expression, which we must consider as their real gift.
When the likes of E. B. Pusey and John Keble in the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century articulated a new sense of catholic identity in the Church of England, their concerns were not primarily about ritual and ceremony at all; rather they were concerned with the fact and the importance of prayer and sacrament. It was only in the next generation that now-familiar patterns of ornaments and ceremonies became a major focus of interest. Anglicans of Catholic mind came quickly to believe that the sacraments whose significance they had come to appreciate in more profound ways required an embodied piety of which our now-familiar vestments and rituals are the outward expression.
The beauty of this vehicle has always been a great strength of the catholic movement, but has always also risked being a distraction or an idol; it is common, inside Anglo-Catholicism as well as out of it, now to find ceremonial the most distinctive thing about us. This is a deep and dangerous misconception, and one that extends into different forms of Anglicanism influenced by the beauty and order of this liturgy but less clearly aware of its real roots; this can be a case of, in T. S. Eliot’s terms, doing “the right thing for the wrong reason”.
Anglicans may indeed be people who do things “decently and in order”, well and good; but this is our cultural heritage, not our theological foundation. Anglicanism does not mean formality in liturgy; Anglo-Catholicism does not mean the use of Fortescue’s Ritual Notes. We enact what we think of as characteristic catholic ritual at the Eucharist, not because of its agreeable aesthetics but because of the remarkable sacrament; not because of the tradition, but because of the Gospel.
What then does the Eucharist mean for us? Three things are worth remembering, at least:
First, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, in which we encounter him truly and personally. Our individual participation in it is a unique means of grace, through which God feeds and leads us to the fullness of the new life we have been born into through baptism. Hence the great Catholic tradition of prayer and devotion, the offer to the Church and world of a deeper spiritual life. In the Eucharist, Christ calls us to receive and worship him.
Second, the Eucharist is the reminder and enabler of our together being members of the mystical body that Christ has constituted through his life, death and resurrection; we are united in the Eucharist not only with him but with one another in this body the Church, curious as it may be in history, glorious as it is known to God and will be revealed in God’s good time. Hence the great Catholic tradition of building up not merely individual converts but a great pilgrim people, united in worship and mission. In the Eucharist Christ calls us to be his body.
Third and not least, the Eucharist proclaims a wider reality about God’s love for and presence in the world; the God once incarnate in Galilee can be present here with us in bread and wine, but is also present still in that world God loves so much. Hence the great tradition of heroic social service and advocacy that was so famously encapsulated in Bishop Frank Weston’s manifesto at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic congress: "You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” In the Eucharist Christ calls us to serve him in the world.
Catholic Anglicanism stands ultimately on these affirmations, not on ceremony. Our future as a means of God’s action in the world depends on our willingness to receive Christ in the Eucharist, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. However well or badly we worship in ritual terms, we affirm with gratitude that in the Eucharist as otherwise it is God who has acted, God who has spoken, God who has given; for this we humbly give thanks, worshipping the Word made flesh who still comes among us as bread and wine, transforming us for his work in the world.