Eucharist and Anglican Catholicism: Sermon from St Peter's, Eastern Hill

E. S. Hughes and others at St Peter's, Melbourne, c. 1900
In this place you are the inheritors of a great tradition of liturgical worship, spirituality, and mission that goes back not only to the Oxford Movement of the mid nineteenth century, but to the medieval and even the ancient Church - a pattern of corporate life and prayer, centred in particular on the celebration of the Eucharist.

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 a 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 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.


  1. Thanks Andrew - a terrific reminder, for those of us who serve in the little parishes in the hills and valleys, wondering most Sunday's after "church," "just what happened here," that God acted, spoke, gave, and some (at least) are transformed for the week ahead from the week behind. Harrison.

  2. In focusing on the relative importance of ritual and on the theological implications of the Eucharist, I feel that Andrew has wandered away from the essence of liturgy. While liturgy uses ritual, the purpose of ritual is to foster full participation of all the Baptized in the liturgical action. The Eucharist is, like Baptism, a sacrament of community. It is God's gift to the Christian Community, building faith in each other by sharing in the one body of Jesus, his people. If people leave Eucharist without feeling strengthened in their membership in the faith community, then the direct purpose of the liturgy is lost. Eucharist is not a rite of passage, like so many sacramentals. It is meant to be a strengthening in faith in very practical ways. RCs reduced it to fulfilling obligations and some high church folk seem to be more interested in being audiences to events of high culture, but these miss the point. The theology of Eucharist is important, but it is secondary, for liturgy planners and ministers, to facilitating the experience of building up the Christian Community, developing a sense of being a family of mutual support and of strength to stand against the ways of the world

  3. PL is right that we are on different paths; but we might also differ on who is the wanderer from the right one. I am surprised at the statement "theology of Eucharist is ... secondary, for liturgy planners and ministers, to facilitating the experience of building up the Christian Community". I couldn't disagree more; it is the sacrament that builds up real community, not liturgical planning. We know a lot more about ritual than we used to, and we ought to use that knowledge well. However there are a lot of contexts where general theories of performance, ritual etc have now positioned and deconstructed Christian sacramental theology. Christian liturgy is, I believe, both in historical and performative terms the servant of the sacramental reality it contains and conveys; and the sacramental reality is the effective sign of the Gospel.

    1. Are you sure you have not misread me? Do you not agree that theology is secondary to building up the Chrisitian Community? Do you not agree that the practicalities of building community are more important when the task is liturgy planning? Do you think all of the intended effects of the Eucharist are invisible grace and theological reflection? Are there not meant to be practical effects of the sacraments?


Post a Comment

Popular Posts