Discerning the Body

I have written before on the importance of a proper understanding of the Eucharist for establishing any meaningful unity amongst Christians here, but I would like to add a couple more comments before we enter Holy Week (as after Palm Sunday I will not be posting anything until after Easter). In a video I watched recently, a man who had grown up Methodist, before becoming Episcopalian and finally becoming Catholic, described the various points along the way which changed his understanding of the nature of the Church, and he does so in a very clear and compelling way. One of the central turning points for him was the Episcopalian/Anglican teaching on the Eucharist*.

The Book of Common Prayer and article XXVIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion both allow for a fairly broad scope of what one may believe happens to the elements during Holy Communion (although transubstantiation is strictly denied), and this is reflected in Anglican practice – in a given parish, three people queuing up to receive communion could possibly have three different views of what it is that they are receiving. Even if one credits that there are particularly ‘high church’ parishes where most parishioners will have similar ideas, these churches are meant to be in communion with others who do not share their views, and herein lies the problem.

To this one might say (as many do) that Christ commanded us to ‘take and eat’, not ‘take and understand’. However, Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, tells us how important it is to both examine ourselves (i.e.; our consciences) and to ‘discern the body’ – this was universally understood to mean having a correct understanding of what we receive in the Eucharist until the Reformation. For the sake of argument though, one might contend that what Saint Paul says is ambiguous, and need not mean that a correct understanding of what happens to the elements is necessary. Jesus Himself though provides a corrective to this – in John 6 He uses highly realistic language to describe what it is that we are eating and drinking in the Eucharist, to the point where many of His disciples went away (c.f.; vv.60,66).

The disciples who remained, when questioned as to whether they were to also leave His company, said in reply (through their perennial spokesman, Saint Peter) ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (v.68). Clearly then, not only was it important to Jesus that we have a correct understanding of what is the centre of Christian life, but his disciples understood that in saying this He was saying something final and authoritative. That Jesus Christ is our final source of authority is something that all Christians would, at least in theory, agree upon. The question is how this authority is to be delegated, mediated and exercised in the life of the Church – and the issues surrounding the Eucharist outlined above are a perfect example of how important that question is.

If one believes that we truly meet Our Lord in the Eucharist, then it must be important to know that we really do meet Him there, and thus a proper understanding of how He is present is indeed necessary. If one believes that He is substantially present there, how can it be a tolerable situation to have such widely differing understandings of what is going on in the Eucharist in one communion, let alone one parish church? A situation like this reduces the term ‘communion’ to a paper theory – an agreement of benign toleration which provides so much latitude that discerning the body becomes a matter of opinion. This situation cannot lead to a greater strengthening of those real and substantial bonds that exist when we are in full communion with Christ and one another.

This also sheds some light on why the Catholic Church does not allow non-Catholics to receive communion at her altars (nor for Catholics to receive communion in other churches). The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament both of charity and unity – to say we are in communion with one another when there is disagreement on something so fundamental as the nature of Our Lord’s presence on the altar is something the Church rightly sees as a situation that not only shouldn’t, but cannot happen; it would not be a real communion at all. Thus it would also be uncharitable to allow others to act out something which would falsify the reality of the Eucharist and ultimately weaken their own understanding of what it really means to be the Body of Christ.

Jesus is fully man and fully God; God is one and the Church is His Body, so it must be visibly one also. The connection therefore between this Body and the Eucharist (the Body and Blood of Christ) is intimate, profound and unalterable. If Christian unity is ever to be achieved, these realities – the relationship between Church and Sacrament, between the recognised authority of Christ and where His voice is to be found today and in all ages – must first be recognised or no full communion can ever be realised. If councils can err, and we can believe all kinds of things about the heart of Christian life and worship, then Christ’s voice cannot be heard and we are left to muddle it out amongst ourselves.

If however, we believe that He would not leave us orphaned in the world, and that true communion is possible, these questions must be faced. Before Jesus’ death He prayed for unity, a real and essential unity such as He shares with His Father (c.f.; John 17) – as we look towards the events of the Last Supper, Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, it may be worth reflecting a little on whether Our Lord actually did leave us the means for remaining in Him and one another, and where those means may be found.

 

*I have focussed on Anglicanism here only because it was the topic in the video I had watched, and given the wide range of opinion that is permitted there (which is built into and allowed for in its founding documents) it seemed a good means to discuss the issues outlined in this post.

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