The presence of Jesus

An introductory contribution to an ecumenical conversation on the Eucharist, organised by Liverpool Parish Church as part of “Adoremus”, the Roman Catholic National Eucharistic Congress, held in Liverpool, September 2018.

The Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcom McMahon OP, and the chair of the Merseyside Methodist District, Dr Sheryl Anderson, shared in this conversation. We each began with a brief prepared statement. Here’s mine.

I’d like to talk about two things: about theological and philosophical theories of things, and about what Anglicans do when they come to Communion.

ARCIC 1 on Eucharistic doctrine says: “When his people are gathered at the eucharist to commemorate his saving acts for our redemption, Christ makes effective among us the eternal benefits of his victory and elicits and renews our response of faith, thanksgiving and self-surrender.”

I don’t know of any Anglican who would deny this. As one writer has said: “Anglican eucharistic theologies universally affirm the real presence of Christ in the eucharist… Evangelical Anglicans believe that this is a pneumatic presence, while those of an Anglo-Catholic churchmanship believe this is a corporeal presence.” But we stay in the same church. In other words, corporately speaking, philosophical clarity is not all-important for us. We put up with diversity. This is most clearly summed up in the verse attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:

“Christ was the word that spake it,

He took the bread and brake it,

And what the word did make it,

That I believe and take it.”

This relaxed approach to philosophy is not, of course, held by all individual Anglicans. For some there is a full and glad embracing of the doctrine of transubstantiation in its most conservative expression. For others there is a passionate adherence to the bare memorialising of Ulrich Zwingli, for whom the Eucharist was helpful, useful, even central; but in the end a mnemonic, a reminder, like a photograph, and nothing more.

The problem can be that these two extreme views, neither of which is held by many, is presented to Anglicans as a bare choice. “Do you believe in the presence of our Lord Jesus in the sacrament or do you not? Philosophically speaking, is it all or is it nothing?”

This crude opposition is not a helpful frame for our theology, or our devotion. For myself I prefer to look to the language of two of the Fathers in God of the universal Church, John Calvin and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI.

Calvin said that in the Eucharist we see “the true and substantial communication of the body and blood of the Lord”.

Pope Benedict said that “[The doctrine of transubstantiation] is not a statement of physics. It has never been asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level … Christ lays hold upon what is, from a purely physical viewpoint, bread and wine, in its inmost being, so that it is changed from within and Christ truly gives himself in them.”

Queen Elizabeth’s verse may imply that it doesn’t really matter what the theology is. But for Anglicans it is not so. We come to church to engage in the true and substantial communication of the God who gives himself and changes creation from within, and we understand it variously.

This is a way of speaking that embraces a mystery. And so in this spirit Anglicans can all say that we meet Jesus in Communion in a real way. We tend to talk about what it means to us in pictures, or not to talk about it at all.

Let me give an example of how we speak in pictures, and try to echo the Bible. You’ll hear the echoes I hope in a moment.

When I was installed as Bishop of Liverpool (that makes me sound like a piece of software, but I prefer it to the older word “enthroned”!) I preached a sermon to the Diocese in which I spoke of the Christian Church as if it were a table. And in that sermon I said this:

“It’s a simple table but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat. This is a table that started in one place but now it can stretch down every street, and it can go into every home, if people want to sit there.

“Most of all it’s a table for eating. You can’t eat alone at this table. You can’t buy a meal at this table. You can’t buy a ticket to sit here. Anyone can sit here. It’s a table like a table at a wedding. You sit with guests you never knew, and you find out about them, and they become your friends. And the table is spread with a beautiful fair white linen cloth…

And if you eat the food served here you will never be hungry again. Because the poor man offers the food at this table. And the poor man will serve you, and the poor man’s hands are wounded when he serves you, because the food came at a price, and he paid the price.

The poor man’s name is Jesus, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. And if you sit at his table he will feed you and he will ask you to feed others; he will serve you and he will ask you to serve others; he will love you and he will ask you to love others.”

With this understanding I can stand gladly beside my brother here (the RC Archbishop) and my sister here (the Methodist Chair of District) as a Eucharistic Christian. I can rejoice that Adoremus is here in our city. And I can walk proudly and gladly in the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament tomorrow. I cannot receive that sacrament. But I know and I hope that in attending the Solemn Mass, and in venerating what my friends venerate, I am gathering with them around the table of the poor carpenter where in the end we will all sit and be filled. Thank you.