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ACNA'09: TRANSUBSTANTIATION: What's in a word - Gary L'Hommedieu

ACNA'09: TRANSUBSTANTIATION: What's in a word (besides 500 years of the wrong fight)? - Gary L'Hommedieu


By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu in Bedford, Texas

There are a lot of mistakes in my life that I regret, even a few I've made since this morning. One mistake I don't regret is a response I made to Bishop William Wantland's recent post "An Anglo-Catholic Looks At the Constitution and Canons of ACNA".[1] The reason why I don't regret it is because I have been enriched by his correction.

A few weeks ago Bishop Wantland, former Bishop of Eau Claire, commented approvingly that the proposed Constitution and Canons of the emerging Anglican Province in North America "[met] the requirements of Article XXVIII, requiring a recognition that reception is a partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, what we commonly call the 'Real Presence'". I called this "wishful thinking". To me it seemed typical of what Anglo-Catholics often say about the Articles in a revisionist zeal to make Cranmer's reformation into a renaissance of pre-Roman English Christianity.

I had the good fortune yesterday morning to share breakfast with Bishop Wantland, who took me aside to share some notes he had gathered on the background of Article XXVIII. The long and short of our conversation is what follows.

In my observation there is a tendency among self-identified Anglo-Catholics to default to Roman assumptions regarding matters of theology and practical ministry. This is the "chameleon" tendency typical of all Anglican practice. No one seems to know what the Anglican expression of faith and churchmanship is. There are several such expressions and identities, but often each one draws its "color" from some neighboring tradition, whether popular evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, or Roman Catholicism. In my observation much of what is called "Anglo-Catholic" is crypto-Roman, whether consciously or unconsciously.

My mistake was thinking of all Anglo-Catholics as crypto-Romanists. For them to uphold The Articles of Religion would be too much of a stretch. Bishop Wantland held out another possibility, one I had forgotten about: maybe there is a real Anglo-Catholicism.

Article XXVIII in the hands of chameleons gets a lot of play. The text is clearly a polemic against the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, which is mentioned by name and characterized as "repugnant to the plain words of Scripture". These were fighting words. That's just the point: the language of "real presence" has been spoiling for a fight for 500 years.

On the other hand, what passes for the "scriptural" doctrine of "real presence" is itself not altogether clear, except occasionally as a doctrine of "real absence".

Article XXVIII reads: "The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner." (Got that?) "And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith."

Very eloquently put. Still, it sounds pretty protestant to me, complete with the "receptionist" tendency where the "presence" is only as "real" as the faith of the worshipper. I can see how that language could be divisive. At least in part, it was written to justify a division.

The early Anglicans were focused theologically on the existential moment of the worshipper in the act of making communion. The Reformation, after all, was a breakthrough in consciousness raising about human psychology, typified by Luther's existential angst whereby grace was revealed as a psychological necessity. Christ was only "present" in a context in which saving grace was expressed, not gratuitous power--even God's.

The "presence" of Christ in the bread and wine is a separate question. The polemical style of the Articles posits an "either-or" regarding the focus of the sacrament. Either it's about the worshipper and the Gospel that saves him, or it's about Eucharistic species and the corrupt Church that brandishes sacraments as tokens of power. The Reformers were conscious of rescuing souls, not the magisterial authority of the Church or the validity of its ordinances. They were also staging a revolution.

Bishop Wantland showed me excerpts from the Anglican fathers, including Bishop Jewel that supported a doctrine of "real presence" every bit as robust as those of the medieval schoolmen. If one did some background study, one could see that the author of Article XXVIII meant more than what the "plain words" of the Article appeared to say, at least to me.

According to Bishop Wantland, the controversy of "real presence" turned on a 16th century misreading of the philosophical language undergirding the classic doctrine of transubstantiation. He said that none of the Reformers were using the word "substance" in its original Aristotelian sense of "essence" but rather in the modern sense of "stuff". The sort of transformation the Reformers were arguing against was that of the chemical properties of bread and wine literally changing into Body and Blood.

In other words, they were arguing the wrong question. Actually, they were arguing no question. In effect, they were making the whole thing up, inadvertently I'm sure, as a backdrop for a revolution.

Aristotle's metaphysic posits an essence or substance existing "in" the physical properties of a thing--metaphorically like a core at the center of an apple from which the nature of the thing radiates, sojourning through existence from potentiality to actuality. It is the essence or substance that determines that a bundle of nondescript matter is this thing and not that. The substance defines the "what" of a thing.

It is this "substance" that undergoes a miraculous change in the sacramental action. The chemical properties of bread and wine are mere "accidents"--"accidental" to the chemical configuration, which is now "really" the Body and Blood of Christ.

Of course, to change the core of an apple after the fact while leaving the fruit intact presupposes a miracle. The miracle of consecration is what accounts for the dignity of the priesthood and the supernatural authority of the true Church.

I may still be slightly off base, but this sounds to me like a cogent statement of "real presence". Nor does it argue against the faithful reception of the sacrament, nor preclude the efficacy of Christ's interaction with the worshipper.

Transubstantiation was, and remains, a formidable ideological target for reformers in the throes of their revolutions. Anglo-Catholicism conceived as a faction within Anglicanism naturally falls into the old polemical pattern: if we need a fight to shore up an identity, there's plenty in the complexity of this concept to stir controversy.

Here Bishop Wantland offered one final, subtle bit of history that had eluded this seasoned graduate of TEC's most liberal seminary. The word Anglo-Catholic was coined in the documents of the first Lambeth Conferences, where it was used to distinguish English Catholicism from Roman and Greek Catholicism. In other words, it was not originally used as a label for a faction within Anglicanism but as a characterization of all Anglicanism.

In other words, "Anglo-Catholicism" is a tautology. The fundamental claim of Anglicanism is to be an expression of the historic Catholic Church. In other words, if it's Anglican, it's Catholic. The ancient division between high and low church is another fight that didn't need to happen and probably only happened because somebody needed a fight. "Anglo-Catholic" has a whole separate range of meanings in the context of "us-them", one which should rest in peace.

The new Anglican Province would be well served by retiring the misuse of terms in their evolutionary phase as partisan slogans. Terms like "transubstantiation", "real presence" and "Anglo-Catholic" have a richer historic meaning than what they have been reduced to by those spoiling for a fight.

[1] http://www.theacna.org/stream/2009/06/acna-constitution-anglo-catholic-view.html

---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.

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