Although it is often sadly ignored, ARCIC is a shining example of how discussions on Christian unity should be conducted with honesty and humility, explains Ronald Crane
When engaged in discussions about Christian unity, when one is searching for that elusive quality of unity in the Church, two things are necessary. First of all, a degree of honesty so that sitting around a table with Christians from different traditions, one does not underplay what one believes oneself in order to avoid offending the other people. One has to be honest and say it the way it is, neither must one overplay what one believes, deliberately to upset the other. I have seen both, for they are far too common.
One has to put what one believes squarely and honestly so that the others may know exactly where your church stands. And so a degree of humility is needed when it is the other church’s opportunity to make their stated case. Not necessarily to agree with them, but to understand their point, without being so arrogant so as to take what they say overly seriously, in a rather patronizing way. I have seen that happen many times too.
A glorious exception
So, one has to be honest in putting one’s own case and one has to be humble in listening to that of others. Unfortunately these two qualities are rare in ecumenical circles. But there is one glorious exception. There is one place where the humility and the honesty of two churches coming together to see if they can come to some agreed statement about the Eucharist shines through.
It is the report of the Anglican– Roman Catholic International Commission on the Eucharist, published in the Nineties, an agreed statement by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Anglican Communion about the meaning of the Eucharist.
It deserves to have a far wider public than it has been the case. It has almost been ignored. This is tragic; for so much misunderstanding and so much deliberate misrepresentation could have been avoided if only this statement was read, understood, disseminated and acted upon.
This statement is quite blunt. There is an agreement on the nature of the Eucharist between the two Churches. What we believe happens at the altar in our parish church, is exactly what the Catholic Church says happens at the altar of the RC church up the road. The report asks the question: ‘At the offertory, bread and wine placed upon the altar. What is it?’
The answer to that question is ‘bread and wine’. Then we continue: ‘The Lord be with you, lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord: Holy, Holy, Holy, etc. This is my body, this is my blood: then we sing ‘Christ has died, etc.’ The report asks this question again. ‘Now ask the question what is it?’ The answer is ‘the body and blood of Christ.’
A change has happened, a transformation taken place. This miracle happens every time a proper priest with proper words with proper bread and proper wine with the people around him celebrates the Eucharist. That miracle takes place, ordinary bread, ordinary wine, the stuff of ordinary meals becomes his body and his blood. On the premise that you are what you eat, we too are transformed into his likeness.
Such is the agreed statement and because of it we may go further. We may investigate the effect that this has on us and the whole Church. For when the bread and wine are placed on the altar, they are unconditionally offered to God. This was the starting point for one of Anglicanism’s great twentieth-century liturgists, Dom Gregory Dix, in his life’s work, The Shape of the Liturgy.
Published in 1945, it has 752 pages of closely argued thought on the nature of the Holy Eucharist. Dix traces the history of the Eucharist; its various parts and their significance. Although Dix’s assertion that the ‘shape’ of the Liturgy mattered more than the words used has not found favour, nevertheless the ‘shape’ of the Liturgy identified by Dix has been used in nearly all revisions since 1945.
A four-fold shape
Dix said there is a four-fold shape to the Eucharist: offered, blessed, broken and shared. The bread is unconditionally offered to God at the offertory, but it is offered again a second time after it has become his body and his blood.
Offered to the Father again, with Jesus’ birth, his work, his death, his resurrection, his ascension into glory, offered for the good of the whole world.
The bread is blessed, not blessed in the sense that the priest blesses the crucifix that hangs around your neck, not blessed in the sense that we bless the chairs that we sit upon: you know the sort of thing, the coating of holy varnish that we put over things. No: the bread is blessed in the sense that it is changed. It becomes his body and is separated from this world and taken into the next. Still looking like bread and wine, it nonetheless becomes himself.
Then, as we sing Lamb of God, that very body of Christ is broken, literally torn asunder, that it may be shared among all of us as we kneel at the altar rail or stand to receive Holy Communion. ND