John Hunwicke revisits three great Anglican Liturgists of the twentieth century

Which EP (Eucharistic Prayer) to use? A priest is offered eleven in Common Worship, and the modern Roman Missal is even worse. The problem is that they were all produced by committees, which is not how the classical rites of Christendom took their shape. And if you have eleven EPs all composed in the last third of the twentieth century, then you have eleven texts reflecting the instincts of the same period.

‘All,’ did I say? All but one: the First Roman EP. This ancient text whose origins are lost in the mists of the earliest Christian ages. The EP brought to Canterbury by St Augustine in 596. The EP used by ancient Irish missionary monks. The EP most used, by far, in the history of the Church of England.

Did you know – most RC priests do not – that although Rome now offers alternatives, its First EP is the only one which the rubrics allow always to be used and expects to be used on Sundays and festivals.

Three of the greater Anglican liturgists of the twentieth century spent their whole lives fascinated by this great prayer. It seems a shame that their wisdom should now go unread; here is a taster from each.

The Royal Enclosure

Craddock Ratcliff (1896-1967) was one of the greats: a classicist, an adept in Hebrew and Aramaic, and a considerable liturgist who taught at Westcott, Oxford, London, and finally Cambridge. His friend Arthur Couratin wrote, ‘As a schoolboy he attended a church in South London which was notoriously Anglo-Catholic. Here the Communion Service of the Book of Common Prayer was celebrated with all the ceremonial of High Mass of the Roman Rite, and the Canon Missae was silently interpolated under the cover of the elaborate music. Whatever may have been the devotional value of such a performance it could not fail to arouse the intellectual curiosity of a highly intelligent schoolboy.’

Ratcliff was particularly intrigued by this paragraph, ‘We humbly beseech thee, almighty God, command these offerings to be brought by the hands of thy holy Angel to thine altar on high, in sight of thy divine majesty; that all we, who at this partaking of the altar shall receive the most sacred Body and Blood of thy Son, may be fulfilled with all heavenly benediction and grace.’

He loved the notion that our earthly altar is taken up and united to the everlasting heavenly place of sacrifice (he once called Mass ‘a pass to the Royal Enclosure’), and saw this passage of the First Roman EP as soaked in the mindset of the first and second centuries. The reference to Christ as ‘thy holy Angel’ is paralleled in Justin and Hippolytus; Irenaeus wrote, ‘So there is an altar in heaven, for thither our prayers and oblations are directed; and a Temple, as John says in Revelation 8.3 [‘the golden altar before the throne’]’; all of which is implied by Pope St Clement I when he calls the Lord ‘the high priest of our offerings’

John Paul II (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 10) writes of ‘an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lord, we are united to the heavenly liturgy’.

Geoffrey Willis, Vicar of Wing

It is so easy to spoil a good case by going too far. Such was the error of the Lefebvreists – Catholics who left Rome because they rejected Vatican II and its liturgical changes. They suspected the three new Roman EPs of heresy, and even of invalidity: Nonsense! Those prayers make it perfectly clear that bread and wine do become Christ’s Body and Blood, which are offered. The case Lefebvre should have made, and did not, was explained with elegant and learned precision – despite the onset of blindness – by our own Geoffrey Willis. He showed how the new Canons hybridized the ‘noble and intelligible’ Roman tradition with questionable elements from oriental sources.

When the Sanctus was introduced into the Eucharistic Prayer, it created a break – a sense of interruption between Preface and Canon or Consecration. How to make a link between this new chant and the lead-up to the account of the Lord’s Supper? Easterners – and Gallicans – did this with clauses like ‘Truly holy art Thou …’ and the post-Vatican II prayers (and Common Worship) followed them. But the First Roman EP, the ancient Canon Romanus, preserves the clear structure and profounder theology of the earlier Western Eucharist in its pre-Sanctus days.

Willis summarises thus, ‘A statement that It is very meet and right to give thanks to God through Jesus Christ is followed by a specification of some of the divine mercies for which we especially wish to give thanks, and then by We therefore (i.e. because it is right to give thanks)beseech thee, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to accept and bless these gifts … which we offer.’

The prayer thus has two distinct offerings. It begins by offering to God bread and wine (on behalf of the offerers), and asking that they may be made into the Body and Blood of Christ. It then consecrates the gifts by re-enacting the Last Supper, in virtue of the celebrant imitating the acts and words of Christ at the Supper. Finally it offers the consecrated gifts to the Father as the Body and Blood of Christ, and asks him to command the Son to carry this offering to the heavenly altar.

Old every morning

‘This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.’

Such was the experience of our great Catholic Anglican liturgist Dom Gregory Dix, and the ‘set of texts’ he referred to was the Roman Canon. Every morning it fed Dix’s prayer and study; as it should feed ours today. Just as Psalm 110 clearly fed the prayer of the Incarnate Word himself, so that he identified himself with the Lord to whom YHWH swore ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’ He knew himself to be the reality of which Abraham was a shadow – Abraham, called to offer a lamb on the rough hillside of Moriah which was to become the temple mount. He knew himself to be the fulfillment of Abel’s first sacrifice of a lamb.

ARCIC observed that ‘Christ in the Holy Spirit unites his people with himself in a sacramental way so that the Church enters into the movement of his self-offering’. The words of the Canon Romanus enable us to identify ourselves in the most intimate way with the Lord’s sacrificial self-understanding. No wonder Dix was concerned ‘to bring home once again that mighty and most necessary truth, the majestic tradition of the worshipping Church, the rich tradition of the liturgy unbroken since the Apostles, and beyond – beyond even Calvary and Sion and the synagogues of Capernaum and Nazareth, back to the heights of Moriah and Sinai and the shadowy altar on Ararat – and beyond that again.’

‘And we beseech and pray that thou wouldst receive this oblation by the hand of thy holy Angel at thine altar on high as thou wast pleased to receive the offerings of thy righteous servant Abel and the sacrifice of our patriarch Abraham and that which thine high priest Melchizedech offered unto thee,’ is the Church’s quiet, insistent daily proclamation of this truth in the Canon.

John Hunwicke is a retired priest in the Diocese of Exeter.