Colin Podmore explains how we can better understand the Mass as a sacrifice


The doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is not explicitly enunciated in the New Testament, though some passages suggest it. None the less, in 1958 the leading mainstream Anglican theologian Alan Richardson concluded his Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament with nearly seven pages on the Eucharistic Sacrifice, beginning thus:

‘In the Church of the Apostolic Fathers and of the Ante-Nicene Fathers the Eucharist is everywhere spoken of as a sacrifice. Sacrificial phraseology is habitually employed in connection with it. There are no exceptions to these statements, and it cannot be seriously denied that the Fathers of the ancient Church understood the apostolic tradition of the Eucharist in this way. The burden of proving that their unanimous interpretation of the scriptural evidence was wrong rests upon those who would deny any form of doctrine of the Eucharistic sacrifice. If they were wrong, then we are faced with the quite incredible proposition that all the teachers of the Church from the time of St Clement of Rome or St Ignatius of Antioch were in error until the true doctrine was revealed to the Protestant reformers. If they were mistaken about such a matter as this, it would surely be impossible to believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth; and indeed it would cast grave doubt upon the claim that there is such a thing as divine revelation at all. Scripture, tradition and reason are inseparably bound together in the formulation of Christian belief; if one is set aside, the others become incredible. That the Eucharist is the Christian sacrifice, that the oblations of the royal priesthood are offered in it, and that Christ himself is the high priest of our offerings – these doctrines are clearly taught in St Clement of Rome, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Justin Martyr, the Didache, St Irenaeus, Tertullian, St Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Athanasius – where shall we stop? It is remarkable how frequently and how unanimously the words of Malachi are treated by patristic writers as a prophecy that has been fulfilled in the institution of the Eucharist: “From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense and a pure oblation are offered” (Mal. 1. 11). It is unlikely that the unanimous tradition of the post-apostolic Church has misrepresented the teaching of the apostles or that there could be any other valid interpretation of the somewhat scanty and obscure evidence of the NT concerning the apostolic doctrine of the Eucharist.’

When the Reformation reacted against mediaeval excesses in relation to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the pendulum swang the other way. The Eucharist’s sacrificial nature was downplayed; stone altars were removed. But Cranmer was too good a patristic scholar to deny that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Summarizing Peter Lombard with approval, he wrote: ‘The thing which is done at God’s board is a sacrifice, and so is that also which was made upon the cross, but not after one manner of understanding.’ In Cranmer’s Prayer Book, the Eucharist is our ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’: we ‘offer and present’ to God ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice’. 

During the Church of England’s ‘long Reformation’ the pendulum returned to the centre: emphasis on the Eucharistic Sacrifice increased. In the settlement of 1662 small changes were made to the Prayer Book. At the ‘Offertory’, now so named, the alms ‘and other devotions of the people’ are now brought to the Priest. He is to ‘humbly present and place [them] upon the holy Table’ and also ‘place upon the Table… Bread and Wine’. In the Prayer for the Church we ask God to accept not just our alms but our ‘alms and oblations’ (and something can only be ‘accepted’ if it has been ‘offered’). The intention was surely to make clear that the bread and wine are offered to God in an action that associates the people, through their gifts, with the eucharistic offering. In what is now the ‘Prayer of Consecration’ the Priest must take the Paten and the Cup into his hands, break the Bread, and lay his hand (in a sacrificial gesture) upon ‘all the Bread’ and upon ‘every vessel… in which there is any Wine to be consecrated’.

The seventeenth-century Anglican divines were clear that the Eucharist is a feast because, as Simon Patrick said, it is ‘a feast upon a sacrifice’. They taught that in the Eucharist we ‘plead’ Christ’s sacrifice before his heavenly Father, represent his death, lay it before the Father’s eyes, and then feast upon Christ. The sacrifice is celebrated in a church which is the image of heaven, the holy table representing the celestial altar. This Anglican eucharistic doctrine was expressed in Charles Wesley’s eucharistic hymns. Section IV of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745) is entitled ‘The Holy Eucharist, as it Implies a Sacrifice’, the hymns relating chiefly to the Eucharist as pleading before the Father the sacrifice of Christ; Section V is ‘Concerning the Sacrifice of our Persons’. In 1897 this pre-Tractarian Anglican teaching was famously summarized in Saepius Officio, the English archbishops’ response to Apostolicae Curae

‘We continue a perpetual memory of the precious death of Christ, who is our Advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins, according to His precept, until His coming again. For first we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; then next we plead and represent before the Father the sacrifice of the cross, and by it we confidently entreat remission of sins and all other benefits of the Lord’s Passion for all the whole Church; and lastly we offer the sacrifice of ourselves to the Creator of all things which we have already signified by the oblations of His creatures. This whole action, in which the people has necessarily to take part with the Priest, we are accustomed to call the Eucharistic sacrifice.’

Sacrificial offering is a priestly role (in the Prayer Book it is the priest who places alms and oblations, bread and wine upon the Table), and sacrifice normally involves an altar. The name ‘altar’ remains taboo in the Church of England’s authorized liturgies (though it appears in the Coronation rite), but we have the thing, and the name (ubiquitous in theology, hymnody and conversation) were judicially declared to be lawful in the St Stephen Walbrook case (1987). The Eucharist is not offered on any old table, but on ‘the Lord’s Table’, ‘the holy Table’ – a table set apart for that purpose, which is what an altar is. Canon F 2 requires that ‘The table, as becomes the table of the Lord, shall be kept in a sufficient and seemly manner’. In the 1662 rite, the Table is so important as to stand for the sacrament that is celebrated upon it: ‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table’ is the best known of several points at which this is so. Hence the requirements of Canons B 40 and B 41 (based on Canon LXXI of 1603/4), that (with the exception of celebrations in the homes of the sick and housebound, or with the bishop’s specific permission), Holy Communion may not be celebrated other than in a building that has been consecrated or licensed for public worship (and therefore has a Holy Table), and that ‘No chaplain, ministering in any house where there is a chapel…, shall celebrate the Holy Communion in any other part of the house but in such chapel’. Thus, there are circumstances in which a priest can celebrate without an altar, but – in Anglican theology and law – where an altar is available, it must be used.

The early and mid-20th century saw both weighty publications by Anglican theologians on eucharistic theology and division within the Church of England over it. In the 1930s the Doctrine Commission tried to mediate, as did two diocesan bishops who were academic theologians. In 1930 Nugent Hicks, Bishop of Gibraltar (later of Lincoln), who had been Dean of Keble College, Oxford, and stood in the centre-high tradition, but was not a ritualist Anglo-Catholic, published his magnum opus, The Fullness of Sacrifice: An Essay in Reconciliation. A summary of his thinking on the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which he offered to the Second World Conference on Faith and Order in 1937, won both Orthodox and Protestant acclaim and was published in the Conference’s report. In 1936 Richard Parsons, the liberal Bishop of Southwark (later of Hereford), who had ‘dabbled with modernism’, published The Sacrament of Sacrifice, a 60-page booklet (part of which had formed one section of his Primary Visitation Charge). Parsons observed that ‘Christianity… must remain an essentially sacrificial religion,’ and concluded with his hymn encapsulating Anglican eucharistic doctrine, ‘We hail Thy Presence glorious’. 

All of this is part of the explanation for the fact that in 1958 Alan Richardson (who had moved from a position akin to Anglican modernism to orthodox ‘biblical theology’, but was never a high churchman), concluded his Introduction to the New Testament (published by the SCM Press, which he chaired) with the robust defence of the Eucharistic Sacrifice with which this article began.


Dr Colin Podmore was Secretary of the Liturgical Commission from 2002 to 2009.