Colin Podmore continues his exploration of Anglican doctrine of the Eucharist


Always to the fore in Anglican discussion of the Eucharist in the mid-twentieth century was the sense in which the Eucharist is a sacrifice. A final rapprochement appeared as an appendix to the 1970 report Growing into Union, in which the Anglo-Catholic Eric Mascall and the Evangelical Michael Green affirmed the Eucharistic Sacrifice while excluding any suggestion of supplementing or repeating the once-for-all offering on Calvary.

What influence this huge emphasis on the Eucharistic Sacrifice had on Anglican laypeople deserves investigation, bearing in mind that many who received their Christian formation in the 1950s are still sitting in our pews today. One could start with Evelyn Underhill, one of whose last publications, in 1938, was ‘a meditation on the liturgy’. What was it called? The Mystery of Sacrifice, of course: that was, at the time, the dominant Anglican way of understanding the Eucharist. Underhill writes of ‘the token gifts by which we associate ourselves with the oblation before God of the material for sacrifice, the “creatures of bread and wine” ’. ‘Communion’, she is clear, ‘must ever be thought of as the completion, the fruit of sacrifice; having, indeed, no meaning or reality without sacrifice.’ Receiving communion is ‘the sacred act in which the Eucharistic sacrifice finds its consummation’.

From the 1970s onwards, however, the Eucharistic Sacrifice largely faded from view. That classical Anglicanism taught it continued to be remembered, for example in the work of Bishop Kenneth Stevenson (see McAdoo and Stevenson, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition, 1995), but the twentieth-century writing is now little known. Margaret Barker’s work and the chapter on sacrifice in Robin Ward’s important study On Christian Priesthood (2011) are welcome signs of renewed interest in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The decline in emphasis on the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Church of England was influenced by developments in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. These are documented by Michael McGuckian (The Holy Sacrament of the Mass: A Search for an Acceptable Notion of Sacrifice: Leominster, 2005). In line with current liturgical thinking, the commission charged in the 1960s with drafting the new Roman rite removed any suggestion of offering the gifts. Paul VI had different ideas: eventually (in a pattern that I myself saw as Secretary of the Liturgical Commission) episcopal guardianship of the tradition trumped current liturgiological fashion, but episcopal persistence was needed. The Pope observed that ‘The offertory seems lacking, because the faithful are not allowed any part in it… [It] should be given a special prominence so that the faithful (or their representatives) may exercise their special role as offerers.’ In a second intervention Pope Paul requested ‘formulas that will express the idea of an offering of human toil in union with the sacrifice of Christ’. Changes were made, but the Pope complained that there was still no mention of ‘offering’ the bread and wine. Initially the commission voted to resist his request, but eventually it restored the phrase ‘which we offer to you’. Only at the very last stage was the Orate Fratres put back into the definitive text of 1969: ‘Pray brethren (brothers and sisters) that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father. May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…’. (It is, of course, as the text says, our sacrifice, not the sacrifice of Christ, that God is asked at this point to accept.)

Despite Pope Paul’s success in retaining an explicit Offertory in the new Roman rite, the Eucharistic Sacrifice received very little emphasis in the post-conciliar Church. ARCIC’s 1971 report on Eucharistic Doctrine has a good (though brief) paragraph on the relationship of the Eucharist to the sacrifice of Christ but says nothing about the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Its 1979 Elucidation adds that ‘the eucharist is a sacrifice in the sacramental sense’ but says nothing about how this is so. Bishop Kenneth Stevenson recalled his attempt in 1983 to describe to students at a Roman Catholic university in the USA the kind of late mediaeval eucharistic piety against which the Reformation was reacting. At the end an undergraduate responded, ‘We don’t understand this – the mass for us is first and foremost a celebration’ – not, Stevenson reflected, the memorial of the passion, food of the Church and prefiguring of future glory of which Aquinas had written (notably in his antiphon ‘O sacrum convivium’): just ‘a celebration’.

It was the Church of England’s response to the first lockdown, beginning in Lent 2020, that prompted me to enquire more into the Eucharistic Sacrifice, for I realized that it explained my own reactions and those of others. The rigours of Holy Week can take their toll on one’s equilibrium, and the isolation of lockdown doubtless exacerbated that. But I and many laypeople (not just Anglo-Catholics) were deeply wounded when our priests were told in peremptory terms not to go into their churches to say mass. That this wound was inflicted not by the civil power but by the episcopate made it even harder to bear.

There was some suggestion that this staying away from church would be an act of solidarity with the laity, but that was not how many laypeople experienced it. As Anglicans, we believe in vicarious priesthood. Priests have been ‘set apart’ from us laypeople to do for us, on our behalf, what we cannot do for ourselves. When we could not participate in the Eucharist, we wanted them to celebrate it for us, and we wanted to be uplifted and comforted by watching online. And specifically, we wanted them to do it in church. Why? The significance of church buildings is sometimes expressed rather nebulously, in terms of antiquity, sacred space, hallowing by prayer, sacred imagery, community history and so on: all true, but not really the point. We wanted to see our bishop, our priests, not worshipping in a drawing room but going to celebrate the Christian sacrifice at a Christian altar set apart for that purpose. The significance of the church is not so much as a building but as ‘a canopy for the altar’ (as Fr Brian Brindley put it). It was not just an historic, holy or familiar building in which I wished to see my bishop, my priest. At this moment of crisis, in the holiest week of the year, I wanted to see him at the place of sacrifice.

Many laypeople were shocked to see a photograph of the Eucharist being celebrated on the kitchen table of a house with two chapels – and, more to the point, two altars. In current middle-class fashion the kitchen is the social centre of many houses. The ground floor may now be one big kitchen, with sofas, and bi-fold doors opening onto a patio. Parties and meals are held in kitchens. So if the Eucharist were merely a celebration or a fellowship meal, in modern middle-class culture the kitchen would be the obvious place for it. But the Eucharist is more than that. It is a feast because it is a feast upon a sacrifice; it is a communion meal because such is the culmination of sacrifice. The kitchen is not the place of sacrifice, and the kitchen table is not the Holy Table, set apart for the celebration of that sacred rite.

For me it is the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as it is embodied in the Prayer Book and the Anglican tradition, that is most relevant to discussion of whether (as some suggested) people might be encouraged to place bread and wine before a screen and believe that in consuming them they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. Other objections have been made. If the priest cannot see the bread and wine, and may even be unaware of their existence, how can there be an intention to consecrate them? How can the priest’s obligation to ensure reverent treatment of the elements and consumption of anything that remains be fulfilled? And the participants would each have not just their own vessels but also their own, different, elements: it would be at best a simultaneous, not a shared meal: in what sense can we say ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread’ if in fact we have each eaten our own, different, bread?

These difficulties in relation to real presence and fellowship are serious enough, but those relating to the Eucharistic Sacrifice seem even more fundamental. The Eucharist is not a cerebral, spiritual occasion, in which consuming the elements is the only action. Just as the incarnation was a physical reality, this is a physical rite in which things are done: the priest takes the bread and wine and places them on the holy Table, breaks the bread, gives thanks, and gives the people communion. I receive what the priest has offered on the altar on my behalf and has there become the Body and Blood of Christ. I am not a priest, and the coffee table on which my laptop is perched is not an altar, so if I place bread and wine in front of the screen, whatever may happen on that screen cannot affect the bread and the wine in front of me. I have not gone to the altar or even drawn near: that physical exchange of gifts has not occurred. It also seems to me that a richer understanding of all the many strands of what we are doing in the Eucharist might help people to see that receiving communion is not the only point or value of participating in it. 

The unhappy experience of the Church of England’s response at national and diocesan levels to last year’s first lockdown suggests that it is high time to recall our church’s teaching about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, expressed in the Book of Common Prayer, and the importance of celebrating it on a Holy Table set apart for that purpose, and hence in a church building, whose principal function is to serve as a canopy over such an altar. 


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