It’s time we listened – Fr. Edward Yarnold

31 March 2001 • Persistent link:

by Edward Yarnold in The Tablet. The Anglican response to the Catholic bishops’ teaching document on the Eucharist is to be welcomed, according to a Jesuit theologian at Oxford University who is a former member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

One of the subtleties of Shakespeare’s As You Like It is the existence of layers of sexual ambiguity implied in its original performance: a boy-actor played the part of a young woman disguised as a young man who at one point is pretending to be a girl. I was put in mind of these layers of meaning when I read The Eucharist: sacrament of unity (ESU), the Church of England’s highly courteous and careful response to the British and Irish bishops’ 1998 teaching document on eucharistic doctrine and sharing entitled One Bread One Body (OBOB). There is of course one vitally important difference: whereas the play’s layers form the stages in a dialectic, i.e. an interactive process, of ambiguity, the theological document offers a dialectic of clarification, which provides a model of what is involved in ecumenical reception.

Last week The Tablet gave its readers an additional stage in this dialectic of clarification in the form of Paul Avis’s comments. So now readers will have my reflections on Avis’s reflections on the Church of England’s reflections on OBOB’s reflections on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s reflections on the reflections of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches on the scriptural accounts of the Eucharist which are themselves the reflections of the words and actions of Jesus Christ, who finally “reflects” the glory of God (Heb 1:3 RSV) and “has made God known” (Jn 1:18). All of this, one hopes, will become part of the process of reception by which an ecumenical agreement achieved by a committee becomes an official expression of the belief of a Church.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) claimed to have reached “substantial agreement” about eucharistic doctrine, and the Anglican bishops intended their statement to be “confirmation” of this claim. Paul Avis is thus justified in asserting that the doctrines of eucharistic sacrifice and presence are no longer in dispute between the two Churches: to the list of evidence which he cites in support of this conclusion one could add Cardinal Cassidy’s favourable reaction to the clarifications composed by the second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in answer to the Vatican”s official response. Nevertheless, there are points in OBOB over which ESU expresses “reservations”, though the Church of England bishops and Dr Avis both have more to say in agreement with OBOB than in criticism.

Some of these reservations concern the “rather specific and tightly drawn way” in which OBOB expresses the doctrine of the eucharistic presence: a reference presumably to the Catholic emphasis on the “conversion of the inner reality (or substance) of the bread and wine into the inner reality of the body and blood of Christ”, as OBOB puts it. The Anglican bishops, while reverencing the mystery, preferred to eschew speculation as to the mode of the presence. But is there all that much difference between ESU’s affirmation that it is best to be “content to reverence the mystery” while eschewing speculation about the mode of presence, and OBOB’s belief that the “change in the inner reality of the bread and wine happens in a way surpassing understanding”?

Some of ESU’s reservations concern vocabulary. The Anglican bishops object to the description of their Church as “rooted in the Reformation”, regarding it, rather, as “part of the true catholic (with or without the capital) and apostolic Church of Christ, reformed and renewed at the Reformation”. This disagreement illustrates a danger which necessarily attaches to such dialogue. Although ESU is basically a favourable response to ARCIC’s work, which is paid the respect of serious scrutiny, such criticism almost inevitably lapses into a tone which sounds nagging, self-righteous or disingenuous to the other side. Precisely the same point could be made about OBOB and the Vatican response to ARCIC.

Apart from transubstantiation, what other reservations does ESU express? The bishops claim to detect various inconsistencies in the Catholic position. If separation of the two Churches is a reason for refusing communion to members of “communities rooted in the Reformation” (a description which the Anglicans think inappropriate, for reasons given above), why is the same argument not applied to the Orthodox? If communion may be given to non-Catholics on special occasions, what is the justification for refusing it on others? Granted that exceptional permission for intercommunion can be granted for particular cases, for example, for nuptial Masses, need OBOB have restricted this permission to special occasions, or could it have been granted – as it has been said to have been granted in other parts of the world – for special situations, such as interchurch marriages? Did the Second Vatican Council intend a more flexible provision than OBOB, as ESU maintains, when its decree on ecumenism allowed that common worship (communicatio in sacris) “may sometimes be desirable for the gaining of grace”?

ESU is perhaps at its strongest when it states the case for more open eucharistic hospitality. The bishops accept the link between the two senses of communion – Holy Communion and communion in the sense of membership of the Church. While for Catholics this link is one of the reasons for refusing communion to other Christians, the Anglican bishops do not see it as an obstacle on the grounds of the “proleptic, eschatological nature” of both baptism and Eucharist in relation to the final manifestation of the Kingdom. Perhaps the argument could be developed in this way: just as baptism does not confer total assimilation into the life of the Church, but needs to be reinforced through confirmation and Eucharist and given expression in the lives of the baptised, so too we should not require too high a level of assimilation before admitting others to communion.

Again, the concept of “degrees of eucharistic sharing” deserves consideration. ESU proposes three: mutual eucharistic hospitality, participation of ministers without presidency or concelebration, and finally full interchangeability of ministers. The Anglican document notes, but is unenthusiastic about, the growing practice of sharing by means of a “spiritual communion” involving a blessing instead of actual reception. With a generous absence of rancour, the bishops state that they “hope” for the Roman Catholic recognition of Anglican ordinations “in due course”.

Not all of this will be pleasant reading for Catholics, but if we ask for comments we must be grateful for a response made with honesty, care and goodwill. Resisting the impulse to take umbrage and spring to our own defence, we must say “Thank you”, listen, and examine our consciences.