Eucharistic Doctrine in the Prayer Book

Eucharistic Doctrine in the Prayer Book

The Rev’d Dr. R.D. Crouse

For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
1 Corinthians 11:26

A few months ago, when I found myself assigned the task of preaching this sermon on Eucharistic doctrine in the Prayer Book, I realized that the first necessity would be to work carefully through the quite extensive works of Archbishop Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper, since he was, after all, the chief architect of our sixteenth-century liturgy. And I must remark, in passing, that in consulting those volumes again, I took special satisfaction from the fact that my copy of them is a well-used one, once owned by a former curate of Lunenburg, and first rector of this Cathedral Church, Father Hodgson.

Archbishop Cranmer is faintly praised nowadays for his elegant use of the English tongue; his theological works, however, it seems to me, are very little read – at least, if one may judge from the superficial and distorted representations of him one meets in recent criticism. When one turns to the works themselves, one finds such profound and precise Biblical and Patristic scholarship that one is forced to wonder just what the critical movement of the past century or so has really achieved in these matters.

For our purposes tonight, I have attended especially to Cranmer’s treatise On the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper*, and his defense of that work against Dr. Smith and Bishop Gardiner. These are works of controversy, of course, concerned mainly with questions about the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice; but they also touch incidentally upon the whole range of sacramental theology, and liturgical principles and practice, and thus provide a good indication of the doctrinal basis of the Prayer Book liturgy. Therefore, it seems appropriate that this sermon should consist mainly of quotations from those works.

Cranmer’s critics accused him of two major faults: first, that he denied the sacrifice of the mass, and, second, that he denied “that we receive in the sacrament that flesh which is adjoined to God’s own Son” (p. 365). Cranmer denies both charges: First, he says, “the controversy is not, whether in the holy communion be made a sacrifice or not…but whether it be a propitiatory sacrifice or not, and whether only the priest make the said sacrifice, these be the points wherein we vary.” Second, in regard to the Eucharistic Presence, he says, “In my book I have written in more than an hundred places, that we receive the self-same body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary, that was crucified and buried, that rose again, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: and the contention is only in the manner and form how we receive it. For I say (as all the old holy fathers and martyrs used to say), that we receive Christ spiritually by faith with our minds, eating his flesh and drinking his blood: so that we receive Christ’s own very natural body, but not naturally nor corporally” (p. 370).

Against a superstitiously materialistic notion of the Presence, popularly associated in his time with a debased idea of transubstantiation, Cranmer insists on both the truth of the Presence and the spiritual character of it: “…The same flesh that was given in Christ’s last supper was given also upon the cross, and is given daily in the ministration of the sacrament” (p. 24). “I do not say that Christ’s body and blood be given to us in signification and not in deed. But I do as plainly speak as I can, that Christ’s body and blood be given to us in deed, yet not corporally and carnally, but spiritually and effectually…” (p. 37).

Following Eusebius and Ambrose, Cranmer speaks of “sacramental mutation”, and argues that “this mutation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is a sacramental mutation, and that outwardly nothing is changed. But as outwardly we eat the bread and drink the wine with our mouths, so inwardly by faith we spiritually eat the very flesh, and drink the very blood of Christ…” (p. 260). Through grace there is a spiritual mutation by the mighty power of God, so that he who worthily eateth of that bread, doth spiritually eat Christ, and dwelleth in Christ, and Christ in him” (p. 276). “And although Christ in his human nature, substantially, really, corporally, naturally, and sensibly, be present with his Father in heaven, yet sacramentally and spiritually he is here present” (p. 47). Thus, “as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears, so likewise, these elements of…bread and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses” (p. 41).

Thus is represented and fulfilled in this sacrament the unity of the Church, the mystical body of Christ: “For like as bread is made of a great number of grains of corn, ground, baken, and so joined together, that thereof is made one loaf; and an infinite number of grapes be pressed together in one vessel, and thereof is made wine; likewise is the whole multitude of true Christian people, spiritually joined, first to Christ, and then among themselves together in one faith, one baptism, one Holy Spirit, one knot and bond of love….As the bread and wine which we do eat be turned into our flesh and blood; even so be all faithful Christians turned into the body of Christ, and so be joined to Christ, and also together among themselves, that they do make one mystical body of Christ, as St. Paul saith: ‘We be one bread and one body, as many as be partakers of one bread and one cup’” (p. 42).

The Eucharist is indeed a sacrifice, and yet adds nothing to the sacrifice of Christ, his “one oblation of himself once offered”: “There is but one such sacrifice, whereby our sins be pardoned, and God’s mercy and favour obtained, which is the death of the Son of God our Lord Jesu Christ: nor never was any other sacrifice propitiatory at any time, nor never shall be” (p. 346). The Eucharist is the effectual memorial of that one sacrifice. “….Not that Christ is daily offered for the propitiation of our sins; but because we daily sin, we daily be put in the remembrance of Christ’s death, which is the perfect propitiation for sin” (p. 359, interpreting Lombard).

Nor is this the offering of the priest alone, but when the priest makes a memorial of that one oblation, “he doeth it in the name of the people; so that the sacrifice is no more the priest’s than the people’s…The priest should declare the death and passion of Christ, and all the people should look upon the cross in the Mount of Calvary, and see Christ there hanging, and the blood flowing out of his side into their wounds to heal all their sores; and the priest and people all together should laud and thank instantly the surgeon and physician of their souls. And this is the priest’s and people’s sacrifice, not to be propitiators for sin, but…to worship continually in mystery that which was once offered for the price of sin.” (p. 359).

In this sacrament, the sacrifice of Calvary is represented, to the great comfort of our souls: “When we hear Christ speak unto us with his own mouth, and shew himself to be seen with our eyes…what comfort more can we have? The minister of the Church speaketh unto us God’s own words, which we must take as spoken from God’s own mouth, because…his word it is, and not the minister’s. Likewise, when he ministereth to our sights Christ’s holy sacraments, we must think Christ crucified before our eyes, because the sacraments so represent him, and be his sacraments, and not the priest’s” (p. 366).

“Wherefore ‘every man’, as St. Paul saith, ‘must examine himself’ when he shall approach to that holy table, and not come to God’s board as he would do to common feasts and banquets; but must consider that it is a mystical table, where the bread is mystical, and the wine is also mystical, wherein we be taught that we spiritually feed upon Christ, eating and drinking him, and as it were sucking out of his side the blood of our redemption and food of eternal salvation, although he be in heaven at his Father’s right hand” (p. 373).

“We should understand the sacrament, not carnally, but spiritually…being like eagles in this life, we should fly up into heaven in our hearts, where that Lamb is resident at the right hand of his Father which taketh away the sins of the world…by whose passion we are filled at His table…being made the guests of Christ, having Him dwell in us through the grace of his true nature…assured and certified that we are fed spiritually unto eternal life by Christ’s flesh crucified and by his blood shed…” (p. 398).

“Almighty God grant that we may truly lean to one sacrifice of Christ, and that we to Him again may repay our sacrifices of thanksgiving, of praise, of confessing his name, of true amendment, of repentance, of mercifulness towards our neighbours, and all other good works of charity! For by such sacrifices we shall declare ourselves neither ungrateful to God, nor altogether unworthy of his holy sacrifice of Christ.” (p. 399).

Such, in brief, is the Eucharistic doctrine of Archbishop Cranmer, and such is the doctrine that informs our Prayer Book liturgy. In the holy sacrament, the food of life eternal, and in our Christian lives, we show the redemptive sacrifice of God the Son; we do “shew the Lord’s death until he come.”


*The collected works of Archbishop Cranmer, edited by J.E. Cox, for the Parker Society, were published in two volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1844 and 1846. The works on eucharistic theology appear in Vol. I. Writings and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer relative to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. All page references in the text are to that volume.

Eucharistic Doctrine in the Prayer Book