The Eucharist makes the Church

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

How we choose [Diocesan] Bishops and a report on Anglican-Methodist unity seem to have engaged a number of people on social media. Perhaps its just serendipitous that they are on the agenda for General Synod next week, or perhaps there is a divine hand at work.

There are items on Safeguarding, legislative business, food waste and an important debate on how society sees the place of people born with chromosomal conditions which can, sometimes, be detected in utero.

But the choosing of Diocesan Bishops and the proposals that might lead to the interchangeability of ‘ministers’ seem to be creating some heat.

So what follows is some initial thinking. (In full disclosure I’m on a few days break, away from home, and except for some online resources I’m not in my study to look things up – and this is very much ‘off the top of my head stuff’ But then my qualification is at least an MA in contemporary catholic theology with a particular focus on ecclesiology).

That the Church of England preserved the ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons in apostolic succession is, I’d suggest not a lightweight or second order issue (no pun intended). It is one of the ‘touchstones’ in the preface to the “Declaration of Assent” which are assented to at ordinations and licensings without exception.


At the heart of the life of the church are the sacraments. Now, as an Anglo-Catholic and a former member of the liturgical commission, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But this is a vital understanding. The great French theologian Henri de Lubac put it succinctly in saying that “the Eucharist makes the Church” or more rightly (and literally from the original french) that the church composed in its basic unit of people and clergy gathered around a bishop is most visible in its life, worship and order when the Eucharist is celebrated. [For de Lubac, this was the established metier of the Church for the first thousand years, and its palindrome, that “The Church makes the Eucharist” for the second thousand. We might call this, as shorthand the patristic and scholastic understanding of eucharistic ecclesiology].

That’s important because the Catholicity of the Church – how the local and universal inter-relate is profoundly eucharistic. The Second Vatican Council’s first Constitution – Sacrosanctum Concillium – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes clear that (SC2):

For the liturgy, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” [1] most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.

and that (SC10):

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.

Whether we have a patristic or scholastic leaning in our eucharistic ecclesiology, the celebration of the Eucharist is and must always be more than a bit of religious flim-flam – it must be deeply inhabited for from it, and because of it, we engage then in the world in mission and witness, in charity and love, in service as both Church and individual Christians. [See, I agree with +Pete – and I’m pretty sure that he agrees on this with me, however he may have been reported].

The retention of the ordering of the Three-Fold Ministry (Bishop, priest and deacon) speaks to the preservation of apostolic order and guarantees it. That’s to say, the Church makes clear that within this paradigm, the Eucharist is celebrated ‘validly and regularly’ by those who have been episcopally ordained as Bishop and Priest.

That order is, of course, shared by those churches (denominations) which have preserved that three fold order – and the declaration of assent makes explicitly clear that the Church of England utterly believes itself to be part of that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ Church which so orders its liturgical sacramental life: and sets that out first in the only place where we so succinctly set out what the Church of England is – the declaration of assent.

This catholicity, shared with the wider church which preserves these marks of catholicity, is vital because it is the historic guarantee of ‘Sacramental Assurance’. Or in other words, in the historically ordered church, when a validly episcopally ordained priest celebrates, according to the rites of the Church, using appropriate bread and wine, the Eucharist –  such a celebration is valid and “regular” and that those receiving the eucharistic gifts receive Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. That may or may not be what individuals think happens, believe, or want to happen – but it is the Church as a whole (and in this case, the Church of England) that says “yes – this IS what happens” The “how” is a debate of the last 500 years…

Without rehearsing again decades of argument, this is of course for “traditionalists” in the Church of England the heart of the theological disagreement about the ordination of women as priests and bishops. But it is also equally the argument for those who accept the ordination of women and priests and bishops. What differs is a question about where the authority to make changes to that ordering lie. But the argument is the same – for the sacraments to be valid, to be ‘real’ there must be a ‘real’ priest or bishop celebrating them – doing so as the Church has always done in continuity.

So a huge question about the selection of bishops, and diocesan bishops in particular must be about remembering this ontological, sacramental function and the relationship of Bishop to Universal Church and to the local Church. The Bishops act, collegially, as ‘guarantor’ of sacramental efficacy for the whole Church – and they act on behalf of the whole Church in their office by licensing validly ordained priests who the Church collectively believes validly celebrate valid sacraments (whatever individual bishops may or may not believe theologically about their priests and vice versa).

That feeds the debate about the discernment of Bishops and the operation of the CNC in nominating Diocesan Bishops. Their function is not primarily managerial, it is theological and that theological leadership is most visibly exercised, Eucharistically.

And its the big ding-dong about unity schemes.

The report on Anglican and Methodist ‘Unity’ makes the suggestion that (and I grossly paraphrase) episcopally ordained priests in the Church of England and non-episcopally ordained presbyters who minister in Methodist churches are both *really* valid ministers of the Eucharist and whilst anomalous to have “non episcopally ordained” ministers of the Eucharist in a church where Canon law dictates you must be an “episcopally ordained” priest to celebrate, we should kind of live with the anomaly until the “non epicopally ordained” either are “episcopally ordained” or die, or the Methodists have bishops in which case, everyone will, eventually be episcopally ordained…

Which strikes me as more than a simply a fudge.

Firstly, because this seems to take the legs out of the whole to-and-fro about episocpacy of the last forty or so years. It is, to give it a more loaded term, the authorisation, albeit for a limited time (30 or 40 years) of (specified) lay presidency at the Eucharist. Either someone is an episcopally ordained priest or they aren’t. And if they aren’t then the Church of England’s understanding is that they cannot validly celebrate the Eucharist. Bishops exist to order to defend the faith and guarantee its apostolicity and continuity in catholic order. We can want to wish the theology away – but it always comes back to bite us.

That’s why, at present if a minister from another denomination which does not have an episcopally ordered three-fold ministry (Methodists, Baptists, other free or independent churches) then seeks to minister in the Church of England they must first be ordained (and may, on the Bishop’s direction have to undergo selection and training. If there is any doubt about whether their previous ordination is valid, that ordination in the Church of England may then be conditional ordination – but ordination is the route (just as it is for clergy from the Church of England who seek full communion with Rome or the Orthodox Churches).

That distinction is not the same of course as regards Eucharistic Hospitality whereby the longstanding position is that any communicant from a trinitarian Christian Church ‘in good standing’ can receive in the Church of England. But that is a matter of discipline. And it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. I should not (normally, there are exceptions) receive in a Roman Catholic Church in England. Nor would a Roman Catholic following the discipline of their own church receive from me – or any priest in the Church of England.

For fundamentally, the reception of the Eucharist isn’t a popular vote on whether we like (or agree) or not with the celebrant – it is about what the Church guarantees about the validity of the sacraments they celebrate which is important. [Equally it is the Church of England as a whole who makes the guarantee about my orders – they do not change dependent on who the Bishop is, or what the Bishop thinks…].

So the question for me is, how can any Bishop or the college or Bishops declare to be valid and lawful celebrations of the Eucharist, within the terms of Canon Law, which clearly are not? For if this were to be possible – what then the question arises: what is the point of episcopal ordination? Why not delegate it to area deans and archdeacons? Or for that matter why not simply have a local course and then licence churchwardens to celebrate mass?

In which case, why preserve the episcopcy? If an essential reason for having bishops is to provide an apostolic and catholic continuity of priests to celebrate valid and regular sacraments, if we can ‘live with the anomaly’ of ‘not episcopally ordainined’ eucharistic presidents, then we’d save an awful lot of money on theological training which has, functionally its essence in providing those who are to be so ordained….?

To agree to this does not, at first sight cut the legs off the present episopacy of the Church of England – but it undermines it. Because the college of Bishops would openly endorse a position where the plene benne esse – the historic episcope of the Church of England  cannot guarantee the sacraments celebrated on its behalf as it has sought to heretofore.

I’d be disingenuous if at this point I didn’t hold my hand up and say, yes, I know, some of you are thinking “but you’re a traditionalist and isn’t this what you think we do now?” And I would say yes, that’s a problem – but where we have arrived is a mixed economy in the Church of England of how different Bishops and Priests are received – but one where, in the 5 guiding principles, there is explicit acknowledgement that what guarantees clear sacramental assurance is the principles built on a bedrock of episcopal ordination (and the provision of episcope to guarantee the continuity of that). That tension is held in the House of Bishops as in each college of clergy.

But this is, I would suggest a step beyond – to ask that the Church recognises the validity of a eucharistic celebration at which the person who presides has not been episcopally ordained. What the nature of the elements in such a celebration is or becomes is unclear without the episcopal ordination which guarentees it. It may well, in whatever way be efficacious – and we pray it may be.

But to assent to it. To say Amen. That’s a difficulty.

For some, part of this has been a (if I can be so bold) sloppy “they’re all the same, honest” approach to ecumenism – which devalues both us and the other. Unity is not a game in which we can simply sweep away significant differences in theology and praxis in a lazy appeal of ut umun sint. The work of Christian unity – of Ecumanism is hard becuase the questions are as hard as the answers we might find. For others in the Church of England, it may come as a shock that it clearly isn’t all the same.

Michael Ramsey, the oft reveared former Archbishop of Canterbury described the failure of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme he fought for as the saddest day of his life. It foundered on this very question of eucharistic ecclesiology. It seems to me a very great pity that the same iceberg may potentially sink the ship again.






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