The Episcopalian Eucharist

Author: Father Edward McNamara


The Episcopalian Eucharist

ROME, 31 AUG. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Regarding the Episcopalian eucharist: I have recently become the music director of an Episcopalian church. As a Catholic I feel strange not reverencing (at least bowing) as I walk by the tabernacle in the sanctuary of the church. What if one day the Catholics and the Episcopalians come to an agreement about the validity of the Episcopalian eucharist? What should I do? — R.H., Cincinnati, Ohio

A: I believe there are two underlying questions involved: One is Episcopal eucharistic doctrine, and the other is the validity of Anglican orders.

It is not easy to nail down official Episcopalian eucharistic doctrine and as a consequence there is a wide range of both theology and practice. Most Anglicans will say they believe in the "real presence" but understand this in such a way as to deny his bodily presence, or else they believe that this presence is physically localized in the bread and wine. Some hold a theory that is similar to Martin Luther's sacramental union, or consubstantiation, in which Christ's real presence in the bread and wine is limited to the time of the celebration.

On the other hand, some so-called High Church Anglicans hold doctrines quite close to the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation. These Episcopalians often have impressive liturgies, reserve communion bread, and have Catholic-like devotions such as benediction. In doing so, they do not feel themselves bound by Article 28 of the Anglican 39 Articles of Belief which clearly states that "The sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped."

In 1971 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, a semiofficial group of Catholic and Anglican bishops and scholars, published a "common agreement" on their mutual understanding of the Eucharist. While not representing official doctrine for either Catholics or Anglicans, the members of the commission believed they had reached a formulation that could be acceptable to all. With respect to the Real Presence, the agreement said:

"6. Communion with Christ in the Eucharist presupposes his true presence, effectually signified by the bread and wine which, in this mystery, become his body and blood. (see note 2) The real presence of his body and blood can, however, only be understood within the context of the redemptive activity whereby he gives himself, and in himself reconciliation, peace and life, to his own. On the one hand, the Eucharistic gift springs out of the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, in which God's saving purpose has already been definitively realised. On the other hand, its purpose is to transmit the life of the crucified and risen Christ to his body, the church, so that its members may be more fully united with Christ and with one another."

The above-mentioned Note 2 attempts to clarify the Catholic term transubstantiation:

"2. The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the Eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements. The term should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ's presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place."

Therefore it could be said that at least some Episcopalians share the Catholic notion of the Eucharist. This is certainly true of those Episcopalians who have accepted the Catechism of the Catholic Church and are seeking corporate unity with her. It cannot be said of all Episcopalians, and there are often different shades of belief even within High Church congregations.

No matter what the doctrine, however, Christ's real presence depends on the existence of a valid priesthood. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) named a commission to study the question of Anglican orders and finally declared them invalid with the bull Apostolicae Curae in 1896. The complex doctrinal and historical reasons for the papal decision are beyond the scope of this article but were considered definitive.

Some Anglicans reacted with indifference to the papal declaration. Others took his points into account and attempted to re-establish apostolic succession by inviting validly ordained bishops from several small splinter groups to participate in Anglican Episcopal ordination. It is therefore quite possible that some Anglican clergy are validly ordained priests, but it is extremely difficult to determine who.

For this reason the Catholic Church insists that any Anglican clergyman who becomes Catholic and desires to continue in ministry must receive ordination. The Church is fully aware that this demand is often quite painful for the incoming Anglican who has considered himself a priest for many years. This is done because the Church requires absolute certainty with regard to the validity of the sacraments and cannot accept even the slightest risk. This certainty of being a priest should also comfort the Anglican clergyman.

We hope that with this our reader can make a correct judgment. In spite of the closeness of theological views on the part of some Episcopalians, there are many reasons that make it practically impossible for the Catholic Church to recognize the validity of the Anglican eucharist.

Insofar as how to behave, I believe that our correspondent should show courtesy and respect in deferring to Anglican customs of reverence, just as a courteous Protestant might kneel at a Catholic Mass even if he did not believe in the Real Presence. Specifically Catholic gestures of personal adoration, such as genuflection when passing the place of reservation, should not be done.

Follow-up: The Episcopalian Eucharist [10-14-2010]

Pursuant to our commentaries on Anglican eucharistic theology (see Aug. 31) we received appreciative comments as well as critical observations. Above all, a couple of readers questioned the use of the term "semiofficial" as applied to ARCIC, the commission of Anglicans and Roman Catholics who have painstakingly undertaken this dialogue. As one reader wrote:

"In what sense is ARCIC 'semiofficial'? They are listed on the Vatican Web site under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the members were appointed by the leaders of the respective communities, etc. After celebrating vespers together in 1996, John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury together signed a common declaration stating: 'We affirm the signs of progress provided in the statements of ARCIC I on the Eucharist and on the understanding of ministry and ordination.' In what sense is this not official, but semiofficial? Since you mentioned ARCIC on the Eucharist, shouldn't you also have mentioned the agreement reached on ministry and ordination? Your comments barely get past Leo XIII's judgment on Anglican orders, and do not acknowledge the above-mentioned agreements with the papal affirmation. The signs of progress include a statement on a new context for understanding Leo XIII's declaration on Anglican ordination. Isn't that an important part of our Church's teaching on Anglican orders?"

Our reader continued: "The ARCIC agreements also provide what is probably a better context for understanding why we do not share the Eucharist. ARCIC 2's statement Church as Communion describes the communion that exists within each community, and its relation with our communion with God and Christ. Respecting this communion, and the difficulties that have grown around intercommunion, is probably a more helpful way to address the problems of a Catholic organist in an Episcopalian parish: 'Christians can never acquiesce with complacency in disunity without impairing further their communion with God. As separated churches grow towards ecclesial communion it is essential to recognize the profound measure of communion they already share through participation in spiritual communion with God and through those elements of a visible communion of shared faith and sacramental life they can already recognize in one another. If some element or important facet of visible communion is judged to be lacking, the communion between them, though it may be real, is incomplete.'

"These are important issues that your correspondent will be facing on a weekly, if not daily, basis. I hope you will explain better your downgrading of ARCIC to 'semiofficial' and why pre-conciliar attitudes on defects and certainty are more important than post-conciliar efforts to struggle with our divisions."

My use of the (admittedly non-technical) expression "semiofficial" never sought to downgrade ARCIC but was an attempt at describing its nature.

ARCIC is much more than a private or unofficial forum of experts seeking a formula of agreement. Yet at the same time it is not "official" in the sense that the members could speak formally in the name of their respective Church or communion. Its reports are published independently and are presented for approval to the respective authorities.

Regarding the agreement that ARCIC reached with respect to Eucharist and ministry, Anglican authorities meeting at the Lambeth Conference accepted that it substantially agreed with its doctrine.

Catholic approval was slower in coming. Although the Catholic Church quickly welcomed the ARCIC accord, an official response did not arrive until 1991. In this official response the Holy See recognized that "it constitutes a significant milestone not only in relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion but in the ecumenical movement as a whole." The Catholic Church "judges, however, that it is not yet possible to state that substantial agreement has been reached on all the questions studied by the Commission. There still remain between Anglicans and Catholics important differences regarding essential matters of Catholic doctrine." The document then proceeded to elaborate several aspects of Eucharistic and ministerial theology that needed further study.

Later, in 1993, ARCIC responded with several clarifying statements on the disputed points. In the wake of this, in March 1994 Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Holy See's office for promoting Christian Unity, wrote to the co-chairmen of ARCIC:

"On September 4th last, you sent me a document containing 'Clarifications of Certain Aspects of the Agreed Statements on Eucharist and Ministry' which had been submitted to and approved by the ARCIC-II meeting taking place in Venice at that time.

"This document has been examined by the appropriate dicasteries of the Holy See and I am now in a position to assure you that the said clarifications have indeed thrown new light on the questions concerning Eucharist and Ministry in the Final Report of ARCIC-I for which further study had been requested.

"The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is therefore most grateful to the members of ARCIC-II, and to those from ARCIC-I who prepared these clarifications. The agreement reached on Eucharist and Ministry by ARCIC-I is thus greatly strengthened and no further study would seem to be required at this stage."

This was the context which permitted the joint statement of Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned by our reader.

While this is certainly a welcome sign of progress, it would not be correct to say that the ARCIC statement thus becomes "official" Catholic teaching in the proper sense. It is rather that the Church recognizes, at the highest level, that the statement is in conformity with official Catholic doctrine.

The complete texts of all these documents can be found at

With respect to ministry, I did not enter into that subject because the ARCIC dialogue did not directly address the question of validity but rather the understanding of ministry. With respect to the idea of ordained ministry as a sacramental and sacrificial priesthood the group achieved a consensus acceptable to both parties in the dialogue.

It did not discuss the question of who was or who could become a priest. Even ARCIC admits that the subsequent admission of women into Anglican ordained ministry has definitively altered the terms of the debate.

Also, while it is possible to place Leo XIII's declaration into new contexts — and not a few experts have questioned the strength of some of the historical arguments contained in his bull "Apostolicae Curae" — the fact remains that his authoritative declaration of the invalidity of Anglican orders remains official Catholic doctrine.

This fact was reaffirmed in 1998 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his commentary on John Paul II's apostolic letter "Ad Tuendam Fidem." In this commentary he specifically lists Pope Leo's declaration of nullity as a teaching to which Catholics must give "firm and definitive assent." These teachings are not understood as revealed doctrines but as those that the Church's teaching authority finds so closely connected to God's revealed truth that belief in them is required.

While I would agree with our correspondent that there were many possible ways to focus the original answer, I beg to differ from him in his division between pre- and post-Vatican II mentalities. I agree with Benedict XVI's assessment that the Second Vatican Council can only be genuinely interpreted according to a "hermeneutic of continuity" with the other 20 ecumenical councils and the Church's entire Tradition.

I welcome all progress in communion among Christians, and believe that the original question by a Catholic organist working in an Anglican parish, and his desire to respect Anglican sensibilities, is itself a tangible sign of this progress. I also believe, however, that true progress in communion is best served by honesty regarding our core beliefs and the limits these beliefs impose.

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