A Sherborne Abbey Insight Lecture on the Eucharist, given by Canon Eric Woods on Monday 1 February 2016

EricHSMany years ago, in 1945, a remarkable man, a Benedictine monk of the Church of England, Dom Gregory Dix, published a pioneering study of the Eucharist and its history called The Shape of the Liturgy. Some of his arguments are now disputed, but towards the end of the book he delivered a sustained meditation on the sheer power of the Eucharist which never fails to move me. Listen to part of it now:  

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams have failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God. 

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, everyone with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves – and sins and temptations and prayers – once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew – just as really and pathetically as I do – these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione – and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought….

It is because it is embedded deep down in the life of Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again, Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever-changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In [the] twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.

Oh to write like Dom Gregory! So much modern theological writing is so clumsy and ugly by comparison. Let me dare to try to add another paragraph, from my own experience:

I ‘did this’ as a boy in a little Norman church outside Brighton, with a conservative evangelical Vicar celebrating at the north end of the Holy Table, as he insisted it must be called, and whose sheer transparency and holiness of life taught me that it is not the baroque splendour of elaborate liturgy which matters, but sincerity of faith. I have ‘done this’ in great and glorious churches such as St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol and Sherborne Abbey, but I have done it too cross-legged on the floor with a group of students preparing for their final exams and needing to bring their fears and worries to the Lord. I have done it for Gerald Pitman, ‘Mr Sherborne’, shortly before he died when – arriving at Yeovil Hospital unprepared – I had to raid the private ward for bread and wine and then ‘do this’ from memory – 1662 of course – shortly before Gerald died. I have ‘done this’ for an old friend at his Requiem with tears pouring down my cheeks, and for a young couple getting married with the light of love and hope in their eyes. And I hope that one day someone will ‘do this’ for me and for the repose of my soul when my life and ministry on this earth are over.

Oceans of ink and vast cargoes of paper have been spent in arguments about what the Eucharist is, and what it is not. Most of that debate I find, and have always found, barren, sterile and bloodless. ‘Bloodless’ – there’s an ironic word for a debate about the Body and Blood of Christ! But of one thing you can be sure: when he took the bread and blessed it, broke it and shared it, Jesus did not intend to found an industry of cerebral, metaphysical philosophising about the meaning of what he was doing which would occupy Christians, and divide them, for the next two thousand years. There are no prizes for guessing with whom I would have sided when Martin Luther met Ulrich Zwingli, that rather bloodless Swiss reformer, at Marburg in October 1529 to try to reconcile their Reformation differences. The sticking point was the Eucharist. ‘Just a memorial meal’ said Zwingli, a reminder of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Nonsense, said Luther. Jesus is present in the sacrament. And he shouted out the dominical words Hoc est corpus meum ‘this is my body’ – and chalked them on the table and pounded them with his fist.

Small wonder, too, that Princess Elizabeth Tudor, when her Catholic sister Mary was on the throne, demonstrated her skill at diplomacy combined with real theological insight when questioned about her understanding of the Eucharist. She is said to have replied:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

Queen Elizabeth I shaped and moulded the Anglican Settlement in our land more than any other. Queen Elizabeth II is her wonderful successor at keeping our odd, Catholic-and-Reformed, Church together. I wish our Bishops could learn a little of her wisdom, her diplomacy and her humility.

But it is to a book which has nothing whatsoever to do with liturgy that I turn for my understanding of what is happening when the Eucharist is celebrated. It is a wonderful book, still in print as a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s by the great Shakespearian director, Peter Brook, and it’s called The Empty Space. It’s a marvellous read, and I commend it to all of you who love the theatre – and who love liturgy.

Brook’s central argument is that the success of a play – any play – depends entirely on what the actors and director (and the audience) bring to it. In his terms, they can make it ‘deadly’, ‘holy’, ‘rough’ or ‘immediate’. I haven’t the time to go into the difference between the four, but we have all been to plays which were ‘deadly’, because the actors were just mouthing the words and going through the motions. And we have all been to plays which were ‘immediate’ because the actors were living every word and making the whole drama present to us, keeping us on the very edge of our seats. In the first the audience is entirely passive, receiving an offering which is bloodless and lifeless. In the second the audience is totally involved, living in and through the drama, totally caught-up in the plot as it unfolds.

And so it is with the Eucharist. When Sandra and I moved to Sherborne in 1993, we had just one Sunday, I think, between moving in and my being instituted and inducted as Vicar. We decided that we shouldn’t attend the Abbey Eucharist, but go to church outside the Benefice. I won’t tell you where we went, or who was presiding, but I remember my comment to Sandra as we left – ‘He celebrated the Eucharist like a demented machine-gun.’ To be fair, the priest had to race through one service in order to hurtle off to another church to celebrate another. But all he could deliver was ‘deadly theatre’ because there was no opportunity of making it ‘holy’, let alone ‘immediate’ – and we the congregation (it felt more like being the audience) were totally uninvolved in what was happening.

Now Peter Brook calls the best possible way of treating a play on stage an exercise in représentation. Note he has to use French – the English ‘representation’ would be meaningless in this context. Rehearsals might be about repétition, repetition, but it will be a dull play indeed if that which the actors have learned by the repetition of rehearsal does not have life breathed into it to become représentation – the making present again of that which the playwright first conceived.

In the same way, the Eucharist as the drama of our salvation must never be ‘repetition’, but rather représentation. It is about making present again Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for us, made once for all two thousand years ago. Anglicans cannot talk of the ‘sacrifice of the mass’ as though Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is happening all over again, and again, and again. But we can talk of représentation as it is ‘made present’ again, and again, and again.

This, surely, is what the best theatre does. It may be Charlie’s Aunt or The Mousetrap, but however well-known and hackneyed the play it can come alive if the director and actors make it come alive, and grip us and involve us. Equally, it may be a great tragic drama such as King Lear or Marlowe’s Edward II, but a parroted version badly directed can kill it for us and make it ‘deadly’.

In other words, the Eucharist is a living thing which invites us all to be caught-up in this drama of our salvation. To that Dom Gregory Dix devoted 750 pages of his classic book. Even I could divide the service we think we know so well into at least twenty distinct but interwoven actions: journeying, arriving, welcoming, confessing, forgiving, praising (that’s the Gloria), proclaiming (the readings), teaching (the sermon), affirming (that’s the Creed), interceding, greeting (that’s the Peace), offering, receiving, blessing, breaking, sharing, thanking, sending, departing and serving. And we could have done worse than devote an Insight Lecture to each one. Sadly, there is not world enough or time.

So let me offer you the four key actions of the Eucharist – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. Here is where the great moments of the drama come. They begin with taking, taking ordinary kitchen things – bread and wine and water – and transforming them. How typical of Jesus to begin with the kitchen, just as his first miracle began with turning water into wine. The ordinary is always the raw material of the extraordinary. Miracles begin in the kitchen.

It is hugely significant, too, that at major services in the Abbey and in many Anglican churches, the bread and the wine are brought to the Altar by representatives of the laity, starting at the west end and bringing the elements through the whole congregation. To quote Bishop John Robinson (to whom I shall return later in this lecture):

The offertory is the thrust of the secular into the very heart of the sacred. It should not start in the sanctuary – if it does, our religion is losing its roots in the stuff and muck of life. It starts wherever the people of God find themselves during the week…. For what we do in this action is to bring the world – our world – into the Church, just as at the end of the service we have to take the Church into the world. .

Then comes the blessing, which takes those kitchen things and transforms or transfigures them. It is upon this priestly act that most controversy has descended. And what is ‘blessing’? The former Bishop of Peterborough, the late Douglas Feaver (who sometimes in retirement worshipped here) used to describe a blessing as “a semi-celestial lick”. When I watch our two cats greeting one another, I think I know what he meant. An English bishop visiting Uganda attempted the blessing in the local tribal language, and was much embarrassed when his huge congregation dissolved into laughter: he had offered them the grease of God rather than the peace of God! But in a way he had got it right: a blessing oils the points of contact between ourselves and God, ourselves and one another, ourselves and our homes, our hopes and our dreams.

But in the context of the Eucharist, the action of blessing is above all one of thanksgiving. In fact that’s what the Greek word “eucharist” means: thanksgiving. It was the word the early Church most often used as the name for what we are doing today – not Holy Communion, not the Lord’s Supper, not the Mass, but the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages, all this was more or less lost. The spotlight became focused on the priest, and the prayer of blessing slipped into a different translation, as the prayer of consecration. And when those priestly hands lifted the bread, that became the moment at which people believed it was changed, from bread into body, the Body of Christ. And the Sanctus bell was rung, so that those outside the church building – sick or working or just plain idle – knew that at that moment the miracle – or magic – had happened. And it was repeated a few moments later, when the chalice containing the wine was blessed, and elevated as what was now the Blood of Christ.

Before we dismiss all this as mediaeval superstition, think what you did at Christmas. You took a piece of folded card from a shelf in the shop. You bought it for far more than its material, intrinsic worth. You took your pen and consecrated it to someone special. That card became a blessing from you but also a blessing to you. And the same thing happens at the Eucharist as bread and wine are blessed. And as they are lifted up for you to see – and you really should be watching this action, this wonderful piece of divine drama, not burying your face in a sort of pious slouch – so the significance of the bread and wine changes, and they become to you and for you the Body and Blood of Christ.

But it’s not magic. The biblical and early Christian understanding of the Eucharist was not that the priest suddenly turned bread and wine into something else, but that the Family of God offered bread and wine and received them back with a new significance, by blessing God for them and over them. The blessing opens up a channel. Blessing opens up a channel between us and God, and between us and other people. Blessing opposes and counteracts sin, which is the state of being closed to God and closed to other people: literally up-tight about life and living. Blessing breaks down the barriers, greases the points of contact, and opens us up to the world and to God.

Then the breaking, when the bread is broken (and the wine is poured), to make it clear to us that this is not something being done to or for us, but something which requires us to offer ourselves to be broken on the altar of this world and to pour ourselves out in love and service to those around us, as we discover in the Holy Communion how to make holy community. At one level, the breaking of the bread or the fraction (as it is called) of the large priest’s wafer, is purely an administrative process to enable distribution to take place. Those of you who sit at the front of the nave at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday mornings know that you do not receive the individual rounded white wafer. You receive a segment of a very large wafer indeed, called the priest’s wafer, which I like to use at the High Altar because then you can see it being blessed and broken. The very central segments are obviously triangular. I thought I would mention that, as some of you look a bit puzzled when your wafer is triangular rather than round. And please be aware that you can ask for a gluten-free wafer, which is square, or a totally wheat-free wafer, which is made from potato flour. The Good Lord will honour them all, just as he honoured illicit, secret Communions held by allied prisoners on the River Kwai, celebrated with all they had to hand – water, and a little rice.

Which brings us to sharing, for this is not something we can do on our own. Holy Communion by definition has to be a communion with others. That is part of what the Reformation was about – the rejection of private masses for individuals, dead or alive. It is for us all. It is about sharing as our Holy Communion helps us make holy community. And that, I think, is faithful to the New Testament witness. As St Paul makes clear, it is the common sharing of the loaf and the cup which enables the holy community to make holy communion, binding themselves together as the new community. That is what St Paul means when he says, ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body’. The Eucharist is that which creates, and constantly recreates, the Church.

It begins to sound as if, despite my earlier comments, I am getting too cerebral, too theological. But once again, not. Every eucharistic action, as I have been trying to demonstrate, is earthed in the everyday and the mundane, taking kitchen things and ordinary human actions and reactions, and transforming them and transfiguring them. And so it is with the sharing. We need to share communion to be a community. We need to share Holy Communion to be a holy community. Of course it is possible for our community to be dysfunctional, just as it happens so often that families are dysfunctional. No-one who has been taking funerals for nearly forty years can be unaware of what strange things families do to one another. They are all technically family, but they do nothing to make themselves family, or to be family, and then they wonder why, when they come together, everything is so brittle and unpleasant. “We go to each other’s funerals”, one grande dame explained to me one day, “but we would not think of going to each other’s weddings”. Well, there you are. But the Christian family is one for whom every opportunity to make Communion is party time, and a blessing – which is why we are diminished and impoverished whenever a family member is not there. “I won’t see you on Sunday, Vicar” people say; “I’ve got family coming”. “But you are family” I want to reply. “Bring the rest along with you”. So few understand that it sometimes breaks my heart. But still we must go on, taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

If I have learned any theology over the years, much of it is due to my Director of Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, the late and great Bishop John A T Robinson. He is remembered today, rather unfairly, as a liberal theologian of the swinging years of the 1960’s, when he was Bishop of Woolwich. His chief crime then was to try to relate the Gospel to a society in rapid and often destructive change. In truth he was a superb New Testament scholar with a deep understanding of liturgy, who believed we have always to struggle to translate the Gospel into the language and terms of today. He tried to do that to the liturgy, first of Clare College where he was Dean, then for Southwark Diocese, and then in my day for Trinity College Chapel. I must confess that the service books we use Sunday by Sunday in the Abbey are modelled consciously on what he did with smaller resources decades before. So I am going to give him the last word, as my own tribute to a man blessed of God:

When we come to the Eucharist we come not simply to a representation of something that has happened, as in the Oberammergau play. We come to be present at – and at the same time to present, to transmit to the world – something that is happening. Here at this service we enter the very workshop of the new world. Here the master carpenter is in action, refashioning matter and men, forming and tooling the Body which is the instrument of his mission. When we have been to Communion we have been present at the changing of the world, present at the carpenter’s bench, yes, and on the carpenter’s bench, so that our whole lives come out chiselled and renewed.

And for that, thanks be to God.

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