I have some sympathy with Derek Olsen, who bemoaned the fact that while the 1979 Book of Common Prayer seemed to move the Episcopal Church in a more Catholic direction, in practice it did no such thing.
My main problem with his thesis, and the accompanying theme that in our recent choices of Holy Women, Holy Men we seem not to understand the concept of heroic sanctity, the definition of a saint, is that I don’t think it can be demonstrated that Anglicanism has managed a common teaching on either subject since the Reformation.
It is alleged that emblazoned behind the Holy Table in an evangelical Anglican parish in England was the text “He is not here.” Whether that’s true or not, the doctrine of the Real Presence, at least in a form which associates that Presence in the elements of bread and wine, has never been an agreed position among us, and until the days of the Tractarians was rarely defined in absolute terms.
To my mind, the matter of just how Christ is present, if over-stressed as the essential eucharistic doctrine, often panders to modern therapeutic religion. It easily boils down to questions about what I, as an individual, get out of receiving holy communion, and thus to the extraordinary idea that I should always receive Communion when I attend the Eucharist.
To my mind the essential eucharistic teaching is what used to be termed “the Sacrifice of the Mass.” I’d hasten to point out that this doctrine also can be misunderstood if it is believed that the Eucharist is primarily offered to the Father to save me, or if it is suggested that the eucharistic offering is the job of the priest in a personal capacity. The Sacrifice is that of Christ on the Cross, and is offered by the whole Church in heaven and on earth in union with Jesus the High Priest, who forever offers himself “for the sins of the whole world.”
In short the primary action of the Eucharist is Godward. It is a corporate activity embarked upon by the whole Church, in which we participate by virtue of our baptism. It is thus also a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” It is from this communal offering and oblation that the Church at every level receives the grace to witness the Gospel. As individuals, in worship, we lose ourselves in a common offering. In short it isn’t about you or me, it’s about God and the Church, the Church in which we live and move and have our being as organs and members of the Body of Christ.
It is thus odd that the eucharistic Sacrifice has been a more divisive teaching than that of the Real Presence. What matters about the latter teaching is that the Church affirms that in the Eucharist we are corporately joined into Christ and thus into his eternal offering, once accomplished on Calvary.
If we come to agree here, then the ideal of heroic sanctity becomes easier to grasp. The saints, holy men and women, are those whose self-emptying, self-offering, self-oblation is notable, whose sacrificial lives are an inspiration, and whose prayers for us are intense.
Yes I know: praying with the saints is another area of disagreement among us. More of that later.