So what is the point of my preceding reflections on the offertory and sacrifice, in relation to Mitchell and Meyers in Praying Shapes Believing? (See my previous posts in this series.) In Dix’s theory, the “taking” of the “take — bless — break — distribute” is identified with the act of oblation. Huh? Exactly. Here’s what he said, quoted favorably by Mitchell in his original:

The offertory, in the original view of the rite, is therefore something much more than a ceremonial action, the placing of bread and wine upon the altar by the clergy as an inevitable preparation for communion. It is as the later liturgies continue to call it — even when it had lost all outward signs of its previous meaning — the “rational worship” by free reasonable creatures of their Creator, a self-sacrificial act by which each Christian comes to his being as a member of Christ in the “recalling” before God of the self-sacrificial offering of Christ on Calvary. (Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, p. 117, quoted in Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing, p. 149).

Mitchell follows this with his own explanation: “the offertory in the [1979] Prayer Book expressed symbolically and ritually the self-offering of the people of God.”

There are interconnected problems here. First, Dix’s claim that the offertory was the locus of offering or sacrifice in the earlier liturgies of the church, and which was later eclipsed, is dubious. It is true that in some places in the West (never in the East) laypersons carried forward bread and wine that they had brought for the preparation of the altar. In short, practices at this point in the various ancient liturgies are extremely varied.

Second, Dix’s desire to have a neat and clean system is part of what led him to interpret the “offertory” in this manner. But what this does is ignore the fact that, post-Didache, all eucharistic prayers have an explicit offering of the bread and wine within the eucharistic prayer and all speak of the whole action as a sacrifice. Even a rite as early as the Strasbourg Papyrus (likely c. 200) has this: “we offer the reasonable sacrifice and this bloodless service, which all the nations offer you,” going on to quote Mal 1:11 (which Didache itself quotes twice). In other words, what is consistent in the historical witness is the action and language of offering within the Eucharistic prayer and not in an offertory.

Third, Mitchell, desiring to expand upon Dix, quoted Charles Price and Louis Weil’s Liturgy for Living:

In placing on the altar money and bread and wine, the congregation offers itself and its world. Money represents the work of the congregation. … Symbolically, we offer bread to become the body of Christ. But the underlying reality of the action is that we offer our lives, individually and corporately to become his body in the world. (p. 149)

This emphasis is absolutely correct and rightly gathers together the various strands of eucharistic sacrifice that must be kept together: (a) it is a sacrifice first because it concerns the self-offering of Christ as our High Priest on the altar of the cross; (b) any offering we do is only “meet and right” if it united to, because of, and made possible by Christ; (c) we offer everything God has given us in our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving: our selves (“our souls and bodies” as Cranmer puts it), bread and wine as symbols of both creation and our own labor with the materials of creation, and even the greatest, “inestimable” gift of Christ himself, whose sacrifice we plead and the benefits of which we pray to receive. In short, it is what Augustine writes in book X of the City of God, regarding the unity of the body of Christ in history, the ecclesial Body of Christ, and the eucharistic body of the sacrament, whose relationships we sever to our detriment.

Yet, fourth, we discover precisely here one of the initial keys to assessing Ruth Meyers’s revision of Mitchell. She deletes this whole discussion in her revision and instead quotes Bryan Spinks, in his article critiquing Cranmer:

[A]ny offering which does take place is bound up with the one sacrifice of Christ, and the relationship Christians have with Christ through baptism. When the mind of the church is focused on that one complete offering of Christ, the very last thing needed theologically is immediately beforehand, God to be offered bread and wine as representing human life. (Meyers, Praying Shapes Believing, p. 167).

Two counterpoints immediately come to my mind:

  1. Christians have historically emphasized at the same time that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, but (simultaneously) that we are also called to offer a sacrifice that includes ourselves but also (simultaneously) that does not imply the insufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.
  2. It seems fitting and appropriate to ritualize the fact that the people are joining in the eucharistic offering (in all its complexity): not only that they offer the whole rite along with the priest (even the supposedly “clericalist” Roman Canon speaks of “all here present … who offer up to You this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”), but that they are offering themselves and everything God has given to them back to God as an act of praise and thanksgiving.

Fifth, what is perhaps most strange is that neither Mitchell nor Meyers speak much at all regarding the explicit act of offering the bread and wine as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (in continuity with all “the ancient fathers,” whom Cranmer bids his readers study in the Preface to the 1549 English BCP). Mitchell’s section on Eucharistic Sacrifice (which Meyers leaves intact) never addresses it.

Sixth, note that in Dix’s scheme, the Eucharistic Prayer comes under the heading of “blessing,” which points us in the direction of consecrating, etc. But it seems unwise to boil down all that is happening in the eucharistic prayer so that only one verb serves as it’s organizing principle (“bless”). Both Greek and Latin traditions used other terms to refer to the Eucharist, and a primary one was not “bless” but referred to an act of offering: anaphora (Greek) and oblation (Latin).[1]

Dix led us astray. He was right that oblation is central to the Eucharistic action, an oblation offered not just by the priest but the whole assembled congregation. And he (and Mitchell) are correct that this aspect of the Eucharist deserves ritual expression. Where Dix went awry was by (a) falsely arguing that all the ancient rites have this act of oblation centered in the “offertory,” rather than within the eucharistic prayer and (b) suggesting that modern Christians should follow this imagined historical precedent. Because of this, Mitchell and Meyers have both extended energy on a largely empty debate.

The 1979 BCP provided a gift for the church by rubrically requiring a ritualization of the people’s offering as the altar is prepared. To call this “Pelagian” (as Michael Ramsey famously did) is somewhat bewildering, unless the Eucharist and Baptism are also Pelagian. We can never separate any of our actions in the Eucharist from this truth: it is always Christ who offers us and himself to the Father, uniting our action to his, such that they are inseparable. The Body of Christ that is the Church and the Sacrament can never be severed from the incarnate and glorified Christ. Our sacrifice is always through, with, and in Christ and his own self-offering, which (as Chrysostom says) is inexhaustible.

Prayers of offering during the “offertory” need not be problematic if (a) there remains a clear oblation of the gifts in the eucharistic prayer, (b) if we also remember that liturgy works on the created, material plane and is thus suited to human creatures. In other words, all the actions of the Eucharist cannot take place simultaneously. They must (as Maurice de la Taille put it) be “distended in time” for our take.

A small plea in closing for now the topic of liturgical understanding and revision: If we ever make any changes to the Rite II prayers of the 1979 BCP, can we please restore Cranmer’s greatest liturgical contribution, an expression that is at once patristic, Catholic, and Reformed?

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him (1979 BCP, p. 336).

*“This essay benefited tremendously from a lengthy conversation with the Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings  about Dix and the strengths and weaknesses of his work. Any mistakes and missteps herein, however, belong entirely to me.” 

Footnotes

[1] Other terms in the West: Prex (The Prayer), prex mystica (The Mystical Prayer), oratio (The Prayer), prex canonica (The Canonical [i.e. fixed] Prayer), canon (The Fixed [Prayer]), praedicatio (The Proclamation), praedicatio canonis (The Fixed Proclamation), and canon actionis (The Fixed Action), eucharistia (The Eucharist/Thanksgiving), oratio oblationis (The Prayer of Oblation), oblatio sarificii (The Oblationary Sacrifice/Sacrifical Offering), and actio sacrificii (The Sarifical Action), and mysteria (The Mysteries).

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver is Assistant Professor of Liturgics & Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, a doctoral student at Marquette University, and assists at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee, WI. A priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, he was assistant rector at Church of the Incarnation (Dallas) from 2006-13, where he oversaw her worship life and adult formation. A graduate of Wheaton College (B.A., English literature) and Duke University Divinity School (M.Div.), Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism. He is pleased to have an essay, “Documented Ecumenism: Why the Anglican Covenant is the Hope for Anglicanism and its Ecumenical Calling,” in Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant, ed. by Benjamin Guyer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

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