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‘Take, eat’: The Confusion of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament

“Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is weird and wonderful,” Andrew Petiprin wrote on Covenant in September 2016. “It is good for your soul and part of our Anglican heritage. Be not afraid.” Paul Nesta went further in the same year, explaining that the whole of our Christian vocation in the world can be understood in terms through Benediction.

I have continued to ponder these essays and the topic of Benediction. My own fear is that Benediction is a practice that risks confusion and implies things that appear to run contrary to our profession. I am, despite that, usually hesitant to say anything about it, as it is precious to a good many Anglicans. Perhaps this is merely adiaphora, an indifferent matter on which we need not waste our time arguing. Nevertheless, it remains true that, in my reading, the historic formularies proscribe it and that from the time of the Reformation down to the late 19th century almost all Anglicans opposed practices like it in the strongest possible terms. For me this raises the question, Why? Considering this, I think that, whether or not one ultimately agrees with it, the classical Anglican position warrants a fair hearing.

I turn first to the Articles of Religion and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This approach requires some explanation. I maintain that these are the common ground for Anglicans. The Church of England aimed to be a comprehensive church; differing parties have existed within her from the beginning; the 1662 prayer book and Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion  served as instruments of unity within a comprehensive church. Wherever the Church of England planted daughter churches throughout the world, the 1662 Prayer Book and the Articles were constitutive expressions of their identity. Although Anglican bodies throughout the world have since diverged in various ways, and different kinds of Anglicanisms have emerged, I think it fair to look to the 1662 prayer book and Articles in order to describe classical Anglicanism, recognizing of course that this is not exhaustive of Anglicanism. Therefore, to understand the classical Anglican position on Eucharistic Adoration, I turn first to Article XXV (Of the Sacraments), which states:

The Sacraments are not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

Article XXVIII (Of the Lord’s Supper) uses similar language: “to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ” and “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten … only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.”

I have marked the subjective or active language to highlight (A) the focus on reception, toward acts of faith; (B) that the article defines the sacrament as the whole activity, not the consecrated elements in isolation; (C) that it flatly denies — with the word only— that the body and blood can be received at all apart from the “lively faith“ of those doing the acts of giving, taking, and eating.

The proscription concluding this same article echoes Article XXV and follows from the way the sacrament is defined. The consecrated bread and wine — the holy signs — are not to be “carried about, lifted up, or worshipped” because the sacrament of Communion in Christ’sbody and blooddoes not consist simply of the consecrated objects but necessarily involves the faithful subject who receives them, in obedience to his institution, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

To argue along the lines of Tract 90 that the article leaves a loophole by saying merely that the sacrament was “not ordained of Christ to be” rather than “it must not be” misses the point: “that we should duly use them,” i.e., in accordance with the dominical institution. That approach separates a clause from the whole argument of the article. The proscription against elevation, procession, and reservation of the consecrated bread makes clear that this focus on receiving — on doing what the Verba Domini enjoin — is the whole point. Faithful reception is so much the focus that replacing that drama — “give, take, eat” — with some other kind of drama — “carried about, lifted up, or worshipped” — must be explicitly proscribed.

The article does not, however, suggest that the consecrated elements are not to be handled with reverence. Article XXIX (Of the Wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper) warns that the unfaithful “to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing”; i.e., what the unfaithful eat and drink is able to harm them regardless of whether they perceive it as capable of doing so. They profane the holy, i.e., that set apart by prayer and the Holy Ghost for a specific divine purpose. But, the Article continues, “in no wise are they partakers of Christ,” meaning that only those who perceive with “lively faith” will receive the body and blood of Christ through the vehicle of the consecrated bread and wine.

The 1662 Order for Holy Communion aligns with the Articles; the language of the prayer of consecration matches the Article: “grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.” It does not say that the bread and wine are simply made into the body and blood as such, but that we, by the action of receiving them, in obedience to the Verba Domini (“take, eat”) thereby (i.e., by duly receiving them) partake in his most holy body and blood.

As Hooker, in agreement with the Articles and 1662 prayer book, so aptly put the matter, “The bread and cup are his body and blood because they are causes instrumental upon the receipt whereof the participation of his body and blood ensueth” and “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.5).

The historic formularies are not an attempt to define the mystery, to box it in, or limit the ways in which the Lord Almighty in his absolute sovereignty can work in and through the material world, which he created for his pleasure. They are neither anti-incarnational nor anti-sacramental. Rather, the Articles and prayer book seek to handle the mysteries of our faith carefully and with reverence, to both affirm what the Scriptures reveal and to avoid saying anything about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that conflicts with other parts of Holy Scripture and the well-established doctrines of the Church. Thus, as Bishop Cosin explains,

Protestants dare not to be so curious, or presume to know more than is delivered by Scripture and antiquity: they, firmly believing the words of Christ, make the form of this sacrament to consist in the union of the thing signified with the sign, that is, the exhibition of the Body of Christ with the consecrated bread, still remaining bread: by divine appointment the two are made one; and, though this union be not natural, substantial, personal, or local, by their being one with one another, yet it is so straight and so true, that in eating the blessed bread, the true Body of Christ is given to us, and the names of the sign and thing signified are reciprocally changed,–what is proper to the Body is attributed to the bread, and what belongs only to the bread is affirmed of the Body, and both are united in time, though not in place. (Works, Vol. IV, p. 173).

What potential errors do the Articles and prayer book seek to avoid in how they teach us to talk about and practice the Lord’s Supper? I think they are these:

(I) to avoid sacrilege:

a. by denying Christ’s presence in the sacrament, as St. Paul said: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”;

b. by doing with things we have consecrated something other than that for which they were consecrated unto God; for in the consecration the petition is “grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood”;

c. by disobedience in doing with the sacramental bread and wine something other than what Christ commanded; for the Sacrament is such only “according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution,” and, he commanded us, “Take, eat … Do this in remembrance of me”; as Hooker explains:

Sacraments serve as the instruments of God to that end and purpose, moral instruments, the use whereof is in our hands, the effect in his; for the use we have his express commandment, for the effect his conditional promise: so that without our obedience to the one, there is of the other no apparent assurance. (Laws V.57.5)

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes presses this point further, maintaining:

The carrying about of the sacrament is contrary to the precept of Christ, nor does Scripture anywhere support it. It is contrary to the institution, for as the sacrifice was instituted that it should be consumed, so the sacrament that it should be received and eaten, not that it should be reserved and carried about. Beyond the design of the sacrament, beyond the force of the command no use of it exists. Let that be done which Christ willed to be done when He said, ‘Do this’; let nothing remain which the priest may exhibit out of the pyx, and the people adore. (Quoted in John Dowden, Outlines of the History of the Theological Literature of the Church of England from the Reformation to the Close of the 18th Century, p. 91)

(II) to avoid blasphemy by making a liar of Christ and his apostles:

a. by denying his words at the Institution (“this is my Body which is given for you”);

b. by denying his further words and the witness of his apostles that Christ “ascended into Heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty” and that he told them he would not be with them again until his return in glory, except through the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. Jeremy Taylor draws out the implication of this,

Christ’s natural body is now in heaven definitively, and no where else; and that he is in the sacrament as he can be in a sacrament, in the hearts of faithful receivers, as he hath promised to be there; that is, in the sacrament mystically, operatively, as in a moral and divine instrument, in the hearts of receivers by faith and blessing; this is the truth and the faith of which we are to give a reason and account to them that disagree. (Works IX, p. 481).

(III) to avoid heresy:

a. by denying the truth of Christ’s human nature;

b. or mixing it with his Divine nature;

c. or severing his Divine and Human nature from each other;

(IV) to avoid idolatry by confusing the holy signs with the Divine Person signified by them: as Article XXV puts it,

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him…

Therefore, to show reverence for the witness when it is among us, for it is among us in obedience to divine institution is surely right (thus, kneeling to receive Communion, as the Black Rubric explains); to adore the witness, on the other hand, is to risk confusion. Perhaps a comparison to another, lesser degree of witness in the Scriptures could be helpful. Angels are witnesses and often in the scriptures serves as the messengers of the divine Word and the instruments of grace; nevertheless, despite appearing in awful splendor, the angel said to St. John when he prostrated himself before him in holy fear, “See thou do it not!”

Bishop Jewel, in his Apology of the Church of England, calls eucharistic adoration “Idolatrous and Blasphemous.” Though these are very strong words, they are not unrepresentative. Bishop Beveridge, in his Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, elaborates on this charge more fully and with greater generosity:

[N]o person or thing, under any pretense whatsoever, ought to be worshiped besides God. I know it is not bare bread our adversaries say they worship, but Christ in the bread, or the bread in the name of Christ. But I wish them to consider what Gregory Nyssen long ago said, ‘He that worshippeth a creature, though he do it in the name of Christ, is an idolater, giving the name of Christ to an idol.’ And therefore, let them not be angry at us for concluding them to be idolaters… and for asserting that the sacrament ought not to be reserved, carried about, or worshipped. (1830 reprint, pp. 512-513)

I do not deny that varying views of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper have prevailed among Anglicans. But the historic formularies — the 1662 prayer book most especially — are not the property of low churchmen meant to hang as an anchor against the billowing sails of high churchmen. Rather, they are the common ground for Anglicans, the ample space of the generous spirit of our beloved tradition, which does not seek to compel anything in public worship beyond what the Scriptures authorize and most ancient Fathers confirm. Prior to the late 19th-century Ritualist movement, eucharistic adoration was not a dividing line between parties. The old High Church party did not advocate the practice of eucharistic adoration; as shown above, Andrewes, Taylor, and Beveridge alike opposed it.

The Oxford Movement, of course, reopened old controversies about the doctrine of the Eucharist. Many Anglo-Catholics today now openly embrace the practice and present it as a soundly Anglican one. In this, however, they stray far from the caution of the irenic cofounder of the movement, E.B. Pusey.

Pusey sincerely subscribed to the Articles of Religion and never strayed beyond the language of the Book of Common Prayer in describing the sacrament or leading public worship. The second phase of the Anglo-Catholic movement advocated rituals unknown to the Prayer Book. Pusey thought it best to follow the advice of Bishop Beveridge:

Keep close to the words [our church] uses in her Articles and common prayers; by this means you will have a right judgment in all things, and hold fast the form of sound words indeed. By this means you will be secure from heresy, and entertain no doctrine but what is Catholic and Orthodox.

This advice, I contend, could continue to be an instrument of unity among Anglicans today.

There is nothing more holy in the worship of the Church than to come to the Lord’s Table to duly receive the holy mysteries. We who are compelled to adore the Lord, who long to enjoy the sweetness of communion with him, and seek assurance that he evermore dwells in us and we in him, let us come to the Table, as he has bidden us, to take and eat. As Bishop Lancelot Andrewes said,

How shall we receive Him? Who shall give Him us? That shall One that will say unto us within a while, Accipite, “Take, this is My body,” “by the offering whereof ye are sanctified,” “Take, this is My blood,” by the shedding whereof ye are saved. Both in the holy mysteries ordained by God as pledges to assure us and as conduit pipes to convey into us this and all other the benefits that come by this our Saviour. (Works I, 83).

That which our Lord has ordained for his disciples to do in perpetual memory of him is more than sufficient for us to savor the sweetness of his most holy presence.

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.


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