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What Happens in Communion?

July 27, 2018

First, let me thank everyone who sent in questions the last two weeks to help me find topics for these e-news blurbs.  I got some great questions about "churchy" things, and I look forward to answering them over the next couple of months (and if you have a question you'd like to submit, please feel free to keep sending them!).

Many of the questions I received had to do with how we understand the Eucharist (aka "Holy Communion", aka "the Mass") and more specifically what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharistic prayer.  There are many variations in how different Christian traditions understand what happens during Holy Communion, but there are four approaches that are the most common.

Transubstantiation refers to the idea that the bread and the wine are transformed in their substance and become truly the Body and truly the Blood of Christ.  Consubstantiation is the belief that the bread and the wine somehow remain both bread/wine AND become the Body and the Blood of Christ at the same time.  Real Presenceis another observance which says that Christ is really present in some way in the Eucharist but is unspecific as to how.  And Anamnesis (the Greek word for "remembering") is a theology that says when we celebrate Communion we are strictly remembering Jesus (as he asked us to at the Last Supper) and there is no change in the bread and wine.

So which one do Episcopalians believe?  

If you like clear answers, then I'm about to frustrate you.  

One of the hallmarks of the Anglican tradition (of which the Episcopal Church is the American branch) is that the Book of Common Prayer leads us all to pray with the same words, but those words may mean somewhat different things to each of us.  Our unity comes from our life of prayer together, not from strict adherence to a series of doctrinal statements.  So when it comes to Communion, many Anglicans find affinity with an ancient phrase from the Orthodox churches - that we maintain a "pious silence about technicalities."

In other words, some things are meant to be a mystery.

That may be a frustrating answer to some.  But I think the prayer book offers guidance in the words clergy are instructed to say when giving someone Communion: "The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven."  I hope that phrase makes space for people all along the spectrum of beliefs about the Eucharist.  If you believe it's the Body, there's room for that.  If you believe it's bread, there's room for that too.  If you believe it's both, excellent!  There's room for you as well.

These are the kinds of questions that seminarians stay up all night debating with one another, and this little e-news message certainly can't bear the weight of two thousand years of debate on this topic, but I hope it gives folks a place to start.  And considering that our gospel readings for the next several Sundays are all about Jesus and bread, I suspect there is much more discussion on the Eucharist to come.

See you Sunday,


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