By John Bauerschmidt
Thomas Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist has been much debated over the years. Its notions of consecration, presence, and sacrifice have all received scrutiny. This interest is not simply scholarly or historical. Though Cranmer’s beliefs about the sacrament have never set the boundaries for eucharistic doctrine among Anglicans, his liturgical texts have remained influential. As the principal author of the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer, his views remain of continuing interest to those who worship in the prayer book tradition.
The Reformed nature of Cranmer’s theology seems indisputable, but this simple statement does not get at the heart of the matter. Cranmer can be understood in relation to other Reformers of the period, like Luther, Calvin, or Bucer, as building upon or modifying their work; he can also be seen as a theologian in his own right, an original with his own system. Cranmer was also a theologian who was in dialogue with the great tradition of earlier writers, a Reformer who carried forward earlier themes. These approaches to his theology and its sources are not mutually exclusive.
One aspect of Cranmer’s eucharistic rite when he is in dialogue with the earlier tradition is in its use of the related themes of the mutual indwelling of the believer and Christ, and the incorporation of believers together in Christ. Four instances from Rite I of the 1979 prayer book, with their origins in the 1549 Prayer Book, may be cited. Even after Cranmer’s substantial revision of 1552, all but the first continued to find a place in prayer books, up to and including the 1662 prayer book used in the Colonies at the time of the Revolution, and still in use today in the Church of England.
The first is drawn from the Canon in the 1549 prayer book as a supplication for the communicants: “that we … may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ … and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” The italicized words entered the American Prayer Book tradition in 1789, a recovery of 1549. Then a second text, from the so-called Prayer of Humble Access: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”
Third, from the Prayer after Communion and before the final blessing: “and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people.” Finally, from an Exhortation addressed to communicants, one of several Cranmer composed for 1549, a version of which survives in 1979: “For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.”
These related themes of mutual indwelling and incorporation find their scriptural anchor in the Gospel of John, with an assist from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:55-56). However the eucharistic implications of John’s Gospel may be understood, Cranmer associates the idea of mutual indwelling with the reception of Holy Communion. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Again, however the body St. Paul refers to may be construed, Cranmer connects incorporation into Christ’s body the Church with the faithful member’s partaking in the Eucharist. The communicant dwells in Christ, and Christ in the communicant, and the communicants are one with each other through their union with Christ.
With his emphasis on mutual indwelling and incorporation through the Eucharist, Cranmer carries forward themes from earlier writers. St. Hilary, for instance, in explicating the doctrine of the Trinity, turned to the text from John’s Gospel. “As to the verity of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt. For now both from the declaration of the Lord himself and our own faith, it is verily flesh and verily blood. And these when eaten and drunk, bring it to pass that both we are in Christ and Christ in us” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity VIII.14.).
In his work against Nestorius, St. Cyril also cites the sixth chapter of John, and then turns to First Corinthians.
And as the body of the Word himself is life-giving, he having made it his own by a true union passing understanding and language; so we too who partake of his holy Flesh and Blood, are quickened in all respects and wholly, the Word dwelling in us divinely through the Holy Ghost, humanly again through his holy flesh and precious blood. The most holy Paul will confirm the truth of what I said, writing thus to those in Corinth who believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, “I speak as to wise men, judge ye what I say, 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? For one bread one body are we who are many, for we all are partakers of one bread.” For having partaken of the Holy Ghost, we are made one both with Christ himself the Saviour of all and with one another: we are of the same body in this way, that we being many are one bread one body, for we all are partakers of the one bread. For the body of Christ which is in us binds us together into unity and is in no way divided. (Cyril of Alexandria, Against Nestorius IV)
Finally, this prayer of supplication in the Prayer from the Liturgy of St. Basil carries forward this emphasis into the liturgy. “Unite with one another all of us who partake of the one bread and the cup into fellowship with the one Holy Spirit; and make none of us to partake of the holy body and blood of your Christ for judgement or for condemnation” (Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, R.C.D. Jasper and G.J. Cuming, eds. [Pueblo, 1987], p. 120).
We cannot simply identify Cranmer’s eucharistic doctrine with that of Hilary or Cyril, of course, even as we find echoes of the earlier writers. Yet we should not ignore the element of reappropriation on the part of a theologian who was in dialogue with the earlier tradition. Cranmer did this is concert with others, following the lead of both Bucer and Calvin, who each deployed the theme of mutual indwelling in their Reformed liturgies of the years before 1549 (Ibid., pp. 207, 217). The persistence of the themes points toward continuity that is often underestimated in accounts of the period.
The themes of mutual indwelling and incorporation have fared unevenly in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. While the emphasis remains in Rite I, the themes have been much muted in Rite II. Both of the post-Communion prayers have reference to the communicants being “living members” of Christ, and Prayer D has its own version of the petition from the Liturgy of St. Basil: “Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your Name.” Prayer C has this: “Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” These themes from Cranmer’s liturgy are still present, though they have far less prominence today.
Whatever we make of Cranmer’s teaching on the Eucharist, the themes of mutual indwelling and incorporation in Christ in his liturgical texts have theological significance. In short, the mystery of Christ’s body in the Eucharist is, at the same time, also the mystery of the Church’s unity. These themes are ripe for recovery in preaching and teaching. As the Church looks to the next generation of liturgies, these scriptural themes invite a fuller reappropriation. They don’t so much bypass questions of consecration, presence, and sacrifice as open doors to deeper reflection, as the gospel is proclaimed and the Church’s liturgy is prayed.