The St Andrew Declaration: A Shared History and a Shared Faith?

This is an article commissioned by the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal and published in the Journal’s Spring 2022 issue. The journal is an academic periodical not a publicity sheet so it wanted a rigorous and critical reading of the St Andrew Declaration by scholars and clergy from the Episcopalian and Presbyterian Churches. The Declaration is still contentious as at the June General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, while it was mentioned positively on a couple of occasions by those involved in it, one of our Bishops said it had introduced an unhelpful ambiguity into relations with the Church of Scotland as Ministers of that Church had derived from it the incorrect notions that our two Churches are in full communion and that a Presbyterian Minster of Word and Sacrament and an Episcopalian Priest are the same.

I thus stand by what I have written below and hope that future relations with our friends and colleagues in the Church of Scotland are marked by a greater honesty and love. Good relations are already here, my Church is planning children’s events in the summer with Cramond Kirk down the road, the service sheets for my Sunday service are printed by Davidson’s Mains Parish Church where members of my congregation volunteer in their cafe, and I have just had birthday wishes from many friends who are Church of Scotland Ministers. I suspect that the document produced by the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the St Margaret Declaration, is a better model for working together as it does not include historical and theological ambiguity and errors. I do, however, suspect that this sort of institutional ecumenism is largely irrelevant to the mission of our Churches in an increasingly secular Scotland. My article begins below, after a downloadable pdf of the article in the SEI Journal.

The St Andrew Declaration (SAD), which was signed by the leaders of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh on St Andrew’s Day in 2021, commits the two Churches to working together. It makes a mutual recognition of elements of Catholic unity in the faith and order of the two Churches while acknowledging that they are not in full communion.[1] Like many others in ministry in Scotland in our two Churches, I have friends in the other Church. I studied at undergraduate and postgraduate level with those who are now Ministers and even taught some of them at New College in Edinburgh. Socially our two Churches are intertwined and I am surely not alone in sometimes feeling closer spiritually and theologically to Ministers of the other Church than I do to some in my own. I might even, occasionally, agree with the Anglican novelist Rose Macaulay who wrote in 1953, ‘How nice it would be if each Church were to publish a pamphlet full of compliments to the other! Why should there be all this ill-feeling?’[2]

There are, however, fundamental differences in faith and order between our two Churches which were reflected in the less than fulsome welcome given to SAD when it was adopted at the 2021 General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church.[3] If SAD is to be anything more than ineffective mutual niceness between ecumenists, these differences and hesitations suggest that it needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny. I will do so from the perspective of history and historical theology and will make some suggestions as to how effective ecumenism might be done. The Lord prayed that we might all be one and this unity in our differences must be a reality rooted in honesty not a polite pretence based on falsehood.

The Preamble

The preamble is not part of the Declaration proper and it has two parts, one giving the historical background of the Churches and the other a description of the bilateral conversations of the Our Common Calling Working Group out of which it arose. The preamble says of the Group that, ‘in the course of our discussions we have acknowledged our shared history and have named past conflicts’. The problem is that the Churches in Scotland do not have a shared history but rather a series of conflicting denominational histories which I and others have explored and unveiled.[4] This historical sectarianism was first seriously undermined using modern historical scholarship by the Roman Catholic historians of the Scottish Catholic Historical Association and this task has been continued in the secular history faculties of modern Scotland and elsewhere. [5] Episcopalian – Presbyterian ecumenism has thus contributed little to a more accurate understanding of the ecclesiastical history of Scotland, whereas those who were deliberately excluded and those professionally detached from Christianity have contributed most. The legacy of the old sectarian history has, however, survived and is found in the preamble to SAD. It is unfortunate that a document that aims to reconcile Scotland’s Churches begins by perpetuating sectarianism.

The second sentence of the Preamble is: ‘For over a century following the Reformation, the church in Scotland, and Scotland’s monarch, wrestled over the order of the church: was it to be Presbyterian or Episcopalian?’ This seems a straightforward historical statement but it contains evidence of that sectarianism, so deeply rooted in Scottish society, which in 1999 the composer James Macmillan called ‘Scotland’s shame’.[6] To speak of ‘the Reformation’ in a Scottish context is a common popular way of speaking of the events of 1559-60 and it is clear that this is what the authors intend here. To do this, however, is to adopt a sectarian Protestant, and particularly Presbyterian, narrative which goes back to John Knox’s sixteenth-century ‘History of the Reformation in Scotland’. Historians speak of a ‘long reformation’ and there were in reality a series of attempts to reform the Church in Scotland including Catholic movements associated with Bishop Elphinstone, Cardinal Beaton and Archbishop Hamilton which explicitly used the language of ‘reformation’. ‘Reformation’ is thus not an exclusively Protestant activity. It can be argued that this Scottish Catholic Reformation continued after the political and religious coup of 1559-60 in the Catholic colleges on the continent. To say ‘the Reformation’ with reference to the Protestant coup is to make a sectarian statement cancelling the Catholic reform movements. That this was the (one hopes) unconscious prejudice of those who wrote the preamble to SAD is confirmed by the rest of this sentence. If someone writes that the church in Scotland after ‘the Reformation’ wrestled over whether to be Presbyterian or Episcopalian, it is clear that the author does not consider the large number of Scots who remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome after 1560 to be part of the ‘church in Scotland’ as they were clearly content to be neither of these options. Without explicitly saying that the Church of Rome is the Synagogue of Satan and the Pope is the Antichrist, it is unfortunate that the St Andrew Declaration begins by suggesting that Roman Catholics are not part of the Christian Church.

Serious ecumenism does not exclude a dialogue partner in this manner and nor does it misrepresent the history of one of the partners in the dialogue. As well as the double repetition of the smallness of the Episcopal Church (true but one wonders if it is necessary to mention it here), the preamble of SAD also claims that ‘English immigration saw the establishment of Qualified Chapels which used the English Liturgy’. This is not true as Qualified Chapels allowed Scottish Episcopalians to worship legally if they repudiated Jacobitism.[7] English people also worshipped in and established Qualified Chapels but the emphasis on Englishness here in the preamble is a hint of another aspect of Scottish sectarianism – the Presbyterian dismissal of Episcopalianism as ‘the English Kirk’.

It does not bode well for an ecumenical agreement if it begins with two major historical errors that reveal an underlying sectarianism. That two Churches which have many professional historians among their members could not avoid these errors, at least by having the text checked by experts in the field, does not reflect well on the seriousness of the endeavour.  I must declare an interest here as I pointed out these errors in an intervention at the 2021 General Synod, but no correction was made before SAD was signed by the Primus of the SEC and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the CofS. Although there may be procedural reasons for the lack of correction, that a means for the correction of factual error was not found does suggest that historical truth is not valued in the search for unity.

The Acknowledgements

One may attempt to dismiss error and hidden sectarianism in the preamble as not affecting the substance of the Declaration, and so it is worth looking at the Acknowledgements in section A. These confess a shared recognition that the essential elements of the Church of Christ are present in both Churches. They also recognize that the unity expressed in these elements is not sufficient and they look for a fuller unity which is qualified as ‘visible’. The Commitments in section B look to the future and in most cases reflect a partnership which is already active, especially at the local level, so the next part of this article will examine the affirmations of section A in the light of history.

I have a copy of a book by the non-juror Thomas Brett entitled The Divine Right of Episcopacy and the necessity of an Episcopal Commission for Preaching God’s Word and for the Valid Ministration of the Christian Sacraments proved from the Holy Scriptures and the Doctrine and Practice of the Primitive Church. Published in 1718 in London, this copy is covered in approving annotations by the Scottish Episcopalian Bishop, Alexander Jolly of Moray (1756-1838). This book teaches that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is not a true Church because it does not have an episcopate and thus has illicit preaching and no real sacraments. This was a common view in the SEC in the past, as seen in the (re)baptism of John Skinner (1721-1807) in 1740 when he moved from the CofS to the SEC.[8] This view of the Church is expressed in a positive form by the moving words of the 35 year old Episcopalian priest and martyr, Robert Lyon, before his execution at Penrith in 1746 for involvement in the Jacobite Rising:

I continue steadfastly and constantly in the faith of our holy persecuted Mother, the Church of Scotland[9] (in the which I have the honour to die a very unworthy Priest)… It is a Church national and independent of any other, and every, power on earth, happily governed by her own truly primitive Bishops, as so many spiritual princes presiding in their different Districts, and in them accountable to none but God for the administration of her discipline : a Church whose Creeds demonstrate her soundness in the Faith, and blest with a Liturgy (I mean the Scots Liturgy) compiled by her own Bishops, nigher to the primitive model than any other Church this day can boast of. . . In a word a Church very near resembling the purest ages, and which, after more than half-a-century groaning under persecution and mourning in her own ashes, but all the while distinguishing herself not less by forbearance and charity to her bitterest enemies than by standing to principles and Catholic Unity.[10]

Whether put positively or negatively, this view of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland contradicts all the affirmations in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of SAD. Such views are, however, rare or non-existent in the contemporary SEC. Today, helped by the twentieth-century ecumenical consensus that our unity is rooted in Baptism and the medieval recognition that lay people (including non-episcopally ordained ministers) can validly baptize, it is imperative for Episcopalians to recognize Presbyterians as being part of the one Catholic Church of Christ. For this, as for many things in contemporary Christianity even outside the Roman Church, the Second Vatican Council, and especially its decree on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, is decisive. For Presbyterians the visceral horror of episcopacy, originally seen as satanic[11], still survived into the twentieth century, as seen by the General Assembly’s rejection of various schemes for unity with the SEC.[12] This no longer results in denying the ecclesial nature of the SEC, although a residual prejudice against episcopacy does linger. There has even been a novelty among some Ministers who, transposing the criteria of authenticity from ministry to sexuality, deny the authenticity of churches like the SEC which marry same-sex couples. For most members of the CofS and SEC, however,  recognizing each other as part of the Catholic Church (SAD A.i) is not problematic, if we take the affirmation in SAD A.vi that our communion is ‘imperfect’ to mean that some elements of the Apostolic inheritance may still be missing.

Moving to A.ii we find a recognition that ‘our Churches share in the common confession of the Apostolic Faith’. Again, this is not a problem if we understand the Apostolic Faith as that which is handed on in the Bible and the Catholic Creeds and Councils. There is, however, one problem. This is the status of the Westminster Confession as a ‘subordinate standard’ of the CofS and a document still signed by every office holder in the CofS. The status of the Westminster Confession has been under discussion in the CofS for a long time and adherence to the Confession has been weakened.[13] It is thus to be hoped that this outdated Calvinist statement can be disowned as a contemporary confession of belief, and perhaps be relegated to a merely historical document along with the Scots Confession of 1560, preferred by early Episcopalians. Reformed theology has a place in Episcopalian history, John Forbes of Corse (1593-1648), one of the Aberdeen Doctors, worked within this framework, but Scottish Episcopalianism moved firmly away from Calvinism in the eighteenth century and it has no serious presence in the SEC today. There are today strictly confessional Reformed Presbyterian churches adhering firmly to the Westminster Confession and they deserve respect, but the Church of Scotland must decide whether it is primarily of their number or a part of the Catholic Church with a Reformed heritage but not demanding assent to early modern Protestant statements of faith. I suspect that the latter is the view of many Ministers today and that, if a serious proposal for institutional unity is made, Episcopalians would only entertain unity with a Church holding this view. It is good to note that the 2021 General Assembly has asked the Theological Forum of the CofS to consider a way forward and that the Forum’s preferred option is an assent to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the basic statement of faith in the First Article Declaratory, with the Westminster Confession relegated to a separate collection of historical confessions.[14]

Sections A.iii, iv and v of SAD touch on the ‘outstanding issues hindering full communion’ mentioned in B.iv. A.iii claims that both sides ‘acknowledge that in our churches the Word of God is authentically preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are faithfully administered’. This is based on a Reformed version of the marks of the true Church which is found in Calvin and the 39 Articles of the Church of England and, with the addition of church discipline, in classical Calvinism.[15] The statement that ‘the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are faithfully administered’ can be understood in a number of different ways but, from an Episcopalian and ecumenical perspective, it is not unequivocally true of the CofS.

One of the great achievements of twentieth century ecumenism was a mutual recognition of the validity of Baptism in the various churches. Few today would doubt the authenticity of baptisms in the CofS or SEC, but a recent paper from the CofS Theological Forum concerning ministry in lockdown published on the official CofS website proposes a method of baptism which, to one formed in classical theology, does not seem to be a faithful administration of the sacrament.[16] It suggests that Baptism may be administered remotely with a Minister on screen blessing the water and saying the baptismal formula (the ‘form’ of the sacrament in traditional theology) while someone else pours the water (the ‘matter’ of the sacrament). I have noted elsewhere that ‘from a Catholic position this is not possible as, while anyone can baptize someone and the water does not need to be blessed, this separation of the ‘matter’ and ‘form’ of the sacrament drives a wedge into the heart of the sacrament’.[17] It can thus be argued that this practice commended by the CofS is not a faithful administration of the sacrament of baptism.

Another problem with baptism in the Church of Scotland, from an ecumenical perspective, can be seen in a comparison of the SEC and CofS Baptism rites. The SEC 2006 rite says ‘the president immerses the candidate in the water, or pours the water upon the candidate’. The Order for Holy Baptism in Common Order 1994, 2005 edition, says ‘the minister pours or sprinkles water on each candidate’s head’, two options for the administration of the sacrament which go back to chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession, ‘dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person’.[18] In Christian history the sprinkling of water is a relatively recent development. I suspect that its use in Protestantism may be a result of discussions in late medieval scholasticism on the minimum required for the validity of a sacrament, as in many ways classical Protestantism contains fossilised elements of late medieval piety and devotion. The use of sprinkling in baptism is, however, serious as it is seen by some churches as invalid: as not actually baptising someone. The Greek Orthodox Bishop, Kallistos of Diokleia, said plainly, ‘Baptism by sprinkling or smearing is quite simply not real Baptism at all’.[19] While abuses can happen in all churches, these two official statements raise the question of whether, in an ecumenical context, the sacrament of Baptism is faithfully administered in the Church of Scotland.[20]

There can be little doubt that the sacrament of Holy Communion is faithfully administered in the CofS according to its own principles, or at least it is for members of that Church to make judgements here. The affirmation in A.iii, however, which begins with ‘We’ and is offered in the name of both Churches, implies that Holy Communion in these two Churches is essentially the same thing. History and practice show is not the case. An Orthodox friend who has attended many Western services recently said that, to the outsider, the SEC Eucharist and CofS Communion look like completely different activities. Up to the present a Church of Scotland Minister needs to be ordained by a Bishop to preside at the Eucharist in an Anglican Church (except in certain defined local ecumenical partnerships but even here there is no suggestion that the general rules is changed). This suggests that the Eucharist celebrated before and after this ordination are two different things in at least some ways (otherwise there would be no need for the ordination). While many members of the two Churches may see their Ministers as interchangeable and equivalent, this is not the case and the officially stated Eucharistic doctrine of the two Churches is clearly different.

We can see this in practice by looking at the Liturgy and practice of the Scottish Episcopal Church in three areas: real presence, eucharistic sacrifice and reservation of the blessed sacrament. There are a wide variety of views held by members of the SEC on the Eucharist but the Scottish Liturgy clearly prays that the Father may send the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine ‘that it may be the body and blood of your Son’. The Westminster Confession 29.5 and 6 explicitly denies that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ except in name only (‘they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent’), another link between Protestantism and late medieval theology, in this case sacramental nominalism. The Scottish Liturgy also clearly says that the bread and wine are offered as a sacrifice by explicitly applying to them the language of offering, ‘we offer you these gifts’ (1982 Scottish Liturgy). This phrase which comes from the mid-eighteenth century addition of the words ‘which we now offer unto thee’ to the Scottish Liturgy to express common Episcopalian teaching that the Eucharist is a sacrifice.  The 1986 ‘Declaratory Act anent the Westminster Confession of Faith’ dissociated the CofS from Westminster Confession 29.2 which clearly teaches that there is no sacrifice in the sacrament, only a commemoration of Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and our sacrifice of praise. The Act, however, concerned teaching offensive to Roman Catholics and did not commit the CofS to Roman Catholic teaching on the Papacy, the sacrifice of the Mass or monastic vows, thus the teaching against the eucharistic sacrifice remains while the offensive language is repudiated. While there is some interesting work being done now on the eucharistic sacrifice in Reformed theology, this work admits that this is quite untypical of Reformed sacramental discourse.[21]

The clear and official teaching of the SEC on the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine and on the sacrifice of the Eucharist as a part of the earthly liturgy are thus either not held by the Reformed Church of Scotland or expressly repudiated by it in its ‘subordinate standard’. As a result of its teaching on the real presence of Christ in the elements, for centuries the SEC has reserved the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist for communion outside the Liturgy.[22] This is also condemned by the Westminster Confession, 29.4, as is communion for the laity in the form of bread alone, something the SEC has done during the current pandemic with little objection. The CofS and SEC thus have very different theologies of the Eucharist which are expressed in very different eucharistic practice. Although I have taken part in eucharistic liturgies from the CofS Book of Common Order celebrated in a very Catholic Anglican manner, I suspect that Episcopalian teaching on the real presence and sacrifice of the Eucharist and our practice of reservation of the sacrament would not be welcome in most Church of Scotland parishes.

The Scoto-Catholic movement in the CofS and its expression in church architecture brought Presbyterian and Episcopalian eucharistic worship closer together. Scottish Calvinism also has its own high doctrine of the Eucharist, with a strong affirmation of Christ’s spiritual presence and denial that the bread and wine are simply bare signs, but the problem here is that SAD A.iii makes the phrase ‘faithfully administered’ do too much work. From an Episcopalian point of view Presbyterian Holy Communion is faithfully administered if it is according to the teaching and practice of the CofS, but it is not faithfully administered if looked at from an Anglican and Catholic perspective. To this observer, the teaching of the Westminster Confession and the popular Protestantism found in both our churches is not faithful to Scripture and Christian tradition in general and it simply reflects the misunderstanding of the sacrament present in the Reformed tradition under the influence of decadent late-medieval scholasticism. Is this divergence, though, merely a question of the limits of comprehension? The SEC is in communion with the CofE which excludes the idea of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice from its liturgies and has a place for Reformed eucharistic theology in its mainstream.[23] Is it an indifferent matter, such as the frequency of Holy Communion, usually celebrated less frequently in Presbyterian churches, another relic from late-medieval devotion? Does modern ecumenical sacramental theology mean that these divisions can be overcome? These questions need to be picked up elsewhere but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the affirmation of A.iii, despite its roots in previous ecumenical work, is studied ambiguity masking fundamental divergence.    

A.iv and A.v similarly skate over the differences concerning holy orders and pick up themes from decades of ecumenical discussions. These two clauses are hard to disagree with, particularly as they contribute little to overcoming or reconciling the obvious differences in Church Order centred on the office of a Bishop and the lack of a Catholic theology of holy orders in Presbyterianism. It would be hard today to say Christ and the Spirit are absent from the Presbyterian ministry, although one strand in Anglican teaching, found in Thomas Brett’s book mentioned above and present in the SEC in the eighteenth century, would say just that. Three other main approaches to the necessity of the episcopate may be found in historic Anglicanism: that associated with Archbishop John Whitgift (1530-1604) where God has given no command as to how the Church be ordered and local circumstances should dictate the best solution; that associated with Archbishop Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) and Richard Hooker (1554-1600) which holds that the episcopate is clearly God’s plan for the Church but it would survive without it; and that associated with Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) and his followers whereby it is essential, a view behind the restoration of the Scottish episcopal succession from England in 1610 and 1662.[24] These suggest Anglican ways of understanding and even valuing Presbyterian polity, but we are not tied to early modern theology. SAD A.v picks up a number of modern ecumenical developments to say that ‘personal, collegial and communal oversight (episkope) is embodied and exercised in our churches in a variety of forms, as a visible sign expressing and serving the Church’s unity and continuity in apostolic life, ministry and mission’. It is not hard for an Episcopalian to see this oversight exercised by Presbytery and the General Assembly or for a Presbyterian to see a collective oversight in Episcopalian Synods. This is reflected in modern ecumenical agreements such as the Porvoo Agreement and the modern Anglican theology found in the Church of England’s 1994 House of Bishops Occasional Paper ‘Apostolicity and Succession’ which can see an ‘apostolic succession’ in faith and order apart from the succession of bishops.[25]

One problem here is that this is an Episcopalian interpretation of Presbyterianism in the light of Christian tradition and ecumenical agreement. There is in at least parts of the Church of Scotland a functionalist theology of ministry which has no place for that Catholic and Anglican sacramental teaching on the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons which is found in the Canons and Ordinal of the SEC.[26] Deeper study of the theology of ministry is required, particularly of the nature of ordination and the status of elders. Are a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament and an Episcopalian Presbyter (Priest) the same thing? Is a Presbyterian Elder (Presbyter) the same as an Episcopalian Presbyter? Do these questions matter? I would answer No, No, Yes. At present it is clear there is no equivalence between the two ministerial polities, at least from the SEC side. SAD A.iv and v could thus also be seen as studied ambiguity masking fundamental divergence. Ecumenical advances here do make the phrases potentially less confusing, but again the CofS faces a choice. Does it remain a clearly Protestant Church, akin to the independent Evangelical churches that are springing up around Scotland, or does it follow the Anglican and Porvoo model and, on the basis of the ecumenical discussions of the last century, become an inclusive national or local church like the Church of England, the Church of Sweden and the Church of South India. I could, perhaps, formulate this dilemma better but it is clear that SAD again presents the CofS with a choice and only one option involves closer union (as opposed to cooperation) with the SEC.  

 What are those behind the St Andrews Declaration up to?        

There have been years of cooperation between the SEC and CofS, why has this document been produced now? It has its origin in the bilateral ‘Our Common Calling Group’ established in 2016 in the wake of the 2015 Columba Declaration between the CofS and CofE, which upset many in the SEC and provoked an apology to the SEC by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is thus the product of a minor crisis in relations. In a longer perspective SAD comes at the end of a long series of failed attempts at institutional union by the two Churches, noted in the section above on bishops. This culminated in the failure of the Scottish Churches Initiative for Union (SCIFU), rejected by the General Assembly of the CofS in 2003. SCIFU gave birth in 2010 to EMU, an agreement far short of institutional unity between the remaining SCIFU partners, Episcopalian, Methodist, and United Reformed. SAD, which is very close in wording to the Columba Declaration, may be seen as an attempt at a more modest and realistic form of ecumenical cooperation. It may also be seen by some as the last gasp of an old ecclesio-bureaucratic way of managing relations between denominations. It begins with bilateral conversations in a working group, formed in the wake of a different set of bilateral conversations, and it ends by appointing co-chairs of another working group which will report annually to the Committee on Ecumenical Relations of the Church of Scotland and the Inter-church Relations Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Some have said that a pontifical High Mass in St Peter’s Basilica is a long way from the priorities of Jesus and the first disciples, but the same might easily be said of this ecclesio-bureaucracy.

On a deeper and more sociological level, SAD may be related to secularisation in Scotland and the current crisis in the CofS caused by the loss of its central place in Scottish society. This is reflected in the Church of Scotland’s loss of members, from 1,320,000 in 1957 to 325,700 in 2018, and in its loss of the allegiance of the Scottish people in general, of whom 42% claimed to be CofS in the 2001 census, 32% in that of 2011 and an estimate of 22% according to the 2018 Scottish Household Survey. Other Churches have seen decline, for example the SEC from 54,000 in 1994 to 28,600 in 2018 and the Free Church of Scotland from 15,500 in 1994 to 10,200 in 2016 (when 800 had relocated to the Free Church, Continuing). The crisis, however, does not seem to have bit as deep in these churches as they have less invested in their national position and their history has made a virtue of faithful smallness. One interpretation of this data is to see SAD as a desperate attempt by dying liberal Churches to cling together as they fade away. On this analysis the lack of doctrinal clarity in the Declaration would be an expression of indifference to Christian doctrine on the part of those to whom it doesn’t really matter. If that is the case, perhaps the most significant dividing lines are less between denominations but within them.

A more nuanced view would be to see two of the three Scottish Churches which claim a territorial mission to the whole nation (the third being the Roman Catholic Church) recognising that today they can’t do this alone. The adoption of the ‘Radical Action Plan’ by the 2019 General Assembly was a brave and realistic attempt to respond to the current crisis in the CofS and its financial implications, but the proposed radical reduction in number of ministers and parishes means that the CofS is now just one Christian group among others in an increasingly secular Scotland. It can now no longer pretend to be ‘a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people’ (3rd Article Declaratory), a historically dubious claim long-disputed by Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. In practice, the reorganisation of the CofS means that it is withdrawing from communities across Scotland, sometimes in the poorest areas, and other denominations have stepped into the gap to be the ‘local church’. Stenhouse Baptist Church has done just that in a part of Edinburgh where the local Church of Scotland church closed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that SAD may be an attempt to help the SEC and CofS work together ‘to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry’ (3rd Article Declaratory), but that would require practical cooperation and a recognition that Christian belonging is more than just a tidy arrangement on a map. Every Episcopal Church I have encountered has people who have discovered that Presbyterian worship does not supply their spiritual needs and I have met English Anglicans who are happy to worship with the Church of Scotland. This raises the question of whether SAD is pointing in the wrong direction by affirming more agreement than actually exists.

Other Ways Forward

There may be other ways forward for the Christian communities of Scotland that don’t involve those Declarations and Initiatives so beloved of church leaders. I began this article by contradicting SAD and saying that the Churches in Scotland do not have a shared history but rather a series of conflicting denominational histories. Revisionist academic history can, however, challenge this and help reconciliation. Looked at in a different way, the three main Churches in Scotland today which have a realistic claim to serve the whole nation actually do have a shared history into which their denominational narratives can be read in a way that subverts sectarianism. Put simply, from the Catholic Church in Scotland before 1560, the Roman Catholic Church still possesses its communion with Rome, the Scottish Episcopal Church its bishoprics and the Church of Scotland its parishes. Elements in their sectarian histories or theology might deny the others their validity as Churches, but historically and legally they are all the continuation of the old Church. This argument is strengthened as each explicitly sees itself as a part of the Catholic Church and each bases its faith on Scripture and the ancient Creeds. In a nation where almost all were Christian, Christian difference was significant; today, where secularism and other faiths have a high profile and popular knowledge of the Christian story is fading away, what Christians hold in common becomes more significant. This could give hope for the developments necessary for the two estranged parts of the ‘reformed’ Church of Scotland to come together. In this context the adoption by the CofS of the Anglican ‘Five Marks of Mission’ is significant but so are the proposals of the CofS Theological Forum concerning the Westminster Confessions. The SEC is already in full communion with a church that holds to the faith of the ecumenical creeds but also has a place for an outdated historical document that few really assent to: the Church of England and the 39 Articles. For the CofS, as for the CofE, the incompatible eucharistic theologies which have their roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be reconciled and overcome in the light of  an ecumenical eucharistic theology which was developed in the twentieth century on the basis of a renewed reading of Scripture and the writings of the patristic period. The real ecumenical breakthrough here may not be the studied ambiguity of SAD but the work of the CofS Theological Forum dislodging the impediment of the Westminster Confession.

These historical and theological tasks involve a reappraisal of our shared history and they still look towards some form of institutional unity, but cultural factors are equally important. The CofS is no longer the Church that stole Christmas and locked up the swings on the Sabbath, but it is still heir to the fanatical, iconoclastic side of the Scottish Protestant Reformation and still holds to what some would see as an excessively spiritual Reformed sacramental theology. The dark side of Scottish Presbyterianism needs to be named, studied and rejected. This is hard because this was the side that won in 1690 and subsequently controlled the interpretation of Scottish history, a pervasive control that is even today being rolled back in the secular world of academic history.[27] A rejection of the dark side of Presbyterianism was an aspect of the Scottish literary and artistic renaissance of the twentieth century, famously expressed in Edwin Muir’s poem The Incarnate One:

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

This needs to be taken seriously, although much of the legacy of the dark years is gone from the CofS today, with its affirmation of music and the arts. If we cannot have an honest conversation about such legacies, and I have seen no evidence that we can, then any number of common declarations will be worthless. The current reappraisal of Scottish involvement in slavery and reassessment of the persecution of witches show how important this process is, but the ongoing reassessment of the Scottish Reformations shows how dealing with structural prejudice is a long process. The SEC too needs to re-examine its own history and the Church of England also lives with its own legacy of iconoclasm (and shows how well it can be overcome) but there is an important place in Scotland for an explicit cultural and spiritual reconciliation. How might this be done?

When Hew Lorimer carved a remarkable statue of statue of Our Lady on a pillar at All Saints Episcopal Church St Andrews, he wrote,

My statue at All Saints of the Virgin and child somehow had to convey my conviction that the Virgin was forgotten by Scotland, and that this neglect had had a hardening effect on our great Scottish character. I have always called the sculpture ‘Ecce Mater tua’, ‘behold your mother’, addressed both to the Royal and Ecclesiastical Burgh of St Andrews, where the statue stands, and to Scotland.[28]

Hew Lorimer’s statue at All Saints, St Andrews

This statue is a prophetic act, it points to an unimaginable future where Christian Scotland comes together again in all its parts. I saw a glimpse of this in the mid-1980s at the Haddington pilgrimage, that great creation of Patrick Maitland, 17th Earl of Lauderdale. Leaders of the three main Churches of Scotland came together with hundreds of their flock for pilgrimage, prayer, the sacraments, spiritual healing and the veneration of Our Lady of Haddington. The problem with ecumenical agreements and declarations is that they veer between compromise and the lowest common denominator, leaving, as in SAD on the sacraments, fundamental disagreement in our common faith. True unity is spiritual and involves a full sharing of cultural and religious gifts – different ‘takes’ on our common faith. I suspect that only Mary, the Mother of God, can bring us together, after all she did say of her Son ‘do whatever he tells you’ (John 2.5). Perhaps what we need to see is a procession of Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in Haddington saying the rosary together, singing psalms and praying for justice and healing in our country.

With this vision in mind, it may even be that our ideas of unity need to change and we need to give up on producing more documents and even trying to join up the institutions. A New Zealand Anglican priest recently suggested that instead of a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we should have a Week of Prayer for Christian Diversity, commenting,

In the Northern Hemisphere Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we often end up seeing quite a lot of ideas that the solution to Christian disunity is to clone and cookie-cutter one way of being a Christian and impose that on all. Unity by uniformity. One size fits all.[29]

Perhaps Jesus is happy that we have different types of Christianity, because people come in different types. Perhaps he just wants us to be friends (John 15.15) and is bemused by our obsession with institutions. In an elegy for an ecumenical community of which I was once a member, Rowan Williams recently wrote that:

People sometimes talk about sensing that we are entering an ‘ecumenical winter’. I’m not convinced, if I’m honest, largely because I don’t think the prolonged courtships of complex institutions are the only determinants of the climate. Time and time again in the last few decades, in very diverse contexts like Taizé or Iona or various Christian activist groups working for peace or environmental responsibility, people have discovered that ecumenism begins in doing the washing-up together and discovering what exactly they can and must invest in the ongoing business of a practical life shared and common purpose.[30]

‘Ecumenism begins in doing the washing-up together’. Perhaps the institutional ecumenical winter is a good thing, calling us to change our vision and move away from the adolescent optimism of the third quarter of the twentieth century which formed so many in mainstream Christian leadership today. The St Andrew Declaration is a flawed document and represents a tired approach, but it is at least a sign of communication and the desire to talk. The blandness of the Declaration is an invitation to the type of critical honesty I have attempted here. Perhaps its point is to point us away from itself. Deeper work needs to be done on theology and culture in Scotland, and, above all, we need to meet in deep prayer and intellectual endeavour to encounter the full glory of the mystery of Christ.[31] Perhaps we need to revisit together the teaching of the creeds and the ecumenical councils of the first millennium. After the failure of so many well-meaning attempts to create unity and the inadequacy of what passes for ‘ecumenical worship’, we and our leaders need to reflect on whether we have been walking down the wrong road. As a new start, let us go together to Our Lady in Haddington, in St Andrews and in Carfin and ask her what we should do.

The poet Peter Davidson was inspired by Lorimer’s title for his statue and used it as the epigraph to his fine poem ‘Commendation of Scotland to the Care of Our Lady’, verses from which may form an apt ending to this proposal for a new sort of unity:

Your pilgrimage: we’ve always gone on foot

Gone step by step, clay, ploughlands, on our own;
Long years of Kings; the years we’ve lived alone,
And what came after: broken stone, wars, loot…

When we go down into our northern earth

To join the rest of Adam’s sons below

Queen of St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow

Pity our winter journey from our birth

O Queen of Scotland, we can ask no place

But a low lodging in your Purgatory

To weep our history, to see your glory

Your crown of graces in your altered grace.[32] 

The Revd Dr Stephen Mark Holmes is Rector of Holy Cross, Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of a number of books and articles on Scottish Church history.


[1] The recognitions are found in section A of SAD, the Acknowledgements. The concept of ‘full communion’ and ‘imperfect’  or ‘partial’ communion is taken from general ecumenical practice, found in paragraph 3 of the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio of the Second Vatican Council. This is reflected in the mention of imperfect unity and fuller visible unity in SAD A.vi.

[2] Macaulay commenting on the ‘ill-mannered’ criticisms of Anglicanism by Roman Catholics and an Anglican response in the same vein, in Constance Babington Smith, Last letters to a Friend from Rose Macaulay 1952-1958 (London, Collins, 1962), 116.

[3] The voting was 78 in favour, 21 against with 7 abstentions and the Synod minutes note a number of interventions critical of the Declaration.

[4] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘The Scottish Reformation was not Protestant’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 14.2 (2014), pp. 115-127.

[5] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘Historiography of the Scottish Reformation: The Catholics Fight Back?’, Studies in Church History 49: The Church on its Past (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013), pp. 298-311.

[6] The Scottish Government, An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland (Edinburgh: Justice Analytical Services, 2013), p.10. Devine, T.M., (ed) Scotland’s Shame? Bigotry and Sectarianism in Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2000).

[7] Patrick Jones, ‘The Qualified Episcopal Chapels of the North-East of Scotland 1689-1898’, Northern Scotland, Volume 20.1 (2015), pp. 47-69. The authors of this part of SAD may have been thinking of the English Episcopal Chapels founded from 1842, although these too were not just founded for English people, David M. Bertie, Scottish Episcopal Clergy 1689-2000 (Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 2000), 655.

[8] William Walker, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Skinner, M.A., of Linshart, Longside (London: W.Skeffington & Son, 1883),  p.28.

[9] By ‘Church of Scotland’, Robert Lyon means the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Episcopalians traditionally avoided giving this title to the Presbyterian ecclesial community which claimed it after 1690.

[10] Robert Forbes, The Lyon in Mourning, volume 1, ed. Henry Paton (Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1895), pp. 14-15. Earlier in the speech, Lyon had repudiated the ‘many errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome’, and ‘the distinguishing principles of Presbyterians and other dissenting sectaries… whom I always considered as… uncatholick and dangerous to the soul of a Christian’, pp. 13-14.  

[11] As just one example from before the Covenanting movement, Alexander Leighton (1570-1649), ironically the father of Bishop Robert Leighton, referred to bishops as ‘anti-Christian or satanical’ in his 1628 pamphlet Zion’s plea against Prelacy: An Appeal to Parliament, Alexander Leighton, Zion’s plea against Prelacy (Edinburgh, John Johnstone, 1843), p.71.

[12] Proposals involving bishops were rejected by the General Assembly of the CofS in 1959, following ‘the Bishops Report’, and in 2003, effectively ending the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIFU) which had begun in 1996; the SEC Provincial Synod also rejected a similar scheme for unity in 1971 by which the SEC would become an Episcopalian Synod within a united Church of Scotland, Edward Luscombe, The Scottish Episcopal Church in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: General Synod Office, 1996), pp.118-122.

[13] The General Assembly’s ‘Declaratory Act anent the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (1986) dissociated the CofS from the Confession’s condemnation of monastic vows (22.7), its prohibition of marriage with ‘Infidels, Papists or other idolaters’ (24.3), its identification of the Pope as ‘Antichrist, that Man of Sin and Son of Perdition’ (25.6), and its condemnation of ‘the Popish Sacrifice of the Mass’ (29.2). The Act noted that CofS office bearers were not required to believe these statements.

[14] www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about-us/councils-committees-and-departments/committees/theological-forum. The report is found here: https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/80303/10-Theological-Forum.pdf

[15] Belgic Confession Article 29.

[16] ‘Reflections on Online Communion’

[17] Stephen Holmes, ‘Real Presence? Theological Reflection on Online Eucharists’, Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal, Winter 2021, Volume 5.4, pp. 91-92 https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2021-54-SEI-Journal-Winter.pdf

[18] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1958), 28.3, p113, while some Scottish Reformers used the English Book of Common Prayer, most followed Knox’s Liturgy which said of Baptism ‘he taketh water in his hand and layeth it upon the childes forehead’, John Knox’s Genevan Service Book, 1556, ed. William D. Maxwell (Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd, 1931), p. 110. Stephen Mark Holmes, Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland: Interpreting Worship, 1488-1590 (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 169-71.

[19] One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition, A Study Text, Faith And Order Paper No. 210 (World Council of Churches, Geneva), paragraph 45. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (London: Penguin Books, 3rd edn 2015),271.

[20] The Preamble to SAD notes that ‘We have acknowledged that the theological, sacramental and liturgical emphases within our respective churches are consonant with the tradition which each represents’.

[21] Stephen R. Holmes, ‘A Reformed Account of Eucharistic Sacrifice’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (January 2022), 1-21, which starts, ‘I begin by acknowledging the sheer unlikeliness of my theme’.

[22] F.C. Eeles, Reservation of the Holy Eucharist in the Scottish Church (Aberdeen: W. Jolly, 1899).

[23] Even to the extent of giving in to Evangelical pressure and removing the word ‘offer’ from the offertory prayers beginning ‘Blessed are you, Lord God’ and replacing it with ‘set before’.

[24] These positions are outlined in the excellent study of episcopacy in Women Bishops in the Church of England: A Report of the House of Bishops Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (Church House: London, 2004), 2.6.1-9. These positions are associated with English theologians but the possession of Brett’s book by Jolly shows that Scottish Episcopalians lives in the same ecclesial milieu.

[25] https://porvoocommunion.evlutkirkko.fi/porvoo_communion/statement/the-statement-in-english/ ; Apostolicity and Succession: House of Bishops Occasional Paper (London: Church House, 1994).

[26] Doug Gay, Reforming the Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland (Norwich: St Andrews Press, 2017).

[27] Much of the revisionism is in the field of the long Scottish Reformation up to the myths surrounding the Covenanters, but even our understanding of the Scottish Enlightenment has been obscured by sectarian history. Kelsey Jackson Williams The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests and History (Oxford: OUP, 2020) builds on earlier work to reveal an intellectual renaissance among Episcopalians and Roman Catholics which continued to flourish in Jacobite circles but has been little noticed in ‘official’ Scottish history.  

[28] Miranda Forest, A Guide to Hew Lorimer, the MoD Rocket Range, and Our Lady of the Isles (20202), p.45.

[29] https://liturgy.co.nz/week-prayer-christian-diversity

[30] Rowan Williams, ‘Foreword’, in Christine Charlwood and Jessica Gatty r.a., Hengrave Remembered 1974-2005 (n.p. Religious of the Assumption, 2021), p.iii.

[31] An excellent start is the three volume History of Scottish Theology, edited by David Fergusson and Mark Elliott (Oxford: OUP, 2019), which breaks away from the sectarian narrative by attempting to include all the voices of Christian theology in Scotland. The next step is to bring these voices together in serious dialogue.

[32] Peter Davidson, Works in the Inglis Tongue (Cambridge: at the Three Tygers Press, 1985), p. 11-14. The poem is based on parts of Péguy’s ‘Presentation de la Beauce a Notre Dame de
Chartres’.

Teaching about the Eucharist

While preparing our new website for Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, it became clear that it had three main functions. One was to provide easily accessible up-to-date information about us and what we are doing, for example if you were visting Edinburgh and wanted to come to Mass in an Anglican Church you should find all the basic information you need on the front page. Another was to give an attractive impression of who we are, to share our values and make it clear that you will find a good welcome here even if you are not a church-geek or a believer. The third function, which became clear as we put the site together, was to provide basic Christian teaching online.

Not all would agree that this third function is the business of a parish website (in the Scottish Episcopal Church we don’t officially have ‘parishes’ as we are waiting for the Presbyterians to give them back after they stole them in 1690; the last attempt to retrieve our parishes at swordpoint ended badly in 1746 and so now is probably the time to accept that our ‘charges’ are actually ‘parishes’). I do, however, think that basic Christian teaching is a useful component of church websites because there is an increasing ignorance of it among the Scottish population and even within the Church.

Doctrine is implied in even the most basic website. These simple screenshots of the more sophisticated sites of two large and flourishing Episcopal churches in Edinburgh each carry doctrinal freight – even if it also raises questions for the cognoscenti. Are these two churches associated respectively with the Evangelical Alliance and Forward in Faith and with the theological positions of these groups? (the answers are: Yes; No).

Having doctrinal content in a parish website can counter ignorance. Simply saying that same-sex couples may marry in our church, on a page explaining Christian marriage, counters the popular view that the Church is homophobic – some churches are but ours insn’t. One can also gently point out that the Bible is a divinely-inspired source of life and salvation, but it is not an infallible guide to history or science and it does contain historically conditioned teaching that is morally reprehensible today. The importance of countering false views of Christianity is that they are stumbling blocks for people, hindering them from coming to Christ. Middle-class ‘inclusive’ Christianity of the type often found in the Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland can be so devoid of Christian content that it is unable to discern between life-giving truth and life-denying error and so has nothing to offer a society that needs Christ.

If this seems too negative, it does have a positive side. In ministry I have spent a lot of time telling people ‘you don’t need to believe that’ and ‘that’s not real Christianity, it’s made up by weird American Evangelicals’. The secularisation of our society is a complex phenomenon but it is encouraged by some defensive Christian responses to modernity. If we can put aside such deformations, we can enable the light of Christ to shine forth in all its life-giving glory. A few lines on a website, in a society where people get most of their information online, can help with this.

Online presence can help our mission. I am aware that websites are only a part of this and are old & static, but they have their place, as an electronic version of a church noticeboard. They can also help deepen the faith of Christians. At our diocesan Synod recently, a fellow priest stood up to speak in a discussion of liturgy. He said that as we were an ‘inclusive church’ we should have a liturgy for people like him who don’t believe what is said in our Scottish Liturgy, that by the power of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. He thinks that the bread and wine of the Eucharist do not become the body and blood of Christ. Sadly, this was not an attempt at irony, and, while some were scandalised by the comment, it did not seem right to point out to him in Synod that there are other churches in Scotland that would welcome Zwinglian Ministers. It does, however, reveal that we need to be more intentional in Christian formation and especially in formation for ministry. Sharing basic Christian teaching online can help this.

In the life of a church there are various opportunities for sharing sound teaching. We can do so in sermons, in formation courses like ‘Alpha’ and ‘Pilgrim’, in discussion groups, through theological education institutions like the Scottish Episcopal Institute and in the Liturgy. The lockdowns have shown us the importance of our online presence and websites, as repositories of information, are a prime site for sharing what we believe. Below is the section on the Eucharist from our new Holy Cross website. It is not perfect, and we do not at present have any good images of the congregation at worship, but it is an introduction to the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist.

The night before he died, Jesus gathered his twelve Apostles in a room in Jerusalem. He took bread and wine, told them these were his body and blood and gave them the command to ‘do this in memory of me’. By this he offered the sacrifice he was to accomplish on the cross the following day. Ever since then Christians, led by priests ordained by the successors of the Apostles, have obeyed this command.

An Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix, wrote of this amazing fact:

“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover… ; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of Saint Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.”

Whenever we come to the Eucharist we are part of this story.

What is the Eucharist and why is it so important for Christians?

The Eucharist is a sacrifice. We offer to God the Father the gifts of his creation, bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit they become the body and blood of Christ which we eat and drink. In the Eucharist Jesus offers the sacrifice of his body and blood on the Cross to his Father and we share in this offering. ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11.26). This sacrifice was done once for all on the Cross two thousand years ago, but Jesus our High Priest continues to offer it beyond time in the heavenly Sanctuary. The Eucharist re-presents in time and space this eternal sacrifice, by Jesus’ command, as a source of life for us (Luke 22.14-20; Hebrews 7.23-27; 9.11-14; Revelation 5.5-10). The Eucharist is thus called ‘the Holy Sacrifice’.

The Eucharist is the real and living presence of Christ among his people. Jesus said of the eucharistic bread and wine, ‘this is my body… this is my blood’ (Matthew 26.26-28) and ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6.55). Jesus said to his disciples ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20) and one of the ways he is present is in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. At Holy Cross the Blessed Sacrament is reserved continually in the aumbry, the golden cupboard in the east wall of the Church, for the communion of the sick and as a focus for prayer and adoration. The Eucharist is thus called ‘the Sacred Mysteries’ and ‘the Blessed Sacrament’.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. The Eucharist makes the Church by uniting us to Christ and to each other. Jesus said, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (John 6.53-54, 56). Paul said, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Corinthians 10.16-17). The Eucharist is thus called ‘Holy Communion’.

The Eucharist feeds and strengthens us to go out into the world and serve God and our neighbour. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6.35). As we all kneel together at the altar rails, this sacrament reminds us that we are all equal and equally loved by God and are called to go out and love each other (John 13.34-35). The Eucharist is called ‘the Mass’ from the Latin ‘missio’ meaning a sending out.

The Eucharist gives us a taste of heaven. At every Eucharist we join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ (Scottish Liturgy 1982). We join them as they sing around God’s throne and altar in heaven and the Lamb that was slain (Hebrews 9.11-14, Revelation 5.5-10). The Eucharist is called ‘the Lord’s Supper’ because it was instituted at the Last Supper and anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 11.20; Revelation19.9). It is called ‘the Eucharist’, from the Greek word for thanksgiving, because in it we are taken up into this great cosmic act of thanksgiving to God.

O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your passion, grant us, we pray, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of your body and blood that we may ever experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Holy Cross

Online Guidance: What is Prayer?

I am working with the designers at AltTen Interactive to produce a new website for my church. It has been an interesting experience. Holy Cross had a decent site but it was looking dated and the lockdowns persuaded us that we needed something completely new. This in turn raised the question, what is a church website for? It is obvious that it should have up to date information on services and events, contact details and guidance on how to get to the church. As most people access information online it will also give an impression of what the congregation is like and what its values are. If it uses the phrase ‘unchanging biblical truth’ on its home page it is unlikely LGBT people will feel welcome, if it uses the word ‘inclusive’ it is likely that they will. The former phrase also suggests that this church is not one for people who love to pray with the rosary, nor for those who love the Bible. Such hints may deceive, but most of us are attuned to them whether we know it or not.

As we are building the site, it has also become clear to me that a website has a teaching function. The popularity of Wikipedia shows that we get much of our knowledge online. Recent political events in the UK and USA have shown that the information free-market of the web has given lies room to breed. This is true in the religious sphere as much as in politics. in In our society this has coincided with rapid secularisation which has resulted in a growing ignorance of Christianity. A website, like a blog, can be a place to post reliable information about Christian faith and life. Some will find it and others can be referred to it, it may help people who might otherwise turn to a wacky evangelist who has a popular YouTube channel.

Looking at our church communications in the light of our mission, we use Facebook as a very effective tool to reconnect with our local community, sharing information to community pages and publishing pictures of events to let people know what the church is up to. It is like a newsletter whereas a website is more like a notice board, more static even if it does have a calendar and news section. Websites, like blogs, are getting a little dated and Facebook is perhaps something for Grandparents, Mums & Dads, not kids, but as the ‘missing generations’ in church go back to those born after the Coronation, they both have their place. At Holy Cross people come to us because they have seen things on Facebook. A church website, though, can thus be a place to put short pieces of Christian teaching so that reliable information is shared. If this blog has had over four thousand visitors over the last two years, a website may be a fruitful noticeboard on which to post Christian teaching.

Below is the first part of the Holy Cross page on prayer. The second part contains guidance of different ways of prayer that might be helpful such as lectio divina, the rosary and the Jesus Prayer. I thought it might be useful to share it here. Since arriving there, I have discovered that Holy Cross has a remarkable tradition of prayer, shown by its connections with various Anglican religious communities, and that there are many today in the congregation who have serious lives of prayer. It thus seemed good to start with Prayer.

PRAYER


What is prayer? Why should I pray? How do I pray? This section gives some answers to these questions, but basically we should pray because to pray is to be truly human.

Why should I pray? ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’. These words of Saint Augustine tell us that we all naturally desire God. Look into the depths of your heart and you will find that this is true. This desire is often fixed on earthly things, not God, but it is what enables us to pray. We should pray because to pray is to be truly human.

What is prayer? Prayer is talking to God; prayer is asking for things; prayer is lifting up your heart and mind to God; prayer is the sweetness of union with God.

What is the best prayer? An essential part of prayer is common worship with other Christians, what we call ‘liturgy’. The best prayer is the Eucharist, which Jesus commanded us to celebrate, where we join our prayers to those of Jesus as he offers his one sacrifice on the Cross to the Father. At the Eucharist we are helped to pray by ‘angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. In addition to the Eucharist, Jesus taught us to pray in other ways. At different times, different ways of prayer help us.

How should I pray? Jesus said: ‘…whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’ and ‘pray in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one’.

A wise old monk once said, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. Our task is to find the best ways for us to pray and we can ask God to help us in this. Possible ways may include silence, talking to God, writing, making music or making things. Others are mentioned below. Each of us is unique and is loved by God just as we are. Our way of prayer will develop as our relationship with God grows and we should be attentive to this. Words often slide into silence.

Nave window at Holy Cross

To whom should I pray? We have seen the answer to this. Jesus told us to pray to God our Father in heaven, and Christian prayer is often offered to the Father through the Son or in his name (John 16.23-24). Jesus is also God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, so we can pray to him as St Stephen did at his death (Acts 7.59). Likewise the Holy Spirit is God and so we can pray to the Spirit as the Church does when it prays ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. At the Eucharist we pray to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. All Christian prayer is Trinitarian.

A Christian never prays alone, we are always surrounded by angels. We can also ask others to pray for us. From the beginning of the Church, Christians have realised that we can also ask those who are close to Jesus in heaven to pray for us, the Virgin Mary, the angels and the Saints. We don’t have to do this but, if I ask my friend to pray for me and if I take the communion of saints seriously, how much more should I ask my friends who are close to God in heaven to pray for us.

Prayer is not just something we do. We clear the ground in our heart, but prayer is really God’s work in us. We are invited to participate in this work. Saint Paul knew this as he wrote: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26).

A French priest once noticed that an old man spent hours in his Church sitting before the image of Christ on the Cross. When he asked the old man what he was doing, he said ‘he looks at me and I look at him’. This is prayer.

You can pray anywhere and at any time but, as athletes and musicians need to train and practice, it is helpful to put aside time each day to be with God. As little as ten minutes might do in the beginning and the time and place must be realistic – it might be in a quiet place or it might be during a commute.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ‘I am far too busy to pray for less than two hours a day’. This may sound unrealistic but we are commanded to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17) and if prayer is a heart fixed on God we can do this whatever else we are doing.

Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle : A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021

November is the Month of the Dead when we look to the last days. Last Sunday was also the first public Remembrance Day service in Davidson’s Mains in my time as Rector and I was pleased to be asked to lead it. In our Church that morning, I took the readings for the Sunday (‘Proper 33’ for the Lectionary Geeks) rather than those for Remembrance Day. By introducing Michael the Archangel, they seemed very appropriate. I have long had a devotion to St Michael, loving his churches on the high places where heaven is near and spiritual combat is close. One of the best images of St Michael I have seen is in the chapel of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It was commissioned by the fourth Lord St Levan and was sculpted by Lyn Constable Maxwell in 1989. It shows the Archangel, having cast down Satan, holding his sword as a cross and offering the fallen angel his hand to help him rise – the offer is being rejected. This is theologicaly interesting. I didn’t touch upon this in the sermon below but it adds to the conviction that we need to call upon St Michael in these times of crisis. The sermon ends with Pope Leo XIII’s great prayer, uncompromising and powerful, which we would do well to pray frequently.

+ ‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise and there shall be a time of anguish’

Words from our first reading, we are using the collect and readings for the Sunday, not Remembrance Sunday and they are actually more appropriate. In the Prophet Daniel the Jews are in captivity and looking to future deliverance and this is a prophesy that the Archangel Michael, Prince of the Armies of Heaven, will intervene at an unprecedented time of war and anguish. In the New Testament, Jesus again directs us to ‘wars and rumours of wars’ when ‘nation shall rise against nation’, and the great Temple in Jerusalem the disciples were admiring will be destroyed and flattened – like the town in France on the Western Front or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hope, yes. But no exemption from the ‘time of anguish’.

Today is Remembrance Sunday when we remember the dead of two world wars and pray for peace. As the Great Wars recede into the past and those who remember them fall away, the time of anguish, however, still remains. There are many for whom it relates to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq & Afghanistan. Today we remember them too.

‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise’. We want angels in the ‘time of anguish’ – and sometimes they arrive. This space between the Resurrection of Christ and the End is the time of the angels. Sometimes they are disguised as our neighbour, sometimes they appear in glory. You may know the story of the Angel of Mons. In August 1914 the heavily outnumbered British Expeditionary Force held off the Germans at Mons just long enough for an orderly retreat. Stories arose of the troops seeing medieval bowmen or ghostly cavalry fighting alongside them and of an angel in the sky protecting them.

Each of us has family or personal connections to those we remember today. Perhaps this is why Remembrance Day has captured the public imagination of Britain in recent years. In Padstow, where I was Rector, the whole town came out on Remembrance Day, filled the Church and churchyard and walked up to the War Memorial afterwards. At the Rectory we have a picture on the wall of my great-grandfather William Holmes in uniform on his horse, he was gassed on the Western Front but survived – just. Who are you remembering today?     

My grandfather was with the 8th Army in the North African desert in WW2 and I enjoyed his stories when I was little. I recently heard a story about the Battle of El Alamein, which was fought around a village named after St Menas. The Germans disturbed the saint, who appeared and charged their lines with many camels and helped the allies to victory. Whatever you think of this, it is again heavenly help in a time of anguish – part of the battlefield was given to the local Church afterwards.

‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise’. The Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle is built on the site of an ancient chapel to St Michael and at its heart has a large statue of St Michael by Alice Meredith Williams. The National War Memorial is a powerful place, very different to the Cenotaph in London. It is a repository of memory and anguish that looks towards peace. As we remember, and see the devastation of war, can we look for hope? There are often good conversations at the door after Church. Last week I was asked if there is any hope for the world in the face of the climate crisis and the unwillingness of politicians to give anything but promises. And I was challenged to justify clergy who went on about hope without any real justification. I felt like one of the priests of Israel, just before Jerusalem was destroyed, faced by the Prophet Jeremiah. How can you speak of hope to a Jew in Warsaw in 1942? To a Madagascan whose harvest has failed again and whose children are starving.

There is no guarantee of peace on earth, of avoiding famine, of avoiding a migrant crisis and wars over water and other resources as the earth as the planet heats up. No guarantee of avoiding another Hitler or Stalin, not much change of beating swords into ploughshares or ballistic missiles into washing machines. There are still times of anguish ahead. But we are still called to hope and to fight for the common good, to work for peace and justice, for a world where children don’t go hungry. Reading the Bible, one gets the impression that all WILL be well, but not in this world. It holds our a vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth where the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We are called to do our bit here, on earth, to work for the things that endure: love, peace and justice. But the ‘time of anguish’ is still with us on earth. As we remember those who died, pray for those who still carry the pain of war and bereavement, and ready ourselves to keep up the good fight for the things that endure; let us pray for all in the midst of conflict that ‘Michael the Great Prince shall arise’ and give a taste of the consolation and victory of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our strength against the wickedness and snares of the devil, may God rebuke him we humbly pray. And may you, Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast down to hell Satan and all wicked angels who wander the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.’  

Real Presence? Theological Reflection on Online Eucharists

This paper was prepared for an online conference on Saturday 25 September 2021 organised by the Scottish Episcopal Institute. Four Scottish Episcopal priests in pastoral ministry discussed the theological implications of celebrating the Eucharist online during a pandemic. It was a good, collegial discussion, with many people joining us, and all four papers will be published in the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal. The questions we raised were important, concerning our faithfulness to Christ and to the people who are his Body, and so it seems good to share my paper here.

The coronavirus pandemic caused the government and devolved administrations to impose lockdowns which resulted in the closing of churches in the UK, effectively outlawing attendance at the Eucharist and reception of the sacrament. Done for good public health reasons, this was a situation previously only imposed by repressive regimes, but the presence of the internet meant that clergy and congregations were able to respond in creative ways to maintain their worshipping life. A key factor for the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) was that the Eucharist is central to our worship, in some congregations it may be the only act of worship.[1] After briefly outlining my own experience, I will consider some of the theological questions it raised from an Episcopalian perspective but in an ecumenical context. The central question concerns the difference between the Eucharist celebrated by a group gathered in one place, and one where the congregation are separated (or united) by the internet.

Experience of Eucharist in lockdown

At my church, Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, Edinburgh, I was instituted as Rector on 18 February 2020 and public worship was suspended by the College of Bishops on 17 March just before the national lockdown on 23 March. I continued to celebrate the Eucharist alone and with my family, first at an altar in the Rectory and then in the Church. The main challenge was how to hold the congregation together and help them to continue to worship in isolation. The first act was to collect email addresses and send out a weekly email newsletter with helps to prayer at home and the assurance that the Eucharist was being celebrated at the usual times for the intentions of the congregation. To help us pray together I started making a video of the Sunday Eucharist, recorded in the Church on the previous Thursday, which was published on a new YouTube channel and a new Facebook page each Sunday morning. We also started celebrating Evening Prayer together on Zoom on Thursday evenings. Use of the technology involved a steep learning curve but by the time I ceased making the videos, just before Holy Week 2021, they had become quite sophisticated, including music and readings by members of the congregation.

These actions were reactions to a crisis and were clearly ‘second best’: all of us would have preferred to worship together in Church on a Sunday. They raise a number of theological questions, some of which I discussed on my blog Amalarius, and also reveal things about the congregation as all of this was done in conversation with them and the Vestry. While a few watched the national SEC Eucharist video or videos, Zoom celebrations and live-feeds from other churches, the vast majority wanted to see the sacrament celebrated in the sacred space of their church. The one online service that has continued is Evening Prayer on Zoom, where we are visibly present to each other on screen, pray together and share prayer intentions in real time. In my mind we are really present to each other and sharing prayer in the same way as if we were in Church. It has the advantage that a group of six or seven from all over the city can pray together without travelling — without Zoom the service wouldn’t happen. On the other hand one can be physically present at a service in a church with others but not present at all in mind. For me, Zoom Evening Prayer allows a way of being present for prayer as a group but it raises the question, is the Eucharist different?

I mention my experience as it was the basis for the theological reflection below but I am aware that SEC congregations varied in their response to the lockdown and encountered the Eucharist online in different ways enabling different forms of personal ‘presence’ at the celebration. A pre-recorded video is distant in time but present in image. At Holy Cross we recommended that people watch it at the time the same Eucharist (at least in terms of texts) was being celebrated in Church. A live stream is better at getting beyond this temporal disconnect (which messes with the priest’s sense of time) and enables presence in time and image but not in space or direct participation. Using a platform like Zoom adds to the presence in time and image an expression of presence in participation, for example by speaking or singing. What is missing from all these modes of engagement is physical presence in space, but the visual presence is also electronically mediated via a screen, and in some modes the participants are present to each other in time. What is the theological value of these different types of celebration of the Eucharist, particularly if people consume bread and wine at their screens?

Ecumenical theology and the online Eucharist

Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’. The theological task of understanding, for an Episcopalian, involves both our personal faith, our adherence to Christ, and the Catholic faith as received by the SEC. There is, however, some confusion about the latter. An encouraging message from the College of Bishops at the start of the first lockdown noted that ‘a wide range of views can be found in our churches’ and spoke of ‘a wonderful diversity in what this pattern of [eucharistic] worship means in our lives as Christians’.[2] This is true but it is not the whole truth. In our Liturgy and Canons we are clear that the SEC is a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and our doctrine must thus be that of the Catholic Church.[3] While the reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a profound historical influence on the SEC, it does not, unlike the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, reference them in its self-definition and the College of Bishops repudiated the term ‘Protestant’ as part of the name of our Church in 1838.[4] It is thus important to ensure that this discussion relates to the Episcopalian context, and comparison with other denominations can help here.

The doctrine of the SEC is not, however, static because Catholic doctrine develops over time. We can see this, for example, in teaching on the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist and Marriage. Usually, reflection on Scripture and experience leads to debate and argument which is followed by the acceptance or rejection of the development by an authoritative assembly of the Church such as a Synod or Council. Online Eucharists are certainly a new phenomenon, which includes celebration of the Eucharist in virtual worlds such as Second Life and the practice, brought to the fore during the lockdowns, of a Minister in one place consecrating the bread and wine in another place through electronic mediation. Are these practices indicative of a development in doctrine or can they be fully understood, and either accepted or rejected, in traditional theological and sacramental categories?

Before considering this question, we need to ask: what is the Eucharist? It is following the command of Jesus to ‘do this in memory of me’ when he took bread and wine, blessed them while saying words over them, and gave them to his disciples. We can immediately see the problem. It is not just a matter of words, physical things are handed over. One could imagine Jesus and the Apostles praying together on Zoom, but one cannot imagine this physical handing over online without a Star Trek-type transporter where the bread and cup are converted to an energy pattern and transported to another location. Stories of bilocation in the lives of the saints suggest this is not impossible in the Christian thought-world, but we are left with the question of whether the spatial and physical presence has any value in itself.

Some people did indeed put bread and wine by their screen and consumed it at the moment of communion online, although this was discouraged by the College of Bishops.[5] One way of understanding the theological issues raised by this practice is by asking what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is easy for a Scottish Episcopalian to answer at one level as we pray to the Father that by the power of the holy Spirit ‘they may be the Body and Blood of your Son’.[6] This follows on from the clear words of Jesus in the institution narrative, ‘this is my body/blood’, and it is more explicit than the equivalent formulas in the Roman Catholic and Church of England Eucharistic rites which say ‘may be for us’, which can be understood in a receptionist way detaching the presence of the body and blood of Christ somewhat from the elements. Obviously Christ is present ‘for us’, not just for his own pleasure, and equally obviously Roman Catholic teaching excludes receptionism, but the SEC formula makes it very clear that the bread and wine actually become in some mysterious way the body and blood of Christ. The SEC has a very ‘strong’ belief in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This is the grounds for the ancient Episcopalian custom of reserving the blessed Sacrament for communion of those who are unable to be present at the eucharist and it is also accompanied by a long-standing Anglican reticence about trying to explain the way that Christ is present, hence a traditional Anglican hostility to transubstantiation.[7] It is important to note here that this is the clear teaching of the SEC as found in our Liturgy. In the context of the present day, there may be a ‘wonderful diversity’ of views among individual Episcopalians but if one of these views does not accord with this strong belief in the real presence it is not Episcopalian. Our teaching is clearly put by Bishop Forbes of Brechin:

The Holy Church throughout the world and in every age, has with one voice declared in the words of S. Justin Martyr, that the bread of the Eucharist is the flesh of the Incarnate Jesus. With S. Cyril it challenges the world, when Christ has said, “This is my Body,” to dare to say, “This is not his Body![8]

Having established that Episcopalians are committed to sacramental realism, it is important not to caricature the Reformed or Calvinist view of the Eucharist as being just consuming bread and wine (or substitutes) while thinking of Jesus. This is because not only has ecumenical eucharistic theology developed in recent years but the Reformed tradition is clear that the bread and wine are ‘not naked signs’ but really convey the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ.[9] The Reformed view of the sacrament, however, detaches the reality of the sacrament from the physical elements in a distinctive way. This ‘spiritualisation’ can be seen as involving a devaluing of matter, Calvin even suggests that the physical things in the sacraments are just a concession to fallen human weakness.[10] One could go further and argue that it is an implicit rejection of the incarnation, in the words of the poet Edwin Muir, ‘the Word made flesh here is made word again’.[11] In this intellectualist theology it is easy to say, as the Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church have done, that we can authentically share communion by consuming bread and wine in front of our computer screen detached in matter and place from other Christians.[12] The Church of Scotland even suggests that Baptism may be administered remotely with a Minister on screen blessing the water and saying the baptismal formula (the ‘form’ of the sacrament in traditional theology) while someone else pours the water (the ‘matter’ of the sacrament).[13] From a Catholic position this is not possible as, while anyone can baptise someone and the water does not need to be blessed, this separation of the ‘matter’ and ‘form’ of the sacrament drives a wedge into the heart of the sacrament such as to suggest that it is not a true Baptism. The URC position paper makes this ‘spiritualisation’ clear:

What about the theology? A positive point comes from Calvin, that communion brings earthly people into the presence of the heavenly Christ… if the Spirit can do this for us with Jesus, the Spirit can surely unite us with one another in a virtual sharing of this sacrament.[14]

It is worth setting this discussion in an ecumenical perspective, but in the Catholic tradition to which the SEC belongs such views are more difficult to conceive. One should, however, note that many of those who successfully challenged the Scottish Government on its prohibition of public worship were from the Reformed tradition. Presbyterian emphasis on celebrating the Lord’s Supper only in the gathered congregation, as shown in their historic opposition to private Masses and to bringing Holy Communion to the sick, together with the emphasis on the gathered congregation in the Westminster Confession may explain this emphasis on physical gathering among traditional Presbyterians.[15] In his opinion, Lord Braid said that,

The essence of the petitioners’ case is that an integral part of Christianity is the physical gathering together of Christians for prayer, proclamation of the gospel, the celebration of communion and the administration of the sacrament of baptism.  The essential physical element of these aspects of their faith is absent from virtual, internet events.[16]

This raises the question of how the concept of ‘place’ (the localisation of physical presence) fits into sacramental theology.

To those formed in the Catholic tradition there is often an instinctive feeling that it is not right to consume bread and wine by your laptop which has not been consecrated in the place of the eucharistic celebration. This is connected to the knowledge that a validly ordained priest is required for a celebration of the Eucharist.[17] Lord Braid’s opinion, responding to the Roman Catholic petitioner’s argument, adds an argument from sacred space, although it is strange that this omits the main reason Catholics wish to pray in Church which is the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle:

Church buildings have a particular significance within Catholicism (which is why praying at home is not equivalent to praying in a church). A consecrated church building is considered to be a sacred space. The sacramental grace cannot be received from a video-recorded or video-streamed service.[18]

In Catholic theology grace may be received by the human person in many ways but sacramental grace only from a sacrament and the sacraments are bounded by the will of Christ revealed in their institution. The rest of this article will consider some reasons for and against the feeling that ‘remote consecration’ is not right based on three comments by friends on this topic.

‘Every Mass is virtual’

The Lutheran theologian Deanna A. Thompson, reflecting on her experience of illness and quoting Jason Byassee, has argued that ‘the Body of Christ has always been a virtual body’.[19] Is this true? A Eucharist is not just a group of Christians gathering to share bread and wine, pray and read the Scriptures because it participates in the worship of heaven ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. The Scottish Episcopalian tradition is also very clear that the Eucharist is a sacrifice and a participation in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross which is offered in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8–10). This is affirmed by authors with diverse views on eucharistic theology such as Alexander Jolly and A. P. Forbes.[20] A Eucharist is thus not confined by place, but is it virtual. ‘Virtual’, however, means ‘made to appear to exist by the use of computer software, for example on the internet’.[21] This is not true of the Eucharist where by the power of the Holy Spirit we, though in this world of change and shadows, are enabled to participate in what is most real, worship in heaven. In the examples given in the definition, though, a ‘virtual classroom’, a ‘virtual tour of the museum’, the virtual environments actually do exist as they are places of encounter for those who enter them even if they are not physical spaces.

The Oxford English Dictionary derives ‘virtual’ from the Latin ‘virtualis, virtus’ with the latter meaning ‘virtue’, but ‘virtus’ can also mean ‘power’ and as one enters the heavenly world by the power of the Holy Spirit one might say, stretching definitions somewhat, that the Mass is ‘virtual’.[22] Part of the most ancient eucharistic prayers can help here:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.[23]

The significant thing about this prayer is that the angelic mediation links the heavenly altar with the earthly altar. It is not a visionary ascent to the heavenly Temple, as one finds in Scripture and the lives of the saints, but physical offerings in a physical place are a means of accessing the grace and blessing of heaven which is only analogously a ‘place’. The outward signs of the Eucharist convey an inward and spiritual grace. As these outward signs are inescapably physical and grace is real, the Mass is thus not in any meaningful sense ‘virtual’.

Some have, however, challenged the definition of ‘virtual’ as not real, as only appearing to exist. The Baptist theologian Paul S. Fiddes argued for the validity of sacraments celebrated in the virtual world ‘Second Life’, but this was refuted by the Anglican liturgist Bosco Peters using arguments that are relevant to online Eucharists in lockdown,

A sacrament requires particular “matter”. Baptism uses water, Eucharist uses bread and wine. We cannot pour a jar of jelly-beans over someone and say they are baptised. We cannot consecrate a bicycle and say this is the Eucharist. Such sacramental theology is also clear on whom we might confer the sacrament. We cannot baptise a pram. We cannot give communion to a letterbox. [24]

Peters does, however, suggest that this form of virtual communion may be possible in Baptist theology but not in Catholic theology:

There is within Christianity a minority position that regards sacraments as primarily something happening in one’s mind, or metaphorical heart. This position holds that the bread and wine are reminders to the faithful person receiving them. Fiddes, an ordained Baptist minister, is faithful to [this view] … in his sacramental ideas about an individual receiving grace by being mentally involved in a computer simulation.[25]

It has been nearly 75 years since the first televised Mass took place, a Midnight Mass broadcast from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral at Christmas in 1948.[26] Peters noted that there had been many discussions about whether bread and wine, placed before a television screen, would be consecrated by a priest presiding at a service being televised and the general conclusion had been negative. The only way that online Eucharists go beyond live TV is that the viewer can take a more active part. Does this more active ‘presence’ without being ‘physically present’ change the situation? It all depends on the importance of physical presence.

In an interesting reflection on online communion in the Baptist tradition, Steve Holmes makes a distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘somatic’ (i.e. bodily) presence and argues that online Eucharists do involve physical presence as ‘signals in fibre optic cables and electromagnetic waves are physical realities; our shared presence together in an online—virtual—meeting is therefore a mediated physical presence’.[27] This is, however, unconvincing because the key word here is ‘mediated’, there is a physical mediation but not a physical presence which is the same as a ‘somatic’ presence. Holmes goes on to suggest that a Eucharist that required somatic action such as touching all the elements or shaking hands with all at the peace could not be done online. He says he does not know of such a eucharistic practice but Anglicans should immediately recognise that this somatic action is precisely required by the ‘manual acts’ in the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Here the Presbyter is to take the paten in his hands… to lay his hands upon all the bread… to lay his hands upon every vessel… in which there is any wine to be consecrated’.[28] This is not explicitly required in modern Anglican Liturgies and the common Western tradition is that an intention to consecrate while holding some of the bread and one chalice is sufficient, but it does show that Anglican eucharistic theology works on different principles than Reformed eucharistic theology. There can be no consecration through the screen at a Prayer Book Eucharist and, as the Prayer Book is an essential part of our heritage, the presumption is that this is still the case.

 ‘You can’t have an online food bank’.

The second comment means that if you can’t be fed food online, you can’t be fed sacramentally by Holy Communion online. In the Eucharist, as in a food bank, the essential action is being given food. The Eucharist, like feeding those in need, requires physical presence, can’t be done at a distance and demands touch in one form or another. This has a clear link to Jesus’ ministry. In commenting on Jesus healing the leper by touch (Matthew 8.1­–4) Thomas Aquinas reflects on the importance of touch for Jesus, human relationships and the sacrament:

He touched in order to show his humanity… he touched him in order to manifest the doctrine concerning the power in the sacraments; because both touch (tactus) and words are required, for when the word is joined to the element, the sacrament comes to be.[29]

The sacraments are tactile things using bread, wine, water and touch, even in the case of marriage which in traditional scholastic theology of the seven sacraments has the vows of the couple as its theological ‘matter’, the physical consummation is a part of the sacrament even if not required for validity.[30]

Like sharing food, the intimate communion of sexual intercourse may be compared to the bodily sharing of Holy Communion. Sex already has many online manifestations, with varying degrees of viewer participation, and while it may seem irreverent to compare them to online Eucharists there are certain similarities, not least that all are related to an act involving physical personal presence, even if some people may come to prefer a virtual presence. Pornography may thus provide an analogy which helps us to understand online Eucharists.

Thinking of the artificiality of online Eucharists one may also relate them to trends in modern society emphasising the importance of the natural, the local and the authentic, and to a tension between localism and globalism. Against the background of the climate crisis, a simple sacramental act with minimal energy use, drawing people from the local area and sanctifying the fruits of the earth as means of grace seems more authentic than accessing the sacrament by means of an electronic device.

The ‘distance’ involved in an online Eucharist may not necessarily harm the planet or take on the character of the fantasy involved in pornography, but a recent examination of online Eucharists by Matthew Schmitz has associated them with spiritual consumerism and selfishness.[31] This is a hard thing to say but serious theology can take us to difficult places. This section is not to be taken as a criticism of those, including the writer, who have been helped by the Eucharist online, but as a warning of the dangers involved and a call to self-examination for those swift to bring bread and wine to the screen. To do so is not as unproblematic as one might think. Schmitz argues that:

No one has a right to the Eucharist… our desire for the sacrament does not mean it ought to be available to us… grace is not a consumer commodity, like a Big Mac, or something peculiar to the individual, but a gift that is both underserved and only given in and constitutive of real community in a real way… the question is not, ought not the Body of Christ be available to me, but ought not I be available to the Body in the way the Body (the Church) has been instructed and constructed to both give and receive it?[32]

In the light of the different theologies outlined above, this critique of a sense of entitlement might have different implications in a Baptist or Reformed context or in a Catholic and Anglican context where a priest is required for the celebration of the Eucharist. When considering various forms of mediation Schmitz concludes that a ‘virtual presence will always be a real absence; the chief virtue of that absence may be to create in us a yearning for the Presence, and direct us to seek it where it may really be found’. Thus an online Eucharist does not give us access to the Eucharist but it sparks a desire for it which may be met in spiritual communion. Schmitz’s argument contrasts what we have received from Christ with the desire for instant gratification that is common in our consumer culture.

from the film ‘Silence’ about the origin of the Hidden Christians of Japan

It is appropriate here to compare our limited lockdowns which provoked these questions with the plight of the ‘hidden Christians’ in Japan who, after the final expulsion of priests in the mid-seventeenth century, continued to practice their faith and maintain the orthodox practice of lay baptism for over two centuries without clergy or the Eucharist until they met newly-arrived French priests in 1865. They could have had lay-led celebrations of the Eucharist with local food and drink but, recognising that these would not actually be the Mass, they accepted the deprivation and maintained their desire down the generations until it could be authentically satisfied. Watching a Eucharist online can be an acknowledgement of eucharistic ‘famine’ or ‘deprivation’; but against the example of the Japanese ‘hidden Christians’, eating one’s own bread and wine in front of the screen can appear a manifestation of the desire for instant personal gratification. Perhaps the Scottish Bishops were right, in their March 2020 ‘reflection on worship during lockdown’, to encourage spiritual communion and discourage consuming bread and wine by our screens.

‘Second best is sometimes the best’

In Episcopalian tradition the Revd John MacLachlan of Appin is said to have celebrated Holy Communion for fellow members of the Jacobite army on the eve of the battle of Culloden using oatcakes and whisky, as he had no bread and wine.[33] In some Anglican Provinces elements other than bread and wine are used for Holy Communion as either alcohol is forbidden by the government, individuals are not able to safely consume bread or wine, or bread and wine are too expensive as they have to be imported.[34] If we take seriously the shape of the sacrament as we have received it (cf 1 Corinthians 11.23-26) we might be constrained by necessity to modify the matter used (or we might accept the deprivation in faith), but to change the matter to suit our preferences is only possible where the physical and material things and gestures are seen as optional, as in this rubric to a Baptist online communion service: ‘Please find some bread and wine (or whatever you prefer) before you play this video’.[35] I say this not to criticise a practice that may be in harmony with Baptist eucharistic theology but to point out that Episcopalian theology is different. Even in a denomination that has embraced online communion such as the URC there is a recognition that it is ‘a reasonable interim measure… it will both remind us of times when we could share at the Lord’s table and point forward to times when we shall do so again’.[36]

Having argued that remote consecration is neither possible nor desirable in Catholic and Anglican theology, I must also affirm that online Eucharists filled an important role during lockdown in supporting the faithful. It was a ‘second best’ that fulfilled a real need. That most of us didn’t transmit Mattins or Morning Prayer suggests that online Eucharists were what ‘worked’, or it might be that, unlike our Evangelical colleagues, we are so ‘eucharistized’ that we cannot conceive of prioritising another service. It may be that this is only a problem because of Pope Pius X and the Anglican parish communion movement, which put frequent communion at the heart of Christian spirituality. Infrequent communion was a Roman Catholic as well as an Anglican and a Protestant tradition, and these twentieth-century developments made the Eucharist the main Sunday service for Anglicans. For Episcopalians this was a radical change: in 1900 of the 65 charges of the diocese of Edinburgh only two had the Eucharist as their main Sunday service and by 1995 of the 56 charges in the diocese only four did not have the Eucharist as their main Sunday service.[37] The lockdown may challenge us to develop other services besides the Eucharist.

Some have argued that modern technology creates a wholly new situation that justifies a development of doctrine or practice. Diana Butler-Bass has said that, while the one-way medium of television does not assist sharing in the Eucharist, the internet with the possibility of real-time communication has ‘extraordinary capacity to create community, to connect people’ and thus allows consecration through the screen while accepting priests are still necessary for the Eucharist.[38] This does not, however, answer the argument that this electronic mediation overthrows the nature of a sacrament, because the priest and the elements, and thus the congregation are not physically present to each other. There are traditional responses to the inability to be present at the Eucharist. One is bringing communion to those who can not be present, where the physical link remains through the elements themselves, but this was not possible in deepest lockdown. Another is spiritual communion, mentioned above, which is rooted in Augustine’s distinction between the inner reality (res) of the sacrament and its sacramental signs (sacramentum) and was developed by Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas and others in an age of infrequent communion.[39] It is presented as a normal practice for Episcopalians in a mid-twentieth century booklet:

If you are unable to get to a church for the Holy Eucharist and for your Communion, go apart with your Prayer Book and think of yourself as still a member of the congregation in which you usually worship, even though separated by distance. Follow the service, as though you were actually there, until you come to the Communion. Then say prayers of preparation, as if you were going to receive the Holy Sacrament. After that, ask our Lord in your own words to come into your soul in a Spiritual Communion. Make your customary thanksgiving afterwards.[40]

Together with the inescapably physical and communal-somatic nature of the Eucharist, the fact that this practice already gives access to the reality of the sacrament is given by the Anglican theologian Christopher Brittan as one of the reasons online Communion is not acceptable at the end of a review of the various reasons justifying virtual Communion.[41]

This reflection on coping with what is second best can also validly ask, ‘for whom?’ In some ways an online Eucharist is not inclusive, you need the time, space and equipment to access it and access to the technology will determine who has access to the sacraments. It can, however, also be seen as inclusive. I recently heard of a physically disabled person who can’t get to Church saying she had never felt so much part of the community as when all joined together online for the Eucharist and she lost that when most members of her Church returned to the building.[42] Something has been gained through lockdown but far more has been lost.

Conclusions

Diana Butler Bass claimed of online Eucharists that ‘what is happening right now is really challenging our understanding of the nature of time and space’.[43] The arguments above suggest that this is not true. The resources of our traditional theology are adequate to cope with the restrictions of lockdown, Holy Communion may not authentically be administered through the internet, and there has been a yearning to get back to natural modes of presence, place and human contact in real time. We all did our best in difficult circumstances, as Japanese Christians did in the seventeenth century during a far greater crisis for the Church, but responses in our crisis do reveal some possible spiritual and theological weaknesses. The analogies with pornography warn against allowing online Eucharists to foster an individualised, commodified religion of private consumption, the ‘auto-erotisme’ of created religious experience without commitment which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger famously used in 1997 to describe some Western appropriations of Buddhist meditation.[44] The charge of spiritual consumerism and selfishness certainly deserves to be taken seriously: by what right do we demand the sacrament even at the cost of distorting its essential nature?

Online Eucharists clearly did fulfil a need, ours reached many more people than are usually present in Church, and they confirmed the importance of online presence for mission, but if they were second best, what was their value? The key question here is, what is the Eucharist? Reformed theology seems much more hospitable than Catholic theology to sharing the bread and wine through the screen, probably because material things like these elements are less important or at least held at a greater distance from the spiritual realities they signify. Catholic theology, to which the liturgy of the SEC commits us, is more local and physical, allowing a genuine participation in spiritual realities by mediation through place and matter. This mediation also requires the presence of an ordained priest who provides a link in time and space with the Body of Christ into which we are incorporated by Baptism. The Anglican or Catholic Eucharist and the Presbyterian or Baptist Eucharist are in some respects different things, even though they are both genuine responses to the command of Christ.

What then is the value of an online Eucharist? At a Eucharist broadcast from St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, the Vice Provost gave a blessing to camera with the consecrated host, a sign of inclusion to viewers which recalled the devotional practice of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. ‘Ocular communion’ was a way of receiving the benefits of the sacrament by looking at it, which is associated with the development of the practices of elevation and benediction of the sacrament in the Middle Ages at a time of infrequent reception. Mark Schmitz and Jonathan Jong both looked at the theology of this practice as a way of understanding the value of online Eucharists and both found it inadequate except as a prompt to spiritual communion, as Schmitz concluded:

While a digital image of a consecrated host is impossible to receive in any real way, it may prompt us to make an act of spiritual communion, which is lovely and edifying and, best of all: real. But the image can only ever be a prompt to seek the Presence elsewhere than in itself, because in itself there is no ‘there’ there.[45]

This is perhaps the best argument for online Eucharists. Like an icon they direct desire towards the prototype but unlike an icon the fleeting nature of the material manifestation of the image does not itself function as a locus of sanctity. As we emerge from the pandemic there will probably be more online access to worship, to the benefit of the inclusion of those unable to be physically present, but this will combine with the ancient practice of bringing the sacrament to the housebound. Online Eucharists do not enable remote consecration or cause a development of doctrine, they are simply an encouragement to spiritual communion and a help as we wait in hope for Jesus in the sacrament.


[1] Canon 22.6 of the Code of Canons of the Scottish Episcopal Church requires that, ‘in every congregation the Holy Communion shall be celebrated, when in the opinion of the Bishop it is reasonably practicable, at least on every Lord’s Day, on the Great Festivals, and on Ash Wednesday’.

[2] ‘College of Bishops reflection on worship during lockdown’, March 27, 2020.

[3] This is found in the Nicene Creed and Canon 1.

[4] Church of Scotland, Articles Declaratory, Article 1. Frederick Goldie, A Short History of the Episcopal Church in Scotland (Edinburgh: St Andrew’s Press, 1976), p. 85.

[5] ‘College of Bishops reflection on worship during lockdown’, March 27, 2020.

[6] 1982 Liturgy, epiclesis.

[7] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘“Out of their Reasonless Rationalls”: Liturgical Interpretation in the Scottish Reformations’, in, Scotland’s Long Reformation– New Perspectives on Scottish Religion, c. 1500–1660, ed. John McCallum (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History; Farnham: Ashgate, 2016), pp. 112­–48, at p. 141.

[8] A. P. Forbes, A Primary Charge delivered to the Clergy of his Diocese at the Annual Synod of 1857. Third Edition with some Further Additions (London: Joseph Master, 1858), p. 2.

[9] Scots Confession 1560 and Negative Confession, 1581, ed. G.D. Henderson (Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1937), pp. 84-85, Article 21; Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), 118, Chapter 29.7.

[10] Calvinist suspicion of matter is discussed, in a Scottish context, in Stephen Mark Holmes, Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland: Interpreting Worship, 1488–1590 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 167-69.

[11] In his poem, ‘The Incarnate One’.

[12] The positions of these two Churches are found here: Church of Scotland Theological Forum, ‘Reflections on Online Communion’ ; and ‘Virtual Communion in the URC?’  Given the Anglican origins of Methodism, it is significant that UK Methodists have been more reticent, prohibiting the practice in the 2018 Conference and opening a three-year discernment period in 2021. 

[13] See ‘Reflections on Online Communion’.

[14] ‘Virtual Communion in the URC’, paragraph 7.

[15] Westminster Confession of Faith, 117, Chapter 29.3, the bread and wine set apart are to be given to ‘none who are not then present in the congregation’. For the petition and list of petitioners, https://christianconcern.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/CC-Resource-Misc-Church-Lockdown-Scotland-Petition-210128.pdf

[16] Opinion of Lord Braid in the cause Reverend Dr William J U Philip and others, Petitioners, for

Judicial Review of the closure of places of worship in Scotland, paragraph 5.

[17] For this teaching in an Anglican context see Nicholas H. Taylor, Lay Presidency at the Eucharist? An Anglican Approach (London: Mowbray, 2009).

[18] ‘Opinion of Lord Braid’, paragraph 60.    

[19] Deanna A. Thompson, ‘Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion’

St. Olaf College, March 26, 2020. Cf. Kelvin Holdsworth, ‘Every Eucharist is a Virtual Eucharist’, What’s in Kelvin’s Head, 5 August 2020.

[20] Alexander Jolly, The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist; Considered as It Is the Doctrine of Holy Scripture, Embraced by the Universal Church of the First and Purest Times, by the Church of England, and by the Episcopal Church in Scotland (Edinburgh: R. Grant, 1847). Forbes, A Primary Charge, 40-41, 51.

[21]Virtual’.

[22]Virtus’ is used in the sense of ‘power’ to translate the Greek ‘dunamis’ in the Vulgate Latin version of 1 Corinthians 1:24.

[23] The prayer ‘Supplices te rogamus’ in the Roman Canon.

[24] Bosco Peters, ‘Virtual Eucharist’, Liturgy, 28 June 2009; Paul Fiddes’ article is found here.

[25] Peters, ‘Online Eucharist’.

[26] The Validity of the Virutal Mass is Questioned. 6 May 2020.

[27] Steve R Holmes, ‘Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 2: some possible objections’, Shored Fragments, 2 April 2020.

[28] The Scottish Book of Common Prayer (Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press, 1929), ‘The Scottish Liturgy’, 338.

[29] Commentary on Matthew 8/1; the final phrase is from Augustine ‘accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum’, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 80.3.

[30] In traditional Roman Catholic theology consummation is required for indissolubility.

[31] Mark Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed or Why Digital Phantasms Cannot Confect the Eucharist’, Part 1 and Part 2, Earth and Altar, 8 and 9 May 2021.

[32] Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed’.

[33] Allan I. Macinnes, Patricia Barton and Kieran German, eds, Scottish Liturgical Traditions and Jacobite Politics: From Reformers to Jacobites, 1540-1764 (Edinburgh: EUP, 2021), p. 14.

[34] Eucharistic Food and Drink  A report of the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Commission to the Anglican Consultative Council (2005).

[35] Communion video from the South West Baptist Association.

[36] ‘Virtual Communion in the URC?’, paragraph 8.

[37] Edward Luscombe, The Scottish Episcopal Church in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: General Synod Office, 1996), 100. The two in 1900 were Anglo-Catholic St Michael’s, Hill Square and St Columba-by-the-Castle and the four in 1995 were the Evangelical St Paul’s and St George’s, St Thomas’s, St Mungo’s and Emmanuel. 

[38] Religion News Service interview, 15 May 2020, ‘Online Communion should be celebrated, not shunned, says Diana Butler Bass’.

[39] Jonathan Jong, ‘On Receiving Spiritual Communion’.

[40] Douglas Lockhart, St Columba’s Companion to the Scottish Liturgy (no place or publisher, 2nd edn 1953), 39.

[41] Christopher Craig Brittain ‘On virtual communion: A tract for these COVID-19 Times (Part II)’

Anglican Journal, May 25, 2020.

[42] See also Deanna A. Thompson, ‘Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion’.

[43] Quoted in Brittain ‘On virtual communion’.

[44] Fabrice Blée, ‘Le Dialogue Chretien-Bouddhiste : Dimension prophétique du dialogue interreligieux monastique’, note 35.

[45] Schmitz, ‘An Argument for the Recovery of Ocular Reception Derailed’, 2; Jong, ‘On Receiving Spiritual Communion’.

God does not change : a Sermon for Pentecost 14, 2021

+ God, ‘with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change’

God doesn’t change. During the first lockdown we turned a small room upstairs in the Rectory into a chapel. Each morning I say my prayers there. When we first arrived at Holy Cross the trees opposite at the edge of Lauriston were bare, then the leaves came out in that luminous green of Spring, the green deepened and yellowed, the leaves fell, the dark branches were outlined against the sky again, and now the leaves are dark green again. There is something special about the round of the seasons in the background of prayer and the Church’s year.

Life without change would be boring but I began this sermon with words from St James in our second reading that God doesn’t change. A friend who spent some years in Ghana missed our Northern seasons; a dry season and a rainy season aren’t enough. Life without change would also be bereft of any chance of improvement or growth, as John Henry Newman famously said: ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. Sometimes Churches get into a rut, where people moan at every change – ‘but we have always eaten sausages in Church on Advent Sunday!’ Jesus says in the Gospel today to the Pharisees, who loved the ancient traditions of their Church, what no Rector who values his life would dare to say: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written… in vain do you worship me, you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’.

This needs a bit of unpacking. ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,’ but an equally valid saying is ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. Tradition as a process, which means handing things on in time, is how we receive all things of value, including the Bible; but human customs and traditions need intelligent evaluation and change when they lose their purpose. Not to change is essentially to constantly change away from the present, like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. The terrible events in Afghanistan show us that change is not always good and we shouldn’t delude ourselves with the Liberal myth that everything is getting better and better. Even good advances in technology are destroying our planet. Our Christian and human task in a changing world is to ensure we, both as individuals and as part of society, are heading in the right direction. We should examine ourselves – are you changing for the better?

So, we need to change, but James, the brother of Jesus and first Bishop of Jerusalem, teaches us that with God ‘there is no shadow or variation due to change’. God doesn’t change, although we do. This is a common Christian teaching. We sung it in our first hymn:

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish – but nought changeth thee.

Nothing changes God…. so God can’t have compassion, can’t change his mind when we pray, can’t love, and thus has more in common with a stone than with us. That is a problem. Why are people not Christians, why is this church not full? It may be because Church people seem to be living in the 1980s, it may be because people are too distracted by other things, or it may be because they think we believe stupid things – and I must say that with some of the stuff that is claimed to be Christianity, I’m with the unbelievers. Our task, as Christians who think and love, is to try and understand our faith and help others see it makes sense.

Which hymn is this from? ‘O thou that changest not’?

Abide with me. This is a hymn of comfort, often sung at funerals. Usually the older hymns have much more profound Christian teaching than more recent ones. Even in a human sense, ‘not changing’ can be a good thing. Think of the love of a parent that is constant, even if the child goes off the rails – like the prodigal son. Think of the friend you can rely on, whatever happens. In the Bible, we see God is that sort of parent. Israel is always going after other gods or getting smug in complacency, always getting punished and then God receives her back. Jesus is the same with the disciples who deny him or run away. God’s love is unchanging and you get as many second chances as you need.

But more than that. Some twentieth century theologians proposed a changing God who was part of the evolution of the cosmos and suffered alongside us. Nice, but not God. God is not a part of the universe. You, on the other hand, are. Throughout life you have the potential to do new things. For unbelievers potential ends at death but for Christians death is, like a seed falling into the ground, a great release of potential. If God had potential, though, he wouldn’t be God as God is perfect. For Christians, God is, in philosophical terms, ‘pure act’ – he is perfect and all his potential is actuated. God can’t change because God includes all possible changes – this is the opposite of being unchanging like a stone.

This is why God’s love is unchanging. But in Christ God entered the world of change, of the bad change of death and evil. In Christ, God knows change from the human inside and so can change us, enable us to realise our potential. That God in himself doesn’t change, though, is good news because it means God is unchanging love. St Teresa of Avila knew this and kept these words in her prayer book. May they give you hope amidst the changes and chances of this world:

‘Let nothing trouble you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing; God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things. Whoever possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices’.

Holy Communion for Babies, or what it means to be Human

Canon 25 of the Scottish Episcopal Church begins ‘The sacrament of baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to holy communion’. The ‘further sacramental rite’ not required is confirmation, which has traditionally been required for admission to holy communion in Anglican Churches. This canon, first added in 1965 and last revised in 2005, is the end of an ecumenical process to admit members of Protestant Churches lacking episcopal confirmation to communion in Episcopal Churches. It also had the effect, perhaps an unintended effect, of allowing baptised young children and babies to receive holy communion. It is this that I will discuss here.

Lucas Cranach, ‘Let the little children come to me’

First, some personal experience. Our daughter was baptised on 18 October 2020 at the age of ten months and has received holy communion regularly since then on the grounds of canon 25 and the early Christian tradition preserved in the Eastern Churches. During lockdown I continued celebrating the eucharist with my immediate family and that has given space to reflect on this practice and discuss it. Last year, in between the lockdowns when we had a couple of infant baptisms, I told the congregation that infant communion was allowed in our Church and this caused a certain amount of disquiet. In my previous benefice the parishes agreed a similar policy, which had the support of the local Bishop even though it rather stretched the law of the Church of England, and infant communion again caused some similar murmuring. Every such controversy is a teaching opportunity and one can ask: is this policy right, what does it mean and is it practical?

In practical terms it works, our daughter receives the sacrament reverently. Now she can walk she comes up to the communion rail at the right time, says ‘amen’, and receives the Body of Christ. This works because she feels at home in Church and at the sacred liturgy, sees her parents receiving holy communion, and is familiar with the things of the faith – she recognises Jesus, whom she calls ‘Jeeez’, on crucifixes and she makes the sign of the cross, or rather taps her chest when she hears ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. We make sure she has no snacks just before communion and if she spat out the sacrament, we would pause reception for a while. In as far as one can see into a baby or toddler’s mind, this is a special eating connected with ‘Jeeez’, given by ‘Da’ in special clothes in a special place, and is different from eating something from a tub of chopped cucumber. My wife and I weren’t sure how this would work but it does and there is certainly nothing special about our daughter apart from the fact she has become familiar with church and liturgy.    

It is thus practical, but is it right and what does it mean? Firstly it is traditional, the Orthodox Churches of the East have always communicated baptised infants, often giving just the consecrated wine to babies who are not ready for solids, and the evidence suggests that this was universal in the Church of the first Christian millennium. It is however a departure from the usual practice of the Churches of the West. For Anglicans the first reception of holy communion generally followed confirmation in one’s early teens, thus keeping the traditional order of the ‘sacraments of initiation’: baptism, confirmation/chrismation and holy communion. Although it would appear that the Churches of the West gave communion to newly baptised infants until the twelfth century, the custom grew up of giving first holy communion at some time between the ages of 10 and 14. In 1910, however, appealing to the earlier tradition, the decree ‘Quam singulari’ of Pope St Pius X taught that children may receive holy communion when they reach the age of reason (generally about 7 years old) and can distinguish between the sacrament and ordinary bread. This has remained the Roman Catholic custom, in the words of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 913.1), “The administration of the most holy eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”

The two requirements of understanding the mystery of Christ according to one’s capacity and being able to receive the body of Christ reverently make sense. Receiving holy communion is a human act and the experience of our family and others is that a baby or toddler can make a reverent communion in their own way. The idea that the reception of holy communion should follow the possession of ‘sufficient knowledge’ or the attainment of reason is, however, problematic. The practice of the Eastern Churches and Early Church should cause us to question this, but the insights of contemporary ‘disability theology’ also shed new light on this question.

What is a human person? We instinctively think of a fit, rational and intellectually active adult with all their senses and faculties intact. A baby, an old person with dementia, a person with physical or mental disabilities is instinctively seen as less than this, deserving compassion but a departure from the normal, or at least a person with unactuated potential; they are each a person with something lacking. What happens, though, if we question this? Each case is different, but what if we take the person with learning difficulties, perhaps with Down Syndrome, as a normative example of a human person? Are they deficient or are they just an individual example of the great diversity of ways to be human? The latter is the only option if we do not wish to say that people with learning difficulties are less than human, which has terrible consequences for the way they may be treated.

The Adoration of the Christ Child by a follower of Jan Joest, c.1510 – possibly the first depiction of people with Down Syndrome

For the Christian, although Jesus Christ is not strictly a human person, he is truly and fully human (he is the second person of the Holy Trinity and so the ‘who’ of Jesus is the Son of God – there is not a human Jesus and a divine Christ). Was he less human in the womb of Mary, in the manger, or ‘disabled’ by the nails of the cross, than when he was walking around the Judaean countryside and talking with friends and enemies? I can think of no grounds for saying this and the great works of salvation, incarnation and redemption, were done in precisely those times when his humanity might appear to be deficient. This should challenge our ideas of what it means to be human. Perhaps the baby or the disabled person should be taken as ‘normal’ for humanity, certainly no less normative than anyone else?

This has implications for admission to holy communion in Western Churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant – whether they set the gateway at an ‘age of reason’ or the ability to make a ‘personal commitment to Jesus’. To refuse to baptise children until they can choose for themselves is a part of this problem. The policy of refusing sacraments to people unless they have a certain intellectual ability would seem to affirm a view of humanity which puts too much emphasis on reason and to place a human restriction on God’s free grace. A red herring here is the definition by Boethius (died 524) of a person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’, which was refined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and is at the root of much Western thought on human personhood. It is not relevant as it attributes reason to what is common, the nature, not to the individual. An individual human, or for that matter an angel, would still be ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’ even if the rational aspect of their nature was not actuated.

There is another problem, some people object to infant baptism because the person baptised might grow up to be an unbeliever and resent this imposition on them before they had the freedom and autonomy to choose it. There is a real problem here as, for example in the Church of England, many babies are put forward for baptism although there is no active Christian faith in their family. In this situation I found the desire for baptism was usually a sign of a residual Christian identity and an opportunity for catechesis and developing a connection to the Christian community, but it does highlight the fact that to baptise and give Communion to infants only makes sense if they are to grow up in a Christian family or community. When households were baptised in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:15 & 16:31-33), there is no evidence that it was only the grown-ups who received the sacrament and what evidence we do have from the Early Church suggests it is reasonable to hold that children were included. One might even say that only a modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment individualist would think that that they were not. We receive our identity from our parents and the family and community in which we grow up. What we receive marks us for life, whatever we choose later, for example Richard Dawkins’ atheism is marked by his Anglican upbringing. If a child grows up in a Christian family, one would not avoid teaching moral behaviour until the child can choose for itself, and so it is wrong to avoid giving that child a formation in the faith held by the family. Religious and moral formation, moreover, comes less from teaching than from a way of life, it is primarily ‘caught not taught’, and so if a Child grows up in a Christian family it is right that they should be baptised and receive holy communion. This is just being honest about the situation. Not to do so would be to deny them the freedom to choose what is right, although respect for freedom of choice means that they may later reject the faith.

One might say that the logic of this argument means that the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony should also be open to infants. If we apply here the same principles of honesty and truth, we will see that both these sacraments are ordered to a way of life which demands a certain maturity to live it with integrity. I have seen Coptic deacons of primary school age functioning in the liturgy and some Christian jurisdictions allowed marriage for women from the age of 12, but just as the sacrament of Reconciliation presupposes the ability to sin and confess, so these two sacraments presuppose the ability to exercise them. The sacraments of initiation, however, baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and holy communion, simply require the recipient to be human and to have faith, whether that faith is explicitly assented to or is part of the family and community bringing up the child.

It is probably worth noting here that the Scottish Episcopal Church is confused about confirmation. There is a 2006 rite of ‘Affirmation of Holy Baptism for Confirmation and Renewal’ which looks like confirmation but is said to be a ‘pastoral’ service and, although it allows an anointing with Chrism, not a ‘completion of baptism nor a gateway to the full participation in the eucharist’. There is also a post-baptismal anointing with the oil of chrism in the 2006 rite of baptism which looks very much like the chrismation which is the Eastern version of confirmation. The history and theology of confirmation is itself not clear but in the West it seems to be a part of the baptismal rite detached and postponed to keep a connection with the bishop. Thus it is probably best to see the current practice of the SEC as a restoration of chrismation to the baptism rite while recognising the baptisms of those who omit the anointing.         

It may be thought that giving holy communion to infants devalues the sacrament as they don’t understand it. My experience suggests that they do in a way appropriate to their age and moreover Christ in the eucharist is a mystery none of us can fully understand. The eucharist is also more like medicine than a reward, and so not to give it to baptised children being brought up in a Christian family or community either makes it a reward for knowledge or cooperates with an inadequate vision of the human person.

In addition to all its other aspects, receiving holy communion is an act of truth. The priest says, ‘the body of Christ’ and the ‘amen’ is a recognition that the recipient is a member of the body of Christ, the Church, in which we are incorporated by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:27-28). Augustine made the same point when he said of holy communion, ‘it is your own mystery that you are receiving, you are saying ‘amen’ to what you are’ (Sermon 272). Giving holy communion to babies and infants is a witness to God’s love, to the primacy of grace and to the fact that we are saved as a community not as individuals. It may not be appropriate in all cases and it requires the active support of the parents and the parish priest, but, if it is part of the life of a community, it is a precious sign of these Christian values and also a witness to an authentic vision of what it means to be human. These profound meanings expressed by infant communion suggest that it should be encouraged.

The Scottish Liturgy shows us that Episcopalians have often learned from the Orthodox East and Canon 25 has allowed the recovery of an important part of our common tradition. At a time when the unique value of the human person is under threat in different ways, this recovery of tradition also connects with the new understanding of Christian anthropology revealed through ‘disability theology’. Jesus was not speaking of the eucharist when he said the following words, but they may justly be used here: ‘let the little children to come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Mt 19:14)

The Priest’s Praying Body : Manual Acts 4 – when is Jesus present?

The previous post in this commentary on the priest’s actions during the Eucharistic Prayer ended with the words, ‘Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final “Amen”, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar’. This raises the question posed in the second post of this series: what is really going on when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer and how do the gestures help us experience this. Are the external actions in accord with the inner reality of the rite?

There is also a problem – when does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? If you answer ‘they don’t’, you are taking part in a different conversation.

Tintoretto, Last Supper (1593), San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

What happens in this prayer is what Jesus wanted to happen when he said ‘do this in memory of me’. To help us understand this, he said the bread is his body and the wine his blood, and these clear statements are related to his death on the cross, not only by the location of these words at a meal just before the crucifixion but because the body is ‘broken’ (1 Corinthians 11:24) and the blood is ‘poured out’ (Matthew 26:28). Paul confirms this by his teaching that ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). One can debate the meaning of the different versions of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in the New Testament, but we cannot get behind the canonical text and it needs to be read in the context of the tradition that formed, received and transmitted it. We can only work with what we have received, and in this case we believe it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

The Eucharistic Prayer is thus about Jesus’s presence and sacrifice and, as its words confirm, about their relationship to us. Whatever individual Episcopalians may believe, the Scottish Episcopal Church firmly believes, with the mainstream Christian witness throughout the ages, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We pray to God the Father in the epiclesis that ‘they may BE the body and blood of your Son’ (emphasis added). Episcopalian writers have traditionally been sceptical of attempts to explain the change by theories such as transubstantiation, but they have resolutely affirmed this change. Bishop William Forbes of Edinburgh wrote of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, ‘the word we hear; the effect we feel; the manner we know not; the presence we believe… as to the manner of the presence, we define nothing rashly, we do not anxiously enquire’ (Considerationes Modestae et Pacifice [1658], p.379).

Bishop William Forbes, painting at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

The tradition of the Western Latin Church is clear that what makes this change in the bread and wine are the Lord’s words, ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’. This is expressed by the gestures of elevation and genuflection that follow these words. By calling the institution narrative ‘the consecration’, even when these gestures were removed, the Anglican tradition maintained this same emphasis on the spiritual power of the Lord’s words – one could almost say that classical Anglican liturgy, although much influenced by sixteenth-century Protestant theology, is a fossilisation of late medieval Latin piety.

The Scottish Episcopalian tradition, however, developed a different emphasis and this challenges the traditional gestures. It prays in the epiclesis that the bread and wine may ‘be’ (1982) or ‘become’ (1764, 1970) the body and blood of Christ AFTER the institution narrative. This seems to imply that the institution narrative is not consecratory. An epiclesis had been added to the Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer but there, and in the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, it was placed BEFORE the institution narrative. It could thus be understood simply as a preparation for ‘the consecration’, as is the function of the epiclesis which has been inserted in the modern Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers. In the 1764 Scottish Liturgy, however, and in subsequent Scottish Liturgies, the epiclesis was moved and placed after the institution narrative, in imitation of Eastern Anaphoras and following a tradition already found in the 1718 Communion Office of the Non Jurors (Anglican clergy who remained loyal to the House of Stuart). This prayer for the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist is also found, for very different reasons, after the institution narrative in the liturgical directions of the 1644 Westminster Directory adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

To traditional Western theology, the place and wording of the Scottish epiclesis after 1764 is like praying that a lottery ticket might win after it has already won the prize. If we take the words of the epiclesis seriously, it seems premature to offer honour by our gestures to what is still just bread and wine. The 1982 use of ‘be’ rather than ‘become’ does however open the door to a reconciliation of the two traditions, as does the modern ecumenical theology in which the whole Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory. The problem is that for the last millennium Eastern Orthodox Christians have said that the action of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis transforms the bread and wine whereas Western Latin Catholic Christians say that it is the Lord’s words in the institution narrative. This problem is compounded by the existence, noted in the previous post, of ancient Anaphoras that lack a real epiclesis (the Roman Canon) or an institution narrative (the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari), which suggests that the two alternatives for the localisation of presence are neither entirely sufficient. As a sign of this problem, the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 recognised the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari without the institution narrative – if the principal upholders of the Latin tradition can do this, we should be able to understand the Scottish Liturgy in a way that does justice to both its Eastern and Western heritage.

Syro-Malabar Priests celebrate the Anaphora of Addai and Mari

The Church of the first Christian centuries held firmly to the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but was not bothered about a ‘moment of consecration’, and I would suggest that this gives us a way of understanding the Scottish Liturgy. Looking to the first millennium, twentieth-century ecumenical liturgical theology came to see the whole Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory and, without subscribing to an artificial ‘second naiveté’ or moving the ‘moment of consecration’ to the final ‘Amen’, I would suggest that we see the whole Prayer as consecratory with significant moments revealing the work of the Word and Spirit in the transformation of the elements at the institution narrative and the epiclesis. When we pray in the 1982 epiclesis that the elements may ‘be’ the body and blood of Christ we are not denying the role of the Lord’s powerful words in this transformation. Perhaps we should also note that even worrying about when we should venerate the elements reveals a medieval scholastic mentality, in the Byzantine Liturgy the bread and wine set apart for the sacrament are given remarkable veneration even before the Eucharistic Prayer, for example at the Great Entrance. With all this in mind, beyond holding firmly the fact of the transformation we can maintain the reverential reserve advocated above by William Forbes. This would bring together the emphases of East and West and make sense of the various bodily gestures recommended above culminating in the elevation at the doxology and the genuflection or profound bow after the ‘Amen’, when a short time of silent adoration would be in order. 

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), Jan van Eyck

Having said all this, I still find it hard to imagine that the elements can be anything other than either just bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. If this is so then there must be a moment of transformation. The most likely location of this moment is the Lord’s words. The learned liturgical experiments of eighteenth-century Greek-loving Divines, who were concerned to distance themselves from Popery, should not get in the way of the recognition that the Episcopalian and Anglican tradition primarily shares the liturgical inheritance of the Latin West. In the last analysis, however, the Eucharist does not exist for itself but for the transformation of ourselves and the whole creation according to God’s plan. Celebrating the Liturgy with this in mind is much more important than worrying about the exact occurrence in time of a change we know by faith but cannot see.     

As noted at the start of the previous post in this series, this commentary on the bodily actions of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to allow the priest to understand the tradition and deploy it, avoiding personal eccentricities and celebrating the Eucharist in a reverential way which helps the whole congregation to enter into the Mystery of Christ. This prayer of preparation for the Holy Liturgy by St John of Damascus, filled with the example of the holy women of the New Covenant, is a good conclusion to this series of posts as it well-expresses the importance of our bodies and of humility in celebrating the Holy Sacrament:   

‘I stand before the doors of your Temple, yet refrain not from evil thoughts. But, O Christ our God, who justified the tax-collector, showed mercy to the Canaanite woman, and opened the door of Paradise to the good thief, do unto me according to your loving-kindness and accept me, who have come to touch you, just as you accepted the women who was a sinner and the woman who had an issue of blood. The one touched the hem of your garment and was made completely whole; the other clasped your feet and received forgiveness from all her sins. Let me not be consumed, sinner though I be, through partaking of your body and blood; but receive me, as you received them, and enlighten my senses, consuming only my sins and offences. Through the prayers of her who bore you, and of the heavenly powers: for you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.’

The Priest’s Praying Body: Manual Acts 3 – Anamnesis to Amen.

This is the penultimate post in the commentary on the gestures of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer, following on from posts on 12 December and 11 January. We are now at the section of the Prayer known by a technical Greek name which has its origin in the Last Supper, ‘Anamnesis’. In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Eucharistic Prayers, and then, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western Christian custom, the Epiclesis. The final post will look at how the bodily actions of the priest express our theology of what happens in the prayer, despite the theological problem of when the bread and wine are transformed.

‘The Last Supper’ (1625), Valentin de Boulogne

Anamnesis and Oblation.

Anamnesis means ‘remembrance’, or more correctly a recalling of past saving deeds which makes them present, as Jesus said of this sacrament “do this in memory of me (‘for my  anamnēsis’)” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The concept of anamnesis has been used in twentieth-century ecumenical theology to understand why the Eucharist is a sacrifice. There can be no serious doubt that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because this is a common teaching from the first years of the Church. It is also an important aspect of Scottish Episcopalian theology, as seen in the extract from Bishop Jolly’s The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist published in this blog on 27th June 2020. An oblation is an offering, an essential part of a sacrifice, and this is also a special emphasis of the Scottish Episcopal Church which added to this prayer in 1764, in capitals, the words “WHICH WE NOW OFFER UNTO THEE”. These words were not in the 1637 Scottish Liturgy or its source the Communion Office of the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, although similar words of offering are present in the ancient Roman Canon on which Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer is based. The prayer of anamnesis and oblation is thus important for Episcopalians. It is an ancient one and has not attracted manual gestures in the same way as the Narrative of Institution and the Epiclesis. It is generally said in the orans position but in various medieval rites here the priest extended his arms in the form of a cross, as Christ’s sacrifice is recalled and offered here, and some maintain this custom today. It is not, however, just the crucifixion which is the subject of the anamnesis, the prayer mentions ‘his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension and… the coming of his Kingdom’. As we lift up our hearts in the Eucharist, we are lifted up outside time and space and encounter the whole mystery of Christ.

An offering is usually accompanied by a gesture of lifting up and presenting the gift to the recipient. This is not done today in this prayer but the offering is expressed by the gesture of lifting the elements at the consecration and at the end of the Canon, or even, some would say, at the two elevations in the institution narrative. Studying Christian liturgical practice one often gets the impression that it follows its own logic, which is a warning against creating gestures that seem to you to make sense but have no place in the tradition. F.C. Eeles in his 1910 book Traditional Ceremonial and Customs Associated with the Scottish Liturgy notes that some Episcopalians in the eighteenth century elevated the elements to breast height at the words “which we now offer unto thee” and Bishop Dowden in his commentary of the 1764 Scottish Liturgy notes that in a copy of the Liturgy belonging to Bishop John Alexander of Dunkeld (1743-76) the word ‘eleva’ (‘lift up’) is written in the margin by these words. This action is possible, but it would detract from the significance of the elevation at the end of the Canon.

The Eucharist at St Salvador’s, Edinburgh (with thanks to Fr Andrew Bain & Ross Jesmont)

The anamnesis and oblation in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy Eucharistic Prayers, together with the Prayer of Petition which follows the Epiclesis, are often said by the whole congregation together with the priest, but they are still ‘presidential’ prayers and so should be said in the orans position or the broader gesture mentioned above. The custom of the congregation joining the priest’s prayer has grown up without official approbation and, although ‘synchronised speaking’ may sometimes sound awkward, it does emphasise that the Canon is the prayer of the whole congregation in the same way as do the acclamations of the people, for example ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’ in the English and Roman rites.

Gian Lorenza Bernini, ‘Descent of the Holy Spirit’ (1666), window in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Epiclesis

The Epiclesis, from the Greek verb epikaleo meaning to call down, is a calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine and the congregation. The words of the epiclesis are accompanied by a distinctive four-part action.  At the epiclesis the sign of the cross is commonly made on one’s body as the Holy Spirit is called down on the congregation and it is a distinctive Scottish Episcopalian practice for people in the congregation to do the same. Then the priest’s hands are held horizontally, joined at the thumbs, over the gifts as the Holy Spirit is invoked upon them, and when it is prayed “that they may be the body and blood of your Son” the sign of the cross is made over the elements with the right hand. Finally the hands return to the horizontal position over the elements until the next prayer of petition when the orans position is resumed.

A child doing the epiclesis gesture at ‘play church’

This four-part action is the same as that found in the simplified ceremonial of the modern Roman Rite but its roots are in ancient Scottish and Western practice. In the Byzantine Liturgy the sign of the cross is made three times, over the bread, the wine and both together, at the epiclesis. The ancient Roman Liturgy in its different forms, including the Sarum rite used in Scotland, had no explicit epiclesis in the canon but between the eighth and fourteenth centuries ritual actions were added to the two prayers just before the consecration so that the priest first stretched his hands over the elements and then made the sign of the cross three times over the bread and wine together and then once over each element separately. From this background eighteenth century copies of the Scottish Liturgy often have crosses added to indicate that separate crosses are made over the bread and the cup at the words ‘body’ and ‘blood’ and some prescribe up to four more crosses made over the elements at the moment of the epiclesis: “ble+ss and sanc+tify with thy wo+rd and Holy Spi+rit”. This corresponds to the traditional Latin liturgy used in medieval Scotland but one or two signs of the cross are probably sufficient as even two can seem rather hurried.

Prayers of Petition  

The 1982 Scottish Liturgy follows the epiclesis with a short prayer of petition and communion with Mary and the Saints. It is an ancient tradition which has long been preserved among Anglicans that a simple bow of the head is made when the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken and it is good to extend this to the name of Mary and the Saint of the day. The 1970 Scottish Liturgy also has petition here but in three prayers to accept our sacrifice and grant forgiveness and blessings which come, via the 1764 and 1637 Scottish Liturgies, from the reworking of the ancient Roman Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer. These beautiful prayers are, like the one in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy, said with hands raised in the orans position but three gestures are sometimes added to them from the medieval tradition. The second of the three prayers begins by humbly offering our souls and bodies to the Lord and this first part of the prayer is sometimes said with a profound bow giving bodily form to this humility. The sign of the cross is then made in the second half of this prayer where we pray that all communicants may “be filled + with every grace and heavenly benediction”, a sign first used here in the twelfth century which signifies the blessing received from Christ. The third gesture is a striking of the breast as a sign of repentance at the beginning of the third prayer, ‘And though we be unworthy through our manifold sins…’.

The Bishop of London praying in the orans posture during the Eucharistic Prayer

Doxology and Amen

After these prayers of petition we come to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the doxology  and the congregation’s ‘Amen’ which signifies their participation in and assent to the whole prayer. The basic gesture here is the ‘little elevation’ or lifting up of the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. Usually the consecrated host is held up vertically over the chalice as the Bishop of London is doing in the picture below but it is possibly to simply lift up the chalice and paten. Although commonly called the ‘little elevation’ because it does not go up as high as the elevations at the consecration, it is actually much older and theologically more significant. It is first found in Rome in the seventh century where the Bishop elevated the bread and the deacon the chalice, something that should still be done when a deacon assists at the Eucharist. In the second Christian millennium this simple lifting up came to be surrounded by many signs of the cross, at first three made with the hand before the elevation, then between two and five made with the consecrated host (bread) over the chalice which meant that the actual elevation moved to the end of the doxology. In the simplified Roman Rite all these crosses have been removed but some Anglicans retain them, at least at the three mentions of Christ at the start of the doxology: ‘through Jesus + Christ our Lord, with + whom, and in + whom’. The congregational ‘Amen’ at the end is a very significant moment in the Prayer, so significant that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote in the third century that the great privileges of the Christian people include hearing the Eucharistic Prayer, joining in the final Amen, and stretching out their hands for the holy food (Eusebius, History of the Church, 7.9).

The Bishop of London at the doxology in the Eucharistic Prayer

Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final ‘Amen’, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar. This may be a time for the congregation to pause for a short while in silence before the mystery in which they are participating. One theological puzzle that the Scottish Liturgy raises about this mystery of presence will be the subject of the last post in this series.