Faith and Reason: Transubstantiation, water and potatoes: This week we carry a reflection on the meaning of the Eucharist by the Rev Philip Schofield, a retired minister in the United Reformed Church. Next week a new series starts on Catholicism.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOME TIME ago I was invited to preach at a united service. It was to include an observance of the sacrament of Holy Communion and, in accordance with the practice and tradition of that particular church, an invitation would be extended to all who loved the Lord Jesus Christ to share in the Sacrament.

I was told that on previous occasions the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, although they readily attended the service, did not participate in Communion. I do not think it was because they did not love the Lord Jesus Christ. Was it, then, a tacit declaration that in this case the sacrament was invalid? If so, why? Were they unwilling to acknowledge the ministry of a colleague they treated as an equal in all other respects?

As things turned out I could not share in the service. A heart attack laid me low and all engagements had to be cancelled for several months.

I find myself wondering now what I would have done: acquiesced in a situation which is all too prevalent in the Church, depite a facade of unity, or made a direct challenge? By nature I knew it would have to be a challenge.

The Sacrament, the Mass, the Eucharist - call it what you will - should demonstrate the unity of Christ's people. Instead it declares their disunity. One can imagine God, in his infinite love, raising his eyebrows and saying, 'Who would think that they are all my children?'

It is questionable whether many Christians within the Church, to say nothing of an infinitely larger number of non-churchgoers, are concerned about the theological niceties of transubstantiation or consubstantiation. They may believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord, or that Christ enters into the elements or - as in the Free Church tradition - that neither of these things happen.

How important are these traditional beliefs? By whose decision is the emphasis more strongly laid on Christ's words 'This is my body . . . this is my blood' or on his words 'Do this in remembrance of me'?

Whatever interpretation one has, there is a conviction that in the observance of the sacrament, the risen Christ is present. Is this not of infinitely greater importance than the words that are spoken and the person who speaks them?

Did not the Second Vatican Council declare that the Eucharist in the Reformed Church was a celebration in remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection? Why, then, cannot Christians celebrate it together?

I began to question the absolute necessity of clergy presiding at the Eucharist many years ago. A minister told me how, when a layman, he had been imprisoned during the First World War. In solitary confinement he had been given only dry bread and water. Deeply distressed, he made of these elements a Sacrament, repeating the words of the institution of the Lord's Supper as they are given to us by St Paul. In a remarkable way, he became aware of the presence of the living Christ.

In some traditions it is essential for at least one person other than the priest to be present but he was alone in his cell. Alone? I think not. In communion we are at one not only with our fellow worshippers but also, and most importantly, with God. Can anyone, in all honesty, deny that this was a valid observance of the Sacrament?

Aware of the denominational divide, I recall a letter written to the Church Times on 22 January 1988. It described prisoners of war who, after a week's forced march, were herded into a barn. Describing the experience, the writer went on, 'There was some straw in a corner covering what remained of a potato dump. Being extremely hungry, we swooped on those potatoes and shared them out - about two per man. Early the following morning, one of our number, a Frenchman, announced that it was Sunday. 'What are we going to do about Mass?' he asked. 'Is there a priest among us?' There was silence, then an English voice was heard. 'I'm a Methodist minister. Will I do?' '

About 30 prisoners - French, Belgian, and British - shared the sacrament. There were Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, and others. With a raw potato which, at that moment, was the Bread of Life, and a small mug of water, they rejoiced in the presence of the risen Christ.

A valid sacrament? I believe it was, and no less valid would be a shared observance by all denominations in which, despite all differences of interpretation, all acknowledged the centrality of Christ himself. The Word is infinitely more precious that the words which for far too long have divided us.

In a diocesan leaflet of 1984, the Archbishop of York wrote: 'Human language, however sophisticated or exalted, is inadequate to describe the mystery and splendour of God . . . words must fail. All true theology culminates in the prayer of silent adoration. It is in such prayer that the different expressions of theological truth may come to be seen as not necessarily in conflict but complementing and correcing one another.'

May the day come soon when, in the Sacramanent of Holy Communion, words seemingly expressive of different beliefs will be seen to be different facets of the same truth, when words will no longer obliterate the Word, but will acknowledge that all are one in Christ.