Transubstantiation and the Eucharist

We have started catechism classes at my parish in preparation for adult baptisms and confirmations over Easter. As part of the classes, the Rector and his wife have started a mini Anglo-Catholic series for the next few weeks and opened up the invitation to anyone in the parish who wanted a refresher. Last night we focused on the physical aspects of the church building herself (the naive, the sanctuary, the narthex, etc). One of our soon-to-be Christian sisters, asked what physically happened to the water when it is blessed by a Priest. It was a good question and one of those innocent questions whose answer is usually overlooked and taken for granted by cradle Catholics. This opened up into what happens to the bread and wine when the Priest blesses it.

It is important to note that it is not official Anglican theology (haha official Anglican theology, as if that is even a thing) that the bread and wine literally turn into the Body and Blood of Jesus. In fact, transubstantiation is seen more as a doctrine that falls short of the meaning and grace inherent in the Eucharist (which was news to me when I started attending an Anglo-Catholic parish but an idea that I have come to embrace). Father Travis pointed out something that he said came from a theologian whom he respected greatly (he didn’t mention who it was and I didn’t ask after to follow up but the way it sounds I am pinning it on Alexander Schmemann for now). When the Priest consecrates the bread and wine which come from the people as physical gifts that represent what nurtures and sustains us, they are essentially making the bread and wine into more of what it is supposed to be. Because in our secular world bread and wine are commodities, to be bought and traded and sold and what drives those economies in our physical need for sustenance. But when the faithful  conduct the offertory and bring up these items to the altar to offer to God, they are transformed by the Priest into that which they were meant to be, a gift from God, a part of God that was given to us to sustain us and bring us to everlasting life with Him. I thought that was a beautiful and very interesting aspect of the Eucharist. In that sense it does become the Body and Blood of Christ because that is the food required for salvation (as Jesus says very clearly in the Gospels, “unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood you will not have eternal life.

Personally, I’ve always maintained the literal interpretation of the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. And I probably always will subscribe to this understanding because it makes sense to me. But what Father Travis shared is certainly not in contradiction to that doctrine, rather it compliments and enriches it. It also allows a person who struggles personally with the doctrine of transubstantiation to come to the alter with reverence, and worship filled hearts. It is very Anglican in that sense and for that reason I am drawn to it.

As a side note, my favourite part of the evening was when we started to dip into devotions to Mary (a very contentious issue within Anglo-Catholicism). People shared their thoughts and opinions (which were varied). I explained that the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception is actually a new innovation in the Roman Church that was brought about via a new tool the Pope was given after Vatican I, namely, ex cathedra powers to declare matters of faith and morals without concurrence in synod. But at the end, amid all of the hanging tension from the discussion, Father Travis says, “well this seems like a good time for tea, let’s have tea.” And I immediately realized how Anglicanism is able to keep such a large tent erect without major issues, we always break for tea when things get heated.

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