A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice

Pentecost 7 – 2011

The Book of Common Prayer

(We will be using the Book of Common Prayer in our worship today. If you are reading this, you might like first to read the Service for Holy Communion published in 1662. It can be found on a number of web sites if you do not own a copy.)

Marian Free

In the name of God to whom and before whom we bring ourselves in grateful praise. Amen.

One of the things that you will notice about today’s liturgy is the penitential element, and the threats of dire consequences for anyone who dares to receive communion unworthily. This element is quite different from the liturgies of the first centuries which did not even include confession and our modern services which place the stress on forgiveness. The emphasis on sin and the consequences thereof is an innovation introduced during the Middle Ages. During this time the church became obsessed with both private and public confession and the Eucharist became increasingly penitential.

The obsession with sin meant that the Eucharist became more morbid, thanksgiving and proclamation gave way to subjective prayer – which tended to concentrate on the unworthiness of the participants. The people were increasingly distanced from God – who needed to placated and propiated. To this end there developed a theology that in the Eucharist Jesus was once again sacrificed for us – as if there was something missing from the crucifixion such that to secure God’s favour Jesus had to be crucified again and again and again.

At the same time accessory actions (incense, washing and so) were included in the service and increasing layers of symbolism were added. The introduction of ablutions in this period represented a deepening respect for the elements that led to the reverencing of the consecrated bread and the wine as if they were Jesus himself. The lay people became increasingly excluded from the Eucharist (especially the wine) out of fear that any might be spilled and Christ in some way injured or suffer disrespect.

There were a number of factors that led up to the Reformation – political agendas, corruption within the church, the selling of indulgences, an obsession with (and adoration of) saints, an increase in ritual practices and an emphasis on sacramentalism to the exclusion of the scriptures. A quick glance at the thirty nine articles tells us that the Reformation in England was a reaction against such practices. This reaction is very much reflected in the form of the liturgy that we are using this morning.

Of particular concern at the time was the desire to make scripture the foundation of all that was done liturgically and sacramentally. The sixth article reads that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith.’ For this reason the number of sacraments was reduced to seven with baptism and Eucharist given primacy as the only two of the sacraments that could be traced back to Jesus. Ritual was reduced to a bare minimum. There were even arguments as to whether or not to use the sign of the cross in baptism and whether or not to kneel to receive communion.

While the Anglican Reformers affirmed that in the Eucharist participants received the Body and Blood of Christ they made it quite clear (in article 28) that it was taken in a heavenly and spiritual manner and that the bread and wine did not change in substance. They also stated in no uncertain terms that the “Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”

Kneeling to receive communion was so contentious that a rubric had to be written particularly to address this problem. It was decided that kneeling be allowed, however: “It is hereby declared, that (by kneeling) no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. “

One of the tragedies of the Reformation was that the reformers did not recover original praise of the liturgies of the first six centuries. Instead of basing their liturgical revisions on the earliest texts, they took as their starting point the liturgies of the Middle Ages, bringing with them all their penitential flavour and sense of unworthiness. However, a major contribution was to make the liturgy accessible to the people. The Eucharist was said in the language of the day, the Bible was translated into English and both the bread and wine of communion were restored to the people. Henry VIII went so far as to insist that the creed and the ten commandments be written on the walls of Parish churches, and that the Bible be placed (open) in a situation in which anyone could read it.

The 1549 Prayer Book was based on the Sarum rite – the form of liturgy developed and used at Salisbury Cathedral. In 1542 this rite had been widely adopted for use – even by Canterbury Cathedral. Cranmer’s first revision of the Sarum rite was deliberately ambiguous to ensure that it met the needs of both the Catholics and the Reformers. However, in 1552 Cranmer moved to take out any ambiguity. For Cranmer the goal in writing the liturgy was to base the theology of the Eucharist on the person and work of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, Christ’s presence in the sacraments and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Cranmer dealt with those things he judged to be in conflict with biblical theology. Ideas of sacrifice, transubstantiation, reservation, the confessional, the invocation of saints and prayers for the departed were all reformed or totally removed.

Cranmer was particularly concerned to ensure that the Eucharistic prayer contained no sense of sacrifice – as you are about to hear – ‘you gave your only Son Jesus Christ, to suffer death on the cross for our redemption: who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. It could not be clearer. Everything that was necessary for the removal of sin happened once for all on the cross. There was nothing missing in Jesus’ death that needed to be repeated, no lack that required Jesus to be sacrificed again and again at the Eucharist.

The final version of the service was published in 1662 and is still the official form of worship for the Anglican Church throughout the world. Our use of language has changed as has our theology, but it is difficult to argue with the beauty of the words and the depth of faith which lies behind them.

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