The story and meanings of the Eucharist

Introduction: How to use this material
Session One: How it all began
Session Two :What happened next: the Early Church
Session Three: The Long Middle Ages, and then Came Reform
Session Four: The Past Century: Parish Communion and Vatican II

The Rose Window at St Mary's Church, Temple Balsall

Introduction to study material
Resource Material for Sunday afternoon Lent Groups:
Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

The four sermons
1: The Gathering of the People of God
2: The Liturgy of the Word
3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer
4: The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion and departure

How to use this material

This Lent we are thinking about the Eucharist, the staple fare of our worship. Our work on it takes three different forms.

  1. On four Sundays in March, the sermons will guide us through the four main parts or aspects of the service itself: our 'gathering' and preparation; the liturgy of the word; the eucharistic prayer and receiving of communion; our going out into daily life.

  2. On the Sunday afternoons, there will be discussions when we can take up the material in the sermons in the light of our own experience and understanding. There are some questions at the end of this booklet that suggest some guidelines for discussion.

  3. The following four sessions are intended to act as background reading. The Eucharist has been at the heart of Christian life from the earliest days. But, as times have changed, so the way it has been celebrated, understood and 'felt' by Christians has developed and altered. We trace some of the main features of this story. Most of its phases have left their marks on our practice down to the present day. So the idea is that we should understand the present better through having the past in mind.

Copies of the sermons will be made available each Sunday for the discussion groups.

Session One: How it all began

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The story begins with the Last Supper, Jesus' meal with his close followers on the night before his death. But it has echoes from long before. It was the meal of Passover, celebrating the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The descriptions of the Supper in the Gospels focus on the new meaning that Jesus gave to it: he related it to the new and greater 'rescue', open to all, which he was engaged in.

The meal focuses on bread and wine. Jesus blesses them (as we put it, he says grace over them) and gives them new meaning.

First, 'This is my body'. Our bodies are our way of communicating with others and with the world. Jesus communicates with his people by way of this bread. It unites them with him; and it takes them into what is about to happen to him, that is, his death by the offering of himself to God. We think of the earlier words: 'If anyone would come after me, he must take up his cross and follow me'.

Then, 'This is my blood': these words speak more directly of that death, but again they serve to unite his followers with him in all that will befall him. Eating and drinking in this meal with Jesus is presented as a serious matter. It commits his followers to the closest of bonds with him. And the words look back to Old Testament episodes where blood in offered in sacrifice is a sign of God's unbreakable bond (or covenant) with his people (e.g. Exodus 24; Jeremiah 31.31-34).

The Last Supper in the Gospels

The story is told in slightly different ways in all of the Gospels. In Mark, Matthew and Luke (written in that order) they relate to each other, because Matthew and Luke based themselves on Mark. So Mark gives the oldest form of the Gospel story and so of this episode in particular. Matthew made very few adaptations and it is easy to miss them. For example, he adds a kind of rubric: 'Take, eat', he puts. He was a man who did not leave things to chance, like modern writers of service-books!

Luke lengthens the story and makes the connection with Passover clearer: he liked to point to links with old Judaism, perhaps in case new gentile Christians who read his book forgot their roots. He also adds a great deal of teaching by Jesus: about the dangers of power in the Christian community, and he gives words of Jesus to reassure his disciples for the coming crisis. More directly, he adds a second cup to the meal, before the bread is blessed: perhaps (we'll see later) some Christians were keeping the Eucharist in a slightly different form in Luke's church - such things happen still. (See Mark 14.22-25; Matthew 26.26-29; Luke 22.15-38.)

In the Gospel of John, it is quite different. Chapter 13 is about the supper, but never really mentions the meal at all. Instead, we have the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, and then we go on into long passages of teaching by Jesus, down to the end of chapter 17. You could say that this teaching serves to bring about the effect of the Eucharist: uniting Jesus' followers with himself for all that will follow, through his death and into the life of the Church. In that way we can read them as addressed to us too, and are intended to. But in chapter 6, John had already given Jesus' teaching about the Eucharist itself. He attached it to the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It centres on Jesus' saying, 'I am the bread of life'; so the Eucharist comes across as one of a number of symbols of Jesus' union with us.

We need to realize that early Christian congregations heard the Gospels read to them, very likely at the Eucharist itself. So of course they heard not just the story of the Last Supper but also the stories of Jesus' acts of feeding hungry crowds as what we might call poetic images of the Eucharist in which they were engaged. Jesus is seen as the source of all good and of the deepest security for his people.

Paul on the Eucharist

We turn naturally to the Gospels for the story of Jesus' life and deeds, but in fact we have a still older account of the Last Supper, and it is told in almost the same words as we have in Mark. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the mid-fifties AD, almost twenty years before Mark wrote his Gospel, probably about AD70. In chapter 11.22-25, he gives us the story. It is full of interest because it is told by Paul for what seems a rather sad reason: the new Christians of Corinth, or some of them, are behaving disgracefully at the Eucharist and Paul is taking them to task. It is our earliest insight into what the Eucharist could be like at that time of beginnings - and it is rather depressing, despite its great interest. It is worth reading 1 Cor. 11.17-end.

What is the scene? We have to realize that in a Greek city like Corinth, where perhaps there were few ex-Jews in the Christian community, much of the Christian faith must have seemed strange and hard to get used to. But people were very used to belonging to clubs and guilds, often dedicated to one of the pagan gods or goddesses, and centring their activities on regular meetings for convivial meals and perhaps charity to their members.

It is not hard to think of modern parallels in our society. Usually, there was a pecking order in these groups, and often better food and drink was served to the socially higher class members than to those from lower down. These habits have crept into the way the Corinthian Christians are keeping the Eucharist: and Paul is in a fury. As far as he is concerned, they have not begun to understand what the faith is about: it is centred on our common relationship with Christ, whoever we are in the world's eyes. Some of the members of the group are even getting drunk before the meal begins. Paul goes so far as to say that if they go on like this, they will find the bread and wine, which stand for Jesus, will act not as food but as poison. And he tells the story of the Supper to ram its solemn meaning home: 'As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (v.25).

He had already said what he believed about the meaning of the Eucharist (10.16-17): the words have become familiar from their use in some modern forms of our service. 'The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing (communion) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing 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 (or loaf)'. To bring the point home, modern (and some old) congregations sometimes not only share a single cup but also use a single loaf for all to share. But the doctrine is clear: to receive this bread and this cup carries the most solemn meaning. It unites all not only to Christ but also to one another, and the death of Christ is the gateway to the life it stands for. To be of this community is to be one with the whole drama of Christ and all that he stands for and has achieved.

Incidentally: the name 'Eucharist' comes from the Greek word for 'thanksgiving' and refers to the central act of the rite - the giving of thanks over the bread and wine. (Sometimes it is called 'blessing' the bread and wine: in the old Jewish usage, which lies behind the language, the two expressions are simply alternatives.) The term 'communion', which we commonly use as a name for the service or else for the bread and wine themselves in the sacrament, come from the passage in 1 Corinthians 10 referred to above. The term 'sacrament' is from the Latin word for 'oath', which seems to have no bearing on our use at all, but it got into Christian use for the solemn acts in which faith was expressed.

For further reflection:

  • As we focus on the origins of the Eucharist, we are struck by what has lasted and what has changed.
  • But even at the beginning, there were different ways of seeing the Eucharist, different ways of recalling what Jesus had done.

Session Two: What happened next: the Early Church

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Basic questions

There is no doubt that very quickly the Eucharist became the central act of Christian worship. There was of course no central authority to lay down rules or forms of service, but all the same churches were in touch with each other and things developed along common lines.

As we should expect, there was a tendency towards more formality and discipline: for example, problems arose about who could and could not take part. What was to happen if someone fell into serious sin or betrayed the church in time of persecution? Could they still receive communion - or rather, were they still 'in communion' or were they now excluded? If so, was that to be permanent or only for a time? Problems too about who should direct or preside over the Eucharist. Could any Christian do it or must it be someone set apart for the purpose?

Not surprisingly, it was not long before the churches began to get more organised than they had been to begin with. (Most human groups elect a chairperson, secretary and treasurer before their first hour is up!) And how often should the Eucharist take place? Once a year, at the time of Easter, when it all began? Or each Sunday, the weekly remembrance of that great 'first day of the week' when the new life began? Or every day when Christians might meet for prayer?

Then: where should it take place? Anywhere at all? To begin with, there was little alternative to the houses of the better off members of a particular congregation, where there was room for the members to assemble. But perhaps it could take place at the tombs of revered members from the past, especially if they had died as martyrs for the faith and on their anniversaries? That is what eventually became the practice in the catacomb tombs in Rome on appropriate days. Or should there not be special holy buildings? That began in the fourth century when persecution ceased and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, began to have much larger financial resources and for the first time could build great churches. Churches in Rome like S. Maria Maggiore and S. John Lateran go back to this time, but S. Clemente is older and is built over what may have been a house-church of the early period.

Finally, if, as suggested above, sin was a risky business, might you hesitate before joining the Church, even if you thought it stood for the truth? After all, there was that passage in 1 Corinthians 11 about it being dangerous to receive communion if you were wicked - and which of us can really be sure? (Though what Paul meant was the particular wickedness of being snobbish about the socially inferior members.) By the end of the fourth century, churches were full of people who came every Sunday, but not all that many of them were baptized and, even if they had got that far, they might hesitate before receiving communion frequently - it was too holy to be safe. (That tendency had a future ahead of it, strange as it now seems. People were very afraid of the judgment of God, less confident of his love.)

St Augustine, bishop of Hippo in today's Tunisia at the beginning of the fifth century, found he had to preach against this kind of behaviour: you must trust God's grace to enable you not to sin and you must be baptized in order to enter its sphere. The first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine, almost a century before, had delayed baptism until his deathbed, in order not to run into danger, and many, similarly distrustful of God's forgiveness and of their own capacity to resist temptation, imitated him.

Forms of service

It is time to look at a few examples. Do we have any of the forms of service that they used in these early centuries? We can look at two.

The Didache is a document that only came to light in 1875, in a manuscript dating from the 11th century. It dates from perhaps as early as the late first century and is probably from a church in Syria. (Note that for a long time, most Christians lived in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean area, what we now see as largely the territory of Islam.)

It is handbook for Christian practice and includes a liturgy for the Eucharist. It is not a bit like our traditional prayer books, though in recent new services, it has had some influence - after all these years.

For one thing, it never refers to the Last Supper or tells what Jesus did and said. Instead, it simply gives you the prayer that should be made: 'At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the cup: "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy vine of thy servant David, which thou hast made known to us through thy servant Jesus". Then over the pieces of bread: "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge thou hast made known to us through thy servant David. …..As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may thy Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom"………Let his grace draw near, and let this present world pass away.' (Notice that, as in Luke's telling of the Last Supper story, the cup of wine comes before the bread: presumably the custom in some churches, but soon to die out.) After each section, the people are to respond with 'Glory be to thee for ever'. (See where they got the idea of the responses that break up the eucharistic prayer in the form for our monthly children's Eucharist?) It is a rather beautiful form of prayer.

Quite different is a third-century form from a church in Rome ascribed to one of the rival popes of the time, Hippolytus. It has been much more influential on the tradition from which we come and almost a model for some of the modern forms and in certain ways for the tradition found in our old Prayer Book itself.

It starts with a conversation between the presiding figure and the people, showing they are in this together: 'The Lord be with you'. 'And with thy spirit.' 'Lift up your hearts.' 'We lift them up unto the Lord.' 'Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.' 'It is meet and right so to do.' Heard that before? It is the oldest part of our liturgy, and it may be that the tune we use goes back too. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the chant derives from old Jewish chant, and it may even be our closest link with what happened at the Last Supper itself (though unlikely that Jesus used English!).

The prayer goes on to thank God for his great acts for our salvation, in creation itself and in the coming, dying and rising of Jesus; and it looks forward to the coming end when we shall all be one with the Father, through Jesus, in the Spirit, for ever. In the middle, it tells the story of the Supper, giving the basis for the whole act and, in effect, instructions for what should happen: he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples; then the cup, taking, blessing and giving; and we are to do this 'in remembrance of him'. Hippolytus, and others in Rome surely, set the model for the tradition of Western Christians' Eucharists - and so we continue to this day. In the Eastern Churches, it went a slightly different way, and the atmosphere was less austere than the Roman tradition tended to be; but it is recognisably the same, just more mysterious or, as we might say, 'high church' in its wealth of ceremonial.

Who may preside?

We turn to the question of who might preside at this occasion: could anyone do it? Probably from the start, it fell to the more responsible or venerable members ('the elders', literally the older men of the congregation) - it would be natural. But it seems that it was not long before, in each town, a single leader emerged, though it may have taken some time in larger cities. He was called 'the superintendent', Greek 'episcopos', in due course English 'bishop'. It had happened in many places by about AD110.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, on his way to Rome for trial, wrote letters to a number of churches in modern Turkey (e.g. Ephesus, Magnesia, Philadelphia), and addresses the bishop; and he is certainly very clear that bishops are in charge of their communities, in particular preside at the Eucharist. They are to do it, with the elders either side and deacons in attendance. And when the bishop speaks, it is as the voice of God. His words, he says, are 'the preaching of the Spirit itself, telling you never to act in independence of the bishop… cherish unity and shun divisions, and to be imitators of Jesus Christ as he was of his Father'. One gets the feeling that such a leader is up against it from time to time: the task of holding the church together without its falling into individualistic sects is all-important and is the bishop's chief role, with the Eucharist as its outward manifestation. Ignatius' style of belief and action became the norm, and remains so to this day in many respects in the mainstream churches.

The role of Sunday

How often did the Eucharist take place? There is little doubt that in most places by the early second century, and probably before, communities of Christians met on Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, so distinguishing themselves from the Jews' Sabbath; the day of new creation replaced the day of rest. But often they met on Saturday evenings: as still with the Jews, a 'day' could be counted from the sunset before --- we had remnants of it until recently when saints' days often began to be kept from the evening before.

In this observance of Sunday, until the fourth century, Christians stood out and often had to be secretive, for it was an ordinary work-day: as with us, the locals would be suspicious of people who were 'different', even if there were no official persecution on at the time. Paul gives the earliest reference to meetings on the 'first day of the week' (1 Corinthians 16.1-4), but only refers to the taking of a collection (!): but surely we can assume that they did not meet just for that.

Then there is a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan by Pliny who was governor of a province on the remote northern edge of Turkey, on the Black Sea: he tells of groups of Christians, cannot see much harm in them (except that they are reluctant to take part in pagan rites: as if nowadays, or until recently, they would not stand up when the national anthem was played or, in the USA, would not put their hand on their breasts at the proper moment), but asks advice on how to treat them. He tells how they met at dawn on a certain day and sang hymns in honour of Christ, 'as if to a god', then shared a meal. No doubt he was relying on second-hand reports rather than his own direct knowledge.

What they believed

Finally, what about beliefs concerning the Eucharist? Ignatius of Antioch, referred to above, already in the early second century thought of the bread and wine in strongly realistic terms: 'the Eucharist is the self-same body of our saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness afterwards raised up again'. Moreover, he sees the Eucharist as the Christian 'sacrifice' - that is, their equivalent of the animal sacrifices which were the main pagan observance, well known to everybody. The Christian 'offering' was not a bull or other beast, but the death of Jesus, now vividly before them in their worship.

Above all, for Ignatius, the gathering for Eucharist was the essential centre of unity, and one must not absent oneself: 'Make sure that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is one body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup of union with his blood, and one single altar of sacrifice, even as there is but one bishop, with his elders and my own fellow-servants, the deacons'.

For further reflection:

  • The growth of formal organization, including forms of liturgy and rules about how it should be organized and who could share in it. Much of this was in the light of there being a great proliferation of dissident Christian groups, with all kinds of versions of the faith, only gradually marginalized: one needed to discriminate.
  • The coming of the Church out into the open from the time of Constantine, with clearer exercise of discipline, and growing fear of God's judgment, so that one had better be careful about baptism and about receiving communion. It turned out to be the beginning of a trend which we may now view with dismay.

Session Three: The Long Middle Ages, and then Came Reform

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Many of the trends in the development of the Eucharist in the Middle Ages and the place it had in the life of most of Europe still leave their marks in our world, most obviously the countless churches built in every place to enable it to take place. But some of those trends are likely to astonish or even shock us. We live on the far side of challenges to them and many later developments.

Our service about the year 1400

Let us begin by making a picture of the Eucharist, perhaps about 1400, in a village church: it would be nice to say like our own church, but ours was the chapel of a religious community rather than a typical parish church. No doubt it was attended by farm labourers on the estate but it would still centre on the Knights Hospitaller who were here at that time.

The building itself would have seemed utterly magical, by comparison with any other building in the district. Even a manor house would then have been not all that different from a cow-shed today: rushes on the floor, fire in the middle of the floor, single hall for all purposes, with perhaps a room or two off. But the church, built of stone, with its lofty tower, was the house of God, the place where Christ came, constantly. It would be painted in bright colours from end to end. There would be several statues of saints, notably Mary and any other saint to whom the church was dedicated or whose relics were held there. There would be candles kept alight before the statues and before the altars.

There would be the high altar but also other smaller ones against the walls or in front of the great screen across the entrance to the chancel, on top of which was a huge crucifix with the figures of Mary and St John on either side (called the Rood). You could hardly fail to feel this as an awesome yet also a friendly place: here was holiness, pure and simple.

The chief purpose of the church was the celebration of the Mass. (This name was by this time the common one in Western Europe: it derives from the final words of the Latin service: Ite, missa est = Go, you are dismissed. It is odd, one must admit, that, in part at least, this gave its name to the service as a whole, but odd things happen!)

Every Sunday at least there would be High Mass, much of it chanted by the priest, with some music sung by others. They would be lucky to have an elementary organ. The service would be in Latin from end to end, though it would not be long before the gospel would also be read in English, and there would sometimes be a sermon and then the announcing of headings for prayer, perhaps for local causes, the sick and the dead.

This service would be attended by everybody, unless they were ill or perhaps taken up with necessary agricultural work. They would mostly stand throughout (as still today in Orthodox churches in Russia, Greece, etc.). Probably nobody would receive communion apart from the priest, except at Easter, before which all would have been to confession to the parish priest. This had been laid down as the basic duty of all Christians in 1215. However, as the priest received the sacrament, everybody else lined up, probably in their natural social order, and an assistant held a silver disc called the paxbrede for each person to kiss. And on leaving church, you probably got a piece of blessed (ordinary leavened) bread (again, still today in Orthodox churches).

Devotion to the sacrament

One other feature would strike many modern Christians as surprising. Only the priest himself received the chalice. Since the 12th century it had become customary, and then it was required, that lay people received the bread of the Eucharist alone (usually called the 'host', from Latin hostia, meaning sacrificial victim, calling attention to the belief in the meaning of the service in relation to Christ's death on the cross: it was seen as bringing that event very realistically before one's eyes again. This withholding of the chalice was related to the great growth in devotion to the eucharistic bread and wine in themselves, or rather to the Body and Blood of Christ.

This is the period when the feast of Corpus Christi was founded and became the occasion of great processions in many places. And the risk of spilling the chalice meant that it had better be protected and not leave the altar. In the Roman Catholic Church, despite recent reforms, this has still not been widely changed as a general rule, though you will find that the chalice is given to lay people on certain specified occasions, like a marriage, and in some places it has become common. We shall see later how this came to be altered: the Reformers in the 16th century read the New Testament and, on the basis of the story of the Last Supper ('Drink this, all of you'), could see no reason why everybody should not receive both bread and cup ('communion in both kinds' is the technical term).

Many masses

The High Mass did not stand alone: if there were other priests in the place, they too would celebrate mass, perhaps at the same time and quietly, at other altars in the church. And there would be mass every day, which many people would often attend. It was a key part of everyday life.

Often, masses would be directed towards prayer for a departed member of the community, perhaps from far back: people left money to pay for such prayer, according to their resources. A rich local landowner would even build a special chapel in the church and pay for a priest to say masses for his family and himself: a 'chantry chapel' because much of the mass would in fact be chanted, probably in a low voice. You can see such chapels in many medieval churches, now often re- furnished but rarely used. This focusing of prayer on the dead in this way is a major distinction between then and now: it expresses the strength of the sense of community and, as we saw before, the anxiety felt about future judgment by God, which one must do all one could to deflect or satisfy. You could do it best by pleading the merits of Christ's sacrifice, re-offered to God in the mass.

The 'feel' of the service

In the service itself, the priest had, already for some centuries, stood with his back to the people, as if looking to God 'beyond'; formerly, he had faced them, a sign of his unity with them rather than his distance and specialness. The eucharistic prayer had long been said in holy silence, after the opening dialogue between priest and people ('The Lord be with you', etc.): but a server or parish clerk rang a bell at the time of the sacred words ('This is my body', 'This is my blood') which were seen as the heart of the action when Christ became present to his people. At those words, you knelt in adoration as the priest held the host (the holy bread) and then the chalice aloft for you to see.

Whatever distractions you had at other parts of the service, at this point you were in the holy of holies, as good as in heaven itself: it was the most wonderful experience open to you in the crude, hard, and simple life of a medieval village, indeed even in most cities and towns. And it is clear that the whole occasion was built into the social (and indeed financial) fabric of local life: one was a parishioner much more than a citizen.


What happened next is still divisive. We can still feel that a beautiful thing was destroyed or else that it was high time for change. We call it the Reformation.
In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some people throughout Europe began to be dissatisfied with the state of the practice of religion. They were chiefly scholars, especially in some German universities, members of some religious orders, and some secular rulers who were resentful of the Church's huge wealth in terms of lands, money and power.

As far as the Eucharist was concerned, the beginnings of study of the New Testament and of early Christianity made some people feel that the Church had moved much too far away from the simplicity of Christ's intention, as recorded in the Gospels, and the life of the early Christian churches. For various reasons, these forces came together and were effective - but in a number of different ways.

For example, in northern Germany, under the forceful influence of Martin Luther, there was (see below) a movement towards simplifying some aspects of worship; but chiefly he was more interested in right belief. It seemed to him and his friends that the fear that lay in the huge emphasis on prayers for the dead (crudely, to get one's ancestors, and then oneself one day, out of purgatory and its pains) was a travesty of the Christian gospel. We owe our salvation to Christ alone and he has done all that is required: our response is purely and simply 'faith', and nothing else is required or any use whatsoever. So away with masses for the dead and endlessly repeated masses (it comes as a surprise to know that even someone like King Henry VIII, whose reputation for piety is not now strong, would often attend half a dozen times a day).

And away with chantry chapels: in England the government was eventually only too happy to cooperate - and confiscate their endowments! And away with the focus on the central prayer of the mass which was taken as almost (not quite) a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ's death: no, that had been done once for all on Calvary, and all we can do is to recall it with humble gratitude. We must simply re-tell the story of the Last Supper and repeat Jesus' solemn words by which his body and blood (both!) are made available for us to receive.

Luther and those who thought like him also thought it a good thing if people could hear the service in their own language, so he put it into German and wrote German hymns for them (we sing some of them still, translated); Calvin put it into French; and Cranmer in due course put it into English (in 1549, in the reign of Edward VI).

Variety of change

But the changes came out differently in different countries.

In Sweden, which became Lutheran, you might have a job to tell that the Reformation had happened. The clergy still wore (and still wear) the traditional vestments, much of the service was still in Latin, and the ceremonial and the music remained much as it had been. Only, the long traditional eucharistic prayer was dropped and replaced by the simple telling of the story of the Last Supper. If you want a splendid experience, get the Archiv CD of Praetorius' Mass, with the Gabrieli Consort: it's the Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, done in Roskilde in Denmark. Spectacular!

In Germany too, Latin remained in many churches for a couple of centuries, but often the German language did come in for most of the service, and eventually the worship became more sober and plain in appearance, with firm emphasis on the (lengthy) sermon. Often the Eucharist was not celebrated in its entirety but stopped at the intercessions. Many hymns, sung slowly, sitting.

In Calvinist Switzerland, Scotland, Holland etc., the service was made even more plain and severe, with preaching as the dominant feature. The Eucharist came to be celebrated rarely, perhaps four times a year, with careful preparation of the congregation each time, visiting by church officers of each household to make sure that there was genuine and careful penitence: this was seen as more scriptural than confession to the priest. Note that the medieval awe of the sacrament remained in the sense that people were reluctant to receive it except after the exercise of great care. But now it was felt to be wrong to celebrate it unless everyone could take part, hence the infrequency. As in Lutheran countries, the service itself centred on the story of the Supper, seen as Jesus' command and example, so that it became the devout memorial of Jesus' death, renewing one's union with him by faith.

Change in England

In England, the story was complicated. To begin with, under Henry VIII, the service remained unchanged, though some ceremonies were now banned, and certainly you did not pray for the Pope. In 1549, there came the first Prayer Book in English, simpler and slimmer than the old ways. Priest's vestments remained; Merbecke wrote simple music to accompany the sung parts of the service (Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei: we still sing them!); all was in English. The eucharistic prayer emphasized that Christ has done all for our salvation and it is for us to receive thankfully, with the simple offering of our faith and our praise. The 1552 service was still plainer, more under Calvinist influence, but the doctrine was along the same lines.

Cranmer, however, was keen to maker a cleaner break. The service must be seen and felt as a devout meal of fellowship and all signs of it as a mysterious 'sacrifice' must be done away. It came to be called 'the Lord's Supper', taking up a phrase used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, so emphasizing its aspect of fellowship; or else 'the Holy Communion', taking up 1 Corinthians 10.16, the 'sharing' in the body and blood of Christ.

The 'altar' became a 'holy table', placed lengthways in the chancel; and people gathered round ('draw near with faith', before the confession). Cranmer's hope was that people would come frequently; and the service must not take place unless they did (at least three must be there, he said, and he hoped for more). But the English are a conservative people and will not be stampeded into the more devout practice of their religion.

The result was that the sacrament was celebrated only a few times a year, chiefly Easter (the traditional time, and you paid your dues to the church), Christmas and Whitsuntide. Notice that in the old Prayer Books there are readings put down for the days after these festivals: you had to have the service several times at those periods to accommodate all the parishioners. And churches had to get large chalices and flagons for the purpose: we have them in our own parish, brought out on special occasions, but why? - we were not then a parish church: perhaps it was felt to be part of the 'proper' kit. The Book insists that you receive the sacrament at least three times a year.

Of course you went to service every Sunday: but you experienced Matins, Litany, sermon and Ante-communion, i.e. the communion service down to the Prayer for the Church. It left little time for cleaning the car. It must have seemed an extraordinary change. 'Church' now took two hours rather than one or even less; it was much more wordy - and often long words at that; and of course much plainer and less colourful. The appeal was to the ear (and the brain) rather than the eye. There is no denying that in the reformed service there might be a growth in some kinds of understanding, but there was certainly a loss of a sense of wonder and traditional holiness.

The 17th century and religious division

The turbulent 17th century saw a temporary movement in favour of more solemn ceremony - a kind of 'high church' reaction, with the holy table put back inside the sanctuary. But it also saw the founding of a whole range of 'dissenting' bodies, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers, so that almost for the first time the parish church was no longer the place of meeting for virtually the whole of the population of the place. In addition there had for a century been in some places continuing Roman Catholic groups, usually centred on the homes of staunch Catholic gentry (e.g. Baddesley Clinton). In this setting, the Cranmer Prayer Book was revised a little and re-issued in 1662, to survive to the present, though now of course alongside more modern forms of service. It has to be said that there was, amid this upheaval, a marked reluctance of many to remain regular communicants or even attenders at worship, and prosecutions in church courts gradually ceased to be much of a deterrent.

Then in the 18th century, many came to feel that such a sense was in any case a kind of superstition, and Catholics were seen as full of it, whereas Protestantism was a sober and rational religion, if you had to have a religion at all. And that began to be an option, which you might just begin to declare. And the Eucharist would be an early casualty, for it was unmistakeably and dangerously 'holy'.

With ups and downs, so things went on until relatively recent times, and in the thirties in rural Cheshire, the morning service was just as described above. Of course people found it too long and too tedious and most had long since given up.

Catholic revival

In the 19th century there was, however, in England, the 'Catholic Revival'. In a spirit of going back to the riches of earlier days, and to the way our churches had been, a good many restored both the teaching and the manners of traditional catholic worship. It led to much protest from true Protestant Englishmen and in the 1880s even trials, with some clergy going to prison.

In the 20th century things settled down, though you can still tell the difference between churches of different traditions, and new variations have come into being more recently. We may note, however, that whenever there has been a revival of fervour of any kind, the Eucharist has tended to come back into prominence. The Wesleyan revival in the 18th century had this aspect, though later Methodism did not always maintain it.

Ceremony and vestments

It may be worth adding a note here on ceremonies and vestments, obvious features of the Eucharist as experienced in many churches and sometimes found puzzling. There can be discussion about their value as aids or hindrances to devotion and perhaps it depends on the kind of setting in view, e.g. whether a traditional church building or a room in a house, though even in the second case ceremony can help to foster a sense that something 'different' is happening.

Both the clothes worn by the ministers (priests and servers) and the formality of ceremony owe their origin to the practice of the Roman emperors' court: how should one approach God? Well, with at least the solemnity you see operating in the presence of the emperor or other great lord. Subsequently, of course, there have been variations and relaxations, and the recent tendency has been to greater simplicity. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the use of incense has greatly diminished and bishops are relatively rarely found in mitres!

A suggestion: to get a feel of these various periods in relation to the Eucharist, look at the hymns for Holy Communion in the English Hymnal. You will find examples from all periods - from Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (and before) to Wesley (and later). And you may be surprised that when it comes to devotion, people of different times and places have more in common than might often be suggested. A salutary lesson!

For further reflection:

  • How hard it is to 'feel' what people 'felt' about worship in the past; yet it is worth the effort - as a matter of imaginative sympathy, and because all the phases described have left their traces to our own day. To know them is to know ourselves.
  • How important is it to be clear in belief about the Eucharist? Is it more important just to worship?

Session Four: The Past Century:
Parish Communion and Vatican II

table of contents | study material

Clearly, our present situation has moved on since anything described so far - whatever the echoes. What has happened and why?

The Church as the Christian community

First, the recovery of shared Christian life. People in the 20th century studying the New Testament afresh were struck by the close-knit character of Christian life depicted there: it seemed to have been a matter not of individual piety or attachment but of a common life. You didn't 'go to church': you, together, simply were the Church, God's people in that place. You read 1 Corinthians and you learnt the lesson.
Plainly, the Eucharist must be so carried out as to express this conviction. So in the first half of the century, a number of influences worked together and produced change. There were German Benedictine monks (at monasteries like that at Maria Laach), and there were English monks and other priests who grasped the vision.

It seems that one of the earliest examples in our country of the changes that resulted took place at Temple Balsall. The congregation must meet together, Sunday by Sunday, for the Eucharist, and it must, ideally, be followed by breakfast, fellowship together. Perhaps there should also be regular meetings of the congregation to discuss the faith and its application. The priest's monopoly in the conduct of worship must be broken down: there must be servers and also readers and lay people helping to distribute the sacrament. All this was felt to reproduce what was understood of the life of the early church, which, perhaps with just a touch of romanticism, tended to be seen as a model.

We note that this has meant a tendency to go back on the medieval sense of the special holiness and wonder of the church building itself. If 'the church', properly understood, is the Christian community, then it can meet, in theory, anywhere: as we saw, it began in members' houses. So there has been a tendency in both the building of new churches and the re-furnishing of old ones, to go for simplicity and plainness: the church building is simply a space for the community to assemble; and we are to think of the 'holy people of God' rather than of 'holy places'. Of course this remains a matter of difference between people and it is easy in any case to live with both ways of seeing the matter. Visitors who are not themselves church members are often dismayed by the modern tendencies in church building and church furnishing!

The gathering of the people of God

Above all, the Eucharist must be the central service of the day. No longer must it be a safe refuge for the private devotion, as it seemed, of the very pious at 8.0 a.m., with rather formal, even stuffy, Morning Prayer to follow for the more conventional, but it must be the central worship of God's people in the place. It was, after all, the only worship that Christ commanded us to offer. There must be a sermon to expound the readings: formerly, sermons at the Holy Communion were not usual. In due course, it came to be felt that the priest should face the people, one with them, even if it required some rearrangement of the furniture. And baptism should no longer be a private family act on a Sunday afternoon, but take place, as in the early centuries, publicly, in the face of the congregation. What's more, after the service, people should not flee back to their own individual lives, but socialize with their fellow-Christians. All this is pretty recent innovation in most places.

There can be no doubt that the Parish Communion movement brought about a revolution in Anglican worship in the twentieth century, affecting the greater number of the parishes and cathedrals. It has managed to influence not only those of 'catholic' tendency but also those who prefer a plainer or more evangelical style of worship or preaching. It has also affected the Free Churches, where the Eucharist has become a much commoner feature of worship.

In the Roman Catholic Church there has been parallel development, and in some ways it has been more revolutionary. As we saw, the movement in general had some of its roots there, especially in Catholic monasteries. Then, in France after World War II, there were similar movements. In the 1950s, one visited Paris to see a church where these developments could be witnessed first-hand.

Then came the Second Vatican Council, which took the revolutionary step of (largely) dropping the use of Latin and ordering that services be conducted in the language of the people. It was a late catch-up with the Reformation! Not easy, of course: first, it led to a lot of translation work - and it must be vetted; second, it led to resistance, even to the point of small schisms, and bishops have to permit Latin in some places or from time to time. Priests must now face the people if at all possible, and the receiving of communion by those present became normal - for the first time for centuries, in fact for most of Christian history, extraordinary as it seems. The sense of community is not easy to foster, given the large numbers in many Catholic parishes, but much is done to increase it. (In other words, the liturgical movement, as it came to be called, contributes greatly to ecumenical relations.)

New forms of service

In the same period, it came to seem that the actual forms of service were outliving their usefulness, or at least needed supplementing by more modern forms. This was not just a matter of the old language no longer being what people actually used or found it easy to make sense of. It was also the case that the old services did not express our best understanding of the Eucharist, given what was now seen to be true of its origins and structure. This affected different churches in different ways, though much of the creating of new liturgies has happened in the closest of collaboration between Catholics, Anglicans and others. The casual visitor can no longer be so sure what brand of church he or she is attending!

In the case of Anglicans, it was a matter of recovering the sense that the eucharistic prayer is not a magic formula centring on the 'words of institution' from the Last Supper, as it easily seems to be, but a prayer of thanksgiving to God for all his goodness to us in creation and redemption, with the recital of the Supper words as a reminder of the service's deepest roots and Jesus' solemn gift, uniting us to him and to each other. The first really new eucharistic liturgy came in the late 1960s, using more modern and crisp wording but also taking up older forms of worship as the model, especially in the 'shape' of the service. Since then we have had two further reforms, which both modernized language and offered more variety of forms of the eucharistic prayer, to be appropriate to different kinds of occasion.

In the case of Roman Catholics, it was more a matter of changing the ethos, towards what was said above about the 'feel' of the Parish Communion: there must be more flexibility, simpler forms of words, the exchange of the Peace, perhaps more informal prayer, more participation (in reading, interceding and administering communion) by lay people.

Social factors

It is of course the case that some of these developments result from the changed position of the churches in Western society. They are no longer institutions you belong to simply because you live there - faith is no longer like that. They are communities within society that you belong to because you choose to (even if you were brought into them by your family to begin with). In other words, they depend much more on faith - and the developments just described become more understandable. It is of course partly true that in some ways they make our present position more like that of the Church in the centuries before Constantine (though less risk of persecution, for the moment); so it is not surprising that recovering some of their ways seems attractive. All the same, we are not just living in the past in a romantic kind of way: we are, we trust, responding to the realities of our society - and doing justice to central features of the faith.

To bring us back with a bump to the Eucharist, we can reflect on this saying which may be felt to over-simplify but still to make a point: 'The Christian religion is very simple: all it needs is bread and wine, and if possible a little water'.

For further reflection:

  • In some ways, we have come full circle: the Church is a community
    within society, no longer identical with it; and the Eucharist is its distinctive common act, expressing what it really is and fortifying its common life.
  • How hard it is to feel the implications of the changed situation: how much of it is for the good? Where might things go next?

Introduction to study material

table of contents | Resource Material for Sunday afternoon Lent Groups:
study material: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

To survey the history, as we have tried to do, is to understand oneself better. It may be worth thinking out what we owe to different facets and phases of the past in the worship we ourselves experience - most obviously in forms of prayer and the words and music of hymns. We cannot help being nourished by what our predecessors have bequeathed to us. How far is this legacy also an impediment? It is difficult to know when to hold fast and when to change. Yet change needs to be such that we do not lose touch with our inheritance - for the Christian faith lives in the present but out of the past, initially the life of Jesus himself.

We append one of the most splendid pieces of writing ever penned on our subject, from The Shape of the Liturgy by the Anglican monk, Dom Gregory Dix. Let it encourage us both in our study and in our praying of the Eucharist in our time and place.

Resource Material for Sunday afternoon Lent Groups

table of contents
study material: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four
sermons: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

We do not intend to fix any particular agenda for the Sunday afternoon discussion groups. In the light of the background historical material and the sermons, you might like to bring your own particular reflections and questions.

There follows some material and questions related to each of the sermons that you might like to use as a framework for each of the weeks. Copies of the sermons will also be available separately.

Extract from The Shape of the Liturgy,
by Dom Gregory Dix, 1945

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 pinnacles 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; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; 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 S. 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.

Week One

table of contents | historical notes - Session 1
study material: Week Two | Week Three | Week Four
sermons: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

The Gathering of the People of God: Approach and Preparation
Poem by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Week One: Gathering and preparation
Questions for further thought and reflection

1. How do we prepare to gather for the service?
The importance of the Stewards and being aware of those around us, perhaps especially those who need help with finding their way through the service.

2. What helps us to gather?
How do we get the balance between welcoming friendly conversation (even doing the bits of Church business and administration) and silence?

  • What helps you to prepare?
  • What helps create a sense of belonging and intimacy so that we all feel that we belong?
  • And what about those who wish to be quiet and get in tune?
  • Do we all need to do that?

3. In this part of the service are there any particular prayers or phrases that have helped you on your Spiritual journey?

4. Do you feel that you participate in the service? Do you ever get bored or distracted? What do we do with this boredom or distraction?

5. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our church building? Could we survive without it?

Week Two

table of contents | historical notes - Session 2
study material: Week One | Week Three | Week Four
sermons: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

The Liturgy of the Word & our deeper involvement
Questions for discussion

1. The Readings - do you ever read the set readings before you come to Church on Sunday? Does the commentary on the Readings in the Pew Sheet help you?

2. Would it help to have a period of silence after the readings? All or each?

3. What do you find helpful and unhelpful about preaching and sermons? Should we think about doing the sermon in a different kind of way?

4. What do you do when there is something that you disagree with in the sermon or the readings?

5. What helps you to concentrate? How do you prepare to listen? What do you do when you feel distracted? How do you bring parts of yourself and your experience into the service?

6. What are your Reflections on the Creed? Are there parts of it that you don't understand or question?

7. What aspects of the intercessions do you find helpful or unhelpful?

Week Three

table of contents | historical notes - Session 3
study material: Week One | Week Two | Week Four
sermons: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer

'In search of a round table'
Chuck Lathrop

It will take some sawing
To be roundtabled.
Some redefining
And redesigning,
Some redoing and rebirthing
Of narrow long Churching
Can painful be
For people and tables.
It would mean no daising
And throning,
For but one king is there
And he is a foot washer,
At table no less.

And what of narrow long ministers
When they confront
A round table people,
After years of working up the table
To finally sit at its head,
Only to discover
That the table has been turned round?

They must be loved into roundness,
For God has called a People
Not "them and us".
"them and us" are unable
to gather round; for at a round table
there are no sides
and ALL are invited
to wholeness and to food.

At one time
Our narrowing churches
Were built to resemble the Cross
But it does no good
For building to do so,
If lives do not.

Round tabling means
No preferred seating,
No first and last,
No better, and no corners
For the "least of these".
Roundtableing means
Being with,
A part of,
Together and one.
It means room for the Spirit
And gifts
And disturbing profound peace for all.

We can no longer prepare for the past.
We will and must and are called
To be Church,
And if He calls for other than a round table
We are bound to follow.

Leaving the sawdust
And chips, designs and redesigns
Behind, in search of and in presence of
The Kingdom
That is His and not ours.

Week Three
Questions for discussion

1. Do you find the way we carry out the central act of the service clear and helpful?

2. The Eucharist is both 'homely' and ' mysterious': can you feel both aspects without too much difficulty?

3. How helpful is the music we use?

4. Do you have questions about the meaning of this part of the service?

5. Is it more important to 'understand' or to 'feel' the meaning of what is happening in the Eucharist?

Week Four

table of contents | historical notes - Session 4
study material: Week One | Week Two | Week Three
sermons: Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four

The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion:
the individual in relation to the community

Soul of my Saviour, sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
Wash me with water flowing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesu, hear and answer me;
Deep in they wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
So shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
In death's dread moments make me only thine;
Call me and bid me come to thee on high
Where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.


Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
That holy things have taken
Let ears that now have heard thy songs
To clamour never waken.

Lord, may the tongues which 'Holy' sang
Keep free from all deceiving;
The eyes which saw thy love be bright,
The blessèd hope perceiving.

The feet that tread thy holy courts
From light do thou not banish;
The bodies by the Body fed
With thy new life replenish.

Week Four
Questions for further thought and reflection

1. How can we relate our worship to our daily lives more effectively?

2. Is such 'relating' a matter for us as individuals or are there steps for us to take as a community?

3. What problems and opportunities arise in relating worship to life at home?

4. And to life at work?

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

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