The role of Communion in other Christian denominations

Father John A. Kiley

The question occasionally arises among Roman Catholics as to whether they should receive Communion when attending Episcopal Church services. After all, some argue, their Mass looks just the same as ours, and indeed it does.

Some Episcopal churches are renowned for their vestments, statues, incense and bells. The difference between their rite and ours appears minimal. A friend had a good theory about receiving Communion in Episcopal churches. If a particular Episcopal priest has valid orders, then his words of consecration are as effective as those of a Catholic priest and worshipers should approach the Communion rail out of respect for Christ’s body truly present. If an Episcopal priest does not have valid orders, then his words of consecration are purely figurative; Christ is not truly present and so little harm is done by participating in a merely symbolic gesture. Somehow this proposal does not seem to be the best foundation for a decent ecumenical dialogue.

When King Henry VIII first severed the Church in England from the Church of Rome, the average worshiper would have noticed very little difference on a Sunday morning. The rites, sacraments and basic beliefs of the Church of England mirrored almost exactly the tenets of the universal church. Only now Henry, not the pope, was the church’s supreme governor. It was actually under Henry’s young son, Edward VI, that Protestantism began to eclipse Catholicism in England. Queen Mary’s attempt to restore Catholicism backfired since Protestants who took refuge in Europe during her reign came back to England under Queen Elizabeth more Calvinistic than ever. While Elizabeth was clever enough to insist on a middle road between Protestantism and Catholicism (bishops, Masses and Bibles), the celebrated Thirty-Nine Articles outlining the Anglican faith left little doubt about the place of the Eucharist in English worship. Article XXVIII, “Of the Lord's Supper”: Transubstantiation is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture; the Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. The Eucharist was not to be reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped.

Article XXXI, “Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross”: Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said, that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits. Clearly the Real Presence and transubstantiation were taboo in the island kingdom!

The Anglican Church in England and the Protestant Episcopal Church here in America continued in this basically Protestant appreciation of the Eucharist until the early 19th century. Perhaps in a romantic nostalgia for antiquity, some clergy within the English church began to take a second look at ceremony, vesture and liturgical appointments. The Oxford Movement, also known as the Catholic Revival, began in 1833. This movement sought to restore the sacraments, rituals and outward forms of Catholicism to the Church of England. By the mid-20th century, many of the practices advocated by this group had been widely incorporated on both sides of the Atlantic. This Catholic Revival succeeded in transforming the liturgy of the Anglican Church, repositioning holy Communion as the central act of worship in place of the daily prayers, and reintroducing the use of vestments, ceremonial, and acts of piety (even eucharistic adoration) that had long been prohibited in the English church. John Henry Cardinal Newman is perhaps the most celebrated alumnus of this movement.

Since the Anglican Mass began to resemble the Catholic Mass in certain aspects, the question was asked of Pope Leo XIII in 1896 as to whether or not Anglican ordinations were valid and whether their Mass was truly a Mass. In terms that sound harsh in our ecumenical age, Leo XIII declared in Apostolicae Curae that Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void.” The pope argued that the 300 years during which the English church denied the Mass as a sacrifice severed the link with the apostolic church and fractured any connection with the Last Supper in which Christ instituted the Eucharist as a sacrificial banquet.

The sacrificial nature of the Mass is more important than the ceremonial rites of the Mass in discerning valid priestly orders and in effecting the real presence of Christ at Communion. Apostolicity is more important than appearances.