09 November 2001

I'm still working my way through the book on Anglicanism. The two initial essays that trace the history of the tradition were helpful for providing a context for further topics.

In the meantime, however, a shipment of books from amazon.co.uk has arrived, including among them a small book by N.T. Wright entitled Holy Communion for Amateurs.

The little book is part of a larger "for amateurs" series of books edited by Michael Green, aimed at giving the nuts and bolts on a topic without assuming much background and in a chatty, informal style. Other volumes in the series include a couple by Green himself and Theology for Amateurs by Alister McGrath.

Wright's book on Holy Communion is not a book to read if you want some kind of overall theology of the Lord's Supper argued in exegetical detail and interacting with various past theological traditions. Rather, it is a very informal presentation, with lots of imaginative narratives, some cartoon illustrations, and the like. It's not a heavy theological treatise.

That being said, Wright does deal with some basic issues like terminology: breaking bread, communion, eucharist, Lord's supper, mass. He explains them in a way that should make them less a stumbling block to some folks in traditions perhaps unfamiliar with the range of terms. He does also deal with medieval Roman Catholic views like transubstantiation or how the mass was popularly understood to be a new sacrifice of Jesus (though, as he recognizes, that was never the official teaching). Wright suggests how these notions are indeed mistaken, but that there are nonetheless real issues here to be grasped.

The Supper, he emphasizes, is an objective (this do) remembrance/memorial of Jesus' sacrifice on Golgotha, bringing the signficance of that one-time past event forward to meet us. He does mention the colloquy at Marburg, the dispute between Luther and Zwingli, the mediating views of folks like Oecolampadius and Calvin. On the whole he seems to approve of Calvin's view of the Real Presence, though suggesting that Calvin's notion of our "ascent" into heaven by the Spirit to Jesus might be too spatial. Rather he prefers thinking in terms of time.

And one thing that may trouble some folks is his talk about time. Wright speaks a great deal about the Supper as bringing the past and future to meet in the present, as Paul says "whenever (present) you do this you proclaim the Lord's death (past) until he comes (future)." But we shouldn't mistake Wright here, I think, as espousing any weird kind of metaphysical theory about time. He compares the eucharist in several instances to a birthday party and, of course, to the Passover meal.

At a birthday, the joy of someone's past birth is "brought forward" and celebrated in the present as well as anticipating the person's future life, "many happy returns!" Similarly, at Passover, Israel symbolically re-lived the Exodus, recalling God's past deliverance that made them who they are in the present, and looking foward and anticipating the final deliverance of God's people, beginning to live it out here and now in the Passover feast.

The Lord's Supper, Wright submits, is similar. Some details and qualifications here might have been helpful, but I think for most readers what he says will "click".

One feature of the book I particularly appreciated were two short chapters (Chapters 13 and 14) in which he sets out the basic elements of the historic liturgy using the structure of the Emmaus road incident as a model: troubled disciples are met by Jesus, they pour their hearts out to him (Kyrie, confession), he speaks to them with their hearts burning (Word and Credo), they arrive at their dwelling where Jesus plays host, bread is broken in order to make Jesus known (eucharist), and they return to Jerusalem with the good news (our being sent out at the end of liturgy).

If someone wanted to understand what the basic historic liturgy was all about, as it is celebrated in most confessional traditions (Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) these 8 or so pages summarize it quite well.

And there are a couple of other interesting points at which Wright spells out his opinion on issues that have proven somewhat controversial in certain circles. First, he insists (contra some of the Aussie Anglicans) that the eucharist be presided over by an ordained minister. He writes:

"On one matter of current debate I think we must hold the traditional line very firmly. The Eucharist, Communion, the Jesus-meal, is not the possession of a set of private groups. It is God's gift to the people of God in Christ as a whole. It is vital that the person presiding be in some way a sign of that unity...It won't do for anyone at all to pop up and preside. In most churches this means some form of ordination."

Secondly, he gives a ringing endorsement of paedo-communion. He writes:

"I would plead strongly with those churches which have not yet done so to regard all the baptised, including children, as rightful recipients of Communion. Linking confirmation to communion was a mediaeval trick to boost the numbers of confirmation candidates. Baptism is the way into the family; the Eucharist is the family meal Of course, babies need to learn table manners before they can take regular part. But I see no justification for keeping Communion as an adults-only event..."

All in all, I would recommend Wright's book. It certainly doesn't say everything (it is just a simple introduction), but what it says is basically sound, I think, and serves as a good foundation for building more in depth.