Cranmer's teachings on the Lord's Supper
A review of Nigel Scotland's book 'The Supper. Cranmer and Communion.'
This introduction to Cranmer’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is a timely reminder of the importance of understanding what Anglicans believe about the practice itself. When both ecumenism and Anglo-Catholicism threaten the distinctive Anglican identity, Nigel Scotland offers a fresh examination of what Cranmer himself believed about communion as expressed both in the liturgies and his formal doctrinal writings (12).
Scotland begins by affirming Cranmer’s reformational project; though his theology was a work in progress, Cranmer understood himself in line with the continental reformers against the papists and Medieval Roman Church of his time. He believed that Christianity is an “affair of the heart” (10), which means that genuine worship is an expression of genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation (14). This faith is in the person and work of Jesus Christ which are illustrated in the gospel sacraments. The Lord’s Supper “enshrines the good news of the gospel in [a] way that no other meal does” (13). The communion elements are not miraculous in themselves, nor do they provide salvation in themselves; rather, they affirm, strengthen, and symbolize the gospel message.
The remainder of the book is a detailed analysis of Cranmer’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Chapter three provides details on the arguments against transubstantiation, and the following chapters all provide a positive theology of what the Lord’s Supper is. Since Christ is corporally in heaven, he cannot be physically present in the bread and wine; instead, they should worship him sacramentally, “‘as a thing may be said to be in the figure, whereby it is signified’” (20, citing Cranmer, Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament, 4.11). In other words, believers receive Christ through the bread and wine as a sign. What exactly is being signified takes up the last five chapters in Scotland’s work.
Chapter four defines communion as a fellowship meal, both between the Father and the church as well as the Christians gathered together (29). The meal serves as a visual reminder of the unity of Christ’s church placed within the context of the early church’s breaking of bread in their homes (33–34). The next chapter describes the eucharist as a “feast of spiritual food” (35). The elements are consecrated by the faithful when they are received in faith. In other words, a person received Christ’s spiritual presence when they ate and drank with faith (37). Along with publicly reading the Scriptures and delivering homilies, Cranmer believed that consuming the eucharistic elements in faith allowed the communicant to “obtain remission of [their] sins and all other benefits of his passion” (40–42). The communion service provides spiritual nourishment as it strengthens faith.
In chapter six, Scotland explores communion as a meal for remembrance. Just as the Passover meal served as a reminder of the Israelite exodus from Egyptian bondage, so too the eucharistic meal serves as a reminder of the Christian’s exodus from bondage to sin (45). Chapter seven concludes this portion of the book by defining the eucharist as a thanksgiving meal “for our redemption and all the blessings of this life” (50–51). Worship without thanksgiving is dead, for there is nothing else that believers can offer God except thanks for what he has already done for them.
The book concludes with a series of applications for today’s church. Parishes interested in historic Anglicanism would do well to note that Cranmer placed an extraordinary emphasis, both in his doctrinal work but also in his liturgy, on the importance of faith, proclamation of the gospel through homilies, and public Scripture reading (54). The eucharist is a tool to be used in this sense: the elements are not ends in themselves, nor are they beneficial if they are received without faith. Instead, they exist to deepen the believer’s fellowship with God and the church and strengthen his own bonds of faith.
While Scotland could afford one more pass by an editor, his book offers a plain and straightforward account of Cranmer’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper. For those interested in the English reformer and Anglican theology, this book is a welcome addition to any collection.