Recently I came across another concerning post on Anglican Pastor entitled “4 Reasons Why I Now Celebrate Communion Facing the Altar, Not the People”
In this piece the author, Rev’d Ben Jefferies give four reasons why he has adopted the practice. However after reading his piece I remain unconvinced by his article for numerous reasons and found his article concerning on several fronts. No doubt there are others who can articulate those concerns better than I can, but here are two reasons that stood out to me.
1. Anglicans do not have altars.
Jefferies insists of using the term altar when even those most cursory glance at the liturgy of the Anglican Church (the Book of Common Prayer) and the history of Classical Cranmerian Anglicanism shows that we have no altars. Whilst some may deem his use of the term to be mere semantics, I believe that Jefferies use is deliberate. It buttresses his notion that although we don’t offer anything pertaining to our salvation, we still offer something; and also supports his notion that the priest’s role is sacerdotal, not in the full Roman sense, but in a way that goes beyond the Scriptures. For example he writes:
The spotlight is no longer on you, as a person, and the experience you are or are not having. Rather, you become subordinate to the role you are there to fulfill: the role of priest…In the pulpit I am to preach God’s Word to the people. But in the Eucharistic prayers, I am to take the people’s spiritual needs to God, as an appointed intercessor.
Anglican priests/presbyters preside over a memorial meal at the Lord’s table. They do not act as the appointed interccessor at the Altar. God’s people only have one appointed intercessor and that it is the Holy Spirit:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[ the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.(Romans 8:26-27)
God’s people also have only one mediator – the Lord Jesus Christ
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Tim 2:5-6)
Know where in the Book of Common Prayer is the Lord’s Table ever referred to as an Altar. The Rubric in the BCP also says:
The Table at the Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the Chancel, where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said. And the Priest standing on the north side of the Table shall say the Lord’s Prayer with the Collect following, the people kneeling.
This was ratified in the changes made in the second Prayer Book of Edward VI (1552). Two important changes that are worth noting:
- The term altar was removed and no loner used to refer to the Holy Table.
- The officiating clergyman was to stand “at the north side” of the table instead of “afore the midst of the altar”
2. We are not sacrificing or offering anything at the Lord’s Table
Jefferies seems to be struggling to have it both ways. He writes: As the priest, I am presenting things to God, to please him.
But then states: What can we present to [God] that he will find acceptable? Certainly not our merits or works or anything from us, or even, anything in the created world whatsoever. The only offering that is pleasing to God is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross at Golgotha. That was the one pleasing, propitiatory sacrifice. The only acceptable oblation to God the Father.
Yes, as the BCP says:
Almighty God, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine 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 fo the whole world;
But then again puzzlingly, Jefferies states:
Therefore, how dare we bring before Almighty God anything of less value! Therefore, the best (and only!) thing we can offer is a memorial of that one sacrifice on the cross. A remembrance to God, that we spiritually lift up before him, asking for him to accept in our place. We ask God the Father to accept the oblation of Jesus on our behalf, and in a mysterious way, we make this plea through the celebration of Holy Communion.
The only thing that we can offer to God of ourselves is our gratitude: Our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (to use the words of the Eucharistic prayer). And besides that, our whole selves, which we also offer in the prayer.
But even as we offer ourselves, it is not as ourselves that we render ourselves to the Father. Rather, as the Body of Christ, as part of Christ, we the Church present our lives, body and soul, to God, as part of Christ’s own offering of himself to God.
Some may think we offer something on an Altar, we don’t offer anything on a table. 1 At the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion, we are not presenting anything to God. We are not asking God to accept anything in our place, as Scripture and the BCP already attests, Christ has made the once for all sacrifice in our place. We don’t need to ask God the Father to accept what He has already accepted.
W.H. Griffith Thomas puts it well in his seminal work The Catholic Faith: a Manual of Instruction for Members of the Church of England:
The truth is that, strictly and accurately, the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice but a sacrament. It has sacrificial aspects and relations because it is so closely associated in thought and purpose with the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and becasue it is the standing testimony to the world and to ourselves of our constant need of and perpetual dependance on that sacrifice in all our approach to God. In a sacrifice we give, we yield up; in a sacrament we receive, we appropriate. The only acts in the Lord’s Supper according to the institution are “take”, “eat”, “drink”, “this do”, and these are not sacrificial. The ideas of a sacrifice and a sacrament are so distinct and different that the Lord’s Supper, unless Scripture warrants it, cannot be both at the same time”.
So for an Anglican priest to adopt a posture that sends the message that we have altars, that Anglican priests are acting as intercessors and mediators, that we are offering anysort of sacrifice, turns the Lord’s Supper into something it is not.
I remember as a teenager watching a movie entitled The Highlander. I don’t remember much of this movie except two things:
- The main actor’s Scottish accent has to be the worst version in movie history (even Mel Gibson’s Braveheart version was better).
- The line in the movie “there can be only one” (that is, only one immortal).
Thus when it comes to the Altar “there can be only one” – and it was the Cross at Golgotha. When it comes to the sacrifice, there can be only one – and that was the Lord Jesus Christ. When it comes to our mediator, there can be only one – and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. When it comes to the intercessor for God’s people in prayer, – there can be only one – and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. A careful reading of the liturgy of the BCP one can see that the prayer where we offer “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” takes place after the Lord’s Prayer, which is prayed after the Lord’s Supper has completed. Note the rubric:
When all have communicated; the Minster shall return to the Lord’s Table, and reverently place upon it what remaineth of the consecrated Elements, covering the same with a fair linen cloth. Then shall the Priest says the Lord’s Prayer, the people repeateding after him ever petition.
I believe that Cranmer was intentionally placing this prayer where he does in order to dispell any notion that we are offering anything upon an altar and that our prayers be consistent with the Apostle Paul’s teaching that the sacrifice we offer is our daily lives (Romans 12:1).