One of the bugbears of the revisers was the “overly penitential” nature of the Book of Common Prayer, and one of their favourite targets was the Prayer of Humble Access, held up for mockery as the Prayer of Humble Excess.Hat tip to Jim Hilborn.
The authors of the Canadian Book of Alternative Services (BAS) followed the lead of those who produced the 1979 U.S. Prayer Book, and removed the same words. During the wave of propaganda that accompanied its introduction, the removal of these words became something of a touchstone, a cause célèbre, for the liturgical changes it embodied. It was proudly pointed out at so many “implementation sessions” for the BAS how the revised wording was so superior to that of the BCP. Cranmer’s phrase was derided for being “simplistic”, “literal minded”, even “fundamentalist” in implying that the bread was for our bodies, and the chalice for our souls, even though the Words of Administration which immediately follow the Prayer of Humble Access make it clear that both bread and wine are for the preservation and cleansing of both body and soul.
BAS for the Cranmer’s wording was based on a footnote from Dom Gregory Dix’s book The Shape of the Liturgy (p. 611-12), where Cranmer’s memorable and sublime phrase is dismissed as a “mediaeval speculation”. (Dix’s book was treated with something approaching reverence by the liturgical revisers, almost as if it were Holy Scripture itself.) In fact, Dix had it quite wrong: the parallel imagery “bread/Body/body” on the one hand and “wine/Blood/soul” on the other (that is, the bread of the sacrament / the Body of Christ given for us / our bodies, and the wine of the sacrament / the Blood of Christ shed for us / our souls), is neither mediaeval nor speculative. Thomas Aquinas derives it from Ambrosiaster, the patristic writer of the fourth century, and Ambrosiaster in turn derives it directly from Leviticus 17:11: “It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Thus the imagery belongs to the early Church’s meditation on the Scriptures, and to the Scriptures themselves. It needs to be remembered that it is this mind of the early church as it meditated upon the Scriptures which was the ideal for the Anglican reformers, in contrast to the Continental reformers, who tended to work on the basis of sola Scriptura , “Scripture alone”. So Cranmer’s memorable language encapsulates Aquinas, Ambrosiaster, and Leviticus - Mediaeval Church, Patristic Church, and the Old Testament, all in reference to the supreme act of Our Lord’s sacrifice for us as set out in the New Testament.
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