Q: How valid is the consecration of the bread and wine in a Lutheran or Episcopal Holy Eucharist liturgy? I have always believed/sensed that Holy Communion in the Lutheran church is in fact holy, and not a sham. Some Catholics have told me I am not receiving Christ if I am not in the Catholic church. (I am Lutheran-going-on-Catholic. I have investigated the Episcopal church, also.)
A: First a little background for those who aren’t aware of it. There are four basic views on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Two of them are nominalist (symbolist) views and two of them are realist views. These two pairs are referred to as “low” or “high” Eucharistic theologies (there are no middle Eucharistic theologies since one either falls on one side of the divide or the other concerning whether Christ’s body and blood are symbolically or really present in the elements).
The first Eucharistic theology claims that the elements are metaphysically just bread and wine and that they symbolize Christ’s body and blood, making this a straight memorial of Christ’s death. This view is commonly taught in Baptist and Baptist-influenced churches. And the Baptists are right about the elements in their churches — they are a straight memorial (since if one is not seeking grace in communion one is not likely to get much of it), and it is a noble thing to commemorate Christ’s death.
The second Eucharistic theology claims that the elements are metaphysically just bread and wine and that they symbolize Christ’s body and blood but that they serve as channels of God’s grace in some sense. This was Calvin’s view and is commonly taught in Presbyterian churches in other countries, though in this country many Presbyterian churches have been influenced by Baptistic tendencies in their theology on this point. And Presbyterians are right about the elements in their churches — they are means of grace since Presbyterians do not seek merely to commemorate Christ’s death in communion but also to gain grace from him, and it is a noble thing to commemorate Christ’s death and seek his grace in the act.
The third Eucharistic theology claims that the elements are metaphysically bread and wine and that, in addition to this, they contain Christ’s body and blood (and presumably his soul and divinity since these infuse his body and blood). This is the view taught in Lutheran and Anglican (/Episcopalian) churches, though they use different language to express it. We will look at the status of the Eucharist in these churches below.
The fourth Eucharistic theology claims that the elements are metaphysically Christ’s body and blood (because he said “This is my body — This is my blood,” not “This contains my body — This contains my blood”). This is the view taught by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the other ancient Christian churches, such as the Abyssinian church, the Armenian church, the Coptic church, etc. (these latter ones are small locally-based groups which broke off between A.D. 400 and 1000, and which in recent times have been moving toward reunion). Because the fourth Eucharistic theology is so supernatural (and thus so not what naturalistic human reason would expect), Christ had to stress it especially forcefully, knowing that there would be a natural human tendency to water it down and deny it (cf. John 6:51-71), even being willing to lose members of the Twelve rather than weaken his teaching on this point (John 6:66-67).
In order for the consecration of the elements to take place, it must be performed by a ministerial priest, different than the universal priesthood all believers share (I will go into why in tomorrow’s question of the day). Since the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the other ancient Christian churches have preserved the ministerial priesthood through the apostolic succession of bishops, their Eucharists are valid.
Unfortunately, the ministerial priesthood has not been retained in Protestant churches. It did not have to be this way, for the other Christian churches have retained it, but most Protestant churches (all but the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition) have rejected the existence of a ministerial priesthood distinct from the universal priesthood (see my pieces, The Office of New Testament Priest and The Priesthood Debate) and thus ceased to perpetuate it, breaking the apostolic succession in their circles.
It is equally unfortunate that, while many Anglican/Episcopalians profess belief in a ministerial priesthood, the apostolic succession was ruptured in their circles also and their priesthood is no longer valid. After Henry VIII broke away from the Church, seized its infrastructure in England, and (literally) used conversion by the sword to create the Church of England (threatening bishops, priests, and laity with imprisonment and death if they did not convert to his body and thus creating the wave of Catholic martyrs in England and Wales and later in Scotland and Ireland), his successor Edward VI introduced a drastically altered and invalid version of the rite of ordination with the result that the apostolic succession (which had previously been present in the Anglican church) ceased and its ministerial priesthood stopped. (I will be making available Pope Leo VIII’s determination of the issue.)
Thus, unfortunately, there are no valid Eucharists in Protestant churches except for those performed by priests who were ordained as priests by a bishop in the apostolic succession or ordained by bishops who were ordained as bishops by another bishop in the apostolic succession. There are some of these in Protestant circles, and so some Protestant Eucharists are valid, but, regrettably, there is no Protestant denomination of which this is true as a whole.
This does not mean that Protestants such as Lutherans and Anglicans do not experience a real encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist. They can and often do receive Jesus spiritually in communion, they just do not receive him in the fully, sacramental manner he intended and which he wants them to experience. Thus, to quote the original question, these communions are not just “a sham” but can be described as “holy” in that they can be genuine spiritual encounters with Christ which communicate grace to the recipient, even though they are not the full encounters he intended and wants to have with his followers.
Thus upon entering the life of Catholic fullness one does not need to look back upon one’s former communions as empty shams, but as genuine spiritual encounters with the Risen Christ, encounters which gave one the grace to approach Christ even more closely and finally come to the fullness of his Eucharistic embrace, allowing him to fill one with the mighty Reality of his corporal, sanguine, pneumatic, and divine Presence, cleansing and transforming one from within as one humbly submits to and receives one’s Creator in the Blessed, the Glorious, the Most Holy Communion.