The Real Absence: Cranmer & Bucer's Eucharist

by Art Sippo

Of the various forms of Classical Protestantism which have survived to our day, the one deemed most "Catholic" has been the Church or England, both in its architecture and its rites. In reality, this is a false perception brought about by the catholicizing influence of the Oxford Movement from the middle 19th Century.

The original schism between Henry VIII and the Catholic Church initially brought about no changes in the liturgy, but merely the seizure of property from the Church to fill the coffers of Henry's treasury and enrich his friends. The true origin of the Anglican Church began after Henry's death under the boy king Edward VI. Finally freed from his rapacious master, the arch-apostate bishop Thomas Cranmer began a campaign to de-catholicize the Anglican Church by "reforming" the liturgy. In doing so, he severed the schismatics in England not only from communion with the Holy See but with the Church of all time. The first step in the official "reform" of the liturgy was the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. With its publication, Cranmer managed to extinguish Apostolic Succession and to deny — at first implicitly but, in later editions, most explicitly—transubstantiation and the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Cranmer's program was not his original idea. Rather, he was influenced by one of the most ubiquitous, insidious, and little mentioned figures of the 16th century: Martin Bucer. Originally a Dominican priest, Bucer became an early advocate of the "reform" in Germany. He lived in Strasbourg and actively agitated for the protestantization of the Church in that area.

Bucer eventually had to leave Germany and went to France and Switzerland where he became a major influence on the young "reformer" John Calvin at a critical point in Calvin's career. Bucer expounded a merely symbolic meaning to the sacraments –especially the Eucharist.

The Reformed Liturgy
It was Bucer whom Cranmer called upon to help him "reform" the Anglican liturgy. Eventually, Bucer came to England and he held sway at Cambridge University assisting in the composition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and its planned revision until his death in 1551. After the death of Edward VI, when Queen Mary restored England to the Catholic Church, albeit briefly, the remains of Bucer were disinterred and burned publicly at Cambridge for his part in the destruction of England's faith and liturgy.

The original 1549 BCP was a "simplified" translation of the Latin text of the Sarum usage into vernacular English with the overt references to sacrifice "suppressed." The basic rite of communion remained unchanged. Altars were still used with both the priest and the people facing to the east. The faithful came up and knelt at the altar rail to receive the host. To the ordinary layman, not much seemed to have changed.

However, the 1549 BCP also contained a revised rite of ordination (ordinal) for deacons, priests, and bishops, which completely suppressed any notion of the minister as offering sacrifice and in fact implied that all three offices differed only nominally from each other. The three rites were virtually identical. The four minor orders were suppressed. This Edwardine Ordinal has always been held by the Holy See to be insufficient to confect Holy Orders. This point was forcefully asserted by Pope Leo XIII in the Bull "Apostolicae Curae" in 1896 in which he drew the final conclusion after careful study that the defect of intention in the 1549 Ordinal rendered any attempt at ordination by subsequent Anglican rites to be "absolutely null and utterly void."

The 1552 BCP revision —thanks to Bucer's direct input— was far more radical. Cranmer and Bucer intended by the new rite to deny any difference between the minister and the people. They also wanted to deny the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic rite, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Species. To those ends, several things were done. Altars were replaced with free standing tables. The minister faced the congregation over the table during the entire ceremony. He was not a priest mediating between the people and God but the leader of the congregation leading them in a rite that proceeded from the authority of the community as a whole. Kneeling was held to a minimum because this was a sign of difference between minister and people and because it implied worship of the Eucharistic elements. The congregation stood during the "consecration" of the eucharistic elements just as the minister did. Reception of Communion was done standing, into the hand, and under both species for everyone, both minister and laity. The Eucharist was not reserve. What was not consumed was often used later deliberately for regular eating and drinking in order to scoff at the scruples of the Catholics.

The original draft of the 1552 BCP was sent to Parliament for ratification. Not everyone in Parliament understood what was being done and why. They were just told that the three year-old BCP was obsolete and needed further revision to "keep up with the times." Some objections were raised and some changes were made in the text before the new BCP revision was passed. One thing in particular was that the people were allowed to kneel for communion as an option.

The Black Rubric
After Parliament's final vote, Cranmer illegally added what became known as the "Black Rubric" to the text. This rubric was inserted as a footnote where permission was given for kneeling during Communion. The rubric stated that while one might kneel for communion, this did not imply any worship of the sacred Species as if they were truly the Body and Blood of Christ.

In 1553, Cranmer promulgated "The Forty Two Articles" of the Anglican Church imitating the Lutheran "Augsburg Confession." Later, these would be reconfigured by pseudo-bishop Matthew Parker as "The Thirty Nine Articles" under Queen Elizabeth in 1563. In both sets of articles, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was specifically condemned. The Thirty Nine Articles teaches a variation on Luther's view of consubstantiation and condemns the views of Zwingli, Calvin, and Bucer. Revisions to the BCP in 1558, 1604, and 1662 were seen as more "catholic" and these were proximate causes of the Puritan rebellions which culminated in the "Glorious Revolution" when William of Orange seized the throne and deposed the rightful Stuart heirs. Thereafter it would be written in the English Constitution that only a Protestant could be King (or Queen) of England.

The similarity of our contemporary reforms
The implications of the above history are sobering for Catholics in the period after the reform of the Roman Missal in 1969. Although not specifically called for in the new Missal or by the document on the liturgy, "Sacrosanctum Concilium," from the Second Vatican Council, many of the changes wrought by Cranmer and Bucer to deny the priesthood, the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, and transubstantiation have become commonplace in Catholic liturgical practice. These changes did not alter the validity of the Mass, nor do they necessarily imply the denials that Cranmer and Bucer intended. Nevertheless, one would think that an astute liturgist with a sense of history would understand what they had signified in the past and would have been very reluctant to add them to a Catholic rite.

There is a trend now among fully-believing Catholics to return to the practice of kneeling for Communion, receiving on the tongue and under one kind. As the Catholic people return to a reverence for the Eucharist, which is commensurate with the reality of transubstantiation, perhaps we will remember what Cranmer and Bucer tried to do and modify our practice to refute them.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate


This article was originally posted in St. Catherine Review.