Cranmer on ‘This is my body’: Literal or Figurative?
“This is my body… this is my blood.”
These “words of institution” are taken literally by some Anglicans and figuratively by others. What was the view of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the first Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and primary author of the Book of Common Prayer? Cranmer’s view on the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist underwent two major transformations in his life, first around 1532 and again around 1547, yielding three phases. During the first and second phases, he took the words of institution literally. The creation of the Book of Common Prayer dates from the third phase, in which he took the words figuratively, indicating Christ’s spiritual presence in the partaker at Communion.
In the first phase, Cranmer accepted the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine undergo an imperceptible physical change at the time of consecration, such that they become the actual body and blood of Christ. The change is so thorough that there remains no bread or wine at all in the elements; despite their look and feel and taste, they have physically become the body and blood. Cranmer abandoned this view sometime around 1532, in favour of the Lutheran view of consubstantiation. This view also teaches that Christ’s body and blood are physically present in the elements, but it rejects the idea that the bread and wine have undergone a change into the body and blood. Rather, the body and blood are made present in and with the bread and wine, but not in such a way as to replace them.
Cranmer held this view for more than a decade, until 1547, when Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his son Edward VI. It was during Edward’s six-year long reign that the liturgical, theological, and ecclesiastical foundations were laid for a Reformed Church of England, including the all-important Book of Common Prayer (BCP), first published in 1549. The BCP dates from the third phase of Cranmer’s thinking on the Eucharist, when he held that Christ is not physically present in the Eucharist at all. Cranmer’s final thinking around Eucharistic presence can be summarized in five points:
- Christ makes himself present where and when he wishes. He is not restricted to only manifesting himself in or through the Eucharist, though we can be confident that he does make himself present in the Eucharist.
- Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not a physical presence, but a spiritual presence.
- Christ is present in both his human and divine natures, but by virtue of his divine nature and not of his human nature.
- Christ is never present (either physically or spiritually) in the Eucharistic elements as such (i.e. the bread and wine); rather, he makes himself present to the person who is receiving the elements within the context of the Eucharistic rite as a whole.
- Christ can be said to be figuratively present in the bread and the wine, because these elements symbolize his body and blood.
It is important to distinguish sharply between Christ’s spiritual presence and his figurative presence; these are not synonymous. Christ is figuratively present in the bread and wine, while he is spiritually present in the person taking Communion. The spiritual presence is true presence, even if it’s not physical. The figurative presence is not true presence, but a figure of speech that points toward to the spiritual presence. So when we say that Christ is spiritually present, we do not mean that he is only metaphorically present. We mean that he really is truly, non-metaphorically present — just not in a physical way.
Cranmer is nota ‘memorialist’; the Communion does not just make us remember and ponder Christ’s sacrifice. Christ really is present in the Eucharistic rite. Further, it is Christ who actively and intentionally makes himself present to people who partake at Communion. This means that Christ is not bound to make himself present to, say, a mouse that gets into the consecrated bread, or to a person who takes Communion in bad faith. This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation doctrines, both of which hold that Christ’s body and blood are present in the elements themselves, no matter who eats them.
In sum, the Cranmer that shaped the BCP regarded “This is my body” as figurative language that points to the fact that Christ has promised to make himself spiritually present, in both his divine and human natures, to the communicant within the context of the Eucharistic rite considered as a whole. But Cranmer does not forcefully push his own views onto the Eucharistic liturgy. The wording of the Communion rite in the 1549 BCP does not rule out any of the three views of Eucharistic presence just discussed, and so it allows a great latitude of interpretation among communicants. The 1552 edition more clearly reflects the third phase view of spiritual presence but this edition was only in circulation for a matter of months.
The version of the BCP that both shaped and reflected the mainstream Anglican view during the formative Elizabethan period is that of 1559, which, like the 1549 edition, allows for a variety of interpretations. This meant that the same prayerbook could be used and cherished by people with diverse theological opinions — by those who understood “This is my body” literally, and by those who, like Cranmer in his third phase, understood it to figuratively indicate Christ’s true spiritual presence in the communicant.
Further reading: Cranmer wrote two treatises on the question, A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ of 1550 and his so-called Answer (A Crafty and Sophistical Cavillation devised by M. Stephen Gardiner) of 1551; both are available at archive.org. See also Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer (1996), pp. 181-3, 390-408.
Graham MacFarlane is a parishioner at St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg, who recently finished his PhD in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen.