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Eastern Orthodoxy and a definition too far

04 December 2015


From the Bishop of St Asaph

Sir, — Simon Caldwell reported well on the recent side comments of Pope Francis, where the Pope appears to have taken a softer line on non-Roman Catholics’ receiving communion. Unfortunately, a good story was undermined by a bad last paragraph, in which the writer erroneously reported: “Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church believe in transubstantiation, by which the host is changed by the actions of the priest . . .” (News, 27 November).

In the first place, it is the action of the Holy Spirit that effects any change in the elements at the eucharist, not the work of the priest who invokes the Holy Spirit; but, putting that aside, “transubstantiation”, which is a particular theory about how the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ, was expounded by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and has never been part of the teaching of the Orthodox Churches.

They, and the Roman Catholic Church, believe in the Real Presence of Christ, but the Orthodox do not seek to define how Christ’s body and blood are present — merely that they are. In a belief in the Real Presence, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics are united, at least if we are to accept the work of ARCIC on the eucharist, although it is true that transubstantiation is officially accepted by Rome as its teaching on the presence of Christ in the eucharist.

I look for good theology in the Church Times, as the paper of record for Anglicans, and the article was not helped by its last sentence.

Esgobty, Upper Denbigh Road
St Asaph LL17 0TW


From the Revd Ian Randall

Sir, — Simon Caldwell is mistaken when he states that “the Orthodox Church believe[s] in transubstantiation, by which the host is changed by the actions of the priest.” Although the word metousia and its cognates are used, they are capable of more meanings than one.

Unlike the Western Churches, the Orthodox have never been interested in the mechanics of Christ’s Real Presence. It is enough that the Holy Spirit, not the priest, effects the change so that “the bread of communion is not plain bread but bread united with divinity”, as St John of Damascus says. The liturgies of both St Basil and St John Chrysostom are very clear on this.

If readers wish to pursue this further, there are fuller accounts in both The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and the similarly titled book by John McGuckin.

12 Westmead Road
Fakenham NR21 8BL


From the Revd Alexander Faludy

Sir, — Your report on Pope Francis and the eucharist contains welcome news of ecumenical progress but does not seem assured when handling Eastern Orthodox sacramental thought.

While having a strong view of Real Presence, Orthodox theologians are very wary indeed about the using the “T” word. Transubstantiation did not enter the theological lexicon until the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and acquired meaningful intellectual content only through Aquinas’s Summa Theologia some decades later. Both are, of course, securely post-schism documents, and therefore suspect in Orthodox eyes.

Moreover, to Eastern ears the doctrine entails an unhealthy level of presumption in knowledge injurious to the rite’s character as “Mystery”. Philaret of Moscow’s influential Longer Catechism, authorised by the Russian Church in 1839, states: “The word transubstantiation is not to be taken to define the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ; for this none but God can understand.”

The Vicarage
381 Station Road
Wallsend NE28 8DT

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