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By the power of the Spirit

09 October 2015

Christopher Irvine considers the epiclesis in the eucharist

Eucharistic Epicleses, Ancient and Modern: Speaking of the Spirit in eucharistic prayer
Anne McGowan
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99 (Use code CT907)


The Eucharist: Origins and contemporary understandings
Thomas O’Loughlin
Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (use code CT907)


THE book by Anne McGowan, which is the Alcuin Club Collection for 2014, is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in the eucharist. McGowan investigates and assesses the place of the Holy Spirit in the texts of Eucharistic Prayers, ancient and modern, and she proves herself to be an adept "splitter", as she unravels the evidence and demonstrates the diversity of eucharistic faith and practice.

As McGowan reminds us in a comprehensive and elegantly written introduction to the book, there can be no real worship, let alone prayer, without the presence and in-breathing of the Holy Spirit.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 marshals research into the epiclesis (the invocation, or calling, of the Spirit), and charts how scholars handled the evidence as the agenda for liturgical revision was beginning to take shape in the Western Churches. Part 2 provides an overview of how the eucharistic epiclesis was adopted and modified in the framing of Eucharistic Prayers in the latter part of the 20th century.

These texts are then assessed in separate chapters on the Roman, Anglican and Protestant ecclesial traditions. McGowan is a sure guide through the scholarly debate on the origins of the invocation of the Spirit in Eucharistic Prayer, and her close reading of liturgical texts leads her to make well-calibrated judgements on the place of the Spirit in the prayer of the Churches of the West.

An appeal is made in the conclusion of the volume to refresh and extend how we speak of the Spirit by recovering the metaphors for the Spirit in the Bible and in the writings of Christian spiritual tradition. Due attention is also given to the rich contexts of global Christianity as a register of how we may speak of the Spirit today.

More, I think, could have been made here of the transformative effect on those who gather to celebrate the eucharist in an expectant and receptive way.

St John’s Gospel presents the promised Spirit as the medium in which the abiding significance of Christ’s words and deeds becomes present and active. Such making present is at the very heart of what is invoked, celebrated, given, and received in the eucharist, and that is why true worship can, and does, change lives. The gift of the eucharist enables us to become what we are made in baptism, namely, to be Christ in and for the world.

The basic premise in Thomas O’Loughlin’s book is that Christians give thanks to the Father as those who are "in Christ". According to the foundation documents of the New Testament, making eucharist, giving thanks, is a hallmark of Christian identity.

The author, who is more "lumper" than "splitter", brings a wealth of theological historical understanding and social and anthropological study to bear on his investigation of the origins and contemporary understanding of the eucharist. He writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, and evidently feels the need to dump a great deal of historical baggage. And, in seven chapters, O’Loughlin sets out a cumulative argument, peeling back suppositions and building on an understanding of the significance of ritual eating and drinking as an exercise of Christian memory.

There is something compelling in O’Loughlin’s single narrative. We do, indeed, need to recover the significance of the meals of Jesus, to recognise the identity-forming function of shared meals, and to make connections between the eucharist and creation; but some questions are not satisfactorily addressed in this book. There were tensions from the beginning of Christianity. St Paul sharply asked members of the Christian assembly in Corinth: "do you not have houses to eat and drink in?" And what exactly were the factors that led to the separation of the eucharist from the shared community meal?

One might also take issue with the author’s complaint that fixed Eucharistic Prayers from the fourth century onwards are too heavily Christological. The earliest evidence of eucharistic faith and practice seems to focus on the figure of Christ, and implies that who he is and what he has done are the reasons for which Christians give thanks.

Nevertheless, this is a stimulating book, and one that challenges the reader to think and think again of what it means to give thanks over the bread and the cup in memory of Christ.


The Revd Christopher Irvine is the Canon Librarian and Director of Education at Canterbury Cathedral.

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