Church Times Bookshop £67.50
IN THIS excellent book on the eucharist, David Grummett argues for “an embodied sacramental realism rooted in material life”.
Reflection on the eucharist in modern times has often emphasised themes such as the importance of the narrative, and the way in which this gives worshippers a sense of their place in salvation history; or the eucharist’s capacity to draw people together into one body; or the “missional” importance of the final dismissal. Anxious about stoking up a hot topic of the Reformation, there has been, at least in Anglican circles, much less reflection on the fact that the eucharist is inescapably about matter, and the way in which we, as physical beings, relate to it.
Grummett remedies this deficiency in this dense but wide-ranging and lucidly argued book. The foundational insight is that “the Eucharist reveals the whole of the created order, and not just the sanctuary, to be a holy place in which the Creator dwells.” By contrast with the pervasive and recurrent Gnostic view that the material world is essentially evil and that the highest human destiny is to be released from it, Catholic theology asserts that we live in a world in which every created thing is graced, and a sign of God’s presence and his love. The eucharist reveals and intensifies this.
So, for example, in an excellent opening chapter on the eucharistic elements, Grummett argues that the bread and the wine that are used in the eucharist are already, before they are offered in the eucharist, God’s wonderful gift, which have undergone “natural but mysterious” processes of transformation to make them what they are. The transformation that occurs in the eucharist, when they are consecrated by Christ’s word of power and by the action of the Holy Spirit, does not destroy what they are already, but rather re-emphasises it, and raises it to a new level. This has many implications not only for how we worship but for how we understand the environment, social justice, and many other matters.
Further chapters explore, with lucidity, but also an extraordinarily wide range of philosophical and theological reference, the action of the eucharist, the part played by Christ, how that change is understood, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is heartening that this book comes from a (lay) Anglican scholar, because, in the opinion of this reviewer, contemporary Anglicanism needs, perhaps above everything else, renewal in eucharistic life. Robert Beaken has recently argued (Faith, 13 January) that on many diocesan occasions when communion would have been normal in recent years, it is now felt to be “inappropriate” or “divisive”. Likewise, much contemporary worship is explicitly non-sacramental, and thus disembodied and potentially tending towards the Gnostic.
Grummett presents us with the resources, drawn deeply from scripture and tradition, to bring about such a renewal. I fervently hope that he will now write a popular version to make his insights available to a wider audience and at a cheaper price.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.