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The Eucharistic Faith, by Ralph McMichael

20 March 2020

Christopher Irvine looks at the first instalment of a eucharistic project

THE title of this book recalls a much earlier book written by a Swedish theologian, Eucharistic Faith and Practice: Evangelical and Catholic. In that book, Yngve Brilioth demonstrated how the eucharist was like a multi-faceted jewel, and that no single Christian denomination or theology could fully capture the whole of its meaning.

Locating and capturing the meaning of the eucharist is very much the aim of McMichael’s book. It is a generous paperback with eight chapters divided into four parts: theology, seeking, understanding, and finally, faith. These headings signal the approach and the direction of travel; for what the author is aiming to do is not to set out a theology, or theologies, of the eucharist, but to locate the whole enterprise in that corporate act when the Church gathers to give thanks to God over bread and wine.

The author recognises the urgent need to recall the Church to its defining activity as Church, and the first chapters certainly promise to refresh and reinvigorate a sense of the centrality of the eucharist. Baptism is seen as the primary sacrament, incorporating us into the Body of Christ. The assertion is made, however, that it is the eucharist that renews the baptismal covenant and reconstitutes the aggregate of individual worshippers into the Body of Christ. All this is argued at great length, even to the point of being rather laboured.

And this is my real criticism: the book is too prolix. New sections of each chapter are frequently introduced with multiple questions, and, as with all accumulative arguments, there are frequent recapitulations of what has been stated earlier. The style of writing could certainly be tighter, and the whole book more economically expressed. Nevertheless, as Hauerwas writes in the foreword, we need to keep reading, and the reader is rewarded here and there with flashes of insight. On the kind of theology which is generated by the eucharist, for instance, we read that it is a thinking about God which is not “about” something, but a being “with, in and towards” someone.

As the book progresses, the reader may begin to wonder when the author will deal with key questions, such as what a living out of the eucharist might look like. It is not until the epilogue that one learns that the present volume is the first in a proposed five-volume study. It is a hugely ambitious project, and the first object of the exercise is to set out the author’s approach and methodology.

As already hinted, this is basically an Anselmian approach of “faith seeking understanding”, and a recognition that the language of prayer is the primary speech of the theologian. The question how we come to know the triune God is basically seen here as being participatory (and here the author could have fruitfully drawn from games theory, the notion that we come to understand a game by actively playing it), and, in this instance, in our expectant participation in the eucharist, that privileged encounter with the Christ who is sent by the Father.

Here, the eucharist is presented as a kind of Advent, “the arrival of Jesus from the Father”, which, in the final analysis, is an encounter with truth. In this analysis, the “Amen” spoken by the communicant on receiving communion is nothing less than a commitment to truly living out the life of the Body of Christ, in and for the world.

The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam, and Rural Dean of Rye, in Chichester diocese, and teaches at Sarum College and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.


The Eucharistic Faith
Ralph McMichael
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop special price £20

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