In recent months I’ve been chairing a Faith and Order working party on the question of online communion. I won’t say more on that topic, as the work is ongoing, but working with the group has made me reflect again on the centrality of the Eucharist for my own Christian experience, my journey in ordained ministry and my theological thinking.
Of course, as a theologian, I turned first to Joni Mitchell!
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh, I would still be on my feet
Fellow baby-boomers will recognize these lines as coming from Blue, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter album of all time. Joni Mitchell’s genius shines through them, intensifying the pleasure and suffering of a love affair by linking it with sacramental wine. Charles Wesley, in what is (unarguably) the greatest-ever collection of eucharistic hymns[i], works the imagery in the other direction, from the experience of drinking wine in Holy Communion to a sense of joyful, passionate union with the crucified and risen Christ. To take one of many examples:
With mystical wine, He comforts us here,
And gladly we join, Till Jesus appear,
With hearty thanksgiving His death to record;
The living, the living, Should sing of their Lord.
The fruit of the wine (The joy it implies)
Again we shall join To drink in the skies,
Exult in His favour, Our triumph renew;
And I, saith the Saviour, Will drink it with you.
My first experience of receiving communion was in a marquee at Cliff College, during a teenage visit to Derwent Week; an intense (and, in retrospect, rather adolescent) emotional high. It set my Christian journey on a course that would be resolutely sacramental and shaped my future ministry as an enthusiastic leader and advocate of sacramental worship. To share bread and wine, confident in the mysterious presence of Jesus Christ, has been my greatest privilege. So, it’s not difficult for me to identify with the strongly affective communion hymns of Charles Wesley – or, for that matter, with the sacramental metaphors in Joni Mitchell’s love songs. But while the Wesleyan tradition gives ample scope to the experiential, affective, dimension of communion, it has, in the generations since Wesley, been less successful in linking this to the divine presence at the heart of the sacrament. When Christian experience loses its anchorage in ontology it easily becomes merely subjective, detached from the reality it represents. We need a sacramental theology that can affirm presence without dissolving mystery and that can reflect passionate joy without becoming self-indulgent.
The best recent example that I know of a Protestant sacramental theology comes from Hans Boersma, J I Packer professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and very much in the tradition of evangelical Reformed theology. Through his study of the French Catholic ressourcement theologians who prepared the way for Vatican II, he has come to the conclusion that Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, needs to recover a lost sense of what he calls the ‘sacramental tapestry’ that was present from the patristic period till the late Middle Ages. Heavenly Participation traces this ‘great tradition’ (as Boersma calls it) from the New Testament, through the writings of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas. From the Platonic tradition Christianity inherited a sense that God was the supreme reality and that all created beings derived their existence from God and, to a degree, participated in God’s being. The supernatural was not alien to nature, but infused it. Symbols, such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism, were not to be contrasted with the reality to which they pointed; on the contrary, they both participated in that reality and conveyed it to Christian worshippers. The church, as it celebrated the Eucharist, participated in the reality that was the body of Christ. Towards the end of the Middle Ages (to cut a long and contentious story short) this tradition was undermined by the nominalist insistence on the separation of nature and the supernatural, by a creeping separation of scripture and tradition, and by a new emphasis on the univocity of language and being rather than on the analogy between them. The result, says Boersma, is a cutting of the sacramental tapestry and the impoverishment of Christianity.
I guess this debate can seem an esoteric irrelevance compared with the many crises and injustices facing humanity. But actually, it gets to the heart of some of our most important questions. How does our creaturely existence relate to the reality of God – and how can we live in a way that honours God’s love for and presence within creation? How can God’s transforming presence be mediated through the stuff of creation: bread, wine, community? And if our deepest, most intimate, human relationships are channels for divine encounter, what does that tell us about our call to love and respect the other? Living more sacramentally would make a big difference.
What is the solution? Not, of course, to return to the early Middle-Ages. That would be impossible. But if Boersma is right, we can recover something of the great sacramental tradition by drawing water from the deep well of Christian reflection. If we do, we shall find that Charles Wesley’s wonderful eucharistic hymns convey more of their true depth. We might even arrive at a greater appreciation of Joni Mitchell.
 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
[i] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. I am using the text as printed in J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, (London: Epworth Press, 1948).