“I never would have guessed that I would end up as an adult convert to Lutheranism. And I further would not have imagined how central the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper would be to my conversion.”
As I mentioned in my previous post, those words from Rick Ritchie’s “Wittenberg Trail” article have a particular resonance for me. It is ironic that two of the doctrines that are now particularly precious to me – the Real Presence and baptismal regeneration – were not only doctrines I previously disbelieved, but ones to which I was actively and decidedly hostile.
I was something of a “JC Ryle Anglican”, regarding the Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles as the cornerstone of the Church of England’s true status as a Reformed Protestant church (notwithstanding the later encroachments of liberalism and Anglo-Catholicism). To Anglicans such as JC Ryle and his heirs in organisations such as Church Society, baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence were (and are) anathema.
On baptismal regeneration, for example, I was previously so firmly opposed to this that I persuaded the vicar at our Anglican church to change some of the wording at our elder son’s baptism, to remove some of the connotations of baptismal regeneration that I had sniffed out in the new Common Worship baptismal liturgy.
The Real Presence – or, to use the Pontificator’s very helpful phrase, “the Real Identification” – was, if anything, even more of a problem, because accepting this belief not only involved a change of opinion, but also felt like a betrayal of that Reformed Anglican heritage.
I had been deeply influenced by Bishop Ryle’s vividly-entitled essay, “Why Were Our Reformers Burned?” (the introductory essay in the book Five English Reformers), in which he argues quite persuasively that the reason the English Reformers were burned by Queen Mary (known to all fans of 1066 And All That as “Broody Mary”) was not their rejection of papal authority, not their proclamation of justification by faith, not their promotion of the English Bible and Prayer Book, but the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in, with and under the forms of bread and wine.
Ryle opens his essay with some very contemporary-sounding complaints that:
It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainty about religious truth, or any opinions for which it is worth while to be burned … [and] it is thought very bad taste in many quarters to say anything which throws discredit on the Church of Rome.
He then goes on to summarise “the broad facts” of Mary’s reign, in which at least 288 were burned. As Ryle points out:
Out of these 288 sufferers, be it remembered, one was an archbishop, four were bishops, twenty-one were clergymen, fifty-five were women, and four were children. It is a broad fact that these 288 sufferers were not put to death for any offence against property or person. They were not rebels against the Queen’s authority, caught red-handed in arms. They were not thieves, or murderers, or drunkards, or unbelievers, or men and women of immoral lives. On the contrary, they were, with barely an exception, some of the holiest, purest, and best Christians in England, and several of them the most learned men of their day.
He goes on to give brief sketches of “the leading English Reformers that were burned”. And what a list! It includes the likes of John Hooper, John “There but for the grace of God…” Bradford, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer. The accounts of their lives and martyrdoms reveal them to have been men of immense ability, spiritual integrity and personal courage. Not a group of men to dismiss lightly.
And why were these men burned? Ryle continues:
I pass on to a point which I hold to be one of cardinal importance in the present day. The point I refer to is the special reason why our Reformers were burned. Great indeed would be our mistake if we supposed that they suffered for the vague charge of refusing submission to the Pope, or desiring to maintain the in-dependence of the Church of England. Nothing of the kind!
The principal reason why they were burned was because they refused one of the peculiar doctrines of the Romish Church. On that doctrine, in almost every case, hinged their life or death. If they admitted it, they might live; if they refused it, they must die.
The doctrine in question was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Did they, or did they not believe that the body and blood of Christ were really, that is, corporally, literally, locally, and materially, present under the forms of bread and wine after the words of consecration were pronounced? Did they or did they not believe that the real body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin Mary, was present on the so called altar so soon as the mystical words had passed the lips of the priest? Did they or did they not? That was the simple question. If they did not believe and admit it, they were burned.
While all the Reformers were accused of a variety of crimes – the marriage of priests, the authority of the church, and so on – Ryle argues that:
…all, without an exception, were called to special account about the real presence, and in every case their refusal to admit the doctrine formed one principal cause of their condemnation.
Ryle then goes on to demonstrate this from accounts of the martyrs’ trials. While his accounts show the reluctance or inability of Ryle and other Reformed Anglicans to distinguish between the Real Presence, transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the Mass, in most cases the position is plain. Take Cranmer, for example, who was condemned for the following words from one of his books:
“They (the Papists) say that Christ is corporally under or in the forms of bread and wine. We say that Christ is not there, neither corporally nor spiritually; but in them that worthily eat and drink the bread and wine He is spiritually, and corporally in heaven.”
“And so,” Ryle continues dolorously, “he was burned”.
Ryle goes on to assert that “no well-instructed Bible reader can hesitate for a moment” before saying that “the Romish doctrine of the real presence strikes at the very root of the Gospel, and is the very citadel and keep of Popery“. After warning against the restoration of this doctrine by the “Ritualists” then active within the Church of England, he concludes:
There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs. What does that voice say? It cries aloud from Oxford, Smithfield, and Gloucester,- “Resist to the death the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence, under the forms of the consecrated bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper!”
Ringing stuff. You can see why to find myself apparently on the same side as Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole, against Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Bradford and the other 284 Protestant Martyrs – not to mention their Anglican heirs such as JC Ryle himself, and more recent figures such as John Stott, Dick Lucas and JI Packer – was a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. One that caused me more than a few second thoughts as I wandered cautiously along the trail to Wittenberg in the first half of last year.
Now isn’t the place to go into the details how I came to accept the Lutheran teaching that “the Sacrament of the Altar … is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink” (Luther’s Small Catechism), notwithstanding the breach this represented with my evangelical Anglican heritage.
But I wonder if there is another explanation as to why the doctrine of the Real Presence had such prominence in the burning of the Marian Martyrs. Simply this: on the issues of justification by faith, scriptural vs papal authority, and the vernacular Bible and Prayer Book, the English Reformers were spot on, and were areas in which their opponents knew the Reformers were sure of their ground and therefore difficult to overcome in debate. But on the Real Presence, the Reformers had made a ghastly error, and it was one on which their opponents could, and did, pounce.
Here was a teaching that is plainly taught in Scripture; one that had been accepted almost without question throughout the whole church for over 1,500 years; one whose rejection would strike most Catholics as sacrilegious. Perhaps the reason why this doctrine was cited so often on the Reformers’ charge-sheets was simply because their abandonment of that doctrine could be used by Mary and her bishops as the “smoking gun”, the plain evidence that the Reformers were in opposition to true Christianity.
The tragedy for Anglicanism is that the events of the 1550s on the one hand made it next-to impossible for Anglican evangelicals to countenance that doctrine for the next 500 years and beyond, and on the other hand fostered the impression among more catholic-minded Anglicans that evangelical doctrines such as justification by faith alone were incompatible with a catholic, sacramental approach to Christianity. This has hampered the ability of the Church of England to find the same synthesis of Word and Sacrament that is (or should be!) found in the Lutheran church.