I’ve been reading (and enjoying, and benefiting from) Timothy Radcliffe’s book What is the Point of Being a Christian? over the past few weeks. Fr Radcliffe is a former head of the Dominican order, and in one of the later chapters of his book he turns his attention to the divisions that have emerged between Roman Catholics since the Second Vatican Council.
He rejects labels such as “traditionalist” and “liberal” as examples of the church allowing itself to be defined by the world’s terminology. Instead he talks about “Kingdom Catholics” (those who emphasise the church as the people of God on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom) and “Communion Catholics” (those who emphasise membership in the institutional church as a communion of believers).
Fr Radcliffe uses Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper to illustrate his argument that the church needs both these tendencies in order to be “a home in which everyone, regardless of his or her sympathies and allegiance, may be at ease”. In particular he points to the “slight difference” between Jesus’ words over the bread and over the cup, as reported in Mark 14:22-25:
The bread is given just to the disciples. The cup is also given to them, but is poured out for the many. … The bread is given to that small community of the upper room. His disciples share it together. The cup looks forward to the larger community of the many … It points to the Kingdom, into which all are called.
This tension – between the body given “for you” and the blood shed “for you and for many” (or “all”) – is, Fr Radcliffe suggests, “an intrinsic part of the Last Supper and of every Eucharist”.
He goes on to suggest that Communion Catholics tend to “privilege” the first of these, the blessing of the bread, Jesus as the one who “gathers us together round the altar into intimate communion”. Kingdom Catholics, by contrast, emphasise the blessing of the cup, “which reaches out to the fullness of the Kingdom in which all humanity is called into unity”:
It suggests the Christ who overthrows every boundary, who touches the lepers and reaches out to the Samaritans, who breaks the law and transgresses the boundaries. It suggests a Church which is turned outwards, towards all that is human, which seeks for signs of the Spirit working in the world.
We might well conclude from this (though Fr Radcliffe is too polite to say so explicitly) that a church which lacked this emphasis on “the many” – focusing entirely on the “for you” – would be marked by a damaging insularity, a turning away from the world and a shrinking into its boundaries.
With that thought in mind, let’s turn our attention to the words of institution as contained within the Lutheran Service Book (and in much the same form in previous books):
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.”
In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Oops. “Which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”. No mention of “the many”.
Now, I’m sure there are good reasons for this (and perhaps someone can suggest some in the comments). After all, Jesus’ words are reported slightly differently in each of the four places where they are given in the New Testament, so there is room for liturgists to prefer one version over another.
Perhaps the rationale is that the words of institution as spoken during the Lord’s Supper are spoken by Christ (through the minister) directly to those there. The emphasis is thus on the “for you” – i.e. you people in the pews right now, hearing the promise of Christ. (Though when Jesus was saying those words to his disciples in the upper room right then, he still referred to “the many”.)
However, one of the most common criticisms of the Lutheran Church – one expressed with particular force and eloquence in this post by Michael Spencer – is of its insularity: its tendency to turn in on itself and ignore the wider church and the wider world.
In the light of Fr Radcliffe’s argument, we can perhaps see this tendency reflected – and subconsciously reinforced, week after week – at the very heart of our worship.