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Article 29 — Of the Wicked which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper

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Posted by Charlie Skrine, 1 Apr 2017

Charlie Skrine looks at what the 39 Articles say about non-Christians taking Communion.

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

Sometimes it is only when you sit down and do a worked example that you understand a truth thoroughly. When I was 15 my local Roman Catholic priest asked me to choose whether to be a Roman Catholic or an Anglican. As we discussed Scripture and Salvation the worked example of just one person, Mary the mother of Jesus, was very helpful to me. If she was sinless then I should be a Catholic; if she was sinful like everybody else then I should be a Protestant. 

The example of ‘the wicked… in the use of the Lord’s Supper’ does the same job with the Sacraments. What happens when an unbeliever, or someone living in unrepentant sin, takes the bread and eats it? They certainly ‘carnally and visibly press with their teeth’ a piece of bread. Sometimes when you’re taking a service you fear for their dentures because of how visibly they press. But is anything else happening as well? If they also receive the true body of Christ then something physical happened to the bread and wine before it got to their teeth. If they don’t, then the bread is still bread, and the real partaking only happens spiritually and by faith. 

This truth was fully explained in Article 25, ‘in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation’, and Article 28 ‘the Body of Christ is… eaten… only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ But the worked example was so controversial that it is one of only two articles that need a reassuring quote from an Ancient Church Father (Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate 26.18 on John 6:41-59). It was also the only article approved by the clergy in 1563 that the government kept out until 1571. For that first, nervous decade of Elizabeth’s reign it was not politically possible to be this clear, and the Church of England only had 38 articles.

That political context means we are able to be certain about the intention of this article. It clinches the denial of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, and by 1570 Elizabeth had been excommunicated for a year so there was nothing to lose with the Pope, but that isn’t really the purpose of article 29. Article 28 was already offensive enough to the Pope.

Article 29 was kept out to leave vague the relationship between Anglicanism and Lutheranism; and it was put back in to make clear that Anglicans do not believe the Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence. In 1577 the Lutheran Formula of Concord made that clarity mutual and anathematised anyone who believed the doctrine of Article 29. Historians think that Elizabeth spent the 1560s hoping for an alliance with the Lutheran princes, but by 1571 was prepared to choose doctrinal clarity over political hopes. (Stephen Hampton has a very helpful chapter in Anthony Milton’s new Oxford History of Anglicanism Volume I which gives much more detail.)

Article 29, then, is for anyone who wants to understand clearly the Anglican doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We are certainly not somewhere halfway between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In fact, we are not even somewhere halfway between Luther and Calvin. Article 29 unambiguously commits the Church of England to the Reformed understanding when it comes to the sacraments, and unambiguously denies the Lutheran understanding. 

Reflecting on this article has helped me in two practical ways. First, many of us rejoice that we have many unbelievers who come to our churches. We work hard to make them welcome, and we hope that, over time, they may come to believe the gospel they are hearing. Article 29 makes clear that we are not doing them any good by giving them communion.

Augustine, in his sermon on John 6, points us to the examples of rebellious Israel in the desert, Judas, and the crowd of 5000 fed by Jesus, to prove his point that pressing with your teeth only does harm. All three examples are serious warnings, and fit with 1 Corinthians 11:29 as quoted by Article 25. This is important when much evangelism among Catholic Anglicans is based around communion services, and when many Evangelicals are attracted to Catholic models of evangelism.

Second, this article provides an opportunity to think again about our own reception of the bread and wine. It is very easy to think too much in physical, carnal terms about what is happening. It is also easy to receive as if the benefits were automatic, and grounded in the religious ceremony that has just happened, rather than in what is happening inside you. Augustine encouraged his congregation to think about our desire, our faith, and our heart not about our tongues, our teeth, and our tummies. Are we spiritually hungry? Are we trusting in Jesus and his death once for all? Are we repentant of our sins? 

Those are the truths, and the spiritual habits that this article defends. Sometimes the worked example is crucial for really living by the truths we believe.

Charlie Skrine is Associate Rector St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate

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