I confess that sometimes I find it easier to say what the Anglican understanding of the sacrament of communion is not than to say what it is ... it is not Transubstantiation (the Roman understanding disputed at the Reformation) ... it is not Tokenism (a widespread Protestant understanding in which the bread and wine of communion are mere tokens or emblems which aid our memories of Christ's death).
But reading a little in Richard Hooker's magisterial Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I found this succinct, crisply clear summary of Anglican understanding:
'The real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.' (5.67.6)
In this sentence Hooker simultaneously affirms the Anglican approach (the body and blood of Christ is truly present at communion but the 'location' of the body and blood is in the worthy receiver of the bread and the wine; the worthy receiver being the one who receives by faith with thanksgiving) and denies other approaches. First Tokenism which denies 'the real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood'; secondly, the Consubstantiation of Luther in which Christ's most blessed body and blood is 'in' the bread and the wine; and thirdly, the Transubstantiation of Roman thought in which the bread and the wine is converted (changed entirely in its substance) into the body and blood of Christ.
Hooker says a whole lot more - he is never short of a word or two on any given subject - but here I will add a further point made by him. In any attempt to explain the sacrament of communion there needs to be some explanation of why the bread and the wine are necessary for the occasion. Why not feed 'spiritually' on Christ without any resort to material objects? Hooker's explanation is this:
'The bread and the cup are his body and blood because they are causes instrumental upon the receipt whereof the participation of his body and blood ensueth. For that which produceth any certain effect is not vainly nor improperly said to be that very effect whereunto it tendeth.' (5.67.5).
The first sentence makes it clear that the bread and wine of communion are necessary for the real presence of Christ at communion: they are instruments for the receiving of the body and blood of Christ by faith with thanksgiving. The second sentence acknowledges that the effect of being instruments is that they are bound up with the body and blood of Christ so that one can honestly say at their distribution 'This is the body of Christ ... this is the blood of Christ'. The sufficient condition for the real presence of Christ at communion, we can restate in conclusion, is worthy reception by participants.
The beauty of Hooker's position is that a profound emphasis falls on 'communion' at Holy Communion: nothing happens to the bread and the wine but something happens to the participants as they fellowship together with Christ through faith. The bread and the wine are vital to this unique nurturing of believers, but through the faith of the believers and not through some change to the bread and the wine.
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