Magazine article The Spectator

Why Tony Blair Is Right to Take Communion in Our Churches

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Tony Blair Is Right to Take Communion in Our Churches

Article excerpt

In a country where most people do not even know the Ten Commandments, let alone keep them, you'd think that the Catholic bishops would have something better to do than persecute decent, Godfearing Anglicans who take Communion in papist churches. But no: they have just issued a letter devoted to condemning the practice. Their epistle is clerical trade unionism at its worst, the apotheosis of the spiritual closed shop: if you're not a `paidup member in good standing, prepared to abide by the rule book, then you're not entitled to benefits. Amen.' That rum old monk Cardinal Hume has even gone so far as to write a letter of rebuke to the Prime Minister, who occasionally takes Communion alongside his Catholic wife and children. We have here one of the disadvantages of sacerdotal celibacy. Hume, rather like Ted Heath, has no wife to tell him with conjugal frankness when he is making an ass of himself.

To me, it is a matter of profound satisfaction that the Prime Minister and his family regularly go to church together, that his wife Cherie is a devout Catholic who is bringing up their children in the faith, and that their father encourages them by his presence alongside them in church and by his participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I have not much doubt in my mind that Tony Blair will eventually enter the Church, and that his attendance at Mass with those he loves most is an important part of his spiritual journey. But, he tells me, he is not yet ready, and perhaps he never will be. Faith is a gift, it is the most precious of all gifts God has to bestow, and it is not awarded lightly. That is why I pray daily that the gift may be his, and I dare say he prays for it too - I am quite sure his wife and children do. Receiving Communion alongside them then, in a spirit of Christian fellowship, is the obvious course for Tony Blair to take, and is not only entirely proper but positively meritorious. It is also good theology.

When I was writing my History of Christianity, I was struck by the late appearance of sectarianism in the doctrine of the Eucharist. Everyone seems to have believed that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ in some real as well as symbolic sense. To learned fathers such as St Ambrose, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyasa, St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Chrysostom, all of whom wrote extensively on the importance of the Eucharist, controversy would have been misplaced. Even the combative St Augustine was notably eirenic in this area. I date the earliest real argument to the 9th century, when Paschasius Radbertus first questioned the doctrine of the Real Presence. It was not until the Fourth Lateran council in 1215 that transubstantiation was first defined as the official doctrine of the Church. Then, later in the century, St Thomas Aquinas worked out the teaching in tiresome academic detail, distinguishing between 'substance' (Christ's body and blood) and 'accidents' (the bread and wine). Such distinctions have never meant anything to the ordinary Christian - they too are clerical trade unionism of the worst kind.

In due course, as is inevitable when you seek to define spiritual concepts too narrowly, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a demarcation dispute arose. Martin Luther produced the doctrine of consubstantiation, in which Christ's body and blood, and the bread and wine, co-exist in the Eucharist. It soon became one of the central issues of the Reformation. The distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation is one of interest only to schoolmen and dons and other bigoted types who have too little to occupy their time. …

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