10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 27


Why Tony Blair is right to take Communion in our churches


In a country where most people do not even know the Ten Ccimmandments, let alone keep them, you'd think that the Catholic bishops would have something better to do than persecute decent, God- fearing 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 'paid- up 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 Commu- nion alongside his Catholic wife and chil- dren. We have here one of the disadvan- tages 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 satisfac- tion 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 impor- tant 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 Commu- nion 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 Chris- tianity, 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 sym- bolic sense. To learned fathers such as St Ambrose, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Grego- ry of Nyasa, St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Cluysostom, all of whom wrote extensively on the importance of the Eucharist, contro- versy would have been misplaced. Even the combative St Augustine was notably eirenic in this area. I date the earliest real argu- ment 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 tran- substantiation was first defined as the offi- cial 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 nar- rowly, 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. It is entirely a matter of definition rather than reality, since both doctrines insist on the actual existence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacra- ment. The doctrines of Zwingli and Calvin and others who questioned the Real Pres- ence were plainly heretical and unaccept- able to true Christians. But the difference between Luther and Rome on this point was purely academic, and it is tragic to think that so many people died at the stake, on the gibbet or in battle as a result of it. Attempts by bishops or cardinals, directly or by implication, to breathe new life into the cold embers of the wars of religion are scandalous.

I have always believed that any church, if it is Christian, is at my service as a place of worship, and I use them according to my needs. If there is no Catholic church where I happen to be, I go to the Anglican parish church, and take Communion like everyone else. I do not believe the Anglican orders are valid, so the bread and wine cannot, strictly speaking, be the body and blood of Christ, but I receive them in good faith and in the firm belief that I am participating in the greatest of all sacraments. My inten- tions are good, and that is what matters. Likewise, in going to Mass on Sunday, and taking the sacrament, Tony Blair's inten- tions are good.

Whether he, as a middle-of-the-road Anglican, believes in consubstantiation or, as an aspiring Catholic, is moving towards transubstantiation I do not know. I should be surprised if he has thought much about the matter. Very few Christians, including devout Anglicans or even fanatical Catholics like myself, have. To receive the body and blood of our Saviour, and to incorporate it in our own, seems to me the most wonderful, consoling, ennobling and nourishing act which it is possible for an ordinary Christian to perform, the summit of our religious life, which, ideally, we ought to scale daily. I think this is the view of the overwhelming majority of Christian believers, whatever Church they belong to and however they see the eucharistic pres- ence. For them to try to define precisely what is happening would be to damage the experience.

There is a tradition that Queen Elizabeth I, who was personally involved in all the pitiless bloodshed of the Reformation when, as Erasmus sadly put it, 'the long wars of words and writings came to blows', wrote a quatrain about the Real Presence:

Christ's was the word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it; And what his words did make it That I believe and take it.

The idea of receiving the sacrament in the exact sense that Christ intended seems to me perfect theology, which allows us to sweep away all the embittering nonsense of 16th-century religious dispute. As for the idea that the Catholic Church is a kind of club or trade union, I find it demeaning. It belittles the greatest institution on earth. The Church is the mystical body of Christ Himself and He determines who is or is not part of it. He opened it to all who yearn for it, and that yearning is enough to entitle anyone to participate in its blessings. So I always encourage non-Catholics who are genuine Christians to come to Mass with me, and take Communion if they can do so in good faith. Let us never say to our fellow believers, even if they hold high office, that there is no room at our inn.