“Eucharist” has become the most widely used name ecumenically for the rite which almost all Christian communities believe to have been instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me” (see 1 Cor. 11:23-25; cf. Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20). Coming from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”, the name “eucharist” refers to the central prayer in the rite, in which God is above all thanked for the works of creation* and redemption* accomplished through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Other names pick up other features or meanings of the complex rite: thus the Lord’s supper, the breaking of bread, the holy communion, the divine liturgy, the offering, and the mass (though nobody quite knows the etymology of this last).

The various names carry to some extent particular confessional associations, and differences in the understanding and practice of the eucharist have often been a cause, symptom or result of wider doctrinal and spiritual differences among the churches. In the 16th century, for example, differences over the sacrificial character of the eucharist expressed differences between Catholics and Protestants over the roles of God and the human being in the achievement of redemption and the appropriation of salvation.* Differences among Lutherans, Zwinglians and Calvinists over the presence of Christ at the Lord’s supper were connected with differences in Christology as such. Arguments between East and West over the moment and agency of the consecration of the bread and wine – Christ’s words of institution and/or the invocation of the Holy Spirit* – reflect controversies over the relations among the persons of the Trinity.* And participation in the eucharist of other churches, or lack thereof, has usually been the measure of communion among the churches or of its rupture.

The modern ecumenical movement has realized that the restoration of Christian unity* entails a necessary and sufficient agreement in eucharistic doctrine and practice (see communion, intercommunion ). While, on the one hand, what is necessary and sufficient are themselves matters of debate with regard to the eucharist itself, it may, on the other hand, legitimately be hoped that agreements attained in this focal area will have wider consequences for unity in faith and life among the churches. Thus agreement on the Lord’s supper was at the heart of the Leuenberg concordat, which established new relations among the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Europe (1973). Nor is it accidental that several worldwide bilateral dialogues* from an early stage devoted their attention to the eucharist (e.g. the Windsor statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission I, 1971; Das Herrenmahl of the Lutheran-RC dialogue, 1978; sections of the Denver and Dublin reports of the Methodist-RC dialogue 1971 and 1976; the Orthodox-RC text from Munich 1982, “The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity”). In the international, multilateral Faith and Order movement, the eucharist was never lost from sight between Lausanne 1927 and Lima 1982. The Lima text itself (the “E” of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry*), the responses of the churches to it, and some directions pointed by the report of Faith and Order in coordinating these responses (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990: Report on the Process and Responses, 1990) may be taken as the measure of eucharistic agreement up to this point.

The meaning of the eucharist

Begins with a Christological and soteriological concentration. In conformity with strong themes in the biblical scholarship of the past two or three generations, Christ’s institution of the eucharist is seen to be “prefigured in the Passover memorial of Israel’s deliverance from the land of bondage and in the meal of the covenant on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24)”, surrounded by the significant meals of Jesus’ earthly ministry and after his resurrection, and intended as “the anticipation of the supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9)”. The eucharist is “essentially the sacrament of the gift which God makes to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian receives this gift of salvation through communion in the body and blood of Christ” (E2).

Lima then expounds the meaning of the eucharist according to a Trinitarian pattern and the fivefold sequences of the ancient creeds, as (1) “thanksgiving to the Father”, (2) “memorial of Christ”, (3) “invocation of the Spirit”, (4) “communion of the faithful”, and (5) “meal of the kingdom”. In general terms, this arrangement meets with the practically unanimous approval of the churches.

In more detail, (1) is welcomed for its inclusion of creation and its recognition of the cosmic scope of redemption, features which had long been eclipsed in many Western liturgies. All recognize that thanksgiving is the appropriate human response to God’s work, but some Lutheran responses fear that an emphasis on “the sacrifice of praise” might obscure the fact that the Lord’s supper is first and foremost a divine “benefit” towards humankind.

Regarding (2), the two historically most controversial points have been the mode(s) of Christ’s presence in the eucharist and the relation of the eucharist to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The churches rejoice in the confession of “Christ’s real, living and active presence” made in E13, and many responses would remain content with that. But some do not believe that the “convergence [so] formulated” suffices to “accommodate” remaining differences concerning the connection of Christ’s presence with the bread and wine (E13 comm.). In particular, Roman Catholic and Orthodox responses want a less-guarded acknowledgment that the elements become the body and blood of Christ, while a few Protestant responses ask that precisely some forms of that claim be excluded. This in fact probably remains the single most divisive issue in eucharistic faith, doctrine and theology. The relation to Calvary does not provoke nearly so much comment. There is widespread agreement that Lima adequately protected the uniqueness of the cross; but the Roman Catholic response is doubtful whether the category of Christ’s continuing intercession, and the church’s participation in it, is sufficient “to explain the sacrificial nature of the eucharist”, and several Orthodox responses question whether Christ’s sacrifice is sufficiently “actualized” according to the Lima text.

As to the “invocation of the Spirit” (3), the churches welcome this feature as a prayerful recognition that God’s gift and the church’s action remain entirely dependent on grace.* The traditional Orthodox insistence on the pneumatological dimensions of the Lord’s supper has now been largely received by the Western churches, although some Protestant responses continue to question whether the Holy Spirit is appropriately invoked not only on the whole assembly and its action but more particularly upon the bread and wine. The sharpest criticism of Lima’s pneumatology comes from some Lutherans who fear for the adequacy of the Word himself and “his promise in the words of institution” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands).

Positively put, there is a very widespread recognition that – even if Lima does not always have the relation quite right – anamnesis and epiclesis (memorial and invocation) do in fact belong together, since Christ and the Spirit belong together in an “indissoluble union” (E14 comm.). The F&O report on the churches’ responses suggests that more progress is yet to be made on remaining difficulties over Christ’s presence and sacrifice by a deepened reflection, within an acknowledged Trinitarian context, on the biblical realities of “memorial” and “Spirit”. Greater development is needed of Lima ‘s recognition that the crucified and risen Christ is the living and active content of the memorial in word and meal (E5-6,12), and that the Spirit is “called upon” in order to make the eucharistic event possible , real and effective (E14). In the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to us, clothed in his mighty acts, and gathers us into his self-offering as Son to the Father, in whom is eternal life (cf. Eph. 2:18).

The ecclesiological dimension of the eucharist (4) includes “communion with all the saints and martyrs” (E11). E19 establishes a link between “each local eucharistic celebration” and “the whole church”. This is widely acknowledged in principle, but as Old Catholic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox responses to Lima most evidently recognize, this point raises the question of “catholicity”* and the concrete identification of “the church”: what does it take to make a eucharist the eucharist, or what constitutes a eucharistic assembly?

Many responses welcomed the association made in E20 between the eucharist and “appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life”; some asked for more precision as to whether “reconciliation and sharing among all those regarded as brothers and sisters in the one family of God” is meant as a condition or as a consequence of the eucharistic celebration and communion.

Lima ‘s acknowledgment of the eschatological dimension (5) of the Lord’s supper finds very widespread approval, whether the accent be placed on joy and hope, or on mission and service, or on the anticipation of the parousia and the feast of the kingdom. The responses of the churches reveal the same tensions between present realization and future consummation as are present in E and as indeed mark the scriptural and traditional material concerning the End and the eucharist’s relation to it.

All in all, the reception given to E suggests that the convergence of the churches regarding the meaning of the eucharist is stronger than on almost any other topic of dogma. The United Church of Christ in Japan considers E to be “the best section of BEM and the richest in content”; and the (Anglican) Church of Ireland specifies: “Drawing its inspiration from recent biblical, patristic and liturgical scholarship, it [E] is irenic in approach and successfully transcends the old divisive controversies.” It will be important to draw on the agreements here achieved as F&O pursues the wider task of helping the churches “Towards a Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today” (see common confession ).

The celebration of the eucharist

E3 declares that the eucharist “always includes both word and sacrament”, and the features which the Lima text (E27) lists as belonging to the “single whole” of the eucharistic liturgy – hymns, prayers and proclamation as well as the action with the bread and wine – correspond remarkably, even as far as detailed sequence, to the orders now found in the current service books of almost all confessional families (see liturgical reforms ). Nevertheless, some Protestant respondents have received the impression that BEM “sacramentalizes” worship, to the detriment of “the word”. Liturgically speaking, the National Alliance of the Lutheran Churches of France prefers to consider word and sacrament as “two foci of an ellipse”. Almost all responses to BEM in fact recognize that it is wrong to oppose word and sacrament to each other. The 1990 report of F&O formulates the matter thus: “Using the term ‘sacramental’ in a general sense, i.e. referring to God’s salvific action in history, the proclamation of the word is a sacramental action just as the celebration of baptism and supper are an event of God’s word.” In its response to BEM, the United Methodist Church (USA) had already declared: “God’s effectual word is there [in the eucharistic service of word and sacrament] revealed, proclaimed, heard, seen and tasted.”

“As the eucharist celebrates the resurrection of Christ, it is appropriate”, declared Lima (E31), “that it should take place at least every Sunday.” The principle of “the supper of the Lord every Lord’s day” (John Wesley) had in fact been the practice of the whole church in the early centuries. Dating from about A.D. 150, Justin Martyr’s classic description records that “on the day called sun-day an assembly is held in one place of all who live in town or country”; “the records of the apostles or writings of the prophets are read”; a sermon is followed by prayers; bread and wine are brought up, and the presider says the prayer of thanksgiving, to which the people assent by their amen; then “everyone partakes of the elements over which thanks have been given”. With the mass conversions to Christianity from the 4th century onwards, the frequency of popular communion declined, although in the middle ages, especially in the West, the mass itself came to be celebrated more and more often, with an emphasis on its propitiatory power.

The Protestant reformers stopped the “multiplication of masses”, but they were unable to establish the regular weekly communion of the faithful which most of the leaders desired, and so the service of prayers, preaching and psalmody became the normal Sunday fare in their churches. In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church has been remarkably successful in increasing the frequency of popular communion; and responses from several Orthodox churches to BEM indicate that they share the same goal, provided adequate spiritual and moral preparation is made. On the Protestant side, the Swiss Protestant Church Federation, for instance, recognizes that “celebration [of the Lord’s supper] every Sunday”, understood as a service of word and sacrament, “is in line with the biblical tradition”; and the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar reports that “at present, thanks to BEM, CJCM accepts the principle of celebrating the eucharist every Sunday”. Many Protestant responses express this as a more or less firm desideratum, having attained a greater or less degree of fulfilment.

In the commentary to E28, Lima noted that “in certain parts of the world, where bread and wine are not customary or obtainable, it is now sometimes held that local food and drink serve better to anchor the eucharist in everyday life”. The responses of churches in the South Pacific showed most interest in this question, although it is also much discussed in Africa. The Church of South India commented: “The symbol should be obvious and meaningful. We have no problem with any type of bread; but it may be difficult to take the coconut water and say, ‘This is the blood of Christ’.” The Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East observes that “the matter of this sacrament Christ ordained to be of wheat and wine as being most fit to represent body and blood”. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, as well as responses from some Lutheran and Anglican churches, share that view.


n J.J. von Allmen, Essai sur le repas du Seigneur (ET The Lord’s Supper , London, Lutterworth, 1969) n T.F. Best and D. Heller eds, Eucharistic Worship in Ecumenical Contexts: The Lima Liturgy – and Beyond , WCC, 1998 n H. Davies, Bread of Life and Cup of Joy: Newer Ecumenical Perspectives on the Eucharist , Grand Rapids IL, Eerdmans, 1993 n A. Heron, Table and Tradition: Towards an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist , Edinburgh, Handsel, 1983 n E. Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite , New York, Pueblo, 1986 n D.N. Power, The Eucharistic Mystery: Revitalizing the Tradition , New York, Crossroad, 1992 n J. Reumann, The Supper of the Lord: The New Testament, Ecumenical Dialogues, and Faith and Order on Eucharist , Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985 n G.K. Schäfer, Eucharistie im ökumenischen Kontext: Zur Diskussion um das Herrenmahl in Glauben und Kirchenverfassung von Lausanne 1927 bis Lima 1982 , Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988 n A. Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom , Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1987 n D.R.Stoffer ed., The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives , Scottdale PA, Herald, 1997 n M. Thurian, L’eucharistie – mémorial du Seigneur, sacrifice d’action de grâce et d’intercession (ET The Eucharistic Memorial , 2 vols, London, Lutterworth, 1960-61) n M. Thurian & G. Wainwright eds, Baptism and Eucharist: Ecumenical Convergence in Celebration , WCC, 1983 n

J.-M.R. Tillard, L’eucharistie, pâque de l’Eglise , Paris, Cerf, 1964 n G. Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology , London, Epworth, 1971 n

G. Wainwright, “The Eucharist in the Churches’ Responses to the Lima Text”, OC , 25, 1989.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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