Owen Cummings’s brief study of “the Eucharist across the ages and traditions” (Eucharist & Ecumenism) holds many surprises.
There are some standard well-known texts – the Didache, Justin’s description of the Eucharistic service, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. But then Cummings collection goes rogue. He includes a Eucharistic prayer from the eastern church, that of Addai and Mari, a brief analysis of the Eucharistic theologies of Baldwin of Ford and Margery Kempe. Better-known names also appear – Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes – but when was the last time they were included in a study of the Eucharist? Cummings includes a chapter on the Eucharistic revivals and fairs of the American frontier, and ends with a chapter on Monsignor Quixote’s Eucharist.
His selections give his book the feel of a Eucharistic underground. Of Baldwin of Ford, Cummings quotes a scholar who says that he is “one of the last true representations of a rich monastic theological tradition which was soon to be followed [I suspect this should be “swallowed” – PJL] up in the inexorable advance of philosophical scholasticism” (52). The chapter on Margery Kempe puts the Eucharistic in a richly mystical setting. In the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, he finds splendid passages like this: “There we do not gather to Christ or of Christ, but we gather Christ himself; and gathering him we shall gather the tree and fruit and all upon it. For as there is a recapitulation of all in heaven and earth in Christ, so there is a recapitulation of all in Christ in the holy sacrament” (87).
For all the interest of Cummings’s book, there is something disquieting about it. The Eucharist is, as Andrewes says, a recapitulation of all in Christ. But not all Eucharistic theologies or practices are equal. The frontier fairs occurred once (or a few times) a year, and that has to nurture a different sort of Eucharistic theology and piety than a weekly celebration of the Supper. Both cannot be best practice. Decisions about liturgy should be well-informed by the variety of Christian traditions, but decisions still have to be made.