A Brief History of Communion: Medieval Christianity

This post is part of an ongoing series on the history of communion.

The Medieval Church

During the medieval period, the Church began to use a common liturgy for Eucharistic celebration, with prescribed texts and traditions for services and practice. Some differences emerged between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, differences which were formalized following the Great Schism of 1054 CE.1 In the Roman West, the liturgy increasingly occurred in Latin, even in non-Latin speaking areas which were evangelized. In the Byzantine East, Greek liturgies were the most common, although in many locations liturgy continued to be held in vernacular languages.

In 1079 CE, the Sixth Council of Rome affirmed that “…the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord….” In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council declared, “Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread (changed) into His body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood….” These statements, which were affirmed by Pope Innocent III (1208 CE), the Second Council of Lyons (1274 CE), Pope Benedict XII (1341 CE), the Council of Constance (1415 CE), would serve as the basis for the Reformation era debates between Protestants and Catholics on the substance and importance of Communion.

The Council of Constance was also noteworthy for its statement of the practice of Communion “in one kind.”2 That is, regular lay parishioners, when they would receive communion, would only receive the bread/body of Christ, while the priests administering the sacrament would also partake of the cup/blood of Christ. This practice arose from the sacred status of the elements present in Communion, a reflection of the increasing specificity of scholastic theologians on what the Eucharist was and how it should be approached. There is some debate as to when the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (to be discussed further below) arose; although certainly present in some form prior to the Reformation, the doctrine was not formally declared until the Council of Trent (1563 CE).

 

 


1 As the force of this history is for understanding where contemporary American theologies of communion come from, at this juncture we effectively leave Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic theology behind, if only for the fact that this tradition has not played an influential role in the development of Western theology and practice. For an overview of Orthodox Eucharistic theology, see Alexander Schmemann and Paul Kachur, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).
2 John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 129-31.

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