'Not a true or proper Altar': understanding Laud on the meaning of the Altar

... his Altar, as the greatest place of Gods Residence upon earth. (I say the greatest, yea greater then the Pulpit. For there tis Hoc est Corpus meum, This is my Body. But in the Pulpit, tis at most, but; Hoc est Verbum meum, This is my Word. And a greater Reverence (no doubt) is due to the Body, then to the Word of our Lord. And so, in Relation, answerably to the Throne, where his Body is usually present; then to the Seate, whence His Word useth to be Proclaimed.)

So said Archbishop Laud in 1637.  I noticed these words being quoted on Twitter on Sunday past, the commemoration of Laud's martyrdom.  The implication was that Laud here was a precursor of advanced Anglo-Catholic views.  Is this the case?

Firstly, we must note the context.  Laud is speaking against the charge of innovation, which he dismisses again and again in the speech as "pretended innovations".  He declares that he is upholding "the Practise and Rule of the Church of England since the Reformation".  In this particular instance, he is referring to "bowing, or doing Reverence at our first coming into the Church, or at our nearer approaches to the Holy Table, or the Altar, (call it whether you will)".  Again Laud insists, "this is no Innovation", quoting Jewel's defence against Harding of "commendable gestures, and tokens of devotion".  Related to this is the issue of rails.  Laud notes:

To this I answer, That ’tis no Popery, to set a Raile to keep prophanation from that Holy Table.

This makes clear Laud's intention is to uphold the dignity and order of the worship of the Reformed ecclesia Anglicana, not introduce practices or countenance doctrine rejected at the Reformation:

my care of this Church, the reducing of it into Order, the upholding of the Externall Worship of God in it, and the setling of it to the Rules of its first Reformation.

Secondly, the Laudian use of 'altar' was a continuation of language maintained in common usage since the Reformation.  For example, Eamon Duffy notes that the priest of Morebath, who had conformed and embraced the Elizabethan Settlement, "almost invariably referred to the communion table as 'the auter'".  Such common-place piety alongside and with faithful use of the Reformed rites carried no controversial doctrinal connotations.  When Jeremy Taylor in the late 1630s wrote his Laudian tract On the Reverence Due to the Altar, he noted that the only sacrifice offered "not upon, but at his Altar" was of ourselves.  The Lord's sacrifice is not offered upon the altar but, rather, there is "Christs Memoriall, there we commemorate his Death".  In other words, to refer to the Holy Table, where the Sacrament is administered, as an altar is to point to the sacrificial nature of the Lord's death.  As the Canons of 1640 were to state, distinguishing patristic precedent from "all Popish Altars":

And we declare that this situation of the holy Table, doth not imply that it is, or ought to be esteemed a true and proper Altar, whereon Christ is again really sacrificed: but it is, and may be called an Altar by us, in that sense in which the Primitive Church called it an Altar, and in no other.

Thirdly, a reverence due to the Holy Table was clearly signalled by rubrics, rite, and Canons.  In the 1559 Communion Office, the rubric directs, "The table, havyng at the Communion tyme a fayre whyte linnen cloth upon it".  The Exhortations refer to "the Lordes Table", "suche a heavenly Table", and "this holy table".  The provisions of the 1604 Canons highlighted how the Lord's Table was to be furnished:

We appoint that the same Tables shall from time to time be kept and repaired in sufficient and seemly manner, and covered in time of Divine Service with a Carpet of Silk or other decent Stuff thought meet by the Ordinary of the place, if any question be made of it, and with a fair Linen Cloth at the Time of the Ministration, as becometh that Table.

Prayer desk and pulpit were neither referred to nor furnished in such a fashion.  Thus "bowing ... at our nearer approaches to the Holy Table" cohered with the reverence required by rubric, rite, and Canon for the Table.  It was not, however, required by rubric, rite, or Canon, as Laud recognised and affirmed: "no man is constrained, no man questioned".

Fourthly, what are we to make of Laud's declaration that the Altar is greater than the Pulpit, for at the former is said Hoc est Corpus meum?  Is this to explicitly to mimic Eucharistic doctrine and practice rejected at the Reformation? To begin with, Laud's account of his Eucharistic doctrine is Reformed: in his debate with Fisher, he approvingly quotes Calvin on a true and real feeding in the Sacrament, and clearly describes the Church of England as explicitly "Protestant" in sacramental teaching.  We might also point out that his use of the Dominical words in the 1637 speech echoes Article 28's use of the Apostle's words: "the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ".  

It is in Hooker's discourse on the Sacrament that we find the strongest basis for Laud's statement:

Christ assisting his heavenly banquet with his personal and true presence doth by his own divine power add to the natural substance thereof supernatural efficacy, which addition to the nature of those consecrated elements changeth them and maketh them that unto us which otherwise they could not be; that to us they are thereby made such instruments as mystically yet truly, invisibly yet really work our communion or fellowship with the person of Jesus Christ as well in that he is man as God, our participation also in the fruit, grace and efficacy of his body and blood, whereupon there ensueth a kind of transubstantiation in us (LEP V.67.11).

Preaching is, indeed, "the blessed ordinance of God" (V.22.1).  It does not, however, effect such a participation in the Lord's Body and Blood as is the fruit of the Holy Supper, to "make perfect our life in Christ" (V.67.13).  Mindful that this is "the fruit of the Eucharist" (V.67.6), reverencing the Holy Table above the pulpit did not contradict the teaching on the Reformed ecclesia Anglicana on the Sacrament but, rather, embodied its finest and most noble expression.


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