"We receive the selfsame body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary": Cranmer, Ridley, and Berengar's second recantation

He saith that I deny, that we receive in the sacrament that flesh which is adjoined to God's own Son ... I have written in more than an hundred places, that we receive the selfsame body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary, that was crucified and buried, that rose again, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. And the contention is only in the manner and form how we receive it ... For I say (as all the old holy fathers and martyrs used to say), that we receive Christ spiritually by faith with our minds, eating his flesh and drinking his blood: so that we receive Christ's own very natural body, but not naturally nor corporally - Archbishop Thomas Cranmer responding to a Roman apologist in his Answer to Smyth's Preface, 1551.

For both you and I agree herein, that in the sacrament is the very true and natural body and blood of Christ, even that which was born of the Virgin Mary, which ascended into heaven, which sitteth on the right hand of God the Father, which shall come from thence to judge the quick and the dead, only we differ in modo, in the way and manner of being: we confess all one thing to be in the sacrament, and dissent in the manner of being there. I, being fully by God's word thereunto persuaded, confess Christ's natural body to be in the sacrament indeed by spirit and grace, because that whosoever receiveth worthily that bread and wine, receiveth effectuously Christ's body, and drinketh his blood (that is, he is made effectually partaker of his passion); and you make a grosser kind of being, enclosing a natural, a lively, and a moving body, under the shape or form of bread and wine. Now, this difference considered, to the question thus I answer, that in the sacrament of the altar is the natural body and blood of Christ vere et realiter, indeed and really, for spiritually, by grace and efficacy; for so every worthy receiver receiveth the very true body of Christ. But, if you mean really and indeed, so that thereby you would include a lively and a movable body under the forms of bread and wine, then, in that sense, is not Christ's body in the sacrament really and indeed - Bishop Ridley, responding, during the trial before his martyrdom in 1555, to the accusation that he had "affirmed, and openly defended and maintained ... that the true and natural body of Christ, after the consecration of the priest, is not really present in the sacrament of the altar".

There is a formulaic nature to the words of Cranmer and Ridley, confessing that in the Sacrament of the holy Eucharist we do indeed partake of the body and blood of Christ born of the Blessed Virgin, crucified for us, risen again, and ascended to the Father's right hand.

The words are indeed taken from a formula - the formula used in the second recantation required of Berengar during the Eucharistic controversy of the 11th century.  The first recantation, of course, has remained infamous, with its insistence that the Lord's Body and Blood "are truly, physically and not merely sacramentally, touched and broken by the hands of the priest and crushed by the teeth of the faithful".  

Brett Salkeld notes of this formula in his superb work Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (2019), "the presence is thus imagined in a completely nonsacramental manner". As such, it was a profound rejection of the Latin West's traditional reliance of Augustine, "the key features of whose eucharistic theology included a careful analysis of the relationship between sign and thing signified".

The second recantation required of Berengar, however, was notably more alert to the Augustinian sacramental heritage:

I, Berengar, believe with my heart and confess with my mouth that the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are changed in their substance (substantialiter converti) into the true flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Prayer and the words of our Redeemer.  They are thus, after consecration, the true body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, which was offered, and hung on the Cross, for the salvation of the world, and which sits on the right hand of the Father, and the real blood of Christ, which was shed from his side - and they really are this, not only by virtue of the sign and power of this sacrament, but in their peculiar nature and substantial reality.

The echo of this recantation in the words of Cranmer and Ridley does seem to be clear. This, of course, reflected a consistent and robust Reformed insistence. As Jewel would later say:

we mean not to abase the Lord's Supper, that it is but a cold ceremony only, and nothing to be wrought therein (as many falsely slander us we teach). For we affirm, that Christ doth truly and presently give His own self in His Sacraments

Likewise, Hooker:

It is on all sides plainely confest, first that this sacrament is a true and reall participation of Christ, who thereby imparteth him selfe even his whole intire person as a mysticall head unto everie soule that receiveth him ... these holie mysteries received ... imparte unto us in even true and reall though mysticall maner the verie person of our Lord him selfe whole perfect and intire (LEP V.67.7-8).

What gives particular significance to the words of Cranmer and Ridley, however, is the very distinct echo of Berengar's second recantation in 1079.  Crucially, it was well a over a century before the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 promulgated 'transubstantiation'.  There is a hint of this when Cranmer in his True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ (1550) says that transubstantiation was unknown until "these four or five hundred years last past".  Berengar's second recantation, because it pre-dates the emergence of 'transubstantiation', can thus be regarded as - at least partially - an acceptable expression of eucharistic doctrine.

We might also note that when Cranmer and Ridley take care to robustly distinguish sacramental partaking of the natural Body of Christ from partaking "naturally or corporally", or as "a natural, a lively, and a moving body", they are reflecting the fundamental difference between the first and second recantations of Berengar. Of course, Cranmer and Ridley also offer a more authentically Augustinian account than does the second recantation because they are aware of the need to ensure that deeply un-Augustinian and non-sacramental teaching of the first recantation is entirely rebutted.  Cranmer's "we receive Christ spiritually by faith" and Ridley's "spiritually, by grace and efficacy" rule out much more explicitly "physically and not merely sacramentally" than does the second recantation.

The acceptability of the second recantation, however, can also apply to the declaration that we feed on the Lord's Body and Blood in the Sacrament in their "substantial reality".  The use of the term 'substance', after all, was entirely acceptable to Calvin:

the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus ... Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion ... all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all ... the sacraments of the Lord should not and cannot be at all separated from their reality and substance ... We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs ... we have good cause to be satisfied, when we understand that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the proper substance of his body and blood.

Cranmer and Ridley both point to this when they state that we sacramentally partake of Christ's "natural" Body and Blood.  The Body born of the blessed Virgin, which hung upon the Cross, and rose from the Tomb is indeed the "substantial reality" of which we partake with bread and wine in the holy Eucharist.

We might push things further and suggest that "changed in their substance" can be accepted, on the understanding that we are not reliant (and why should we be?) on an Aristotelian definition of 'substance'.  The substance of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is changed because it is added to. To return to the words of Calvin, "the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs". Similarly, Hooker's statement that there is a "conjunction of his body and blood with those elements" (V.67.10) also points to how the language of "changed in their substance" can be acceptable. 

The fact that Cranmer and Ridley echo a key affirmation of Berengar's second recantation points to the deep continuity between Reformed eucharistic theology and the Latin West's earlier commitment to the Augustinian emphasis on a careful account of the relationship between sign and signified. It also suggests how Reformed eucharistic theology - rejecting transubstantiation while articulating what Salkeld terms the "Chalcedonian balance, distinguishing sign from reality without separating the two" - could meaningfully draw on earlier expressions of Eucharistic belief and piety.  

What comes particularly to mind is the 13th century Eucharistic anthem Ave verum corpus.  It gives prayerful expression to that which Cranmer and Ridley affirmed:

Hail, true Body, born

of the Virgin Mary,

having truly suffered, sacrificed

on the cross for mankind,

from whose pierced side

water and blood flowed.

In Cranmer's words, "we receive the selfsame body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary".  

Little wonder, then, that he gave rich liturgical expression to this belief: that he was the author of the Prayer of Humble Access; that he penned the words - after powerfully commemorating the Lord's "death upon the Cross for our redemption" - "may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood"; and that he bequeathed to us the words of thanksgiving, "for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries".  

Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgin.


  1. If I may ask, at which point in history did the English Reformers such as Cranmer, Hooper and Ridley believe that the Western Church went astray ? I have read of certain Protestant Clergymen who theorise that the corruption of the Church began in the year 1000, marked by increased independent papal power, or at the coronation of Charlemagne, when Papal power was tied with that of the Emperors, or at the death of St Gregory the Dialogist in 604. If one wishes to reform Christendom, one must have an example of a Primitive Catholic Church, but when did this Church go away from the true faith ?

    1. It is a good question. As indicated above, Cranmer's reference to "these four or five hundred years last past" is suggestive of how the magisterial Reformers tended to view the history of the Western Church. The Gregorian Reforms, the increasing papal power, communion in one kind, mandatory clerical celibacy etc can be dated in this way.


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