If you poke clergymen who are passionate about liturgy, and start asking deep questions about the Communion Prayers (or prayer of consecration, or Eucharistic canon) in different rites and prayer books, sooner or later you’re going to run into a hot topic: the epiclesis.

Also called “the invocation”, the epiclesis (true to its Greek meaning) is a prayer that “calls down” the Holy Spirit.  Some think this is unnecessary, even inappropriate; some think this is important to include; some think it’s absolutely necessary.  Thus, the language of the epiclesis, and even its placement within the prayer of consecration, can be a real battleground among those of passionate theological persuasions.

There are too many Prayer Books and rites to survey here, so let’s just look at some representative examples in groups.

GROUP #1: The Epiclesis is Unnecessary

In the English 1552 and 1662 BCP there is no hint of an epiclesis.  Reformed (particularly Calvinistic) doctrine is generally hesitant to make room for transformation language regarding the bread and wine into body and blood, much less attribute the operation of the Holy Spirit to it.

In the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, the epiclesis reads thus:

And we pray that by the power of thy Holy Spirit, all we who are partakers of this holy Communion may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction;

This epiclesis is very mild.  The Holy Spirit is called upon as the power whereby the grace and blessing of receiving the Sacrament is applied to we who partake of it.  It reveals a theology of the Spirit’s activity, working in the Sacrament, but makes no particular commitment as to the nature of the consecration of the bread and wine.

GROUP #2: The Epiclesis is Important

2019 BCP, Anglican Standard Rite

And now, O merciful Father, in your great goodness, we ask you to bless and sanctify, with your Word and Holy Spirit, these gifts of bread and wine, that we, receiving them according to your Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.

This epiclesis is a strong one: the Holy Spirit is named alongside the Word of the Father as an instrument of blessing and sanctifying the bread and wine so that we may be partakers of Christ’s Body and Blood.  Contexts of right reception and right remembrance further color and qualify this prayer such that being a “partaker” is not an automatic function of physically receiving the Sacrament.  (One may “eat unto condemnation”, as St. Paul warned, cf. the Exchortation.)  Also noteworthy is that this epiclesis is said before the Words of Institution, which, according to general historic Western theology, is the precise formula that actually consecrates the bread and wine.  The epiclesis in this rite, therefore, is best seen as preparatory for the moment of consecration.

The 1928 Prayer Book has essentially the same epiclesis text as this, but placed after the Words of Institution.  It therefore leaves room for interpretation: are the Words of Institution the moment of consecration?  Is the epiclesis that moment?  Is it both, together, that accomplishes it?  This debate can be pretty heated, depending upon where you poke your nose.  A good explanation of this debate from a Lutheran perspective is addressed here.

The original English Prayer Book, in 1549, and the first Scottish Prayer Book, in 1637, were a little more explicit:

Hear us (O merciful father) we beseech thee; and with thy holy spirit and word, vouchsafe to blSmCross.GIF (76 bytes)ess and sancSmCross.GIF (76 bytes)tify these thy gifts, and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ.

Complete with the priest signing the cross over the bread and wine, this prayer is an example of a high view of the Sacrament.  And because it’s followed immediately by the Words of Institution, this epiclesis can (like the first example in this group) be interpreted as preparatory for the moment of consecration, though also introduces room for the debate that the 1928 Prayer Book also invites.

GROUP #3: The Epiclesis is Necessary 

2019 BCP, Renewed Ancient Rite

Sanctify them by your Word and Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ.

This epiclesis is explicit (like the 1549 version); God’s Word and Spirit is called upon to sanctify the bread and wine such that they will be Christ’s body and blood.  Furthermore, this is prayed after the Words of Institution, which logically contradicts the historic view that those words are the “true” moment of consecration.  The theology of the Renewed Ancient Rite, therefore, is that the epiclesis is the center of the prayer of consecration.

Most of the rites in the 1979 Prayer Book follow suit with this position.  The Non-Jurors‘ Communion Rite also does the same thing:

…send down thine Holy Spirit, the witness of the passion of our Lord Jesus, upon this Sacrifice, that he may make this * Bread the Body of thy Christ, and this * Cup the Blood of thy Christ…      [* the priest touches the paten or chalice]

What to do about all this…

If you’re a lay person, all this is primarily of instructive value.  Hopefully this gives you insight into the ways that even small changes to the liturgy can suggest or set forth different doctrines, and why some clergymen can get so uppity and argumentative about it, especially the Communion prayers.

If you’re a priest (or bishop, I suppose, if any actually reads this!) who hasn’t thought about this subject a whole lot before, this may be something of a challenge to you.  What do you believe about the Eucharist?

If you believe the Words of Institution “this is my body/blood” is the moment of consecration for the bread and wine, then an explicit epiclesis prayed after those words is errant, even blasphemous.  That means if you hold the traditional view, “consecrationism”, you cannot in good conscience use the Renewed Ancient Rite in the 2019 BCP!

If you believe an epiclesis is absolutely essential to a proper consecration of the Eucharist, you’re in luck, both rites in the 2019 book have a clear epiclesis.  But you have to contend with the fact that the “liturgical standard” of Anglicanism, the 1662 Prayer Book, has stood for centuries with no epiclesis at all.

So whatever your convictions are, there are challenges and consequences to address.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a firm opinion on this (admittedly somewhat minute) point of doctrine, it pays to take note of the rite(s) you typically use, to consider what it is they say, suggest, or refrain from saying, and to think about how these prayers have been shaping your beliefs over time.

So, as the Pentecost Octave begins to wrap up, take this opportunity to think about the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments.  What do you believe?  What do we pray?

6 thoughts on “What is an Epiclesis?

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