Anglicanism is alone amongst the Reformation traditions in retaining the historic Christian teaching that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Our prayer book is bold in its proclamation of this truth. Nevertheless, the way in which we understand what this means is very different from the understanding of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. While the Roman understanding lead away from the cross and towards the power of the priest, the Anglican teaching is centered entirely on Christ’s work of atonement and our reception of His saving grace. As John Bramhall wrote against a Roman interlocutor while in exile in 1653, “You say we have renounced your Sacrifice of the Mass. If the Sacrifice of the Mass be the same with the Sacrifice of the Cross, we attribute more unto it than yourselves; we place our whole hope of salvation in it.”
In the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood there is a propitiation for our sins because He is really present in it, who is the propitiation for sins. But it in no way hence follows that there is any propitiatory sacrifice for sin in the Sacrament. He becomes the propitiation for our sins, He actually remits our sins, not directly and immediately by the elements of bread and wine, nor by any other kind of local presence or compresence with these elements than is in Baptism. … Neither of these elements or sensible substances can directly cleanse us from our sins by any virtue communicated unto them or inherent in them, but only as they are pledges or assurances of Christ’s peculiar presence in them, and of our true investiture in Christ by them. We are not then to receive the elements of bread and wine only in remembrance that Christ died for us, but in remembrance or assurance likewise that His body which was once given for us doth by its everlasting virtue preserve our bodies and souls unto everlasting life, and that His blood which was but once shed for us doth still cleanse us from all our sins, from which in this life we are cleansed or can hope to be cleansed. If we then receive remission of sins or purification from our sins in the Sacrament of the Eucharist (as we always do when we receive it worthily), we receive it not immediately by the sole serious remembrance of His death, but by the present efficacy or operation of His body which was given for us, and of His blood which was shed for us. … The present efficacy of Christ’s body and blood upon our souls, or real communication of both, I find as a truth unquestionable amongst the ancient fathers and as a Catholic confession.
I see the same high authority number among the errors of Rome, which our own church has renounced, that ‘a propitiatory virtue is attributed to the Eucharist’. I am not aware of our Church having anywhere condemned such a doctrine. That it has condemned (as we all from our hearts condemn) as ‘blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’ ‘the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead to have remission from pain and guilt’, we know and heartily rejoice. But this is very far indeed from saying or meaning that the Eucharist hath not ‘a propitiatory virtue’; and we must be very careful how we deny that virtue to it. The consecrated elements ought not to be separated in our minds from the propitiation for our sins, continually presented for us before the throne of God. Whether we regard them in correspondence with the meat-offerings and drink-offerings of the Old Testament as memorials of the one great sacrifice, and so, in union with that sacrifice, by virtue of Christ’s appointment, representing and pleading to the Father the atonement finished on the cross, or as answering to those portions of the typical sacrifice which were eaten by the priests and offerers, in either case they are intimately united with the altar in heaven, and with its propitiatory virtue. ‘In these holy mysteries’ in an especial manner heaven and earth are brought together. … The partakers of the sacrifice are partakers of the altar, and of all its inestimable benefits, the first of which is the propitiation of our sins.