The Ecclesiological Presuppositions of the Holy Eucharist

by John Zizioulas

holy-eucharist-icon2The Church is not prior to the Eucharist. The position I will develop here is that the Church constitutes the Eucharist while being constituted by it. Church and Eucharist are interdependent, they coincide, and are even in some sense identical. The body of Christ, which is the body of the Eucharist and of the Church at the same time, is the body of the Risen, the eschatological, Christ. This means that the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist are to be found in a consideration of the eschatological Church and the eschatological community. The eschatological community, both in its ecclesial and its eucharistic form, is above all a synaxis epi to auto (coming together in one place) of the dispersed people of God. The people are indispensable for the Eucharist. They constitute it, together with the other orders through their responses to the prayers, through their Amen, which is the prerogative exclusively of the lay, of the people. The Eucharist is a leitourgia, an act of the People

I. The subject on which I have been asked to speak is important and vast. Although it is a subject on which I have worked for many years, I fell inadequate to deal with it properly in a brief lecture. What I intend to do here is to offer some general suggestions which may help to deepen the discussion of the subject. I propose to discuss the following questions

a) What phases has the problem of the relation between Church and Eucharist gone through before reaching its present state? A brief look at the past is necessity to appreciate the significance of our problem today.

b) What conclusions can we draw from a study of the ancient Tradition, common to both the West and the East, about the relation between Eucharist and Ecclesiology, and more specifically, the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist ?

c) What conclusions can we draw from all this for our ecumenical situation today? At this point special attention will be paid to the problem of the ‘validity’ of the Eucharist of the divided Churches and the possibilities that may exist for a restoration of eucharistic communion between them.

II. Let us begin with a brief look at the historical background. The history of the relationship between Eucharist and ecclesiology seems to involve the following three fundamental phases:

1. In the primitive phases, that of the ancient Church, the Eucharist is linked closely with the mystery of the Church.

Already at the time of St Paul the word Ecclesia and those words which describe the Eucharist signify the same reality. A study of 1 Corinthians 11 show this. Verses 20, 33 and 34 of this chapter leaves us with no doubt that for St Paul the terms ‘Lord’s Supper’ (kyriakon deipnon), ‘coming together in the same place’ (synerchesthai epi to auto) and ‘Church’ (Ecclesia) are used to denote the same reality. It is true that in Paul’s mind the idea of the Church as the ‘people of God’ in its Old Testament sense occupies a place of priority. And yet, if not in general, at least with regard to 1 Corinthians, the Church is above all a concrete community. And what is even more important, the Church in these texts is not simply a concrete community of any kind, but the community of a city united epi to auto to celebrate the Eucharist. For St Paul, the local becomes the very ‘Church of God’ when it gathers to celebrate the Eucharist.

This Pauline ecclesiology which identifies Church and Eucharist so closely is developed further by St Ignatius of Antioch. What characterizes Ignatius in particular is that the Eucharist does not simply make the local catholic community into the Church, but that it makes it the catholic Church (katholike ecclesia), that is, the full and integral body of Christ. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for Ignatius the catholicity of the Church derives from the celebration of the Eucharist. And this allows Ignatius to apply the term ‘catholic Church’ to the local community. Each local eucharistic community presided over by the bishop surrounded by the college of presbyters and assisted by the deacons, in the presence of the multitude (plethos), the people, constitutes the ‘catholic Church’ precisely because in it the total Christ is found in the form of the Eucharist.

After Ignatius the preoccupation of the Church with the danger of Gnosticism and other heresies forced her to emphasize orthodoxy as the fundamental and decisive ingredient of ecclesiology. Thus, the relation between Church and Eucharist seems to be weakened to some extent in the writers of the second century, though it is not absent from their thought. The situation is exemplified by St Irenaeus who regards orthodoxy as fundamental to ecclesiology while making the Eucharist the criterion of catholicity:

‘Our faith (belief: gnome) is in accordance with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our faith’ (Adv Haereses 4.8,5).

It is mainly for this reason that in all ancient writers before St Augustine each local Church is called catholic, the full and integral body of Christ.

With St Augustine something seems to change in this respect. Striving with the provincialism of the Donatists, for the first time the term ‘catholic Church’ acquires the meaning, not of the local Church, but of the Church universal. This gives catholicity the meaning of universality, and with it a quantitative and geographical content instead of the original qualitative one.

This change was destined to exercise a decisive influence in the subsequent centuries in the West. And yet as has been shown in the remarkable studies of scholars such as Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar, the link between Church and Eucharist was not weakened at all as a result of this in the West up to the thirteenth century. The Eucharist continued to constitute the sacrament of the Church, that which expresses the Church’s unity and which makes the body of Christ and the body of the Church identical. Church, Eucharist and Body of Christ continue up until that time to constitute one and the same reality in the West as in the East. In the latter, despite certain shifts of emphasis that led Byzantine theology with a preoccupation with the anthropological rather than the strictly ecclesiological dimensions of the Christian faith, the holy Liturgy never ceased to occupy the centre of the Church’s life and to be regarded as the ecclesiological event. In the East one still speaks of ‘going to Church’ when going to the Eucharist – thus preserving the early link between Eucharist and ecclesiology.

2. From the thirteenth century onwards the relation between Church and Eucharist entered a new phase which was destined to exercise an enormous influence on the theology of the subsequent centuries up to our own time. With the help of subtle distinctions used by the scholastic theologians of the time, the terms ‘body of Christ’, ‘body of the Church’ and ‘body of the Eucharist’ ceased to be identical. This, together with the appearance of a sacramental theology independent of both Christology and ecclesiology, led to a disjunction between Eucharist and ecclesiology, and to a conception of the Eucharist as one sacrament among many. Thus the Eucharist was no longer identified with the Church; it became a means of grace, something assisting the faithful in their spiritual life, which was no longer regarded as manifesting the total body of the Church. As result eucharistic celebrations could become ‘private’ – something unheard of in the early Church – and the sole presence of a presbyter, in the absence of the other orders of the Church, as regarded as sufficient for a ‘valid’ Eucharist. Church and Eucharist were thus gradually disassociated from each other both in theory and in practice.

The Reformation, though critical of many of the medieval practices around the Eucharist, seem to have done little to restore the old link between Church and Eucharist. It is true that the Reformers were strongly concerned with the centrality of communion – community of laity – in the eucharistic celebration. But by attributing greater centrality to the preaching of the Word in the Church’s life and by opening the way to less frequent celebration of the Eucharist during the year – in many cases under the influence of civil authority and in contrast with the theology of the Reformers – the Reformation weakened even further the already loose link between Eucharist and ecclesiology. In this respect it continued faithfully the medieval post-thirteenth century conception of the Eucharist as one sacrament among other sacraments – this time two rather than seven.

The Counter-Reformation insisted on the same line and reinforced it in the West. The eucharist remained a sacrament produced by the Church and not constitutive of her being. The ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist were in this way understood to involve a ‘valid’ ministry, through ordination, which conferred a character indelibilis, and a potestas to perform the sacraments regardless of any other conditions, such as the presence of the community, orthodox faith or other such factors.

At this time the East, struggling to relate to debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants, produced its own confessions. It assumed without criticism the problematic inherited in the West from medieval scholasticism, and tried to reply to the Protestant views by using Roman Catholic arguments and vice versa. Thus, in the very centre of Orthodox theology and in spite of the continuous centrality of the Eucharist in Orthodox Church life, an ecclesiology developed at the academic level which regarded the Eucharist as one sacrament among many (usually seven), and which distinguishes very clearly between Church and Eucharist in its methodology. The consequence of this was the emergence of a dichotomy of academic ecclesiology and ordinary liturgical Church life, a dichotomy which is still responsible for many of the problems of today’s Orthodoxy.

3. This takes us to the third phase in the history of the relation between Church and Eucharist, which is our contemporary era. Our own situation has been changed radically by the revival of Biblical, Patristic and Liturgical studies since the beginning of the twentieth century. This revival has recovered the ancient link between Church and Eucharist which was obscured, if not lost, in the Middle Ages. Thanks to the work of scholars such as G. Dix, O. Casel and W. Elert and others in the West, Orthodox theologians themselves have been reminded of the Patristic concept of the Eucharist as leitourgia, a work of the people and as gathering epi to auto to realise the ecclesial event par excellence. As a result of this revival, the Orthodox theologian N. Afanassieff launched his ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’, the main principle of which is: ‘wherever there is the Eucharist, there is the Church.’ Since Afanassieff, the Orthodox are known as the promoters of the eucharistic presuppositions of ecclesiology, and less for the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist. ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology’ represents a one-sided view, which requires clarification and even correction in order to do justice to the Patristic roots of Orthodoxy.

The recovery of the link between Church and Eucharist seems to be a characteristic of the contemporary ecumenical situation. With its help the Roman Catholic Church seems to have rediscovered the ecclesiological fullness of the local Church since Vatican II. At the same time, Protestant Churches also attach increasing centrality to the Eucharist in their ecclesiologies, even to the point of reaching an amazing convergence with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox on this point, as is evident from the latest work of the Faith and Order Movement. It is therefore appropriate to deal with the implications of this new situation for our present-day life and for our Church life.


This brief historical sketch shows that we have inherited a problem in theology which would have been inconceivable in the early Church. The problem is expressed in the question: does the Eucharist make the Church or is the reverse true, namely that the Church constitutes the Eucharist?

This theological tradition which has been influenced by medieval scholasticism both in the West and in the East has tended to answer this question by saying that it is the Church that makes the Eucharist. Some Orthodox theologians, on the other hand, under the influence of the ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology’ of Afanassieff, have taken the opposite view. The debate is not closed, and what I have to say here is nothing but a modest contribution to this discussion.

1. In the first place I should like to draw our attention to the deeper theological roots of this problem. The question we have raised is part of a broader and more fundamental question of the relation between Christology and Pneumatology, or even between History and Eschatology. Behind the position that the Church precedes the Eucharist lies the view that Christology precedes Pneumatology and that the institutional or historical aspect of the Church is what causes the Eucharist to exist. This position forms part of an Ecclesiology which views the Church as the Body of Christ which is first instituted in itself as an historical entity and then produces the ‘means of grace’ called sacraments, among them primarily the Eucharist. The order that is suggested by traditional dogmatic manuals is precisely this: first comes Christ, then follows the Spirit, then the Church, and finally the sacraments (including the Eucharist). If this order is followed you must first have the Ministry of the Church who actually makes the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a product of the priestly machinery. In many people’s minds this is the assumption.

In speaking about the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist I wish to exclude such an assumption right from the start. If there are ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist – and there certainly are – these must not be understood to involve a priority of the Church over against the Eucharist. The position I will develop here is that the Church constitutes the Eucharist while being constituted by it. Church and Eucharist are interdependent, they coincide, and are even in some sense identical.

In order to find the deeper roots of this coincidence between Church and Eucharist we must again go back to the question of the relation between Christology and Pneumatology. All the biblical accounts of Christology seem to speak of Christ as being constituted by the Holy Spirit and in this sense as a corporate personality, the Servant of God or the Son of Man. The Person of Christ is automatically linked with the Holy Spirit, which means with a community. This community is the eschatological company of the Saints who surround Christ in this kingdom. This Church is part of the definition of Christ. The body of Christ is not first the body of the individual Christ and then a community of ‘many’, but simultaneously both together. Thus you cannot have the body of the individual Christ (the One) without having simultaneously the community of the Church (The Many).

The Eucharist is the only occasion in history when these two coincide. In the Eucharist the expression ‘body of Christ’ means simultaneously the body of Jesus and the body of the Church. Any separation between these two leads to the destruction of the Eucharist. Therefore, the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist cannot be found outside the Eucharist itself. It is by studying the nature of the Eucharist that we can understand the nature of the Church which conditions the Eucharist.

2. The body of Christ, which is the body of the Eucharist and of the Church at the same time, is the body of the Risen, the eschatological, Christ. This means that the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist are to be found in a consideration of the eschatological Church and the eschatological community. Let me briefly mention the basic elements which constitute this eschatological community.

(a) The eschatological community, both in its ecclesial and its eucharistic form, is above all a synaxis epi to auto (coming together in one place) of the dispersed people of God. It is no accident that in Paul and Ignatius the expression synagesthai epi to auto means simultaneously the Church and the Eucharist. It follow from this that it is impossible to have the Eucharist celebrated properly without the gathering of the people of God in one place. The people are indispensable for the Eucharist. They constitute it, together with the other orders through their responses to the prayers, through their Amen, which is the prerogative exclusively of the lay, of the people. It appears therefore that a fundamental ecclesiological presupposition of the Eucharist is the gathering of the lay people in one place. The Eucharist is a leitourgia, an act of the People.

b) Another characteristic of the eschatological community which the Eucharist as the body of the Risen and corporate, spiritual Christ must portray, is its charismatic nature. All the members of the Church possess the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Chrismation (or Confirmation), and being a ‘charismatic’ means in the final analysis being a member of the Church. Ordination is a bestowal of a particular charisma on certain people and as such it does not raise the ordained person above or outside the community, but assigns him to a particular position, an ordo. The Eucharist includes not only the laymen but also other charismata and orders. Its proper performance therefore must include a variety of orders and not simply what we call the ‘laymen’ – or the ‘clergy’.

Among these orders there are three that have survived in history as constitutive for the Eucharist in addition to that of the laymen. St Ignatius of Antioch says that ‘without these the Church cannot be constituted’. One of them is the Bishop. The others are the deacons and the presbyters. The constitutive role of the deacons for the Eucharist has been almost lost in our time. Are the deacons necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist? Few people, if any, would be inclined to answer this question in the affirmative. The deacons have become almost a decorative element of the Liturgy.

The presbyters, on the other hand, have assumed a eucharistic role that was not originally theirs. Since the Middle Ages they have become the main presidents of the Eucharist. One could call them the sole ecclesiological presupposition of the Eucharist: if you have the presbyter (priest) you do not need anything else in order to have the Eucharist. This widespread assumption, which led to the practice of the private Mass, is absolutely wrong and contrary to the ancient tradition and ecclesiology. The presbyters are only part of what is necessary in order to have a valid Eucharist. This function was originally to surround the bishop on his throne as the Twelve will surround Christ in the Kingdom, as serve as a collegium, not as individuals, in the eucharistic community. The Eucharist is not presbyteri-centric but episcopal in its nature.

(c) Thus we arrive at the question of the Bishop as the presupposition of the Eucharist. In what sense is he such a condition? Here the following points emerge from a study of the Ancient Church.

1. The Bishop is not a minister that exists outside or above the Church but is part of the community. There is no pyramidal structure in ecclesiology, and the idea that the bishops in any sense precede the community can be very misleading. The best way to understand the office of the bishop is through the biblical image of the One and the Many to which I referred earlier. Just as the One (Christ) cannot be conceived without the Many (the Body), so also the Bishop is inconceivable without his community. The practice of titular bishops can be misleading, if it does not imply that a bishop is part of a community.

2. However something must immediate be added to this. The Bishop has at the same time the special ministry of representing Christ to the community. This is the paradox in the office of the Bishop which is the very paradox of Christ’s position in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist Christ represents the community to the Father. He offers the Eucharist as the first-born of the brethren, as part of the community. At the same time he addresses the community, especially by giving it the Holy Spirit, the charismata. In this sense he stands above the community. The bishop does the same paradoxical work he offers the Eucharist as part of the community and as its head. At the same time, he is the sole ordainer, no one else can give the Spirit to the community, no on else can ordain. In this sense he is addressing the community: he constitutes it, as the ecclesial presupposition par excellence. The Bishop thus becomes also the ecclesiological presupposition par excellence of the Eucharist.

(3) Though these functions we must add another important one. The Bishop is the link between the local and the universal Church. He is part of our local community, and yet not in the same way as are the presbyters, the deacons and lay people of that community. He is ordained by more than one bishop and as such his ministry transcends the local community. In fact it is the Bishop that makes each local Church catholic. This applies also to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist would remain a local event of a local Church were it not for the Bishop. The bishop is a necessary condition of the Eucharist because, through him, each Eucharist become the one Eucharist of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. If a Eucharist does not take place in the name of a Bishop, it risks remaining a local event without catholic significance. This is one of the profoundest reasons for the importance of the Bishop as an ecclesiological presupposition of the Eucharist.

Thus in the office of the Bishop we encounter at least two fundamental paradoxes which are also paradoxes of the Eucharist. One is that in him the One become Many and the Many becomes One. This is the mystery of Christology and Pneumatology, the mystery of the Church and at the same time of the Eucharist. The other paradox is that in the Bishop the local Church becomes Catholic and the Catholic becomes local. If a Church is not at the same time local and universal, she is not the body of Christ. Equally the Eucharist has to be at the same time a local and catholic event. Without the Bishop it cannot be so.

This links the question of the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist closely with another aspect of ecclesiology, namely conciliarity. The Eucharist by its very nature transcends the dilemma ‘local or universal’, because in each eucharistic celebration the Gifts are offered in the name of, and for, the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ which exists in the whole world. In practical terms this means that if one is a member of a certain eucharistic community (or local Church), one is ipso facto also a member of all the eucharistic communities of the world: one can communicate in any one of these communities.

It was precisely this nature of the Eucharist and its practical implications that led to emergence of the synod system in the early Church. Conciliarity is closely connected with eucharistic communion – both in its theory and its practice – and with its presuppositions. If two or more Churches are in schism, the eucharistic life (and perhaps also validity?) of all local Churches is upset. Conciliarity as an expression of the unity of the local Churches in one Church, constitutes a fundamental condition for the Eucharist. Just as the many individuals of a local Church must be united in and through the ministry of the One (the bishop, representing Christ), in the same way the many local Churches must be united into one for their Eucharist to be proper ecclesiologically. Ecclesial unity on a universal level is essential for the Eucharist.


These therefore seem to be the fundamental conclusions that can be drawn from a study of the ancient tradition with regard to the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist. Let me summarize them:

1. The celebration of the Eucharist requires the concrete gathering of the local community – not simply a parabolic or implicit representation of it in the person of a priest.

2. The Eucharist requires the gathering of all the members of a local community, including all the orders of this community. Here the problem of the Parish arises acutely. The parish is not only part of the people of a certain place, but also part of the structure of the community. It does not include the Bishop, except by implication. For the parish Eucharist to exist properly it is necessary to be understood as an extension of the Bishop’s one Eucharist. The ancient practice of the Fermentum indicated this very clearly, and the same is true of the Anti-mension used in the Liturgy in the East. One would not exaggerate therefore, if one said that the ecclesiological presupposition of the parish Eucharist is not only its celebration by an ordained priest, but its celebration in the name of the local bishop.

It follows from this that the Eucharist requires the presidency of the Bishop for the following reasons: (a) in order to preserve its character as a gift from God and not simply as a gift to God, ie as a product of human community. (b) In order to preserve the paradoxical nature of a unity in diversity, in which no member of the Church can relate to God individually, but only as a member of a body. (c) In order to preserve its paradoxical nature as a local and at the same time universal event.

If these theological conclusions are to be translated into canonical terms, it is clear that the validity of the Eucharist depends on the following conditions:
(1) The presidence (direct or indirect) of the Bishop.
(2) Communion with the other Churches in the world (both in terms of space and time, ie Apostolic succession and conciliarity).
(3) The presence of the community with all its members and order, including the (lay) people.


If we tried to apply these theological and canonical conclusions to our ecumenical situation today, it would appear that no attempt to restore eucharistic communion among divided Churches would ignore the above mentioned ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist. This would mean that all Churches wishing for such a restoration of communion should ask themselves whether not only in theory but also in practice they fulfill these principles. It may be that many Churches who do not accept these principles in theory (the Episcopal office, apostolic succession) in fact practice them, while other Churches, who profess these principles in their doctrine, in fact fall short of applying them in their liturgical and canonical practice. No progress towards full eucharistic communion can be made without some kind of reformation of existing practices taking place in all Churches in one form or another. The eucharistic communion requires a solid common ecclesiological ground both in theory and in practice – especially in the latter.

These observations apply particularly to the relation between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. A great deal of what has been proposed here is shared by these Churches in doctrine, especially as the common ground of the ancient undivided Church is gradually rediscovered and stressed by theologians of both Churches. It is to be hope that liturgical and canonical practice will be adjusted to this growing theological consensus. What in the light of this paper would emerge as particularly important in this case is a proper understanding of the Ministry of the Church so that the mystery of the Eucharist, which is at the same time the mystery of the Church as the One and the Many may be fully expressed and experiences in eucharistic communion.

John Zizioulas [Nicolaus 10, 1982 pp. 333-49]


Print Friendly

Speak Your Mind