Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bishop Frank E. Wilson: The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Mystery of Christianity

Sacraments are the vehicles for the conveying of divine grace.  Think, for a moment, of a medicine prescribed for one's physical health.  It consists of certain chemical elements which have been brought together.  Those elements taken separately are possessed of certain qualities, but when they are combined a new medicinal virtue is produced.  You may not be able to put your finger on that virtue but you learn from experience that it is there, underneath the chemical elements.  You take the medicine and dispose of the elements, but the virtue remains with you and acts upon your body.  It may not produce results until you take the medicine, but the virtue is there, whether you take it or not.

Something like this is meant by the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  The bread and the wine still remain bread and wine, but by combination with the spiritual act of Consecration they are invested with a peculiar spiritual virtue which is identified with the Body and Blood of Christ.  "This," said our Lord, "is my Body ... and this is my Blood."  Christ is spiritually present under the forms of bread and wine.  The virtue of His Presence produces its results when the Sacrament is received by the communicant, but the Presence is still there whether received or not.

There is a good deal of mystery in this, isn't there?  People have attempted to strip Christianity of its over-natural elements and reduce it to a purely logical system of living.  They have abolished most of the New Testament, discarded our Lord's nativity and resurrection, dispensed with the Sacraments - in short, they have amended His "Do nothing of the sort."  What they have left is a dull, unattractive residuum of rationalism. 

God cannot be measured with the yardstick of the human mind.  Human life consists of so much more than the human mind.  Man is not merely an animated brain.  He is also emotions, will, instincts, intuitions, and many other things.  God cannot be kept out of any of them.  Some of the most valuable factors in everyday living are entirely beyond the reach of straight logical analysis.  Who ever dissected friendship?  Yet we live by it every day.  Who ever charted, diagrammed, or card-indexed love and courtesy and good-will?  They cannot be even accurately defined, yet we all know what they are and we live with them daily.  They are mysteries just as Sacraments are mysteries - just as God is the greatest mystery of all.  Because the Christian faith is meant for the whole of a man, Christ made it colorful and interesting.  Drain the mystery out of it, and religion becomes flat and tasteless.

Moreover, men and women refuse to submit to an existence gone stale.  They will enliven it artificially with pomp and circumstance, spectacular theatrical productions, or the elaborate pageantry of innumerable fraternal orders and so make fictitious mystery.  It is a natural human instinct, and any religion which overlooks it is not true to the kind of life which God has created.  No one ever needs to apologize for the mystery that inheres in the Christian faith.  It is there because Christ put it there.  And He put it where it is because there is no other way by which God can be made real to the wistful souls of struggling humanity.

~ The Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson
taken from The Anglican Digest 56/1 (Spring A.D. 2014), pp. 29-30


Paul Anthony Preussler said...


I must confess I find this a bit depressing because it seems to rule out, in the manner of the Cranmerian BCP, and the infamous "Black Rubric", the possibility that in the Eucharistic mystery, our Lord is physically present, and not just spiritually.

Many Anglo Catholics, and those who have an affinity for Anglo Catholicism such as myself, of course believe that our Lord is present in the flesh, and within Anglicanism, a mere affirmation of the Real Presence can encompass both views; however, I feel we should avoid lapsing back into the intolerant spirit of insisting that our Lord is either present spiritually, or both spiritually and physically, which caused Cranmer to burn a fellow reformer at the stake for a position he himself later adopted.

Setting aside the deprecated 39 articles, which seem to be included in the back mainly as a historical reference, the present 1979 BCP does a good job allowing for both interpretations. It would be even better I think if we moved towards the model of Eastern Orthodoxy, understanding that that bread and wine do truly become the body and blood of our Lord, but how specifically that is accomplished is a mystery; it is not clearly revealed to us either in scripture or tradition (aside from the medieval Roman Catholic theologians such as Aquinas, who sought to explain it in rational, philosophical terms, arguably with disastrous results in terms of the schisms this later triggered); one could argue that a specific understanding of the Eucharist beyond acknowledging that it is the body and blood of Jesus Christ is not required, and perhaps not even helpful, but perhaps presumptuous. I feel that we should simply follow Christ's own words regarding the Eucharist literally, and not be drawn up in to the trappings of rational explanations, either in the manner of the highly technical doctrine of transubstantiation, or in the alternative approach of viewing the Eucharist as being purely spiritual, which seems to run the risk either of a sort of crypto-Nestorianism (in the form of the Black Rubric), or alternatively, an unhealthy crypto-Docetic de-emphasis of the physical reality of the Incarnation, or at the very least, its importance to us.

God bless you Father, and I love your blog, and the work you are doing trying to preserve Orthodox Anglicanism. I hope to visit Louisiana again soon, having not been there since 1997, and I will definitely visit your parish, God willing.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Paul, for sharing your thoughts in response to this excerpt from Bishop Wilson.

Recently I read William Crockett's chapter "Holy Communion" in The Study of Anglicanism. Here are some interesting excerpts that may connect with your concerns:

"It was characteristic of seventeenth-century Anglican writers to insist on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but to profess agnosticism concerning the manner of the presence in the tradition of Hooker. 'Receptionism' remained the dominant theological position within the Church of England until the Oxford Movement in the early nineteenth century, with varying differences in emphasis. It is important to remember, however, that 'receptionism' is a doctrine of the real presence, but a doctrine of the real presence which relates the presence primarily to the worthy receiver rather than to the elements of bread and wine."

And concerning the Oxford Movement, Crockett writes:

"In their theology of the Eucharist, the Tractarians saw a closer connection between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the elements than did the earlier Anglican tradition. For the Tractarians, there is a strict identity between the earthly body of Christ, his risen body, and his sacramental body. The only difference is in the manner or mode of the presence. While connecting the Eucharistic presence of Christ more closely to the elements than did the earlier Anglican theologians, the Tractarians were entirely at one in insisting that the manner of the presence is spiritual and not physical or local. It is a presence in the order of grace and not a presence in the order of nature. ... There is nothing here which goes essentially beyond what can be found in the older seventeenth-century Anglican writers, except by way of emphasis. The Tractarians, however, went decisively beyond the earlier Anglican theology in making a clear distinction between the presence of Christ in relation to the elements and the presence of Christ in relation to the worthy communicants. According to Tractarian teaching, the presence of Christ in relation to the elements is brought about the act of consecration and is not dependent on their reception in communion."

As I read Bishop Wilson, he affirms the Tractarian insistence that Christ is objectively present in the consecrated elements of bread and wine. As he writes: "The virtue of His Presence produces its results when the Sacrament is received by the communicant, but the Presence is still there whether received or not" (emphasis added). I've also understood him to affirm the strict identity between Christ's earthly body, his risen body, and his sacramental body.

But does this go as far as to maintain that Christ is physically present and not just spiritually present?