Veiled in an Earthly Medium: A Theology of Eucharistic Presence as an Eirenicon of Divergent Christian Positions in the Writings of Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-1857)

Title: Veiled in an Earthly Medium: A Theology of Eucharistic Presence as an Eirenicon of Divergent Christian Positions in the Writings of Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-1857)
Authors: Coates, Dianne M.
Date: 2015
Embargo: 2020-02-23
Abstract: In the early nineteenth century, the Church of England faced a crisis of self-understanding as a result of political and social changes occurring in Britain. The church was forced to determine what it meant to be the established church of the nation in light of these new circumstances. In the 1830s, a revival took place within the Church of England which prompted a renewal of the theology and practice of the church, including the Eucharist. This revival, known as the Oxford Movement, breathed new life into the High Church party. A heightened emphasis was placed on the sacramental life and on the Eucharist as the focus of worship. Adherents of the Oxford Movement developed a Eucharistic theology which promoted a closer connection between the elements and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist than did the earlier Anglican tradition. One of the exponents of this Eucharistic theology was Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-1857). The second son of anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce, Robert was raised in a family of prominent Anglican Evangelicals. At the University of Oxford he came under the influence of his tutor, John Keble, who was one of the four leaders of the Oxford Movement during its heyday. The Gorham case, whose focus was ostensibly the question of baptismal regeneration, turned into a debate on the state’s control over the established church. Robert Wilberforce was called upon to articulate the sacramental theology of the Oxford Movement, which he did in his three major works, The Doctrine of Holy Baptism: With Remarks to the Rev. W. Goode’s “Effects of Infant Baptism,” The Doctrine of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in its relation to Mankind and the Church and The Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. In attempting to reconcile catholicising and Evangelical views within the Church of England Wilberforce presented an understanding of Eucharistic presence that may be said to be a synthesis of various Christian positions on the subject. Wilberforce views sacraments as natural outgrowths of the Incarnation. In the case of the Eucharist, the elements contain the spiritual presence of the risen and glorified Christ. Wilberforce maintains that as a result of consecration the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This presence is not a physical one, however. When received by faithful believers in a state of spiritual fitness, the elements convey the gift of God’s grace. The importance placed on consecration is consistent with the catholic tradition of Christianity while the emphasis on the spiritual state of the recipient is a feature of the Evangelical tradition. This thesis examines Wilberforce’s writings on sacramental theology to determine how he reached his understanding of presence. We shall see that in addition to turning to Scripture he looked back to the early centuries of the Christian era to find sources that would be acceptable to all Christians. Although he may not have deliberately intended to do so, Wilberforce bridges the gaps between the factions within the Church of England on the subject of Eucharistic presence. By extension, it can be said to appeal to other Christian groups as well. In looking to the past for answers to the dilemmas of his time Wilberforce was following a path similar to that taken by continental European theologians of the nineteenth century in their efforts to rediscover the roots of the Christian tradition. Wilberforce’s approach to this synthesis foreshadows that taken by various ecumenical bodies in the latter part of the twentieth century, both bilaterally in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Committee (ARCIC) and multilaterally in the documents on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry published by the World Council of Churches. Wilberforce is important for Christians today because his work serves as a reminder of the importance of turning to the roots of the Christian tradition to find commonalities. The parallels between his work and the developments in twentieth-century Christian sacramental and liturgical scholarship are striking. The early seeds of the ecumenical movement were just beginning to be planted during Wilberforce’s time; nevertheless, he can be seen as a precursor to the ecumenical movements that would follow over a century after his death.
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