By George Sumner

In his influential book The Household of God, Lesslie Newbigin understood the Church in a manner accommodated to the doctrine of the Trinity. The Church hearing and responding to the Word in faith was related to the Father, celebrating the sacraments to the Son incarnate among us, and moving forth in mission to the Holy Spirit. Of course these are not options, though one or another may be more prominent in a particular tradition. In the Church all three are involved one with another. “The whole counsel of God” then requires that each be understood in relation to the other two.

Let us bring this insight into relation with the debate over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Or rather, the real presences of Christ, if we consider the history of doctrine more widely. The Reformers are best understood to have had a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the reading and preaching of the Word of God.[1] Likewise one could interpret other religious movements as motivated by a doctrine of the real presence of the Holy Spirit, be it in the charismatic gifts, or in political movements for justice, or the experience in the believer’s heart.

Any claim about real presence brings with it an understanding of the Church visible. The complexity enters with the third real presence, that of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It comprises the evangelicals, who find the Church where converted souls gather, the progressives, who find the Church among those striving for justice, and charismatics, for whom the Church is most reliably found around those with special gifts. The three groups are different, and yet bear a similarity with respect to this ecclesiological question. What they share is a claim that the Church is spiritually privileged, it has been granted a special kind of access to Christ not found elsewhere.


But what exactly does “real presence” mean? It must be understood, as with all discourse about God, analogically. Working from this presence to his creatures, we can move to what it means for God to be “really” present (though of course he is always present as the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” What specifically is added by this claim of real presence? The best answer is a Lutheran one, that God makes Himself to be found “in, with, and under” the embodied, temporal, historical, indeed flawed realities of the Church. “Present” means reliably found there, but also freely, which is to say, in such a way that he cannot there be manipulated by us. And he is present, the operative analogy being the way one person is with another, speaking and being spoken to, touching and being touched. At the same time “real presence” brings negative meaning as well. It cannot be reduced to our own interior imagining, nor can it be the same as the physical presence of something alongside us. So, for example, the debate between Lutherans and Calvinists about where the body of the ascended Christ is now, articulates the analogical nature of the claim, that he is with us in one sense as we are with one another, but that in another sense it “passes all comprehending” (Phil. 4:6).

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


[1] So Dr. Ashley Null in a recent lecture at Nashotah House.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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2 years ago

Did the essay end too soon? Seems a bit truncated/unclear re: context and import.