Corpus Christi: Whither the body?


Sam Norton, an Anglican priest points out that they way we’ve thought about the nature of the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi) has changed from the first millennium to the second:

“For the first thousand years or so of Christianity, the ‘corpus verum’, the body that could be touched and handled with reverence, referred to the church, ie the community of the baptised. So, your neighbour in the community was worthy of reverence and respect. Harming your neighbour, eg murder, wasn’t just immoral, it was blasphemy. Correlative with that, the ‘corpus mysticum’ – that which could only be perceived with the eyes of faith – was the host, that which was consumed in the context of Eucharistic worship.

In the course of the twelfth century, in the Western church, these meanings were reversed, with awful consequences.”

Read the full article here.

As a Puseyite, I can only add my fervent AMEN to Sam’s point.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Christopher says

    Fr Knisely, could you explain more what you mean in your connection to Pusey? Parts of Anglo-Catholic practice encouraged continuation of this doctrinal shift from the Medieval period–practices like Benediction are intricately intertwined with this shift and the doctrine of Transubstantiation which is precisely formulation of this shift. This is why I prefer Andrewes and his Reformed Patristic emphasis in this regard. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Benediction, but it does mean I recognize the ambiguity of that practice and how outside of its Medieval context, it often lost the related Feudal connections of neighbor for fussy going about in the chancel. Which is what Fr Norton misses in his article. The works of Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy remind that this sense of Christ’s presence as neighbor was not lost, merely shifted in response to a strongly incarnational Eucharistic piety that itself was partly a response to anti-incarnational trends, like the Cathari
    I recommend highly a work that shows the import on the ground that this shift in doctrine relates to in our own time, Torture and Eucharist by William Cavanaugh.

  2. Sam Keyes says

    I’m curious as well by what you mean by being Puseyite…
    This is a simple (or perhaps simplistic) summary of part of Henri de Lubac’s wonderful book, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages. Fr Norton, like de Lubac, thinks that the late medieval reversal (between corpus mysticum and corpus verum) is problematic, but like so many post-Vatican II readers he neglects de Lubac’s central point, which is not that we need to do away with the Eucharistic flesh in favor of some happy communitarianism (to such an extent that the objective presence in the sacrament is made out to be less important than the gathered community), but that we need to remember that corpus Christi always has these three senses: the crucified and resurrected body, the body that is the Church, and the body that is the Blessed Sacrament. So by all means let us keep the feast of Corpus Christi… just let’s remember that the body we eat is also the body that we are by baptism and the body that sits at the right hand of the Father.

  3. Ugh – I’ve messed up my email somehow over the past two weeks. Sam and Christopher, I apologize for not responding – in the haste of the past two weeks in getting ready for General Convention, I’ve not checked back in very often.
    I’m off to a surprise party tonight, but I’ll be back in the morning to try to answer the questions. Or more accurately, to see what you have to teach me.

  4. Okay – grabbing a few minutes this afternoon –
    I came across the term “Pusseyite” a few years ago reading an old history of the Church of England. The context of the use seemed to mean to draw a distinction between the original ideas of the early followers of Pusey about the nature of the Church and the later developments of the Anglo-Catholic ritualist controversies. I’m somewhat suspicious that the focus on ritual and the sensual and aesthetic aspects of worship has been a snare to many within the Anglo-Catholic movement.
    I take as a fundamental part of my own understanding of Ecclesiology that the Church is truly the Body of Christ. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a real way similar to the way we hold Christ is truly present in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. To me this implies that, somewhere down very deep (perhaps way way deep) the true reality of the Church is that it is divine. That divinity is seen perhaps occasionally, out of the corner of our eyes, but it’s there none the less. I find I focus less on the elements compromising the hosts and more on the communal act of reception on any given Sunday.
    I believe that God intends the whole of created humanity to be part of the Church. It’s this sense of the divine nature of the Church and God’s desire that the Church be creation restored, that informs my sense of the critical importance of inclusion in the life of the Church.
    That’s why I can bring myself to cut off any part of God’s created order from the Church. In practice for me it means I’m constantly getting myself in trouble for having friendships that my other friends disapprove of, and are even scandalized by – and by which I am occasionally hurt because of.
    I keep trying to decide if this belief that the Church should be the new creation in the world really implies the sort of radical inclusion I believe in or if I’m just too lazy to take a stand.
    (I really need to sit down and try to write this out in some sort of systematic way… to see if I’m backing myself into an unintended corner somewhere.)

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