Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Influence of Bishop Overall

Every now and then people like me are accused of not being "real" Anglicans . . . in other words, that the things we believe about the Church and Sacraments are idiosyncratic, and only “shoe-horned” into our Church during the Oxford Movement of the 19th century. So I was glad to see on the Forward in Faith North America website that at their recent National Assembly Bishop Ray Sutton of the Reformed Episcopal Church (one of the constituent groups of the Anglican Church of North America) had given a teaching on the Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist, in which he looked at Scripture, the early Church Fathers, the Undivided Church and the Anglican Divines of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

One of the Divines he mentioned was Bishop John Overall (1559–1619), an academic who had been Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Overall was also one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. From 1614 to 1618 he was Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and then for a year before his death he was Bishop of Norwich. He was a friend of Lancelot Andrewes, and a mentor of William Laud and John Cosin, both of whom in different ways were foundational to the survival of the Church of England in the 17th century. 

In fact, as a young man, Cosin had been Overall’s librarian and secretary, and he tells us that with regard to the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the position of the Prayer of Oblation in the Prayer Book . . . 

“. . . the consecration of the Sacrament being ever the first, it was always the use in all liturgies to have the oblation follow . . . and then the participation . . . in regard whereof, I have always observed my lord and master Dr Overall to use this oblation in its right place [i.e. the arrangement of the 1552 and 1604 Prayer Books notwithstanding! ed.], when he had consecrated the Sacrament to make an offering of it (as being the true public sacrifice of the Church) unto God, that by the merits of Christ’s death, which was now commemorated, all the Church of God might receive mercy, &c. as in this prayer; and when that was done he did communicate the people and so end with the thanksgiving following hereafter . . .” (The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, John Cosin, Lord Bishop of Durham, Parker Edition Volume 5, page 114).

This same volume contains Bishop Overall’s manuscript notes incorporated into Cosin’s interleaved edition of the Book of Common Prayer printed in 1619. Overall was emphatic about the reality of our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. Here are his words on the “Prayer of Thanksgiving”: 

"Before consecration we call them God’s ‘creatures of bread and wine;’ now we do so no more, after consecration . . . And herein we follow the Fathers, who after consecration would not suffer it to be called bread and wine any longer, but the Body and Blood of Christ" (ibid, page 121).  

He also says, "It is confessed by all Divines, that upon the words of the Consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ is really and substantially present, and so exhibited and given to all that receive it; and all this not after a physical and sensual, but after a heavenly and incomprehensible manner.”  (ibid, page 131)  

It is against the backdrop of what we know Overall believed and practised that we have to interpret the explanation of the Sacraments in the Catechism, because that part of the Catechism was written by Overall (and added in 1604 by royal authority). While it is true that the language is soft enough to avoid giving reasonable Puritans a crisis of conscience, it is nevertheless clear that the Catholic Faith regarding the Sacraments is what Overall is teaching: 

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament? 
Answer. I meane an outward and visible signe of an inward and spirituall grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himselfe, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. 
Question. How many parts be there in a Sacrament? 
Answer. Two; the outward visible signe, and the inward spirituall grace. 

Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lords Supper ordained? 
Answer. For the continuall remembrance of the Sacrifice of the death of Christ, and the benefits which we receive thereby. 

Question. What is the outward part or signe of the Lords Supper? 
Answer. Bread and wine, which the Lord hath commanded to bee received. 

Question. What is the inward part or thing signified? 
Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verely and indeed taken and received of the faithfull in the Lords Supper.


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