By John Bauerschmidt
The Rev. Dr. J. Robert Wright, priest, teacher, church historian, and noted ecumenist, died on January 12 of this year at his home in New York, after a brief illness. Wright taught for many years at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, becoming the St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery Professor of Ecclesiastical History in 1974. He retired in 2010.
Wright attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he studied history, edited the school paper, and was an athlete; and then prepared for the priesthood at General Seminary. Following ordination he began studies at Oxford University, where he was a student at Wadham College. He won a Fulbright scholarship, and an Episcopal Church Foundation fellowship. He was awarded the D.Phil. degree from Oxford upon completion of his thesis, a study of relations between church, crown, and papacy in early 14th century England.
As a scholar, Wright brought to bear on his studies some of the features of his early doctoral work: a meticulous attention to detail, as well as an exhaustive consultation of sources. His students at General Seminary, where he regularly taught both patristics and the medieval church, grew accustomed to being presented with the entire text of Eusebius’s panegyric, The Life of Blessed Constantine, as introductory reading: an alarming prospect for those not familiar with the period! Those consulting Wright’s many journal articles, and essays on various subjects in the areas of church history, ecumenism, and the Prayer Book, knew that in each case the author was providing an important orientation to the subject, and giving invaluable pointers toward the crucial sources.
In his position at General Seminary, he was a mentor to successive generations of clergy. Always “Father Wright,” he was an early supporter of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church: a noteworthy stance at the time from a Catholic Anglican. Perhaps drawing upon his undergraduate prowess as an athlete, for years Wright coached the seminary’s basketball team. On the campus, he was well known as an advocate for members of his student advisee group, and generous to all his students with his time. This advocacy and attention continued throughout their ministries as priests.
For many years at the seminary, Wright taught a class on liturgical celebration, otherwise known as “Mass class.” The class was a “rite of passage” for many at General Seminary, quite distinct from the more sober class on pastoral liturgy taught by his colleague Thomas Talley. Students were introduced to “the finger rule,” “the great swoop,” and other arcana of traditional liturgical celebration, a concern for which only partially veiled Wright’s love for the Eucharist. His pedagogical method was always to present every option, with a heavy thumb upon the scales for which one was, in his view, correct. His presence at academic assemblies in an Italianate four-bladed doctoral biretta, along with his Oxford doctoral robes, provided a notable counterpoint to the rest of the faculty’s attire.
It is in his work as an ecumenist, however, that Wright is best known to the Episcopal Church, and to a larger international audience. He served for many years on the bilateral dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church in this country (ARCUSA). He was a member of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, from 1977-1991; and also served on the international dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, from 1983-1991 (ARCIC II).
Wright helped shape the World Council of Churches’ statement on “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” issued at Lima in 1982, one of the most influential ecumenical documents of our time, which both marked a growing consensus among the churches, as well as fostering further ecumenical agreement. He was tireless in calling Episcopalians’ attention to its significance, which has informed many of the modern agreements between churches on the mutual recognition of sacraments and ordained ministries. The Full Communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a case in point. Wright introduced many to the idea that ecumenical documents, like Lima 1982 and the documents produced by successive ARCIC gatherings, were important but overlooked sources for theological reflection, and for the articulation of doctrine.
He was a passionate advocate for the unity of the Church. His list of other honors and distinctions is almost too large to recount. J. Robert Wright will be long and affectionately remembered by the students he taught on Chelsea Square, and gratefully recalled by scholars and others who have relied on his many contributions. The generation of ecumenists who have followed him owe him a particular debt for involving them in this work.
The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee and co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Theological Consultation in the United States of America (ARCUSA). A former student of Father Wright’s, he is also the president of the Living Church Foundation.