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Glorying in a Thorn-Crowned Head: Divine (Im)passibility, Human Suffering, and the Paschal Ecclesiology of the Mystical Body.



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Swailes, Ann 


Two distinct sets of Christian theological responses to human pain are canvassed especially significantly in late modernity, grounded respectively in immanent divine suffering, and in an ecclesiology which holds that baptism efficaciously engrafts its recipients into an ontologically substantial Corpus Mysticum. In this thesis, I argue that incorporationist ecclesiology provides richer resources for a theology of suffering than theological passibilism, including a greater potential for chastening that temptation to pathological dalliance with distress which, paradoxically, it shares with passibilist doctrines of God.

The rise of divine passibility is conventionally seen as stimulated by the seismic geopolitical events of the mid-20th century. I shall argue, rather, that it is in consequence of a crisis of Christological confidence that theological passibilism appears both more systematically coherent and more pastorally compassionate than its doctrinal polar opposite against such a traumatic backdrop. With Pius XII’s 1943 ecclesiological encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi as my point of departure, I shall then begin to sketch an alternative approach to the mystery of suffering, in which incorporationist ecclesiology, divine impassibility, and Chalcedonian Christology are symbiotically supportive.

I shall proceed by means of a liturgical-theological thought experiment, arguing that incorporationist ecclesiology permits seeing an intrinsically paschal liturgy as analogically located in cult and quotidian life. Consequently, the juxtaposition of cross and resurrection at the centre of the church’s worship is replicated para-liturgically and artistically, and in the pathos of Christians seen as isomorphic with the passion of Christ.

Here, I will draw on late Medieval and mid-20th century texts and devotional practices. Key primary sources will be Julian of Norwich, William Langland, and Gerald Vann OP. By thus bringing voices from an era in which incorporationist ecclesiology and theological impassiblism were axiomatic into dialogue with others from the period conventionally credited with the genesis of the “new orthodoxy” of divine passibility, the qualitative difference between the two approaches to the mystery of suffering will be thrown into sharper relief. I also aim to show that incorporationist ecclesiology only reaches its doctrinal – and consolatory - potential when it is fundamentally oriented towards Easter and thus to impassible eschatological bliss.





Hawkey, James


Ecclesiology, Gerald Vann, Impassiblity, Julian of Norwich, Mystical Body, Suffering, William Langland


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge