Monday, 9 March 2009

Ecclesiology: What is Church, then?

Saturday I drew the short straw — helping enable a discussion at Diocesan Synod on the ecclesiological dimensions of ordaining female bishops. What then is “Church?” I tried to frame the discussion in four dimensions of being Church.

Every licensing we proclaim “The Church of England is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” What does this really mean?
  1. Church as Missional Community
    Romans 16 gives a snapshot of the embryonic Church at Rome — people gathered as a society of friends. Its Leadership serves the community, not the other way round. In gender terms, its sociological set-up reflects the reality of the community served, with women among its prime apostles, but a non-institutionalised understanding of what that involves. Beware the thought we either could or should simply go back to being an embryo; but be aware that all our set-ups are provisional.
    What kind of continuity are we meant to seek and experience with our past sisters and brothers?
    The visible Church in every age is a delivery system for the kingdom, not an end in itself.
    Right Wing danger:
    the fallacious belief this continuity can be adequately expressed and conveyed by setting the institutional structure of the 11th century in concrete, driving structure hard, and ignoring process. The institutional structure is a transmission system. You have to ask yourself “For what?”
    Left Wing danger:
    Casting off history: the church becomes a merely present-tense existential experience; a concept not a community
    Perpetual Issue:
    getting the top down/ bottom up balance right — what’s the “top” and what’s the “bottom” and what does the way they interact say?

  2. Church as Catholic whole
    “Securus judicat orbis terrarum” — Augustine. The whole world of Christians is safest judge. The Creeds define the core, but the details seem to have to be worked out in realtime. If all the Christian expressions in the world agreed on something, it would be a safe judge. Sadly they never have and are never likely to do that in a hurry on anything uncertain. How do we map the whole “orbis terrarum?” Some will define “Orbis terrarum” “The Roman Church” — but no one denomination encompasses the whole, and in some ways the most exclusive and doctrinaire ones reflect it less well than others.
    What kind of accountability do we hold to our present sisters and brothers around the world, especially those beyond our own expressions?
    There are various ways of mapping “The whole visible Church.” We need to be clear about the one we adopt, and why, and what its implications might be.
    Right Wing danger:
    Having too narrow and institutional a definition of “orbis terrarum,” going beyond the creeds, often around hot-button issues on which they say nothing.
    Left Wing danger:
    Consumerizing religion. Becoming self-absorbed and obsessed by contingency and a concern for “relevance” that attenuates the spiritual content of the message to a mere reflection of our own desires. Communities can be egotistical and blind, as well as individuals.
    Perpetual Issue:
    Balancing the need for being real in the here and now against the dimension of the whole. “It takes a whole world to know Christ.”

  3. Church as social and human reality — “enfleshed incarnation”
    as Maximus the Confessor put it. We are responsible to proclaim afresh the works of God in every culture and generation in terms that connect with it. This means being open to culture, as Paul was at the Areopagus, but radically grounded in Jesus and the resurrection. The early Church embraced the culture, say of slavery, in order, ultimately to subvert it from within. The missional principle applies — in the early Churches, be a good slave, so that your master is won for Christ...
    How do we interact with our context openly enough to engage, but with a solid enough core to offer something that is salt and light?
    Jesus was able to walk redemptively through dangerous and unclean predicaments (like the woman in adultery) reframing them rather than being compromised by them. His body today should be able to do that, boldly and confidently...
    Right Wing danger:
    turning Christianity into a discarnate absolute ideology; refusing to engage, indulging in judgmentalism, Pelagianism and fantasy
    Left Wing danger:
    becoming so laid back as to fall over backwards. Salt that has lost its flavour, and capacity to be salt?
    Perpetual Issue:
    engaging with the things that must be engaged with positively and negatively, whilst not getting carried away into mere culture wars.

  4. Church as structured society, shared institutional reality
    This is where Canon Law comes in. It’s desperately unsexy, but having a public context to which we hold ourselves accountable, that writes into our life a framework which provides space for people to grow, respect others, and transmit faith that is authentic across the whole community, discipled, and built on learning from past experience.
    Law can’t do the discipleship for us; it’s a boundary around the pitch that makes civilised interaction possible, not an end in itself
    The ways in which we take our structures seriously, or don’t, are windows into the soul. Without any such structures and assumptions, however, the whole body can easily become a mass ego-trip.
    Right Wing danger:
    Legalism and obsession with structure; lack of self-awareness and versatility especially about process and systemics.
    Left Wing danger:
    Individualism, egotism, anarchism, eyes that say to the hand “I have no need of you...”.
    Perpetual Issue:
    How to maintain a viable working structure to support a community of Grace, not law, founded on faith not works.
All I’d add is that we need to be very careful not to perpetuate the “Father Ted fallacy” that somehow “The Church = the Clergy.” Father Dougal had a tee shirt that said “You Wouldn’t understand. It’s a Priest Thing.” “Going into the Church = joining the clergy.” Hear the prophet William Stringfellow who said our view of priesthood:
is so radically misconceived that the clergy have become a substitute laity whose function is to represent publicly – in place of the laity – the presence of the church in the world... a superficial, symbolic, ceremonial laity
A Public and Private Faith, p 38
You do not make the church the church by whom you ordain, or don’t ordain, but by the quality of the whole Christian community’s faith, hope and love.

Follow-up fifth element posted here, with grateful thanks to JohnG for putting me onto the idea.


Bob MacDonald said...

Well don - and Escher makes a good frame -

JohnG said...

I wish I could be as beautifully clear as you have been but would add another aspect - church as movement means it witnesses also to the institution and not only to the world - every time the church becomes complacent the prophets tear it down - white corpuscles are a part of the churches work. Reformation is ongoing and I have been impressed by the way some churches (Norway?) have instutionalised reform - almost like HM opposition

Steve Hayes said...

On the role of the clergy, well, at least the priests, I think Roland Allen has some good things to say.

Yes, I know he said them a century ago, but since no one seems to have been listening, perhaps they bear repeating.

Anonymous said...

Bishop Alan - just commenting to say 'thank you' for such a helpful piece. I seem to spend a lot of my time trying to explain what 'church' is, and I expect that after last evening's visit of our excellent Diocesan Under-25s officer, I will need to re-inforce the message. There are some phrases in your piece which help to encapsulate what I often try to say but say clumsily. I also, like others I suspect, run the danger of zig-zagging along between what you describe as 'right wing/left wing' dangers rather than trying to steer a slightly less travel-sick inducing course somewhere around the middle.
Many thanks.

Pierre said...

Good show, +Alan. I'm passing this around. I like to ask people who say they don't like organized religion whether that means they like disorganized religion. Institutionalization was necessary from Pentecost on--just don't make it anything else than a vehicle for the Message that overturns all institutions who make ultimate claims on us... +Pierre

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for kind and encouraging comment. If I were the sort of person who ever writes such things, there 's my next book proposal! All I want to add, and may stick in a separate entry today if I get a moment is JohnG's dimension, the continually reforming movement, which I find really helpful.

Steve, thanks for mention of Roland Alen, former vicar of Chalfont St Peter, who now figures in our diocesan calendar; I'm not sure he would have been an easy colleague, but he certainly got to a good place 80 years before the rest of us, and that has to worth something!

Anonymous said...

Very good post

An Anxious Anglican said...

Bishop Alan: I am sorry to come to the party so late, but I had to write and tell you that this was a wonderful post! Your efforts at objectivity (for lack of a better word) captured a very attractive and irenic aspect of Anglican thinking that has been largely lost or ignored during the current unpleasantries. As an American Anglican, it was immensely reassuring to read a bishop with a healthy perspective on the church! Thank you for your blog.

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