Church from the Ground Level

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Family lore has it that my big brother got home from school, and was excited to have learned the Pledge of Allegiance, but wasn’t listening as carefully as he should have.  In his version, it ended, “with liberty and just us for all.”  Well, there’s a touch of that in how we experience Church, which is to say that all denominations are, to some extent, Congregationalists - and this isn’t all bad!  The local congregation is where we hear the Gospel, receive the sacraments, and are challenged by the scene around us, all in very concrete and personal terms.  When last year we wrote a strategic plan, we based it very deliberately on the primary reality of congregations.           

But then we stand in Church and say we believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” What does that really mean, and how does it fit with the fact that there are thousands of other churches, and hundreds of denominations round about us?  And what difference does it make that for the younger generation those denominational allegiances have faded, and they join or leave congregations on the basis of the quality of the preaching, music, community, etc. on the local scene?  In other words, how do we understand the Church in general and our own tradition in particular? And finally, how do we do understand this in a culture in which the Baptists on the one hand, and the Roman Catholics on the other, offer clear and distinct alternatives again which many have navigated in their own lives?  These are not just abstract daydreaming, but questions which bear very directly on how we plan, grow, or don’t, and explain ourselves. My ruminating on all this has been occasioned by a new book by Paul Avis called “The Vocation of Anglicanism,” in which the task of trying to express anew our own peculiar mix of catholic, reformed, and critical is itself a distinctive of our way of being Christian. 

It has become popular to base answers to these kinds of questions on the idea of the “mission of God,” that we don’t have a mission so much as His mission has us. True enough.  But this can in its practical working out become abstract and under-determined. I think it is better to put the matter this way: the Church belongs to Jesus Christ.  His death and resurrection founds it, He calls it, He corrects it, and finally He will return to judge it and dwell eternally with it.  This is perfectly consistent with the intensely local nature of the Church, but putting it this way does have some further implications.  If we try to pull everything we want to say about the Church from that ownership, where would that take us?

First we might say that His incarnate life, and his taking on our debt and our death, undergird the local nature of the Church. He dwells in particular communities of particular people in particular places.  We want to say this, but the matter doesn’t end there.

Secondly, this means that the local church is dependent.  We need to be given the Gospel, and in it we hear about what Jesus did for us, which we couldn’t do for ourselves. That gift also makes us continuously dependent.  Even the blessings and promises are not things He gives us and then they are our possessions, though we are prone to come to think so.  Dependent because Jesus is the giver of grace to us. This on-going dependence on grace is a mainstay of the witness of the Reformation, which informs every page of the Prayer Book.  Dependent on the Bible- otherwise we wouldn’t know who Jesus is. Dependent on the sacraments - mandated by Him, by which we receive the grace we need from him.  Dependent on other communities of followers - Why? Because the risen Jesus the apostles out to gather the Gentiles.  Christ, one with His Father, calls us into communion which is a sign and image of that divine life.  It is also because we are prone to corrupt that Gospel by confusing it with the local assumptions and conditions of where and when we live. Other communities hold us accountable.

The point is this: if we were truly self-sufficient locally, then we would lose sight of this dependence, and so of a side of the Gospel itself. (Of course in a culture as fiercely autonomous and individualist as ours, this is a challenge - but so is the Gospel itself!)   I was reminded recently on a visitation of the reason in the Thirteenth Century English Church why reception of communion at the age of 13 was tied to confirmation. Apparently country churches affirmed the episcopacy but felt no burning need to have him visit: to paraphrase “Fiddler…”, keep the bishop and keep him far away! Archbishop Peckham decreed that only by confirmation (and hence an episcopal visit) could young adults receive communion! Shrewd, but also theologically perceptive….

But which other communities, since they are all different in some significant ways?  Thirdly, we should remember that Christ, whose Church it is, is already ascended and will, on the last day, be shown to sit on the throne as the wounded Lamb with the Church surrounding Him. He is up ahead already, and then the Church will be perfectly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and clearly so.  In other words, these are notes of perfection which are with us now only because he is with us now. In calculus I learned the word, asymptotic: a point toward which a line moves ever close without ever (here) getting there. The true Church is something we move asymptotically toward. Each Church shows features of that true Church to its siblings, and we are in grades of communion or closeness to one with another. Another bit of high school math is the open set: a point in the center around which other points are arrayed in varying degrees of proximity. We are like that too.  For example, expressing the apostolic nature of the Church, i.e. its faithfulness over time, by virtue of the office of the bishop is one feature of that fullness, though other Churches lacking it are sill churches, and other features may indeed be lacking on our denomination.  The important thing is “striving for the prize of the upward call in Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3:13).  The point is seeing with modesty those things which one’s own tradition does offer toward that fullness, e.g. the riches of the Prayer Book tradition, and seeking at all times to move in the direction of full realization, full communion, more visible oneness in Christ.  In fact Archbishop Michael Ramsey famously said in his “The Gospel and the Christian Church” that, ironically, a distinctive gift of Anglicanism was this sense of being fragmentary, needy, striving toward a reconciled unity.

Fourth and finally, running through all of this is the assumption that the Church makes all its claims under the rubric of forgiveness.  The Church can only proclaim this because the Church depends on Christ for it.  A sign of this is that the service of Confession concludes with the priest praying for the forgiveness of his or her sins too.  A concrete discipline here is acknowledging the warts that every parish has, and the wrongs in its past, even while it is no less bold in proclaiming the forgiveness found in Christ. This status on forgiven sinners also undercuts a sense of self-sufficiency.

So, one paraphrase of the relevant line in the Creed would be,  “because it belongs to Christ, I believe in the Church incarnated, dependent, striving, forgiven.”