"Corpus Mixtum: The Church as a "Mixed Body" and Why That is Okay

Corpus Mixtum: The Church as a “Mixed Body” and Why That is Okay

The Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown

Should a person arrive early for the liturgy at any given Episcopal church, one way to pass the time – following one’s opening devotions – is to thumb through the prayer book sitting in the pew rack.  Moving beyond the worn pages of the Holy Eucharist to those in more pristine condition, one finds various pastoral offices, prayers, lectionary charts - and a classic outline of Anglican doctrine entitled the “Articles of Religion.” Popularly known as the “Thirty-Nine Articles,” this statement of faith codified the theological position of the Church of England on variety of topics, including “the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments” in Article XXVI. (A parish priest can always elicit a chuckle from her or his congregation by invoking the “unworthiness of the minister,” and the assurance that the sacrament will still “work” despite the deficiencies of the clergy.) 

The article begins by stating that “in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good.” Moreover, as much as we strive to ordain those of the highest moral character, this “mingling” applies, as much as anyone else, to the clergy who “have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments.”  This tells us something important about the efficacy of the sacraments and their “objectivity.” They have a spiritual power that is all their own, dependent not the minister, but on Jesus Christ, acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. For the communicant at the altar rail, this “objectivity” is the source of considerable assurance and spiritual comfort. But perhaps even more far reaching is the importance of Article XXVI for our understanding of the nature of the Church.

A Pure Church

In the Fourth Century, the vibrant Christian movement in North Africa was torn by schism between the Catholic Church and a competing perfectionist sect known as Donatism.  Both groups shared the same basic doctrine, and even an identical liturgy. But the Donatists believed that the Catholic Church was lax and impure, and that they alone were God’s chosen.

The controversy stemmed from Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Church in the  early 4rth century.  Roman authorities demanded that the bishops of the church hand over the scriptures to be burned by pagan magistrates.  Those that did so were called “traditors,” because of this act of “traditio,” or “handing over.  The church regarded the “traditors” who buckled under persecution to have forfeited their office as bishops.  The question became, what then? Was there a way back through a process of penitence, or were they rendered forever impure, and their ordination irrevocably invalid.

In 311, the bishops of Numidia in North Africa, declared the ordination of the bishop of Carthage, Caecilian, to be invalid because he had been a traditor. So they intervened and replaced him with a rival bishop, Donatus.  This quickly led to the formation of a parallel church that presented itself as a fervent, spiritually pure alternative to a supposedly lax and compromised Catholic Church.  This had considerable appeak in the North African population, especially in the rural countryside. In fact, the Donatist movement exceeded the Catholic population of North Africa – until the arrival of the great opponent of Donatism, Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine of Hippo

For Augustine, the Donatist schism presented a practical pastoral problem. The Donatist congregation in the town of Hippo outnumbered his own and threatened to lure away his flock. 

Augustine marshalled a variety of arguments and strategies in response to this challenge. He pointed out that in reality the clergy of the Donatist sect were no more virtuous than the Catholic clergy.  But most significant was his argument that the Church was a “corpus mixtum” or “mixed body” of good and evil, and that this is an expression of the mercy of God. Indeed, it was Augustine who first stressed the notion expressed in Article XXVI that “in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good.”

Augustine’s argument was based on Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), in which both wheat and tares – or weeds that resemble stalks of wheat – grow up in a farmer’s field. Yet the farmer is unwilling to weed out the tares, lest good wheat be uprooted in the process. Rather, he commands his servants to let them grow alongside one another until the harvest and then sort out which is which, at which point the weeds would be burned and the wheat gathered into his barn.

Augustine interprets the farmer’s field as the church, in which, like the weeds and the tares, good and evil people, the converted and nominal, fervent and lax, co-exist side by side.  In a pointed rebuke of the Donatists, Augustine has God saying,

“Why are you so hasty, you servants full of zeal? You see tares among the wheat, you see evil Christians among the good; and you wish to root up the evil ones; be quiet, it is not the time of harvest. That time will come, may it only find you wheat! Why do you vex yourselves? Why bear impatiently the mixture of the evil with the good? In the field they may be with you, but they will not be so in the barn.”

The implication here is that it is not for us to stand in judgment on one another; the Risen Lord will do that himself on his return.  There is a further point as well, which reflects the tolerance and patience of the farmer in the parable: it is not always clear who is truly converted – or when that conversion takes place. “Many are at first tares but then become good grain,” says Augustine, “if these, when they are wicked, are not endured with patience they would not attain their praiseworthy transformation.” 

A Mixed Body

Augustine’s insight that the church is a “corpus mixtum” or “mixed body” is helpful for us as 21st Century Christians.  Like other churches, The Episcopal Church has faced its share of conflict in recent decades.  There has been considerable disagreement about the interpretation and application of scripture as we seek to live as faithful Christians in modern society.  While the underlying disagreements are far reaching, the flash point, of course, has been in regard to same sex relationships. 

There are some – on one side or another - who have simply withdrawn in frustration. There are also some, who, quite publicly, have left the messiness of the Episcopal Church for what they take to be a doctrinally and morally pure church that has splinted off the Episcopal Church.  While I wouldn’t want to overstate the comparison, this move bears a resemblance to the Donatist schism of the Fourth Century.  To the extent that this is the case, Augustine’s doctrine of the Church as a “mixed body” offers us a compelling to reason to remain in the Episcopal Church.

The theological disagreements in the Episcopal Church are not likely to be resolved anytime soon.  We may view some in the church as profoundly mistaken – we may even be inclined to see them like the Tares in the parable, only superficially resembling the real thing. But it remains God’s field – at best we are God’s servants. It is not our call who gets weeded out and who does not. It is not even obvious, as Augustine points out, who is a tare and who is not – that information will only emerge at a later point.  This is a call for forbearance, tolerance, and mutual love – for “communion across difference.” The reason is not because of some secular notion of a “big tent,” or the scaling back of theological clarity or the importance of honest doctrinal debate – but because of our recognition of God’s sovereignty over the Church, and a certain modesty about our level of discernment and our capacity to stand in judgement over one another. For now, we remain part of a mixed body, and we bear with one another – because such is the mercy of God. 




Imitating the Redemptive Servanthood of Jesus

This is the December 2, 2022, ordination sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown


Dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error. 
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- 
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

So writes T.S. Eliot.  Like our five ordinands this morning, Eliot was a convert to Anglicanism.  He attended All Saints, Margaret Street, a well-known Anglo-Catholic parish in London; he would have been totally at home in this service. At Eliot’s conversion, his unflinching gaze at the dispirited modernism of post-World War I Europe gave way to immersion in the eloquent Christ-centered devotion of the English Divines of the 17th century. From then on, his embrace of Christianity lay behind everything he did. And not the least, his final work, a series of four poems, entitled “The Four Quartets.” The fragment you just heard comes from the fourth of these poems, “Little Gidding.”

Each of the quartets focuses on one of the four classical elements, Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  In “Little Gidding,” Elliot invokes fire, a “flame of incandescent terror.” It was 1942. German bombs had rained down fire upon England, rendering its urban neighborhoods a smoking ruble.  Fire is a biblical image of judgement – as when Isaiah speaks of the place of divine wrath “where worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched.” (Isaiah 66:24)

But fire is also an image of the cleansing power and presence of the Holy Spirit – as when tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost. So Eliot says “Dove descending breaks the air,” invoking the Spirit descending at the baptism of Jesus.  In “Little Gidding,” Eliot speaks of both aspects of fire at the same time – the incandescent terror of judgement and the descending dove of the spirit, “The only hope, or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre - to be redeemed from fire by fire.” We choose between judgment or the outpouring of God’s Spirit, that in the end we are to be redeemed from one by the other, delivered from the fire of judgement by the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit.

We are here today, as this liturgy of ordination, to witness as the “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror.” (Terror because every genuine encounter with the raw power and presence of God in the Spirit is a thing of terror as well as joy and rapture.) This takes place as the bishop lays his hands on the heads of each of our ordinands and calls the Holy Spirit upon them to equip them for ministry in God’s Church.

 We are here to witness – to give our assent (we are not mere passive spectators) – to what Paul speaks of when he urges Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

For God to call us into his service in this way is no small thing. This morning, the Lord says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Jeremiah seems a bit undone by all this. For him, the call be God’s prophet is a “flame of incandescent terror” – it is more than he can manage. “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (v.6)

We all have our stories. Thirty-six years and sixth months ago, almost to the day, on June 1, 1985, Bishop John Coburn ordained fourteen of us as deacons at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, just down the hill from the golden dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse. As the bishop took his hands off my head and I received my Bible and took my place with the other ordinands, I burst into tears – and I am not a crying sort of person.  Quite involuntarily a voice in my head said, “how could God do this? me of all people?” I still feel that way sometimes – I will glance at myself in the mirror and see this guy in a black suit and white collar and thinning rumpled hair, and I think, “is that really me?” There is something slightly absurd about God’s call of any of us. But the thing that I have come to learn is what Paul says in the Epistle this morning, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)

And so Jeremiah says, “the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” (Jeremiah 1:7) What has carried me these thirty-six years – and I know the same is true of Bishop Sumner, and Canon Victor Austin (who was in my seminary class) and many other priests of our generation, is the Word that God has put in our mouths.  It is not about us, so much as the one to whom we witness - as absurd as our own calling still may seem. The same will be true for the five white-robed young (and medium-young) men in the front row.

To go back to T.S. Eliot: each of his four quartets is named after particular place.  Little Gidding is a spot in the English countryside. There is an aging stone manor, on the grounds of which is a small medieval church dedicated to St. John. In 1620, a man name Nicholas Ferrar bought the property.  He and his relatives had invested in the Virginia Company, which ultimately collapsed and cost them the family fortune. The Ferrars seem to have been shaken by the futility and precariousness of the pursuit of wealth and power, and they retired to Little Gidding to devote themselves to the life of prayer. In 1626 Nicholas was ordained as a deacon by Bishop William Laud (not yet Archbishop of Canterbury). He never was called to go on to be ordained to the priesthood. Under his leadership, the family transformed the old rambling property into a religious community centered on regular recitation of the psalms and the prayer book services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Puritan detractors called the Little Gidding community a “Protestant Nunnery,” but it wasn’t a monastery or religious order. It was a residential fellowship centered on an ordered pattern of prayer.  Ever since, Little Gidding has been an icon of the Anglican spiritual life in practice.  And at least for us, Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast day we observe today, was the most significant deacon in the history of the Church between Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century and today.

Today we ordain Dave, Cody, Matt, Michael and Daniel – as “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror” and makes them deacons within the three-fold apostolic order of ministry. Only Dave – like Nicholas Ferrar – will remain a deacon. Six months from now, Bishop Sumner will ordain the others to the priesthood.  But that does not make this ordination any less important for them than for Dave.

The other day, a priest in the diocese told me that all too many priests she has known look on their intervening time as deacons as a sort of ecclesiastical purgatory. This, I agreed, is unfortunate. More and more, I have become convinced how crucial it is that every priest begin as a deacon, and retain their diaconal identity even after ordination to the priesthood.

In the Gospel this morning, the disciples get into a discussion about which of them is the greatest. You can imagine how exasperated Jesus must be to witness this display of ego and unfettered careerism.  He says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26) In the original Greek, the phrase “one who serves” – is “ho diakonon.” A deaconos, that is a “deacon,” is a servant, and the verb diakoneo, means “to serve.”

Jesus goes on to say “I am with you as one who serves” – o diakonos. It would have been helpful if Jesus explained what that service was supposed to look like, since he is the model that they – and we –are to follow. But we can take our cue from the context. It is the Last Supper; the next day Jesus will offer himself up for the sins of the world – an act which is, in Eliot’s phrase, the “one discharge from sin and error.” The other Gospels place our story (or perhaps one like it) earlier on the road to Jerusalem. After Jesus has said “the greatest among you must be your servant,” he goes on, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Again, not only is Jesus the servant; what that looks like is his death on the cross, by which, as Eliot says, we are “redeemed from fire by fire” – from the fire of judgement, and by the cleansing fire of the Spirit.

God calls us to imitate the humility and self-offering of Jesus. Without the continuing servanthood of a deacon, the exercise of spiritual authority – of a priest over a parish, or bishop over a diocese – degenerates into the unpleasant spectacle of the disciples arguing over who was the greatest. Unless we remain deacons, or servants, we end up “lording it over others, like the Kings of the gentles,” and discredit the Gospel before God and the world. To strive not to be served but serve is not just to become kind, considerate, compassionate and just; in our service, our diakonia, we become living sermons in space and time. Our service is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his saving death as a ransom for many – through which all are “redeemed from fire by fire.”






This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.