The Church is One and Holy

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 4

This is the fourth of five web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available on this site here, on the European website here as well as the Norwegian NCC blog.

The Church is one foundation in Christ

I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church, but regret that it nowhere exists” – William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44). The first part of his comment is of course a quote from the Nicene Creed, which, at least in the Anglican tradition, is recited Sunday by Sunday at the Eucharist. As though wishing that, by writing, it could make it real, the nineteenth century cleric Sabine Baring Gould could pen a hymn, now, sadly, often rewritten as to be virtually unrecognisable, because it offends over-sensitive twenty-first century ears, which included with no apparent irony the words “we are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity”. A fine sentiment but, one that begs many questions.

So, to revert, what do the words in the Creed “one” and “holy” mean? Does “one” mean organisationally one or doctrinally one, and why does it matter? To answer the last point first, we need to turn to the Scriptures. The early part of the Book of Genesis shows a united human race but one which did not accept its responsibility under God to be obedient, and a faithful steward of the Creation; hence the account of the Tower of Babel (chapter 11), where God caused many different languages to be spoken, as a means of putting humankind in its place, and thus allowing Him to reassert his sovereign will. But just as God ruptured the unity of the human race through the Tower of Babel, so He restored it at the first Christian Pentecost when according to Acts chapter 2 the many human languages present on that occasion became one spiritual language of the Gospel, a mark of the New Creation. And the Church itself is meant to be a living sign of that New Creation, in which, as the Lord himself had prayed (John 17) His followers might be one, not to be a self-regarding clique, but that others too might come to believe in him.

Jesus and his twelve disciples – Fresque from Cappadocia, 11th Century

But it goes even deeper than that, for it comes back to the nature of God himself, and the relationship of the Church to God. The Christian tradition has always held firmly to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Triune God, such belief being most elegantly expressed in the Athanasian Creed. In the mystery of the Trinity we see perfect unity, perfect fellowship; the Church, being the continuation, the extension, of the Incarnation through the ages, is therefore called to mirror the perfect unity that we see in the Godhead. The problem, of course, is that human nature gets in the way, and people, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not, but rather attempting to subvert,embark on ways of being Church that may obscure or indeed negate its divine character. Sadly, disunity, the unwillingness to wait on God, to submit the personal to the collective (strikingly referred to by Saint Paul as The Body), is often an easier option than unity. And we can trace this trait even to the early years of the Church, for it is a recurring theme in the writings of Saint Paul, met full-on with strong teaching about the responsibility that comes from being a follower of Christ, and his robust chastising of those who sow disharmony in the life of the Church; factions and discord in the Church, jostling for power, grievously harm its witness to a disbelieving world.

Who are the members of the Church of Christ?

The traditional answer would be all who have been baptised in the name of the Trinity. Like so many issues in Christian history, matters are not as simple as that! Many non-believers or non-practising Christians, if asked which body of Christians to their mind most faithfully lives out the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, would say “The Salvation Army”. Problem: they don’t practice Baptism, or for that matter celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Are they therefore not Christians? Another honoured group is the Quakers, the Society of Friends, but they do not baptise either. It gets worse! When Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses baptise, they use forms of words similar to, or identical with, the traditional formulas: does that bring them within the orbit of the Christian Church? The answer as far as these two organisations is concerned must be in the negative because their beliefs are far removed from traditional Christian understandings. The fact that a previous woman bishop of Utah, baptised as a Mormon, was ordained without re-baptism speaks volumes for the lack of understanding by those involved both of the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent message of the Tradition of the Church. What then of the Salvation Army and the Quakers? While as sacramental Christians we must regret that they do not baptise, we must surely acknowledge their integrity, and recognise that they are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, as demonstrated by their beliefs and ways of life, considered as a whole.

So, what of organisational unity? This cannot be considered separately from doctrinal unity, problematic though this is. The World Council of Churches, founded in 1948 in Amsterdam as “a fellowship of Churches which accept Jesus Christ our Lord as God and Saviour” has under God performed wonders in bringing into closer fellowship no less than 350 different Churches which accept that basic formula. But by not pronouncing on matters of doctrine and church order, it starkly highlights the seemingly intractable problem of organisational unity. Unless there is a shared understanding and acceptance of doctrine, such unity is unfeasible. The only Church which organisationally successfully encompasses the whole world is the Roman Catholic Church, which, wherever it is present, has a common doctrine and structure. Other Christian bodies may spread beyond national boundaries but, without a body of doctrine understood and interpreted in a common manner, risk fracture.

To name but two examples, this has happened in the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. The use of words on their own to demonstrate accord does not stand up to examination, it is only a common understanding of their meaning that can produce true unity. Although in recent years, the work of ARCIC, the joint Roman Catholic/Anglican Unity Commission, has gone relatively quiet, in earlier years there was much rejoicing over agreed joint Reports on matters such as the Eucharist, but the objections raised consequent upon their publication caused serious doubts as to whether there existed that common understanding. This underlines the importance of Tradition in the life of the Church, for it will guide us as to how in its history the Church has understood the faith handed down from the Apostles.

Unity with Holiness

The Church is called to be holy, a word meaning dedicated or consecrated to God, also carrying the idea of being separated from the ways of this world. As such it is meant to be a sign to the world of God’s love and also, in the way it conducts itself, to point to the coming of the Kingdom; it is not, as some mistakenly aver, the Kingdom itself. Holiness is fundamental to the Church’s self understanding, but it seems to finds more emphasis in the Orthodox tradition. The very fruitful discussions between the Orthodox and the Old Catholic Churches in the 1970s–80s, drew the following affirmation:

“The Church is holy, since Christ its Head is holy and gave himself for it “that he might sanctify it … that the church might be presented before him in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that it might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5.25-27). It adds the important rider, “The fact that members of the Church sin does not nullify the holiness of the Church.” (The Road to Unity, III/1)

As the continuation through history of the Incarnation, the Church in its life it must be animated by the example set by Jesus Christ, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul reminds the Galatians, to live in the Spirit will produce many fruits – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These qualities are not found in superabundance in the way in which the world operates (indeed, few outside the Church would understand), but will we find them in the Church? Certainly in the lives of many individual Christians – my guess is that while we are rightly reluctant to claim such qualities as our own, many of us will be able to point to others who bear the unmistakable marks of holiness; typically such people will claim no special status for themselves yet they are an inspiration to others who seek to fashion their lives after the example of their Lord.

But what then of the Church itself? Called to be in the world but not of the world, at least in the West the Church has grown complacent, with the view, often practised and sometimes put into words, that if people need the Church, they know where we are! And now the Church is paying the price, with even countries that were historically shaped by Christianity abandoning the faith. Rather than being dynamic, all too often the Church has been weighed down by secular models, by the burden of bureaucracy, by the need to maintain ancient and venerable buildings, by people who see Christian ministry not as service but as a career, and by aping the ways and passing fads of the surrounding secular culture. We need look no further that the words of Jesus himself, who, to paraphrase slightly, is quoted (Matthew 6) as saying you cannot serve God and this world.

While some have a particular vocation to withdraw from the world, the Church and its members are called to be in the world, to be the leaven in the lump, faithful to, Jesus Christ afresh wherever they are, indeed, in that rather frightening phrase, to be alter Christus, but especially in the dark places, way beyond our comfort zones, for in mystic fashion, the Incarnation has sanctified the whole Creation, the dark as much as the light.

Fr. Edward Bryant


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