Looking for the Church?

House of Peter ay Capernaum
Traditional site of Peter’s House in Capernaum, showing evidence of being converted over time into a church

Back in the day when Robert Runcie was archbishop of Canterbury, he addressed a conference of evangelical Anglicans (NEAC 1987) In that address, he challenged them to review and renew their ecclesiology. While he certainly had grounds for doing so, he might equally have challenged himself and many other Anglicans. If evangelical Anglican ecclesiology has sometimes looked non-existent, then liberal and catholic Anglican ecclesiology has tended to be promiscuous in its borrowings from the patristic period and contemporary Roman Catholicism. Much of the problem can be traced back the hopelessly inadequate nineteenth article introducing the section on the Church.

XIX. Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

The following two articles will give this some additional context. There is clearly a visible entity that can be referred to as the Church which is a lot more than “a congregation of faithful men.” Unfortunately it is not visible here. If this article is taken at face value, there is no visible church here when it is not gathered for worship. There is no sense of how one congregation might be related to another. There is no body except this local congregation that can know, recognise or declare that what they are engaged in is either the pure word of God, or the due administration of the sacraments, and no-one except themselves to declare that they are “faithful.”

Even worse is the extraordinary geographical definition of separate churches. The church of God in a particular place is potentially quite different from the church of God of a particular place. Where Paul uses “of” it is either in the plural as in Galatia in his very perfunctory greeting, or “of the Thessalonians”: the fuller phrase is “the church of God in Corinth”. But theologically, ideas like being a colony of heaven point to the importance of that “in.” Again, if there are simply all these geographical churches who exactly is to state that they have erred? The only possible implication is that there are lots of different churches, all able to say that the other has erred, and none taking seriously the idea of the Spirit leading the church into all truth. Is it any wonder that this ends up in modern times with the half-baked idea of “provincial autonomy” and a complete ecclesiological mess?

Moreover, how exactly is a specific congregation, or a specific church in one place, related to the “holy catholic Church” of the Apostles’ Creed, or (in its extraordinary Cranmerian version) the “one catholic and apostolic Church” of the Nicene Creed? (I have never understood why the BCP omits “holy” from that article of the creed: was it just a 16th century typo enshrined accidentally for perpetual use?) This is not just a matter of the invisible church, though that omission is bafflingly strange, but of how any particular instantiation of the church is conceived in terms of the universal, historical and eschatological church.

The church has one historical foundation in the ministry of Jesus gathering his disciples, and in the constituent events of the cross and resurrection. At this point, its unity is visible, and any body that claims to be the church must trace its identity to this foundational group. That does not simply point to some form of the episcopate alone, but to a continuity of sacramental and missionary practice, of teaching and transmission of the Jesus-story within an ongoing tradition of reading and reflecting on them. How such things are to be made visible, either historically, or in the present should be a real and pressing question, unless one simply accepts the answer of Rome.

The church has one eternal destiny in the shared communion of God the Holy Trinity, which is experienced through the animating and guiding work of the Holy Spirit, who is the foretaste of what is to come, and who enables the church to know and respond to the living presence of Christ as her Lord. That presses the question of unity in a different way. As Peter notes in his experience of evangelising Cornelius, as Luke narrates it, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17 NRSV)

The church is not simply a human society organizing its life in fidelity to its historical constitution; it is a divine society which God is constantly leading and remaking, and for whom God, not itself, chooses its membership. A church that was only about maintaining its own past understandings faithfully could not easily have welcomed the Gentiles in response to a new and unprecedented action by God. The unity of the church is pressed hard upon us as accepting God’s definition of membership.

It is not enough, however, to take refuge in this eschatological definition, and declare a unity of Christians in the Spirit. If the Spirit constitutes the church in its present and future, it is Jesus who instituted it in history.

The historical institution of the church and the question of how its one foundational unity in the incarnate Christ is expressed in the present needs to be taken seriously as a witness to that fleshly incarnation and bodily resurrection, and the truth that God does not rescue souls, he transforms people, and is renewing all creation. In addition, it is as witness to the identity of Christ as the historical Jesus of Nazareth that the church exists. There needs to be a visible historical connection, which is the thrust of Irenaeus’ answer to the Gnostics, and the development of a theology of episcopacy as a guarantee of succession of teaching.

Finding a way forward through this is not and never has been easy. At the risk of generalization and over-simplification, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have tended to stress the historical pole in this tension, and the Protestant Churches the eschatological one. One of the great disappointments of this article is that it does neither, and so bequeaths an uncertain air to Anglican ecclesiology, leaving successive generations, and different groupings within them, to lurch uneasily from one to the other. No wonder we’re in such a mess.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

3 Replies to “Looking for the Church?”

  1. Regarding “congregation”, I don’t know if this will help, but here is a quote from Kevin Giles, “What on earth is the church?”:

    “To argue that article 19 defines the church as a local congregation and no more is a profound mistake. To do so is to read the word ‘congregation’ in this context anachronistically. Such an understanding of the church by any of the Reformers is untenable. The use of congregation to refer to the whole Christian community is common in this period. For example, Bishop Hooper writes, ‘I believe and confess one catholic and universal church, which is an holy congregation, an assembly of all faithful believers.’ While in the Belgic confession, the affirmation is: ‘we believe and confess one catholic or universal church, which is the holy congregation of true believers’ (art. 27). This usage is also seen in the Authorized version of 1611, where ‘congregation’ is used to translate the Hebrew word edah, meaning all Israel, the covenant community.” p. 242, quoted in https://www.churchofengland.org/media/38680/gsmisc801.pdf

    I think there is something similar in Paul Avis, “The Anglican Understanding of the Church: An Introduction”, but I don’t have it to hand…

    1. Hi Anthony. It’s an interesting point. If my memory serves me, Giles is arguing against some very specific modern views in Sydney that restrict church to either a local congregation or the invisible church. I think it’s a tricky question. Yes, congregation can mean the great assembly of the whole people, and occurs in that way in the psalms. It can also mean what we normally mean by the word today, as in “this congregation here present” from the prayer for the Church Militant. I would agree with Giles to the extent that other, mainly national, understandings of the church crop up in the succeeding articles. I am less sure I agree that this is the obvious sense of congregation in this article. I think it is at least ambiguous, though on reflection I suspect they might be intending a national congregation, rather than a parochial or universal one.

      1. Hi Doug. Yes, I think you are right about the context for that quote – about local church vs invisible church. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds Article XIX somewhat ambiguous!

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