This is the first of what I anticipate will be a four-part series on how we think theologically about the Church. As all but the newest readers of the blog know, mine has been one of the voices in the chorus of conflict that Episcopalians and other Anglicans have been “singing” for several years. (I’m sure opinions vary on what “part” I sing!) The longer I participate in these discussions and debates, the more aware I am of how often we “talk past” one another because of unspoken assumptions about foundational categories and terms in Christian discourse. It is my further observation that a great many of these unspoken assumptions have to do with the Church. I don’t know whether it will help, but it surely can’t hurt to attempt to bring some of these assumptions into the light of day, to “speak” them, as it were, in the hope that we might thereby move the conversation about the actual presenting issues forward an inch or two.
I will make every effort to aim these remarks toward the hypothetical “seriously-engaged lay person”—i.e. someone who does not have a formal theological education but has more than an “Inquirers’ Class” level of biblical knowledge and spiritual formation, and is willing to do a little bit of intellectual heavy lifting. I am myself, at best, an “educated amateur” theologian (in the best sense of “amateur,” I hope), so I’m scarcely qualified to set my sights higher than that anyway. If you are a professional theologian and anything I say brings shame on the discipline, I beg your forgiveness in advance.
I write, of course, as an Episcopalian, and therefore as an Anglican, and therefore, as I understand the identity and character of Anglicanism, as a Catholic Christian. My ruminations on ecclesiology will be grounded in this identity; I make no pretension to comprehensiveness.
The Greek word ekklesia (hijacked into Latin as ecclesia), apart from its place in the Christian technical vocabulary, denotes those who have been “called out” from something (or some-things) into something else. It is, in this sense, related to our English work “eclectic,” which refers to a collection of items (or a style of collecting items) that would not ordinarily be placed together. What better description could there be of the assortment of people who show up for worship in many Christian congregations on a Sunday morning!
This is the word that, in English translations of the New Testament, is rendered “church.” The English word, interestingly, is also traceable (through several layers) to Greek, but not to ekklesia. Rather, it is apparently derived from kyrios—lord—hence, “of the Lord.”
In the New Testament, we find three discernible shades of meaning for ekklesia. It can refer to a gatheriing of Christians assempled for a specific purpose, such as we read about in I Corinthians 11:18-19
For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
It can also refer more generally to specific congregation of Christians in a particular location (e.g. Corinth, Philippi, or the “seven churches” named in the first part of Revelation).
Finally, ekklesia can have a universal meaning, referring the totality of those who are united with Christ in the Paschal Mystery. This would seem to be what St Paul had in mind when he (or the pseudonymous author, if you prefer) wrote in Ephesians about marriage being a reflection of the relationship between Christ and “the Church,” or when Jesus in Matthew’s gospel instructs his disciples to “tell it to the Church” when they have a grievance against a fellow disciple that has not been amenable to resolution through more discreet means.
Of course, from these relatively simple New Testament origins, the layers of meaning attached to “church” have gotten deeper, richer, and more complex over the decades and centuries. Appropriately, then, “ecclesiology” is that branch of Christian theology that devotes itself to studying and articulating the mystery that is the one holy catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed. It lies beneath many of our current conflicts. In the essays that follow, I hope to shed a little light on the subject. I hope to post them at roughly one week intervals, though “real life” may always trump that aspirational schedule.
Tentatively, Part II will focus on The Priority of the Church, Part III on the Visibility of the Church, and Part IV on the Unity of the Church. Stay tuned.