Monday, November 23, 2009

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You

TEC Sign

The shield is cockeyed, which is a relatively recent development, but otherwise it hasn’t changed in decades. I was familiar with it long before I ever imagined I would end up an Episcopalian. It can be found on street corners in thousands of communities across the country (and sometimes it is obvious that they have been left untended for a good many years!). It is probably one of the most consistent efforts at “branding” that could be found anywhere.

Last week an ad was run in USA Today (I apologize for egregiously using the passive voice, but I don’t know who actually ran it; given TEC’s budget woes, could it have been paid for by the national church?) that rang the chimes on the theme of “welcome,” trying to put some meat on the bones, as it were. It’s in the form of a series of “bullet points.” They’re all true. They’re also all an exercise in “spin.” I don’t fault them for that; it’s in the essential nature of advertizing. But it’s helpful to be aware, at least, of the “music behind the words.”

As Episcopalians, we are followers of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This appears to be directed toward recently-former Episcopalians, and those under their influence, who contend that the Episcopal Church has abandoned (formally, materially, or both) the core teachings of Christianity. In that, I agree with the ad; TEC, as a unitary organism, has done nothing of the sort.

The Episcopal Church has members in the United States, as well as in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Haiti, Honduras, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the Virgin Islands.

And Fort Wayne, Indiana has an “international” airport … yeah … technically … in name, at least, though you can’t actually fly to another country directly from there. This is consistent with the message implied by the display of flags from the above-named countries behind the dais in the House of Deputies at the last two General Conventions, and the repeated admonition to banish the expression “the national church” from our vocabulary. It’s true that TEC has congregations in each of those places. But in many of them, you can count said congregations on the fingers of one hand, and have some left over. Plus, they’re small. (Haiti is the conspicuous exception; it is, by number of communicants, the largest diocese in “this church.”) So the import of this bullet point is more rhetorical than substantive. It is a shot across the bow of the Anglican Communion. It is, “We don’t need you to be international; we got your ‘international’ right here.”

We strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect the dignity of every person.

That is, unlike those nasty fundamentalist “Christians” you may have in mind, who are just a bunch of bigoted misogynistic homophobes who like NASCAR and watch FOX news. We’re better than them. We’re really nice … as long as you support your local Public Radio station. (Can I take my tongue out of my cheek yet?)

Seriously, this language comes from the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant, which has a quasi-cult following among those who try to purvey the impression that it is somehow unique among the baptismal liturgies of Christian churches. I have to ask, Is baptism, which is a universal rite of incorporation in the Church, not simply a church, really the place to sing “I gotta be me”? Not to worry though, the reality is that the Baptismal Covenant, when viewed in its entirety, is quite classically Christian, and not in any way uniquely Episcopalian. Shame on us if it were.

The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and traces its heritage to the beginnings of Christianity.

This is manifestly true. For now. But our status within the Communion is, to say the least, a little shaky. We were warned by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he came to Anaheim last July. We chose not to heed his warning. There will yet be consequences that may require someone to use the “strikethrough” formatting code on this bullet point. And given current trends, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the cord by which we “trace” our way to the “beginnings of Christianity” is a steel cable or an ultra-fine monofilament.

Our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and is celebrated in many languages.

Yes, our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and for that I am very grateful. That structure and those traditions feed my soul, and I know many thousands of Episcopalians are with me on this. But is it sufficient to merely “retain” these things, as if they were mere liturgical bric-a-brac that we may choose to “retain,” but can move around or fiddle with, or even melt down and recast, at will? I would sleep better if I were confident that my church was governed by and shaped by and accountable to these elements of our inheritance.

We welcome men and women, married or celibate, to be ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons.

This is another unfortunate attempt to define ourselves by what we’re not rather than by what we are—i.e. we’re not Roman Catholic, a church that does not ordain women or, with some exceptions, married men. Now, I’m on record as supportive of the notion that the Roman church would do well to look more closely at the benefits that a married priesthood would offer. That said, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that we “welcome” into ordained ministry those who also have a vocation to celibacy. We permit them and tolerate them, to be sure, but there is generally a jaundiced skepticism toward celibacy as a possible charism that can greatly bless the Church. Both sides have something to learn, here, I think.

We believe in amendment of life, the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting.

These are wholesome notions and true words. They are the truth. But they are not the whole truth, and in the absence of a context that includes a robust understanding of sin, grace, and redemption by means of the Paschal Mystery, are therefore capable of being sentimentalized and trivialized.

Lay people exercise a vital role in the governance and ministry of our Church.

This is a swipe not only that the Roman church but at other Anglican provinces whose structures of governance are not as directly democratic and egalitarian as ours. Now, I’m generally a fan of democratic processes in church affairs. I don’t know that I would want to trade our system for some other one. But I fear that we run the risk of idolizing it, of acting “just a little bit superior” toward churches that are in the habit of discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in ways other than concurrent majority votes in both houses of General Convention. The apostle Matthias, after all, was chosen in a game of chance! Moreover, I also suspect that we at the present moment suffering a crippling bout of episcophobia—the irrational fear of bishops! It is of the nature of the episcopal office to teach, govern, and lead. We ought not to hamstring bishops from exercising, individually and collectively, the ministry for which they were consecrated. And presbyters, after all, are elders. They are, for that reason, entitled to a presumption of knowing better. That may not always be true, and the consensus fidelium is always the final arbiter. But in the ordinary councils of the church, it is completely appropriate for bishops and presbyters to have disproportionate influence.

Holy Communion may be received by all baptized Christians, not only members of the Episcopal Church.

Another Romeward jab, since they welcome into full eucharistic fellowship only those whose bishop is a member of the college of bishops who are united in deferential communion with the See of Rome. I support TEC’s communion discipline, though, for pastoral reasons, I think the “all the baptized” invitation needs to be illuminated by the Cranmerian admonition about being in “love and charity” with one’s neighbor, and intending to lead “a new life, following the commandments of our Lord,” etc. Nonetheless, given the underlying ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, their sacramental discipline is not at all incoherent, and I am a little embarrassed to have my church take this kind of a cheap shot in an ad.

We uphold the Bible and worship with the Book of Common Prayer.

Now we’re trying to shore up our street cred both with other Anglican provinces and with the broader world of evangelicalism. But the arrow falls short of the target, I’m afraid. “Uphold”? That can mean virtually anything, which is to say that it means virtually nothing. Something like “stand under the authority of” or “are formed by” may have gotten closer to the mark. As for “worship with the Book of Common Prayer,” that deserves a whole blog post of its own. Stay tuned.

We affirm that committed relationships are lifelong and monogamous.

If there has ever been a more inept attempt to thread a verbal needle, I haven’t seen it. What the author wants to say, of course, is that the Episcopal Church offers liturgical, spiritual, and emotional support for gay and lesbian couples who wish to live publicly in a marriage-like relationship. So why not just come out (I didn’t intend that pun, but it seems apposite) and say it? Well, because it might “scare the horses,” so to speak—i.e. anyone who was fished in by talk of “uphold[ing] the Bible.” Better to let those who know the code recognize what’s being said, and not spell it out for those who don’t. But only at the cost of laughable syntactic awkwardness.

Episcopalians also recognize that there is grace after divorce and do not deny the sacraments to those who have been divorced.

We can’t seem to lay off the Roman Catholics. Perhaps we should dust off that old petition that was once in the Great Litany—“From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities: Good Lord, deliver us.” OK, I agree that there is grace after divorce, and I agree that the Rome’s attempted response to the reality of divorce—i.e. Marriage Tribunals and Declarations of Nullity—is not, shall we say, their finest hour. But this is really a nose-thumbing reply to Anglicanorum Coetibus, saying, “Hey, Bennie, the door swings both ways, ya know.” It’s rather beneath the dignity of my church. And just for the record, Rome doesn’t deny the sacraments to divorced persons, only to those who divorce and then remarry. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it’s important to be accurate when you’re paying for ad space in USA Today.

We affirm that issues such as birth control are matters of personal informed conscience.

Ditto the above. But I have to wonder whether there is an even more deeply encrypted subtext here that is available only to those with “ears to hear”, a subtext that would substitute “abortion” or “reproductive choice” for “birth control.” I personally have high regard for the logic behind Humanae Vitae, but, let’s face it, birth control is widely practiced even among otherwise devout Catholics, and it’s certainly not a subject of any great conflict among Anglicans, even the most conservative. And TEC is, at least as far as Executive Council is concerned, a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). So … I’m just sayin’. But, again, there are those horses we don’t want to scare.

We celebrate our unity in Christ while honoring our differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion.

This is sad in at least two dimensions. First, it’s manifestly not true. In my 35 years in the Episcopal Church, I’ve seen precious little honoring of differences. Instead, we live by the saying, “to the victor go the spoils” (an earlier and more direct iteration of “elections have consequences”). There is rarely grace or magnanimity in victory, only more “attitude.” I have watched diversity dry up and wither in the Episcopal Church. We are becoming theologically monochrome at an exponential rate. Tolerance is in short supply. Some laud this as a sign of increased unity, and it indeed is. Unity inevitably results when dissidents are driven away. But it is unity purchased at the price of size and strength. Instead of being a spiritual department store (as is any church that lays claim to being catholic), TEC has become a specialty boutique on the way toward becoming a novelty kiosk in the back wing of the mall. So the best we can say about “honoring differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion” is that it’s an aspirational statement.

Alas, though, even the aspiration is paltry. Is “work of love” the most we can say about our mission, about our identity, about who we are an what we do? Hey, I’m all in favor of love. It’s hugely important, and needs to be included in anything we think or say about the Church’s mission. But to imply that what binds Christians together is the “work of love” is just … weak. Toothless. Uninspiring. If you substitute “service” for “love,” it’s not any different than what my Rotary club could say. Yawn.

All are welcome to find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

I would hope so. I would think it has ever been so. I hope it will ever be so. What else is new? Is there any church anywhere that would not say the same thing about itself? The only way to make this final point interesting is to begin to take apart that little word—welcome.

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Paris. After two fabulous dinners at restaurants that had been recommended to us by friends, we were on our own that last night, wandering around the area of the Bastille, with our very limited command of the French language. We inquired of one maitre’d, “Parlez vous Anglais?” He brusquely shook his head in the negative. So we moved on. He did not make us feel welcome, presumably because we were Americans, or he didn’t approve of the way we were dressed, or something; we’ll never know. By contrast, at our default dinner joint here in Warsaw, Indiana, if a staff member sees us coming, they open the door for us and greet us warmly. We never fail to feel welcome there. One of the servers, at least, has memorized our drink preferences. So the first dimension of welcome is, Will they let me in the door, and make me feel like they’re glad to see me? This sort of welcome is unconditional (or very nearly so). It demands nothing and presumes nothing. By this standard, I cannot imagine a congregation of the Episcopal Church that would not welcome anybody who is not in that moment literally on fire, or covered in excrement, or brandishing a weapon.

Soon after moving to Warsaw in 2007, I joined the local Rotary club. I was, in fact, recruited, wooed. And I was made to feel welcome. I was made to feel that the other club members were glad I was there. But then I got a phone call: “When can we schedule you to deliver Mobile Meals?” Then I got a bill for semi-annual dues. More recently, I saw in a club email that it was my responsibility to provide the speaker on a certain date. Rotary is a service club, so it stands to reason that I am expected to serve. I do not, because of that expectation, feel any less welcome, but I understand that if I were to persistently decline opportunities to serve (and especially if I persistently decline to pay dues!), my welcome would expire. So there is a second dimension of welcome, and this time there are conditions, expectations. The Church welcomes all, but lays certain expectations on her members. These expectations are spelled out in the liturgies of Baptism and Confirmation. Only for the most scandalous violations of these expectations would a person be formally “unwelcomed” by the Church. But short of that ultimate act of discipline, the ability to exercise leadership or influence is frequently conditioned upon consistent performance of those obligations required of those who would be “in good standing.” (In TEC canon law, this includes a standard of Sunday worship attendance [“unless for good cause prevented”] and working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.) Such expectations do not represent a lack of being welcoming. They are simply part of what it means to be a Christian.

So, when we say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” it seems reasonable that we mean “welcome” in both of its dimensions. At the door, we welcome anyone and everyone. At the table, we welcome those who have made a commitment to Jesus through the vows of the baptism. Into positions of leadership and authority we welcome those who demonstrate willingness and ability to submit with grace to the yoke of radical Christian discipleship. Everyone whom we welcome, in whatever dimension, is expected to change, to grow, to become more like Jesus in every way. Yes, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But to follow him is to take up nothing less than one’s cross on a daily basis, with all the “cross” implies. If the demands of the cross feel uncomfortable, as they invariably will, it isn’t because the church is suddenly becoming unwelcoming.

In the ancient church, candidates for baptism received the sacrament wearing nothing but their birthday suits. It symbolized a radical putting-away of one’s past, and the embrace of a new (and very jealously exclusive) identity, an identity that trumps any other by which one may be tempted to define oneself. It is my hope that the welcome offered by the Episcopal Church is not about making anybody feel good, but about inviting them to a life-changing, identity-changing, pardigm-shifting, mind-blowing encounter with Jesus the Christ, King of kings, and Lord of lords. Anything less would be downright inhospitable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

For a number of reasons which I am not going to rehearse here (but which are, I hope, abundantly clear if you know me at all, or care to surf around upstream from this post), I am not a candidate for the provisions set forth in the new Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. But I am certainly a sympathetic observer. So I first want to say some positive things about this overture from Rome, because it is itself, in my view, a positive thing. Then I want to offer some observations that will be more—what’s the word?—challenging, because, as good as it is, it could still be a whole lot better.

Why am I a “sympathetic observer”? First, because I have a lot of friends and colleagues for whom this is an option that they are looking at very, very seriously. Their decision will affect my relationship with them, so it will affect my life. Second, because I am committed with all my being to the visible unity of Christ’s Church, and I am persuaded that the See of Rome has been given a charism by the Holy Spirit to be the focal point and guardian of that unity. (I am not, obviously, persuaded that submission to Rome is essential, in an absolute sense, to ecclesial validity or even ecclesial fullness, or else I would have swum the Tiber long ago.) So any initiative that is configured toward manifesting a higher degree of visible unity is of interest to me. Third, there is a part of me that is envious of my friends for whom it is a live option. I share their joy (even as I will be grief-stricken when we can no longer share the Eucharist at the same altar). I want it to work for them.

In several respects, the details of the Constitution (and its supporting documents) exhibit a degree of pastoral sensitivity on the part of Pope Benedict that is almost breathtaking. While it is not surprising that there will be no allowance for married bishops, Ordinaries who are former Anglican bishops will be bishops in all but name. It appears that permission will be readily granted for them to wear the “insignia” of episcopal office, which presumably will include miters, rings, and pectoral crosses. The only part of their former job description they won’t be able to take with them is actually ordaining. It is also noteworthy that provision is made for items of governance that are more conciliar than is customary in mainstream Latin Rite dioceses, including what American Episcopalians would recognize as a sort of “Standing Committee,” a body of priests within an Ordinariate whose responsibility it is to act as a check on the Ordinary’s exercise of authority.

There are, of course, some questions and some ironies. Precisely what liturgical materials will be authorized for use? In the Anglican Use, heretofore limited to America, there is a volume that is clearly modeled on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It even has forms in “Rite One” and “Rite Two” language. But even within the Catholic “wing” of Anglicanism, there is a dizzying degree of liturgical diversity. American Anglo-Catholics tilt in the direction (though not exclusively, by any means) of pre-Vatican II ceremonial (i.e. Tridentine), using Elizabethan-era language. Their British counterparts, on the other hand, tilt very strongly (but again, not exclusively) in the direction of essentially emulating contemporary Latin Rite ritual and ceremonial, to the point of using the Novus Ordo word for word rather than any officially authorized Anglican liturgy. (One might plausibly inquire, then, precisely what part of the “Anglican patrimony” they will be bringing with them across the river.) This is a much wider range of practice than is currently possible within the mainstream Latin Rite. I would have to assume that Vatican officials are aware of this, and it will be interesting to see how they ride herd on what can only be described as the “messiness” of Anglo-Catholic liturgical praxis.

As the news of the new Apostolic Constitution broke a couple of weeks ago, speculation was rife that it signified the victory of one section of the Vatican bureaucracy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by Cardinal William Levada, over another, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, in an ongoing internal tug of war. The scuttlebutt was that Pope Benedict, whose previous job was Levada’s at CDF, reached a point where he no longer held out hope for achieving ecumenical rapprochement with Anglicans via the “front door” strategy of official bilateral and multilateral negotiations, concluding that “Anglicanism” is too amorphous to speak with a united voice, and is therefore not a viable ecumenical partner. At the same time, there are (ostensibly) whole communities of Anglicans ready to batter the gates of Rome for admission. Better to make a deal with them and achieve some tangible results than rely on painstaking negotiations with official Anglican bodies that have borne some significant fruit over the years, but which are constantly—and, it appears, hopelessly—undermined by the behavior of one Anglican province or another.

If there is any truth to this scenario, it is difficult to fault the Holy Father. He is passionate about visible unity and is eager for results. He is, after all, in the twilight of his life. But it is worth raising the question, and meaning not a micron of disrespect: Was even this bold stroke too timid? Is Rome perhaps even now squandering an opportunity for a truly game-changing move? One that would stretch, but not undermine, the disciplinary tradition of the Latin Rite?

What are the “liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion” that Anglicanorum Coetibus is intended to help preserve? Is it Cranmerian liturgical draftsmanship? Choral Evensong? Hymns with soaring treble descants? (Or, some have joked, hymns where all the verses actually get sung.) Sarum blue vestments for Advent? If we’re talking about these elements, or others like them, that’s something that I’m sure will be appreciated by those who opt in to the personal ordinariate scheme. But all that does is peel off a stratum of Anglicanism made up of people who are attached to such things and who also are already yearning to be in communion with Rome, to the point where they can no longer stand not to be.

But it’s a move that leaves a lot of unplayed cards on the table, because there are many more—many times more, actually—Anglicans who are very pre-disposed to fall in behind Benedict’s inspiring (and inspired) leadership in striking back at the forces of secularism. There are even some prominent Anglican evangelical voices in this particular chorus, which is really quite astonishing. Even though I write as an Anglo-Catholic, I realize that the “patrimony of Anglicanism” includes the evangelical stream, and I am loathe to make the move into the bosom of Rome without some, at least, of my evangelical brethren (realizing that the most resolute Protestants will likely never come along). Is comprehensiveness a necessary evil that worked for Elizabeth, but no longer serves us well? Perhaps. But it also may be a gem, something we as Anglicans can bring with us, if we are allowed to, as we hold ourselves to a higher degree of accountability to the wider Catholic Church in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome.

Another facet of that gem is a 450 year tradition of a married priesthood (and episcopate) that, on balance, has served us well, fostering a dynamic in the relationship between pastor and people that has a tendency to be health-giving. This does not denigrate the benefits that have derived from the charism of celibacy within the Latin Rite. It does suggest something different, something additional, an element of comprehensiveness. Yet another facet is a tradition of intellectual spaciousness that, to be sure, carries attendant risks, but which is demonstrably an effective force for the sanctification of the faithful by the renewal of their minds. It may not be consonant in every detail with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but, in dialogue with (tethered to?) that valuable document, could represent a channel of divine grace. Another facet of the gem represents the “saints” peculiar to Anglicanism—Hooker, Donne, Herbert, Simeon, the Wesleys, Keble, Underhill, Eliot, Lewis, and others. There would be no need, I suspect, for any of them to be canonized in the technical sense. But for those spiritually formed in Anglicanism, there would need to be some provision for bringing these folks along posthumously. They have been used by God to shape us, and we cannot deny them.

What I, in my fantasies, would like to see—I may as well come out and say it—is a true Anglican Rite Church, alongside the Maronites, Melkites, Ukranians, etc., an Anglican Uniatism. In such a church, the gem that is the Anglican tradition could be allowed to shine in all its comprehensive glory, not just temporarily and partially, but indefinitely, until the Spirit works to bring all the strands of Christianity into fruitful unity. This would include permanent permission to retain a married priesthood. Yet, this church would be anchored firmly to deferential communion with the Roman Pontiff exercising his Petrine ministry of fostering unity among all the faithful in Christ, and thus be protected from evolving in ways that compromise the integrity of the faith. Now, I understand the technical reasoning behind the decision not to move in such a direction, that Anglicanism is a spinoff from the Latin Rite that needs to be reunited with its parent, and not, properly speaking, an ancient church with a patriarchate of its own. That is a completely coherent response. But it is also a failure of imagination, and possibly a deficit in the cardinal virtue of fortitude. The potential harvest of Christian unity is incredibly rich at this moment. But reaping that harvest demands not just a bold stroke like Anglicanorum Coetibus. It demands a leap of faith.

Your Holiness, carpe diem!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Adventures in Ecclesiology, Part III: The Visibility of the Church

From time to time I run across a book, or a TV “infomercial, suggesting that the health of one particular organ or organ system within the human body is the key to overall physical health (nine times out of ten, it’s the colon). Patients present with a disparate range of symptoms, and providers attempt to diagnose and treat according the the symptoms, but, say these books and infomercials, they invariably get it wrong unless they first address the health of … the colon (or whatever).

If we were to apply this mental model to Christian theology, what would be the “colon”? It is at least quite arguable that this key place in the system would be held by ecclesiology. The “presenting problem” may be soteriology (how God saves us) or christology (the person and work of Christ) or pneumatology (the Holy Spirit) or some moral issue (can you think of any off-hand?!) or even hermeneutics (methodology of scriptural interpretation), but the underlying issue may actually be rooted in ecclesiology (theology of the Church). Divergent ecclesiological assumptions lead to divergent conclusions in those other areas, and no conflict in those areas can be effectively resolved without addressing the parties’ underlying ecclesiologies.

One case in point: Some years ago I served on the board of a (Christian) faith-based organization the mission of which was to channel the energy and resources of the Christian community toward attacking the root causes of the multitude of social ills that beset the city I lived in (the usual list: poverty, gangs, drugs, and violence, all feeding off one another). We discussed having a sort of “pastors’ summit” at a nearby facility in order to promote bonding and collegiality among the clergy leaders of the city. This board was dominated by free-church evangelicals—people with big hearts and a tremendous dedication to and love for Jesus, people whom I held in the highest esteem. One of them brought up the idea of having a “communion service” as a capstone to the retreat, an idea that got several immediate “Amens.” It fell to me to suggest that this wouldn’t necessarily be such a great idea. For me, and for others whom we were hoping to include in this event (namely, some of our Roman Catholic colleagues), what for some was a no-brainer was highly problematic. And although very concrete issues of eucharistic theology and liturgical form were at the front of the queue by way of explanation, the real issue was one of ecclesiology: What does the Eucharist and the way the Eucharist is celebrated “say” about the community that celebrates it—namely, the Church—and vice versa?

I am once again going to indulge in a sweeping generalization, cognizant more than ever of the attendant risk in doing so, but confident that the good to be attained thereby justifies the risk. So bear with me.

To some extent, it is possible to sort Christian communities along a continuum, with High Church/Catholic at one end and Low Church/Evangelical at the other. Apropos of the (crude) dichotomy I posited in Part II from last week, the Low Church position is one in which the individual Christian believer is (ontologically if not chronologically) “prior” to the Church. This view makes a sharp distinction between the Church per se and its institutional manifestation. The Church as such is an inherently “invisible” entity. It is comprised of all those who have made a conscious and voluntary faith commitment to Christ—“received Christ as their Savior,” as many might put it. The membership of the Church, then, is a number known only to God, for only God can accurately read the human heart. When individuals have made such a commitment, it is to be expected that they will seek out one another’s company for purposes of common worship, instruction, mutual encouragement, and shared mission. In doing so, they will create institutional structures, both tangible (buildings and bank accounts) and intangible (leadership positions, governing boards, etc.). The word “church” will often be associated with these structures in various ways. But that connection is only incidental. The Church (the invisible Body of Christ the membership of which is known only to God) should never be confused or identified with its institutional manifestation, which is temporal and passing. By this way of thinking, it is not only theoretically possible, but virtually mandatory to make a distinction between a believer’s relationship with Christ and his or her relationship with the Church.

By contrast, a High Church (Catholic) position holds that the Church is in every way (both chronologically and ontologically) “prior” to her individual members. She is an eminently “visible” entity, the “body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members” (from the Catechism of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), thus having an objective measure for discerning membership. If the number is known only to God, it’s not because only God can read the human heart, but because human engineers haven’t invented the right data storage and retrieval system yet! This is a thoroughly organic ecclesiology. The best analogue is not social--the voluntary association, or the corporation—but biological, i.e. the family, clan, tribe. In this framework, it is not so simple to divorce the Church qua institution from the Church qua “mystical Body of Christ.” They may not be precisely one and the same, but they are so interwoven and grown around each other that it is functionally impossible to pull them apart without doing damage.

Both ends of the ecclesiological spectrum, and all points in between, speak of the Church as the “body of Christ.” This is, after all, a pre-eminent New Testament (Pauline) metaphor. It cannot be casually overlooked. But I don’t think it’s misleading to say that an Evangelical will tend to use the expression more as an instructive figure of speech, whereas a Catholic will tend to embrace it as a dynamic reality. If Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members, then to make a sharp distinction between relationship to Christ and relationship to the Church is to risk decapitating the Church! There is no connection to the Head without a connection to the Body. How one behaves toward the Body is how one behaves toward the Head. Loyalty to Christ cannot be prior to loyalty to the Church; they are one and the same. Along similar lines, a dynamic understanding of how Christ is “embodied” in the Church precludes make too sharp a distinction between some abstract ideal of the Church and the Church’s actual (and quite messy and flawed) institutional infrastructure. It is precisely this infrastructure—with is canons and constitutions and covenants, to say nothing of bylaws and Letters of Agreement and everything else--that mediates (incarnates?) the presence of ministry of Christ in his corpus mysticum.

So the next time you’re observing or participating in debate, whether rancorous or civil, within the community of Christians, try digging a little deeper than whatever the presenting issue might be, and ask yourself, “What are the ecclesiological assumptions that each side is making? How do these assumptions, even if unspoken, actually drive the debate?”