Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Impoverished Ecclesiology?

On at least a couple of posts in recent weeks, in writing of those friends of mine who are pointed toward the sundering of our common ties to the Episcopal Church, I have used the expression "impoverished ecclesiology" to characterize one aspect of their position. I have lately been challenged by one of those friends to expand on that thought in some coherent way--or else desist from such language! (He said it sharply, but affectionately.) It seems a reasonable enough request, though I must be brief and paint in broad strokes.

At its root, the ecclesiology to which I subscribe is simply basic Catholicism, which is to say that the Church is inherently a visible entity and not a mere spiritual abstraction. It has a spiritual and mystical dimension, of course, but that dimension cannot in the end be divorced from its institutional dimension. This indissoluble connection between--to borrow Aristotelian categories--the Church's substance and the Church's accidents pertains even moreso when its institutional superstructure misbehaves, and obscures the connection. The Church is always a corpus mixtum, containing within itself both "wheat" and "tares." At times, the tares may even be in the majority, but that does not make the Church anything less or other than what she is--the Body of Christ and the ark of salvation.

A Catholic ecclesiology is thoroughly organic. The root metaphors of the Church's life are biological--body, family, tribe, nation--rather than associative--club, party, company. One does not "join" the Church, one is grafted onto Christ and received into the family. One is born again in the amniotic fluid of the baptismal font where Holy Mother Church, having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, gives birth to new children. Once again, this pertains even when--especially when--the family is dysfunctional, and behaves in ways that not only mask but veritably contradict its true identity. We can't choose our parents; per Cyprian, the Church is our mother if God is our Father. Neither, then, can we choose our siblings, even if they are the blackest of black sheep.

It is a Christian's duty, then, to be faithful to the Church, because there is no other way to be faithful to Christ. There is no access to the Head but through the Body. And the body in question is not an abstraction; it is enfleshed and it is particular. And it may not be very attractive. It may feel alien and off-putting. It may be a source of shame and embarrassment. But, to use a currently overworked expression, "it is what it is." And it is the Church. I don't get to qualify my fidelity to the Body of Christ by insisting that she apply some deodorant before I get too close. If she acts like Gomer, then I've got to act like Hosea.

One may retort, of course, that there is a multitude of institutional manifestation of the Church, and this is patently true. There are at least two, and probably more, bishops within the historic episcopate whose territorial jurisdiction covers the ground on which I presently sit. (And there are hundreds of nearby Christian assemblies who profess no fealty to any bishop anywhere, but are nonetheless, in some sense, ecclesial in nature.) But only one of these bishops is my own, so it is through him and under him that I "do church." I happen to be currently pleased with that arrangement at the most local level, but my bishop, in turn (and I through him), participates in a web of discipline and accountability with other bishops and their dioceses that is institutionally incarnate as the Episcopal Church. It is through that particular web that my connection to Christ and to the Body of Christ is made concrete.

Another implication of a Catholic ecclesiology is what the Benedictine tradition calls "stability of place." This is not an absolute prohibition on ecclesiastical relocation, but, rather, an initial presumption in favor of the relationship one finds oneself in. There are valid reasons to move (at least I hope there are; I was not raised an Episcopalian!), but the default expectation is one of stability--staying home and dealing with the crazy relatives that I didn't get to choose.

To be more direct, the point here is that we--particularly those of us who are Americans or live in some other vigorous democracy or in a culture which treasures individualism--need to keep vigil against behaving as if the Church were a voluntary association of like-minded believers. There are Christians who believe this way, and Anglicans (speaking historically) have a word for them: Puritans. Today they are known as free-church evangelicals. It strikes me as ironic in the extreme to see Anglicans who loudly profess their adherence to Catholic faith and practice behaving as if the Episcopal Church is just one more "denomination" (yes, I know, TEC itself behaves that way, but that's another story, and on that, see above) that they are free to leave because they think the leadership is roundly messing up on the job (which assessment I fully agree with).

This is why I use the term "impoverished ecclesiology." The fact is, that despite all the detestable enormities of the Episcopal Church, her official teaching and liturgical formularies express the faith and practice of the Catholic Church. She is dysfunctional and rebellious and has literally forgotten herself. But that does not alter who she is. It is possible to lead orthodox worship in the Episcopal Church. I do so regularly. It is possible to teach sound doctrine in the Episcopal Church. I do so regularly, and I know lots and lots of places where it is done. There are thousands and thousands of ordinary Christians in the Episcopal Church who say the creeds without crossing their fingers and do their best to work and pray and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God. To paint them with the broad brush of apostasy and heresy is unconscionable. As long as the core identity of the Episcopal Church is that of the Body of Christ, and as long as she is in full communion with an historic See--in this case, Canterbury--then anyone who already is an Episcopalian faces a formidable burden of proof in justifying why they ought to abandon that church. A decent ecclesiology demands nothing less.


Aghaveagh said...

Eloquently said. Thank you.

Dirk VandePol said...

Once again, a hallmark of the inner "something" that makes me listen to and (usually) follow Father Dan Martins.
It is certainly not because of his conservative views.
It is because I have never seen such a combination of empathy and detached reasoning. Father Dan can walk in the shoes of his (for lack of a better word) rivals better than anyone I know. That's great in and of itself.
Yet few understand that walking in the shoes of another means stepping out of your own. One of the things that makes Father Dan so darn great is that he can walk in nobody's shoes.
It is so hard for me these days to listen to any news with my mind instead of my heart. Lately, I've stopped trying- politics (and now, my religious denomination IS politics) is so infuriating of late that it's become impossible for me to give true respect to opposing viewpoints. This is because I've attached my heart to my beliefs- a perfectly natural, yet dangerous thing to do.
I don't know where a person gets his moral principles- do they come from the heart or the mind? I'm not sure, but it is our moral principles- set aside from the heart- that we must listen to when weighing viewpoints and making decisions about issues.
Father Dan does this. When he forms his opinions, he does so by hearing the concerns of others, considering his moral compass, and deciding what is best, not for his side, but for God's world, and the people in it. And, of course, when I see him do this, I'm reminded that I must do so myself.
I know my post does not do justice to his words. But as a former parishioner who really misses Father Dan's leadership, I gotta do something.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your description of Catholic ecclesiology but your description of "puritain" or reformed ecclesiology is something of a charicature. It is simply false that Reformed theology holds to a "voluntary" association of individual believers. Participation in the visible church is not "voluntary" it is commanded (Hebrews 10). The point of our disagreement is not whether to participate in the visible Church, but rather what are the marks of the Church. I think your characterization in this article was a mis-characterization.

Matt Kennedy

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I don't think it's ecclesiology so much as Christian Formation. Can a bad tree bear good fruit? A good tree will bear good fruit. It is the fruit we were commanded to watch, not theology or politics. There will always be live and dead branches in any institution. But in any given church what is being done to teach, to form, to promote what is good? Is it really working or is it smoke and mirrors? Is the priority God's precious people or some ideology? How I long to see good fruit--and I don't care where it comes from!

Anonymous said...

Amen. Fr. Dan. Amen.

As for the Episcopal Church itself, I hope the words of Mark Twain, "the reports of my demise are greatly exxagerated" are true. I was at the ordination of seven new priests in DioVA last night and it sure looked like a vibrant Christian community to me. But for those who have left or feel called to leave, fairwell, Godspeed & please leave the candlesticks if the bishop says so.
-miserable sinner

RFSJ said...

Fr. Dan,

Eloquently put. I re-read this post just this morning, to see it with fresh eyes, and it refreshed me even more than the first time I read it. I appreciated the fact that the Church is enfleshed and corrupt and possibly wrong and yet is still, well, the Church! How encouraging on a very deep levle, specially given the troubles we seem to be facing!