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?”


Dale Matson said...

Fr. Dan,
Thanks for the study on Ecclesiology. I look forward to your last installment and will be using it as additional study material for canonicals soon.


Dale Matson said...

I've thought about this more and connected it to one of your previous posts on the identity crisis in TEC. Maybe this is one of the hallmark features of Protestantism (individualism)coming home to roost. It is not just a failure to see itself as Anglican, it is a failure to see itself as part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.