Churches, denominations, The Church: loving them all

I’ve been thinking a good deal of The Church, churches and denominations. To define these three terms:

The Church is the one we talk about if we say the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one church, holy, catholic and apostolic”. To be a Nicene Christian is to believe (amongst other things) in The Church. Some Christians believe that the communion they belong to simply IS that Church but you don’t have to believe this. Many Christians (including me) believe that The Church is divided with the institution they belong to (in my case the URC) being only one part of it.

When I talk about churches I mean the local gatherings of Christians who come to together to worship, serve and most especially share in the Eucharistic meal, the Lord’s Supper. Each of these communities is, in my view, completely The Church, constituted by Christ’s gracious presence with them when they break bread (however one interprets the nature of that presence).

The body I struggle to make sense of is the denomination, the organisational form that links together some churches in various ways and for various purposes but which is not The Church. After all The Church is one (unified) and catholic (universal and all-encompassing). No denomination combines these two characteristics, and therefore none can be The Church. In fact almost all denominations manage to be neither.

My last post (on marriage and unity) occasioned a very active discussion on the URC’s Facebook group which reminded me of that. A number of my fellow members in that denomination made it clear that they regarded my stress on unity with a good deal of distrust. They wanted a denomination in which LGBT Christians could be sure of a welcome throughout and if this meant division so be it. This shows again that we are not united and some people on both sides of our division on sexuality would find it impossible to worship in some of our local churches.

We are not The Church (we make up only a very small proportion of the Christians even in our own country) nor are we fully united in love.

So what should we make of denominations? The URC was founded in 1972 out of the union of two denominations, the Congregationalists of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England (which confusingly had a few churches in Wales but was overwhelmingly Scottish in origin and ethos). Subsequently it was joined by the Churches of Christ (across England and Scotland, I’m not sure about their presence in Wales) and by the Congregationalists in Scotland (or at least a large part of them).

Its self-image and purpose as explained in the Basis of Union which occupies the place a confession would in a more confessional denomination (here) makes clear that the bringing (back) together of The Church is the prime mission and purpose of the denomination. It strives to do everything The Church would do if it had a concrete expression but it recognises that it is not The Church and cannot be so until all are brought together.

In the meantime each of its local churches is fully part of The Church, is fully a church but the denomination, failing to be The Church is, I suggest, partial and flawed, as is every other denomination.

Some denominations (the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox) meanwhile claim to be The Church. I’ve been reading the official Roman materials on ecumenism that came out of Vatican II and subsequent reflection on it. These make clear that while the rest of us are recognised as Christian other than the Orthodox our churches are denied recognition as churches (our Eucharist is not seen as the real thing). I think they’re wrong about us. We are part of The Church, Christ is present at the Eucharist in our churches and this means that they, too, are part of The Church but aren’t it.

Some other denominations (e.g. The Church of England, The Church of Scotland) are founded on the idea that it would be possible to be The Church in a particular country. I think they’re wrong, too. A national church cannot, in my view, be The Church, since catholicity is not bound to political or ethnic limits.

This is the value of Catholicism, the truth Rome bear. However the national churches also express a truth. Catholicity embraces all parts of life, it cannot be localised to a Christian community withdrawn or set apart from those around it.

The national churches express the truth that The Church has to be deeply involved with the world it serves, to permeate all parts of it with its love, to be the praying and worshipping action of the world, not just of some people.

And so I could go on. I have come to believe that every fragment of The Church exists for some purpose, embodies some truth, is responsible for some task, has, to express it in brief, a vocation. Each of our denominations (and I am so bold as to include Roman Catholicism) has been called into being by God as part of God’s redeeming action.

None of the denominations can, in the immediate and present moment, aspire to be The Church on its own any more than any individual Christian can, in fact less so. The Church is what we all, every Christian, every local church and every denomination, participate in. It is not the sum of our parts either. It is the ground of our being church and it is also the goal to which we are being drawn.

My denomination, the United Reformed Church, has as its vocation, as I currently discern it, the task of reminding all of that ground and goal in a unity that does not now have any institutional expression other than the rather attenuated one of the ecumenical bodies. We have to give it some form of life in our being church together towards unity. That’s why I feel so strongly that it’s up to us to live with our differences not to try artificially to resolve them. That living with means suffering them as well as celebrating them. It means really hearing and really experiencing that some of our brothers and sisters think what we think, what we do, who we are, is just wrong and then loving them and ourselves anyway.

  1. While I think I see where you’re coming from regarding the CofE and CofS, I would like to think that, notwithstanding the aims and ideas of those in 1560 and 1689 about the Church of Scotland, the reality of the various Secessions of the 18th & 19th century, and particularly the relatively stable period in the latter part of the 19th C of 3 substantial co-existing denominations, means that post the reunion of 1929, the idea of the Church of Scotland as The Church in a particular country was and is not the same as the self-understanding of the CofE. *A* church *for* a particular country might be nearer the mark, especially after some of the variable progress towards ecumenism in the decades after reunion – as you make reference to. The CofS preamble to events such as Ordination explicitly recognises it is *part* of The Church, not The Church as such.

    However your post makes an excellent argument, and telling points, particularly “almost all denominations manage to be neither [unified nor universal]”. I do like the idea that each denomination has a vocation – though I might mischievously ask whether (part of) the CofS’s vocation is to bring gospel love into a national perspective and national life where it has opportunity (though if so, it is not always consistently good at it!).

    Thanks for your post and your thoughts!

    • Thanks, Dave, I know that the status of the two national churches is different post-1929 but from my (dissenting) perspective what’s interesting is the commonality. Territorial ministry and commitment to the nation make the two national churches look rather alike to a voluntarist (in the pre-1929 UFC sense) like me.

  2. Elliot Vernon said:

    I am quite happy with Savoy Declaration Ch.26 (modified from WCF Ch.25) as a definition of The (visible catholic) Church:

    ‘The whole body of men [Monty Python moment: ‘and women’] throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according to it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are, and may be called the visible catholic church of Christ; although as such it is not entrusted with the administration of any ordinances, or have any officers to rule or govern in, or over the whole body.’

    a congregation, denomination or even a (inter)national church is more or less an emanation of that catholic church meeting in one or many places – in fact I have always liked JB Lightfoot’s use of ‘sojourneth’ in his translation of the standard introduction of the letters of many the post-Apostolic fathers: ‘The Church of God which sojourneth at [place, e.g. Rome, Philippi] – to me the word captures the local and the universal, as well as the eschatological nature of the Church.

    • I like that definition of The Church, too, but without further clarification it isn’t easily compatible with the thoroughgoing denominationalism I’m experimenting with here. If we make the decision to call the national churches and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches “denominations” despite their protests (I’ve been reading Paul Avis’ ringing rejection of this as a designation for the CofE) this requires careful elucidation of how we understand the relationships between the various terms. This would not conflict with the classical Reformed doctrine but would need to spell out some nuances which might make some contemporary Reformed people uneasy.

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