I’ve been thinking a lot about The Church over the last few weeks as I write my Master’s dissertation, which is an exercise in ecclesiology, the branch of theology that takes the church as its object. The conclusion I’ve come to is that doing ecclesiology as if The Church existed is a very bad error or to put it another way that the unacknowledged non-existence of The Church is a basic problem in (some parts of) contemporary Christian thought and practice.
When I make the claim that The Church does not exist I’m working with definitions of “The Church” and of “existence” that I need to explain a little to make this claim make sense.
The Church here is that which would adequately fulfil its descriptions as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, as the “body of Christ” and as the “people of God”. This Church would be very different from the institutions that today describe themselves as churches.
It would be “one”: fully united in its structures, its practices, its teaching, in all aspects of its common life. The churches as we see and experience them are clearly not one. Not only do we see an enormous variety of denominations claiming to be churches and hence dividing the Church (unless they claim to be The Church entire and exclude all others) but most of them are divided internally along all sorts of lines. Christians do not share common institutions, do not believe and do the same things, do not share a common life.
It would be “holy”: this is a more difficult property to describe, so alien is it. At its root it points towards the difference between God and world, the “holy” is (or would be) that which is set aside within the world to be God’s to somehow partake of the divine within the created. I struggle to articulate what this would, concretely, look like for The Church but clearly it would involve being clearly and unmistakeably different from the secular. The “holy” Church would be peaceful, just, and loving and would display no signs of greed, anger, oppression and power politics. This Church cannot be seen anywhere in its pure form, although sometimes one catches glimpses or faint traces of what it would be like.
It would be “catholic”: I’ve been thinking a lot about this property. What this means is “universal”, including all. This is a big one. It would include everybody and everything, it would be fully international, transcending all political boundaries and it would be all-embracing, penetrating and transforming all aspects of life, transcending the boundaries of politics itself. And it would combine this property with holiness.
It would be “apostolic”, which as a Protestant I take to mean not the personal transmission of inherited authority as in the episcopal succession but rather loyalty to the apostolic faith, the preservation of contact with the origin of our faith in Jesus. (I confess that I need to do more work on this one).
So the churches as we experience them fail to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. Why do I say that this means The Church does not exist? Wouldn’t make more sense just to say that the the churches are deficient. The reason I don’t say this is that to “exist” The Church would have to fulfil these criteria. The Church, properly so called, is the adequate instrument of the God’s rule, of the Kingdom of God. The human institutions through which The Church is dimly perceived today are not (yet) that.
The Kingdom, announced by Jesus, is yet (fully) to come. The expectation that God’s rule will be realised is what is known as “eschatology”, the speech about the last things. The last things refers to the realisation of our salvation by God, the end of death, of sin, of suffering. This is the standard by which we (Christians) are to measure all else. So long as there is death, sin, suffering, as long as all is not perfected, we regard God’s redeeming work in Christ as unfinished.
The Church (one, holy, catholic and apostolic) is an eschatological reality, it is God’s relationship with humanity in its central aspect (Luther wrote a wonderful commentary on Genesis in which he argued that the true Church was last visible in the Garden of Eden before the Fall).
We who belong to, who serve, the churches would do well to keep before us how distant from this ideal our institutions are. We should not claim that our little and fallen fragments are or could be The Church. Together they all point to and serve that Church which embodies part of God’s promise to us.
So what about Christianity? Can it exist apart from The Church? I don’t think so. If The Church does not (yet) exist then neither does Christianity. Each of us is struggling to become a Christian and hence to contribute to the upbuilding of The Church. Let’s acknowledge that none of us has achieved what we’re called to and that only together can we make progress.