(Unfortunately) neither The Church nor Christianity exist

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.

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6 comments
  1. Ezra Davis said:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Myself, being inclined to pedantry, I do always feel it is not quite accurate and authentic to refer to an organisation such as “the Church of England” or “the Congregational Church in England and Wales” (a very short-lived church, if “church” she ever was) or “the United Reformed Church” as a church. But, the terminology is so much part of our English usage that it’s just too difficult to avoid it completely. Even so, this doesn’t stop me feeling not-quite-comfortable about going along with the common usage.

    It has been postulated (including by Margaret Thatcher), that society doesn’t exist. Be that as it may, people (individuals) do exist.

    Similarly, Christians do exist, (or, at least people struggling to become Christians). In your own philosphical testimony you write of your encounter with Jesus (you use the word ‘Christ’) that would transform your life.

    It has been said that the Lord ‘gathers’ as well as ‘saves’. Matthew’s gospel famously speaks of people gathered (or having been gathered?) in the Lord’s name.

    So, even if the church doesn’t exist, I think we might say confidently that churches exist — local groups/assemblies of Christians worshipping together, engaging together in some way on life’s journey, doing mission together, and usually (Friends (Quakers) and Soldiers (Salvation Army) being among the exceptions) baptising and observing the Lord’s Supper.

    As you say, each is but a little fallen fragment of the whole.

    And yet, what we are in God is that we are spotless and complete, at least potentially. But, it’s not just potentially is it, not only in the future: doesn’t God see us NOW as His beautiful future bride. That’s marvellous isn’t it. Oh, that we might live in the present reality of it.

    Incidentally, reading your thoughts brought to mind the teaching of some of the 19th century “Brethren” about the ruin of the church. “As regards the purposes of God, the church cannot be ruined, but as regards its actual present condition as a testimony for God on earth, it is in ruin” (JN Darby). The denominational churches were seen as hopelessly marred and fallen. So, instead, these Christians believers would gather in simple assemblies “in the Lord’s Name”, with a bare minimum of organisational formality; assemblies which they saw as essentially un-denominational. Sad to say, it was not to be many years before a matter of controversy arose which split the young movement right across the world, and the schism was over the question as to whether such controversies were to be settled at the level of the local assembly or whether there was to be some of authoritative worldwide jurisdiction — i.e. one might say, on the “congregational” principle or on some form of “catholic” principle. Is there nothing new under the sun ?

    What options are available ? Attach oneself to a local assembly/congregation, yes, indeed. Of course. That is a start. Though, we are agreed it is but a little fragment. So, wider than the purely local, what options are available to an individual or to a local congregation ? Where DOES one go, to affiliate with the holy church of the Lord Jesus ?

    • Thank you very much indeed for this, Ezra. I agree wholeheartedly with every word. As to where we go, we go where we are called and we trust in God rather than in ourselves. Especially, as you so beautifully express it we trust that God sees us NOW as his beautiful bride. It is God’s love itself that declares us worthy of God’s love.

  2. Ezra Davis said:

    Thank you Nick for your very kind and generous response. Thank you too for the reminder that we are to go where God calls. In terms of how (at a level wider than the purely local) to respond here and now to God’s call to affiliate in some practical way with the worldwide holy church of the Lord Jesus, the invisible undivided church, there does not seem to be an answer other than to wait, to work, to pray (not necessarily in that order of priority).

    Perhaps the emerging convergence movement may yet have something to offer ? I’m not sure. (Some of their writings accord huge respect to Lesslie Newbigin).

    Yet, in the quest for catholicity, one could so easily end up painted into a corner that is simply another new denomination to add to the already-existing hundreds of demominations and that is in official communion with only a minute minority of the world’s Christians.

    Let’s take ordination as an example. Perhaps actually it is one of the key issues.

    Fairly soon it will be a 100 years since the 1920 Lambeth Conference issued its appeal to all Christian people, within part of which it expressed the hope that ministers who had not been ordained by a bishop may be led “to accept a commission through episcopal ordination, as obtaining for them a ministry throughout the fellowship”. Dr William Orchard was one who did, accepting ordination from Vernon Herford (syro-chaldean), and when Dr Orchard later became Roman Catholic they gave him conditional ordination. Here we are in 2012. I am not aware of Anglican bishops offering to stand with URC synod moderators and lay hands together on the ordinand at URC ordinations. Bishop Newbigin could (or so I presume) have provided that ordination, and maybe he did — I would not know. As matters currently stand, the convergence bishops seem to have no recognised wider status at all, like ‘episocopi vagantes’, and they are regarded by virtually the whole episcopal part of the world church (by the Anglican Communion, by Rome, and by the ancient Eastern or Oriental Orthodox communions) as irregular and illicit, or worse. In a URC-CofE LEP, a URC minister can conduct the Eucharist using an Anglican Rite, give the Communion to Anglican faithful, within an Anglican building, but she/he is regarded as a lay-person and so the Eucharist is not a CofE Eucharist but is a URC Eucharist using the Anglican rite !!

    During this time, as we wait on, work on and pray on, we can at least try to be catholic within each local church/assembly, in the way we conduct our congregational life, and also in relationships with other local worshipping communities.

    I’m old enough to remember the ’60s and the huge change that came quickly after Vatican II. Now, we seem to be becalmed.

  3. Thank you Ezra, I wouldn’t personally regard the convergence people with much hope. I see what they’re up to but since the Anglicans don’t, on the whole, recognise them, and their conservatism on women’s ordination would make them unacceptable to a large proportion of our people (and vice versa) I can’t see them as a very probably partners for us.

    My feeling is that we’re probably moving towards a period when “denomination” is a less central category than it has been which means that when the URC ceases to exist it won’t be by becoming part of something larger (but smaller than the Church catholic) as was hoped in 1972.

    What worries me is that we may continue to act as if the main thing to aim at is the continuation of “The URC” as an institution rather than trying to work out what it is that we have within the URC that we’re really keen to bequeath to the wider and continuing Church when it ceases to be. This could mean that those things about and within us that are most valuable could be lost or damaged.

    In the meantime I am called to particular local churches, a particular synod and this denomination. I don’t know why and don’t need to know. I simply have to discern, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, the work I have been given to do.

  4. Ezra Davis said:

    Your response is really causing me to ponder/reflect. If I may suggest it, let’s dig into some parts of it.

    You feel the situation is probably moving towards a period when ‘denomination’ is a less central category than it has been. I think you are probably right about that. (And, I’m pleased about it. I hope you are right about it. Bring it on. I see it as positive. The Lord’s Holy Name Be Praised).

    But, you then say that ‘this means’ that when the United Reformed Church ceases to exist it won’t be by some form of further merger/union.

    Why does it means that ? ‘Less central’ is not the same as not existing. In a coming day when the ‘denominations’ are ‘les central’, but still existing/surviving, why should there not be further mergers/unions among some of these denominations. Once their roles have become ‘less central’ perhaps such mergers/unions might be slightly easier to achieve ? I don’t follow the logic that links together (a) your prediction that the eventual cessation (be it near in time or far into the future) of the URC will not be by a further merger/union and (b) your perception/prediction of the role of the ‘denominations’ becoming ‘less central’. Can you explain/clarify please.

    Now, let’s hypothesise that you are right in your prediction that the end of the URC won’t be in a further merger/union. What other options exist. The only possible options are (1) merger/union; (2) split; (3) fade away (no local churches remaining — i.e. every church closed down, or seceeded); (4) dissolution into independent churches; (5) some combination of the above.

    You want to work at identifying the nuggets that the URC is keen to bequeath to the future. Of copurse. That’s very commendable. It’s very important — as far as it goes. But, in your scenario (no further merger/union), what might be the mechanism for the bequest to take effect. The URC will need heirs/beneficiaries to receive these nuggets, or else they will merely gather dust on the shelves of the archives of Dr Williams’s Library and form themes for MTh and PhD studies. I don’t see the point of identifying nuggets of gold to bequeath without also identifying to whom they are to be bequeathed and thinking about whether the propsective recipients are likely to be happy (or even willing) to receive and to treasure these nuggets !!! Does the United Reformed Church have living gold to bequeath ? How will it persuade propsective recipients that the bequest is real gold which they should therefore be keen and happy to receive and value ?

    The metaphores are a bit mixed, but hopefully clear enough to express the point.

    It’s time now to be getting ready for Worship.

  5. When I express doubt about the likelihood of further merger being the exit from the URC’s current form it is based the following considerations:
    1) No other denomination in the UK appears interested in merger or union: the CofE believes itself already to be The Church; the Methodists, as I understand it, are currently working to consolidate their distinctive denominational identity as inheritors of the Wesleyan legacy; the Baptists are committed to not being a denomination. Who is there for us to unite with?
    2) we are declining faster than anyone else and are at a point where we’re too small and scattered to be attractive to anyone as a partner anyway.
    3) This also means that the viability of the URC as a “small Church” with all the attendant paraphanenala is increasingly in question (look at budget discussions at GA and the options that leaves us.

    I think the most likely future is one where we have to give up more and more of the trappings of denominational status, as they become harder to afford. How exactly this will play out I have no idea but it seems more or less inevitable. More churches will continue to close, as they do from time to time. What I’m saying is that out of this process there are some things that the wider Church would be poorer without and we should be clear what they are and how we’ll protect them. Different pieces will go to different beneficiaries.

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