Wednesday, 9 June 2010

What is 'the whole church'?

Yesterday I was at a meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council which was addressed by, amongst others, two self-confessed evangelical bishops. Part of the purpose of the meeting was to seek better understanding over the rĂ´le of bishops and to increase confidence between the evangelical constituency and the bishops themselves. What follows, therefore, is written in the spirit of trying to clarify and elucidate, rather than to ‘knock’.
In addressing the meeting, one of the bishops took pains to say early on that it had to be understood that he was a bishop to “the whole church”. This phrase is, I notice, also being used with reference to selecting and training candidates for the ordained ministry — it is emphasised that they have to see themselves as, and be equipped to be, ministers to the ‘whole church’.
It has to be said, however, that the hearts of many evangelicals sink precisely at this point, and that is because the concept of the ‘whole church’ can be understood in two quite different ways.
The phrase can simply mean ‘the church as it is, without favouritism’. And in this sense, it is fairly unexceptionable. The evangelical tradition clearly does embrace the ‘whole’ Church of England, and a bishop cannot, therefore, simply focus on evangelicals, even if he is one himself.
However, there is second sense in which the phrase may be used, which shades into the first, but which actually entails quite a different, and far more problematic, set of assumptions. And this is when it means ‘the church as it is, without distinction’.
In the first case, the Church of England is understood inclusively, embracing people of different styles, practices and even understandings, who are recognized as both Anglicans and Christians, despite their differences. However, that is not necessarily the same thing as may be implied in the second case, which could refer to the Church of England indiscriminately, as embracing people whatever their styles, practices and understandings.
As I have said, the two meanings are not entirely distinct. Nevertheless, behind them lie two quite different core assumptions about the meanings not only of the word ‘whole’ but the word ‘church’.
What, then, should we mean by ‘church’? Today there seems to be a lot of support for the idea that the ‘church’ is simply ‘the community of the baptized’ and that, furthermore, it is to be identified by people gathering together at the Lord’s Table. This is often described in terms of being ‘inclusive’, but I would want to argue that it is better described as being ‘indiscriminate’ — and that in the dictionary sense of being ‘without careful judgement’.
It is here, however, that the Thirty-nine Articles come to our aid, for they in fact give us a definition of the ‘visible church’ — the church with which we actually have to deal, rather than any abstract or idealized ‘true’ church of ‘genuine’ believers. Article XIX defines the church as follows:
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
Notice, however, that although this deals with the ‘visible’, actual, church, it does not ignore the question of individual faith. On the contrary, the “visible Church” is “a congregation of faithful men”, or in Latin “coetus fidelium”.
Now it has rightly been observed (by Paul Avis amongst others) that coetus refers to something wider than the local, ‘parochial’, congregation. However, it would be quite wrong to limit its sense to the diocese, which Avis attempts to argue is the true ‘local church’. Rather, we should take it as meaning a ‘community’, in the biblical sense of the ‘congregation of Israel’ (cf Ex 16:10, Vulgate).
An equally suitable translation of the phrase would then be “a community of the faithful”. However, this also means that the visible Church is not simply a gathering of the baptized. If that were so, we could (theoretically) go round our parishes gathering together a selection of those who were baptized as infants and have never darkened the doorstep of the church since, and say, “See, here is the visible church.”
The clear implication of Article XIX, however, is that the church is visible where there is something to see — and this is brought out further by the references to “the pure Word of God” and to “the sacraments ... duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance”. And this visibility is indeed manifested in the local (parochial) congregation, for that (rather than in diocesan or larger gatherings) is actually where people assemble and where the word is preached and where the sacraments are administered. But although no church (in either sense) is perfect, and many churches are quite imperfect, we may conclude that the church is increasingly visible to the extent that these conditions are met: that the sacraments are duly ministered, that the pure Word of God is preached and that we find a community of the faithful.
When a bishop refers to ministering to “the whole church”, then, this ought to take into account the faithfulness of the community, the quality of the preaching, and the manner of the administration of baptism and holy communion (as those sacraments “ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel”, Article XXV, whose ministering can therefore be “according to Christ’s ordinance”, Article XIX).
To the extent that faith, preaching and the proper ministration of the sacraments are missing, to that extent we can rightly say that there is no visible church — and perhaps no church at all — even if the building may be full, the choir outstanding and the clergy busy.
This is further underlined by Article XXVI, which notes that,
... in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments ...
On the one hand, this recognizes precisely the point acknowledged above, that the ‘visible’ church is not the ‘perfect’ church, for that is both unattainable and unknowable in this world. However, it also affirms a point sometimes scarcely acknowledged when modern Anglicans consider the nature of the church, namely that the church is not just a mixture of styles and outlooks but of the good and the evil, which therefore calls for action.
Thus when a bishop speaks of ‘the whole church’, he must not only look for the visible signs of the church, but he must also, as an expression of his episcopal office, look to encourage the good and redress the evil, so that the church becomes progressively more visible.
None of this is to overlook or deny what Article XXVII says about baptism:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church ...
Baptism must be regarded as ‘instrumental’, in the sense of conferring what it speaks about of the promises and grace of God, otherwise it is merely an empty gesture. But baptism is ‘rightly’ received only by those who (if necessary, when they come of age), “renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God's holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments”. In other words, baptism grafts into the ‘community of the faithful’ only those who receive by faith what baptism confers.
If it could be agreed between evangelical bishops and the evangelical constituency that ‘the whole church’ was a reference to a community where we could expect to see faithfulness in manner of life and in the preaching of God’s pure Word, then there would undoubtedly be greater confidence between the constituency and those from their number who are now on the episcopal bench.
John Richardson
9 June 2010
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  1. LBJ said something about preferring to have J Edgar Hoover in the tent which seems relevant but I am not sure you would accept a verbatim quote!

  2. David, I think I know that quote from somewhere! And actually, I don't so much have a problem with a big(ish) tent approach as with the people whose job is tent-maintenance at this point.