Tuesday, January 25, 2011

ONE, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church

"We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" - Nicene Creed

Father, we pray your holy Catholic Church.
That we all might be one.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 387

Given the evident conflict and division, claiming to believe the Church is "one" might be one of the bigger stumbling blocks in the creed.

In his book, The Creed, Luke Timothy Johnson makes the point that the Church's vocation to be "holy" is sometimes in tension with its vocation to be "one" and "catholic". While the tension can be difficult and uncomfortable, in truth they are not separable.

Being a Christian is a matter of believing, becoming, and belonging. It’s the belonging part that modern Christians tend to miss, having drunk deeply from the well of individualism. Belonging to the Church is not a merely spiritual affection. It must be embodied. To be a Christian is not merely to adopt a set of beliefs or behaviors on our own. It is not about abstractions like faith or love or justice or peace or whatever. It is about embodying such things as a community.

Jesus' prayer that his followers be one is thus fundamental to what we are supposed to be as the new community living in his Spirit under the new covenant inaugurated in his death and resurrection. The Church is to be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God in which the wound of the Original Schism of sin and brokenness is fully healed. Schism – between humans and God, and humans and humans - is the original sin colorfully depicted as unfolding in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. It is that Schism that Jesus comes to heal. Or as Ephesians has it, it is the barriers and enmity of that schism that he breaks down.

I suggest a fundamental mission of the church is reflected in one of the prayers in the Marriage Rite in the Book of Common Prayer: "Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (BCP p. 429) Splitting the church is a counter-sign that undermines whatever aspect of the gospel it hopes to preserve/advance. The fact that the Church is already broken and in a state of schism does not justify further division, i.e., further false witness.

Schism can be provoked (by the zealous pursuit of holiness - or justice, or whatever reformation/revision someone thinks necessary) as well as pursued (by those who are convinced they - and God - are better served by separating from those with whom they disagree). We have seen plenty of both in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion over the last decade. Both are a participation in the Original Schism of sin.

Being bound to one another, actually learning to love – not the insipid sentimentalism that often goes by that name, but the love typified by the self-emptying way of the cross - is part of our witness to the world. It is hard - the Church is a school of love that is often a school of hard knocks – but it is the more excellent way. This includes speaking truth, offering and receiving correction, etc. It also includes trusting that the Church is the body of Christ and that its destiny, along with ours as members of it, is in God's hands. Part of what it means for the Church to be the light of the world is to actually be the community envisioned in Romans 12, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4, etc.

Thus, while it is encouraging that they have reiterated their commitment to the Anglican Communion, it is still disappointing that some primates are absenting themselves from this week's meeting in Dublin. But, it is also disappopinting that many in the Episcopal Church are so convinced that they know the mind of the Spirit that they are willing to pursue actions that most of the rest of the Anglican Communion has yet to be persuaded are faithful.

An Anglican Covenant makes sense, not because it will settle any given issue once and for all (it won't) but because it just might enable the Anglican Communion to live more fully into the vocation to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Here is something from Charles Gore reflecting on what some early church theologians had to say about schism.

I hope to write reflections on the Church's vocation to be holy, catholic, and apostolic in the future.

1 comment:

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for this, Matt. Thoughtful, faithful reflection on what it means to affirm the Church as "one" is badly needed, particularly in light of those across the theological spectrum who so easily dismiss the call to unity.