Ecclesiology

Theology of the church

The Ecclesial Longing of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew met in Jerusalem, to commemorate the meeting of Pope Paul IV and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago.  The Ecumenical Patriarch (confirmed by the Vatican) mentioned that in this meeting the bishops want to move forward in ecumenical relations and decided to plan some form of meeting/gathering on the 1700 anniversary of the first Ecumenical council at Nicaea in Nicaea, now Iznik. This is Kind of astounding.

In our various denominational crises, we can forget that really the last 70 years has been an incredible time for those seeking to move beyond the divisions and parochialism of the various Christian denominations.  We almost take the meeting of a Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch as common place. Dialog between Christian denominations happens regularly.  Certainly, there are still lines drawn in the sand, and I’m sure a number of both Roman Catholics and Orthodox are speaking of the apostasy of either  the Pope or Ecumenical Patriarch, or both.  However, if we focus on these negatives we fail to see the signs of hope and the possible work of the Spirit.

It’s hard to say what this meeting planned for 2025 in Nicaea will be, but in it is a fruit of seeking to meet one another across our divides, to seek to be the Church. We could make to much and to little of the Pope’s and Patriarch’s meeting and of this announcement.

For Ecclesial Longings and the Priestly Goth this all points that for the church the future and the past must collide.  Also, there’s nothing pure about the commemoration of Nicaea.  And there are plenty of Christians who, even if they may want to affirm the creed from that council, find that moment and Constantine’s embrace of the Church and intervention in the Arian controversy to be highly problematic to say the least.  Yet, I say that if we want to understand Christian faith in a concrete and ecclesial sort of way, reflecting on the truth and complexity of the first ecumenical council is needed.

Christianity as a religion can have many interpretations stemming from the person of Jesus of Nazareth, bringing together all these interpretations and faiths that are called Christian probably isn’t a possibility.  But when we begin to talk about the Church as Body of Christ, which is a transcendent, sacramental and mystical reality in time and history, this gives us a lens to focus our interpretation of Christianity.  In this focus, what I call ecclesial longing, I believe there is possibility for unity.  In this focus and longing is seeking in the other Christian and in one self that sign that we are members of the same body.  The faith of the Body of Christ, the Church  was expressed at Nicaea in 325. While Arian faith is Christian it was shown not  to be  the faith of the Body of Christ.

In the least in this invitation to celebrate and remember the Council of Nicaea, we have the opportunity to think the difference between the mind of Christ and the Church and mere Christian opinions. So along with Sam Rocha, I see this planned gathering in 2025 at Nicaea tingling with possibility.  In the midst of our denominational and cultural crisis, I see this as laden with hope.

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 2)

I left off in part 1 with a discovery.  At 5 almost 6 years old by asking if a friend wanted to come t a VBS I discovered there were people that not only went to church infrequently (this was so in my own extended family), but for whom church had no place at all in their lives.  this friend it turns out didnt even know who Jesus Christ was.

My friend never came to vacation bible School (VBS).  An awareness came to me in this moment in this town where school superintendents, police, the pharmacists, those who made up the volunteer fire department, were members of Kingsburg Covenant church and other congregations in the town (I assume that the mayor and city council were also members of these same Christians congregations in town but I don’t recall ever knowing who was the mayor of Kingsburg ) who was or wasn’t considered a “good citizen” were evaluated by their commitments to these Christian congregations.  This sense of things had no place for someone who had no association at all with these congregations. I had assumed  that in someway everyone even if they didn’t attend church regularly was in the orbit of the christian faith, I had assumed Christendom.  At that moment I both discovered what Christendom was and that there was something outside of Christendom.

Around the same time as this revelation, one communion Sunday, I asked my parents if I could receive communion, I wanted to receive Jesus in the bread and wine.  My parents had me ask Pastor Elving after the service.   Pastor Elving didn’t answer yes or no, but had a conversation with me about why I wanted to receive communion.  I don’t remember what pastor Elving said to me nor exactly what I said to him, I do remember sharing the desire to receive Jesus.  I was told later (i don’t remember Pastor Elving saying this) that I had a better understanding of Communion than many adults.  I was impatient for the next communion Sunday,  and it began to feel odd to me that we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.  In communion and in the caring concern of Pastor Elving our moment of shared faith in the presence of Christ in bread and wine was another moment of Church that transcended the particular practices of that particular congregation though it was also mediated and manifested in that congregation and through the Pastoral office as Pastor Elving embodied it.

I can say then that my experience was uneven, and I can’t  imagine what would have happened had my parents and Pastor Elving had dismissed my longing for the body of Christ expressed in the desire to share in the bread and the cup.  I do remember thinking it odd that the adults seemed perfectly content to receive Christ only once a month. Christian opinions about guarding the specialness of this symbolic meal were repeated possibly whenever I asked for an explanation.  This opinion didn’t seem to fit with the words spoken, with the solemnity with which Pastor Elving prayed and spoke over bread and wine, the seriousness with which he questioned my desire to receive.  There was no affirmation of encounter with something that could not be diminished by the frequency of the encounter, no sense of  the need for this mystical abiding through physical and ordered means, which I’m here naming church.

When we moved from Kingsburg to Los Angeles as I began Confirmation, the Covenant congregation we ended up going to (because my sister and I liked the youth and children’s programs ), I discovered Christianity without Christendom.  Many of my pears connection to the faith was fairly shallow in comparison with the many layers of Church, Christianity and Christendom of Kingsburg.  They went to church because their parents went and they were told they had to come.  That in the gathering was needed spiritually, that in coming together with other members of the Body of Christ that one was then formed into Christ, that in church one encountered God and Christ in each other and in bread and wine was largely either unimportant or unknown among most of my peers.  Attending church seemed meaningless to them, at least form my sense of gathering to encounter God.  It was here to that for the first time since nursery that I was segmented off into my age group and no longer regularly was in worship with my parents.

I experienced these distinct and overlapping entities: Church, Christianity and Christendom.  As I’ve interpreted it and recollected this experience, Christianity and and Christendom are partially negative aspects of my experience of Church.  I’d argue that Christianity and Christendom were only negative in their decadent and decaying interactions.  The web of connections between family, congregation, other Christian congregations in the town of Kingsburg and the influence Christianity had upon the civic and social fabric of the town created for me a unified world that was positive and life affirming.  In many ways this entire experience was ecclesial.  Yet there were always cracks in that world.  As I discovered not only a world beyond the institutions of Christendom but also came to realize that for many in congregations (including some of leaders ) that what was for  matrix and life was for them about keeping boundaries,  following rules, and believing propositions, i could have concluded that the Church was nothing but a human institution. Yet I didn’t come to that conclusion, because something in my experience, whichis hard for me to put my finger on, lead me to see the difference between these three things: Christendom, Christianity, and Church.  Only one of these was needful, life giving, and about life,  that one thing is the Church.  Church was manifest and transcended every local instantiation of it i have experienced. In some local instantiation, I must also admit that the Church was hardly present.  It’s possible that many people know Christianity and Christendom but haven’t a clue about this thing called Church the Body of Christ, and I suspect that much of this talk about death of Church is really the uncovering that not every group of Christians is the Church.

 

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 1)

The Anglobaptist brought to my attention the Sojourners blog series “Letter’s to a dying Church”(I  haven’t read all of them but I’ve read a few).  At Tripp’s blog, I’ve said that I agree with those that are saying (some of them in their “letters”, that it’s not the church that is dying but Christendom or Christianity.  I’ve made these distinctions here before.  There’s a key difference between these three entities and phenomena.  but I do see in what I’ve read and in the Sojourner chosen title for this series a tendency to conflate these three, and use in the very least Church and Christianity as synonymous and  thus conflate the Christian religion with the Body of Christ.

I want to focus on this confusion of related but distinct entities, because the title of this series and some of the responses show an inability for a clear path of thinking regarding our predicament.   Thus, as I see it the title of  this series and many of the letters only deepen our confusion and our hopelessness.

But in the spirit of Sojourners letters, I will  take a personal rather than theoretical or philosophical theological approach.   I will in a very American way talk about my experience of these three entities and phenomena, as I have encountered them in the local congregation of my upbringing, Kingsburg Covenant Church in the Central Valley of California, and in the my denomination of my birth, baptism, confirmation, and ordination, The Evangelical Covenant Church.

The place where I remember my nurture in the Faith was a largely Swedish congregation with roots in the Lutheran Pietist Tradition, Kingsburg Covenant Church.  But it isn’t where my story began.  It began in the suburbs of Chicago, At Winnetka Covenant Church, There I was Baptised into the Body of Christ. There community and family deliberately and through sacrament handed me over to another reality: a reality  in which they shared, Christ and the Church.    Before  I was able to take in who I was in relation to family, or nation, or any other human association I was delivered from the tyranny of all those identities, and could hold them or leave them in light of being in Christ.  This is of course a very adult and post seminary and theologians summary of what was implicit in the matrix of my early years.  On some level it was a very simple weekly or more often event.  On a regular basis I was entrusted to those with whom I had no familial connection, who didn’t live in the same neighborhood as my family, many of whom I saw only in this place, but experientially it was clear I was theirs, and my parents left me with them in this place called the nursery.  I don’t remember anything about my time at Winnetka Covenant church. Yet,  Baptism changed me, transferred me to a parallel and other actuality in which my parents were also embraced and nurtured, in that place we were all children… children of God.

Winnetka Covenant church and Kingsburg Covenant church provided me this sense of Church as Mother, the matrix in which we all lived together as Christ’s, as God’s children, fellow heirs with Christ.  I learned this in the nursery.  It was at Kingsburg Covenant Church that I first became aware of my nurture in the faith through two members of the Body of Christ, a married couple who in my nursery days were always working in the nursery, showing us toddlers the love of the Church and of Christ.

For a time in the small town of Kingsburg (my mother’s home town) church, family (my grandparents and 2nd cousins and other distant relatives all went to church together) and community seemed like a unified whole.  My best friend and I saw each other in church, we went to preschool and then kindergarten together, I knew others in town went to other congregations, and that some thought less of some of those other groups, but mostly it seemed to me that all of us were Christian, the reality of the Church, my matrix bled out from those gathered on a Sunday and encompassed my sense of the entire city of Kingsburg.  Here is the realm of Christianity and Christendom in my early childhood experience.   As a child it was largely irrelevant whether or not those other Christians experienced, Christ and the nurture of the church and love of Christ as I did.  I most likely assumed they did if the it ever crossed my mind to wonder? I don’t think it did.

However, my awareness of Christianity and Christendom as distinct from Church as Mother and nurturer of my faith and of my self in God and Christ, came in conflict and a jolt to awareness that not all had my experience of God, Christ, Church and our civic community.  This awareness came about the same age at 5 or six, it came in school, Sunday School, and at the end of my Kindergarten year, so I was almost six.

In Sunday school there were a few teachers who insisted that the children had to say the prayer of faith (my recollection it was the minority of teachers) to become Christians and be saved.  I had experienced the love of Christ in his Church and through that nurture had faith in God and Christ, to the extent a 5 or 6 year old could. The insistence on “the prayer” was just pure nonsense.  I don’t know if this is a supposition based on later life experience or something I experienced then, but I have a sense that for those teachers my refusal was a cause for concern born out of fear not love.  From these well meaning Sunday school teachers, I encountered  a form of Christianity separate from the church as Mother and the Sacraments.  We had to come to God by this isolated expression of faith.  This notion was coercive. Not as coercive as some other contexts, but it was assumed that those of us children who had not said the prayer lacked something.  The saying of the magic words disconnected from relationship or sacrament would make all the difference.  Having felt the embrace of God through the love of the church through having passed through the waters of Baptism this Christianity had little appeal to me.  They wanted me to meet God, but couldn’t see that I was living in the womb of God, the Church.

I encountered Christendom  when I asked a friend from Kindergarten to come to Vacation Bible School.  My friend didn’t know anything about church, or the Bible.  he understood vacation and school (and they seemed like contradictory concepts to him), but Bible and going to church even Jesus Christ were unknown to hi., It was that moment that I discovered a world outside of Christendom: the Chrsitian familial and civic connections that had up and until that point made up my understanding of the city of Kingsburg.   In part 2 I will talk about this discovery of Christendom in the negative, and of a Christendom on its way to it’s death, at least in California in the 1970’s.

The Great Emergence and the problem of periodization

Ed. note: I’ve edited this from a blog post on my personal blog back in 2009.  I’m in the process of reposting here some posts that fit with the themes and projects related to what I’m doing here at Priestly Goth.  I recently re-read The Great Emergence.  My opinion of the work hasn’t changed.

When I first picked up Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, I already had a bias against the work due to my historiographical training which had instilled a respect and healthy skepticism of periodization in the discipline of history: I see periodization as both necessary but problematic. Dividing up history into periods hides as least as much as it reveals. (We’ll get back to this in a moment.) But also I am sceptical about all this talk about “emergence” specifically that this particular period is particularly significant in terms of emergence. Now to be clear this scepticism is from perhaps the opposite side of what one would expect. I am not denying that things have changed, nor do I think that some static immovable notion of Christianity and church needs preservation.  Rather my skepticism stems from being a product of what was being called post-modern and what seems to be especially with Tickle being called the Great Emergence.

As one who is a product of whatever we want to and will call this shift, I am uncertain that focusing almost exclusively on change or “emergence” is the best way for Christians to keep their bearings. On some level my scepticism is that apart from rapid technological change, what we are talking about doesn’t simply happen at discrete moments or even discrete extended moments and then stop, something Tickle admits throughout her work, though all while insisting on the new . But if we leave aside problematic periodization and the desire to compartmentalize time one simply has flux of a continual emergence. Things morph slowly or quickly from one thing to another, one can choose to attempt to stabilize this flux long enough to make generalizations over extend periods of time but then one is also simultaneously needing to admit that at the beginning of period x one still has the traits of the preceding period y to a large degree and only modified slightly and by the time one can talk about period x having a full blown and distinguishable traits from period y, one is already finding traits that are to come in the period Z. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. (again something Tickle does admit, but to admit this deconstructs her framework).

My difficulty with The Great Emergence,  is that Tickle doesn’t offer this periodization as a useful construct for understanding developments in (Western) Christianity but in some sense posits that this periodization as a real happening within the flow of time and human culture, or at least what we now Call “Western” culture,  that is an empirical description of the nature of time and pan-cultural process.  I can accept it as a useful construct, that gives us a mythology with which to understand our situation,though I may prefer other mythologies, but it doesn’t pass muster as an actual description of the way things are, nor could such a brief overview of vast historical periods do so.

One of the things that is enjoyable in reading Tickle as well as listening to hear speak is the poetry of her thought. She uses the image (that she borrowed) of that emergence every 500 years is when the Church has a “rummage sale”: things get shaken up, excess is redistributed and one feels lighter. While the image of rummage sale seems apt for our time especially for those who are attaching themselves to Emergent or the emergent church. Some things thought long gone are dug up and polished off and used again and things once thought essential are tossed out, and its pretty much up to the individual or particular group exactly what is tossed and what is polished up and used again.

The Reformation (Or “Great Reformation” according to Tickle) is perhaps aptly described, though it seems to be a very Protestant characterization of what happened. I have difficulty seeing Roman Catholics or the Orthodox using such characterization to understand themselves in this period. However, I think it is an apt description what the reformers  themselves(Luther, Zwingli, Calvin etc.) were doing: digging around in the attic with a good bit of jettisoning of what was thought to be of little importance by the reformers.

Yet if we look at her two preceding periods this metaphor and the notion of emergence is more problematic. The Great Schism is a bit more complex and difficult to truly make a clear before and after. The differences between East and West in Christianity preceded even Constantine, the roots for the final split ran deep. And many would claim that language and not any real change or even actual difference between “East” and “West” contributed to the schism. Greeks stopped knowing Latin, Latins stopped knowing Greek.  There were certainly differences but those differences weren’t new, what was new was a breakdown in communication. This is at least one theory of what happened. We know the anathema’s were thrown about, but exactly why they happened at that time beyond noting the personalities involved is uncertain. It did create a new situation one we still live with, and which Tickles analysis of emergence is based on being on the Western side of the schism (we should not forget that if we sought to do this examination from the Christian “Greek” Eastern perspective the the Reformation would be a local European phenomenon, not a pan-ecclesial or even pan-Christian phenomenon).

The Schism with what are now called the Oriental Orthodox Churches, is also difficult to account in the terms of emergence that Tickle is using. Again one possible interpretation of this schism is that it was mostly a misunderstanding stemming in part from culture but again also from language. Those who rejected Chalcedon weren’t keen towards Greek philosophical language and thus did not appreciate the use of the technical use of philosophy for defining dogma.  Also, in terms of religious rite, ecclesial organization, and the use of a type of iconography etc. the Oriental Orthodox are more a variation on a theme than clearly distinct from either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholicism.  So, it is unclear how much was actually being rethought and whether or not a “rummage sale” is an apt metaphor.

Then we come to the Christ event, but can we as Christians merely list that event as a simple point in a emergent pattern of history? Sure it was the right time so there was something about the time that allowed for God to act or precipitated God acting or however one wants to say this, but surely the Christ event and its tumult has less to do with patterns in history and more to do with that something beyond the merely historical took place, and that the renewal of the entire cosmos and the meaning and end of history entered the cosmos and history. Surely the Christ event cannot either be the beginning point of a particular historical pattern nor simply part of the pattern but inaugurates something beyond our historiographic propensity to periodization.

As can be seen my bias towards a certain understanding of periodization leads me to a certain deconstructive read of Tickles mythology of Great Emergence.  It’s a good story, and in that sense it is also good history, but it isn’t the only story that could be told.  

Oh wait, I’m not alone(sort of), others are talking about the Church

I’m working up some reflections on David Fitch‘s End of Evangelicalism.  I have some questions about why one would continue with a particular identity like evangelical, when ones theology is so clearly drawn from such an ecumenical place as David Fitch seems to be coming from.  Also, I feel that what the book addresses cuts across any particular Christian identity.

But for the moment only a wetting of the appetite, because I’ve been reading others who are exploring this thing we call the church, or the ecclesia, the Body of Christ.  This extended reflection and quest I’ve labeled Ecclesial Longings should at least acknowledge these other bits of ecclesial reflection (possibly with with a bit of comment from me, most of the links here I’ve left comments on the posts themselves.)

We’ll start with some of the articles that responded to the whole controversy Donald Miller sparked by admitting he doesn’t go to church that often.

Justin Harvey‘s Peregrinatio In Defense of Donald Miller.  Like the author I’m not terribly concerned about infrequent church attendance. I appreciate that the author saw that the discussion required asking “what is the church?”.  I appreciated the basis, but in my comment pushed back at what I was seeing as a reduction and pointed to the more robust picture we find in the metaphor of church as Body, and in the mixed metaphor in Ephesians.

Relevant Magazine interview’s Donald Miller about the controversy: My thought is Donald and Relevant seem to be putting gathering together and community on one side and relationship with God and following Jesus on the other.  There’s the affirmation of the importance of gathering and community but say the real thing is having a relationship with God and following Jesus.  This parsing of the problem seems to me to lack reflection on church as Body of Christ.  My reading of the metaphor of body is to say that having a relationship with Jesus is in being connected with all others who also follow Jesus (granted there’s the question of how this is lived out locally etc., so I understand that not going to a particular “church” isn’t the same as being out of fellowship with the Body).  As I see it, this whole controversy (Both Donald Miller’s remarks and those of his critics) shows that we don’t have a clue what we’re talking about and thus why such an extended inquiry and quest, as found here, is needed.

Christopher Smith at the Slow church Blog on Patheos begins to get at this at the end of his blog post in responce to the controversy.  God gathers a people, a good place to start.

And so we leave the church attendance fiasco.

Then over at [D]mergent (don’t ask) John O’keefe posted Moving out of Ecclesiology, into Koinology .  Read it and my comment. If you, reader, want let me know what you think of it and my response.  In summary, if I followed O’Keefe I’d rename this thread and quest “Longing for Koinonia”, or “Koinonia Longings”, something like that.  I don’t think koinonia and ecclesia need to be pitted against each other. Wait there seems to be a pattern emerging: our analysis tends toward pitting thesis against antithesis. I want synthesis.  Why are we stuck in an Hegelian nightmare! 

Then over at Hope in Time, Anthony Bartlett’s Nonviolent Bible Interpretation III: Church, as you can see from the title its part of a series on hermeneutics.  I don’t know where to begin. I’m sympathetic to Girardian take on things, but I’m not one to take Girard and Mimetic Theory as gospel (as my dad used to say.)  So, that isn’t going to be my exclusive hermeneutic lens. Also, I’ll admit I think anti-Constantinianism, that is so fashionable among protestants of just about any stripe, is bunk.  Also, if you think you understand what Constantine did, and what it means for the church I think you don’t understand it.  So, I’m having difficulty seeing beyond the anti-Constantine bias in order to really evaluate the essay.  I know I’m reacting to it, and not really responding.

Lastly over at the Sub-Deans Stall the Irrelavance of Relavance. The Revd Canon Robert Hendrickson comes closest to my own sentiments about church.  But I get lost in his various uses of church, and church still then seems a little to much about what we do. However, I agree pretty much completely with what he writes, but I ask what is it that forms such a group of people?  Is church then a goal, something that is in process being built? by whom?, by human beings, or by God?  Ephesians looms large in my thinking you may have noticed, that may or may not be a good thing.

So that is what I have.  This is what thanks largely to Tripp Hudgins I’m engaging with at the moment around the nature of the ecclesia, the Body of Christ.

Have you come across other reflections on the church?  Leave a link and your thoughts on the piece if you have.

 

“Going to Church” and the Church as Body of Christ.

I mentioned in my reflection on intimacy and public worship that I had some more ecclesiological thoughts in response to Donald Miller.  Instead of putting Donald Miller’s ecclesiology to the question,  I will simply explore how we are talking about church attendance and how we may approach that from asking questions of what sort of thing we are as the Body of Christ, the Church.

My corner of the interwebs tells me there is much anxiety and frustration about church attendance.  My sense of all this is that we want to make church many things: intimate encounter with God, community, cultural expression, an environment for learning, etc. In many ways church is all those things and more.  However, one can find those things elsewhere.  They don’t give compelling reason for why there should be church, and even less compelling reason to attend church.  These reasons for going to church or being part of a church are all good things, but not sufficient reason to bother with church.

The Apostle Paul uses the language of body to talk about the ecclesia.  This language is both political, that is in the sense of body politic, and biological, as in what makes up a biological organism.  Elsewhere Paul also uses the language of a temple, a structure that is both built and organically grows (ya, he mixes metaphors to get at what the ecclesia is).

Then we have our english term “church” , which translates the greek word ecclesia.  Our usage “church” varies. Church can, in its broadest sense, be any religious institution.  More specifically and more commonly “church” means any institutionalised group of Christians, a local congregation and/or a denomination of Christians.

 If I’m remembering correctly the etymology, is the germanic Kierke which was derived from the greek Kyrie (Lord), that which belongs to the Lord (God, Christ).

As the Church we are the people of God, an ecclesia, a gathered people, called and gathered together by God.

What I’d like to suggest is that to be the Church, and to do what the Church does, ie worship, is formative.  We are formed, built and grow into what we are.  This takes all sorts of rites, rituals, and activities.  These have various forms corporate, bodily, personal.  Yet, none of those things exhaust who we are and who we are being formed into.  This is formative and it is collective.  Church and worship are about being a body, stones built into a living temple. Through baptism, faith, Eucharist we are becoming, and are, a holy nation of priests, together.

It’s possible that we can be tempted to reduce church to only one aspect of our usage, such as  if we were to assume church is only a building based on  english usage that elides the architectural structure of our being gathered and who we are as the people of God, because the building and the group carry the same name.  However, the problem isn’t that the place of our gathering bears the name of who we are as the body of Christ, nor is the problem that it comes to be attached to the activity of gathering.  The problem is separating ourselves from what we are through seeing church as a building or an activity that exists or goes on without us.

I want to suggest that our participation is key in becoming what we are, but this formation doesn’t occur because of our action only.  Our actions are what agree with what God is doing.

We get baptised, we eat bread and wine, we are anointed, hands are laid upon us, and these things form us into a particular type of “being”, but they do so because of what God is doing in and through these rituals rites, actions, words, music, and eating.

We can neither be solely focused on God, nor solely focused on what we do.  Nor is this about my personal individual experience, unless by personal one posits the presence of others, and God as the ultimate other, as part of the makeup of the person.

What I have said here, simply scratches the surface of what church and worship are and do.  We are and are becoming what God forms us into. We are what God gathers us to, we become the people of God , the Body of Christ, the Ecclesia, the Lord’s.  We are the church and so we go to church, and we attend church as the church.  And language fails us, and language helps us  know who we are becoming, a living temple.

Velvet Elvis and the Mystery of the Church

In my current research I’m reading Rob Bell. I began with Velvet Elvis. When Rob Bell published Velvet Elvis and was talking about repainting Christianity I was quite literally painting: writing icons.  He was questioning what he had received. He was “repainting”  his understanding of the Christian tradition. I was seeking to receive a tradition that wasn’t mine and to paint it true.    There is something compelling about the answers that Rob Bells comes in his re-visioning of Evangelical Christianity (the tradition he had received), and they reveal so much.

Bell has a brief discussion of the Church in Velvet Elvis. Bell describes church in two very different ways.

One is very human, a collection of individuals, an institution run by those humans and which reflects the attitudes and activities of those human beings.  As such this institution, these groups of people, exist to live out the ideals of the Gospel.  Rob Bell says this of this church or these churches  “…is like a double-edged sword.when it’s good… it’s like nothing on earth.  A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? great but when it ‘s bad all that potential gets turned the other way.”

Then Bell also says this  about the Church: “She’s indestructible. When she dies in one part of the world, she explodes in another. She’s global, She’s universal. She’s everywhere. And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure…. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against her. That’s strong language… She will continue to roll across the ages, serving and giving and connecting people with God and each other.  And people will abuse her and manipulate her and try to control her , but they’ll pass on, and she will keep going.”

The connection between these two very different, even contradictory, claims isn’t accounted for.  The first claim certainly seems to be an accurate description of my experience of congregational or parish life, and even of much of the history of Christianity.  The second describes something (or is it someone?) that  transcends the frailty of Christian, individuals, groups, and leadership.

I have some questions though.  By saying that the church is a group of people committed to selflessly serve and love the world around them, seems to make the reality of the church dependent upon the works (and yes I intend the baggage of that word to be heard) of the people that make up the church.  The Evangelical mind wants to call both realities church.  And on some level they are.  However, in the first meaning of church, church is dependent upon the accomplishment of a goal (which contradicts, a description of the church Rob Bell that of  a journey not a destination).  The second though Rob Bell doesn’t come out and say it is dependent upon the work of God, not human beings.  Rob Bell recognizes  that the church transcends a body of believers:  it will survive the vicissitudes of history.  He recognizes this transcendence as part of his  repainting, a reworking of the tradition out of which he comes.  He of course in Velvet Elvis is attempting to creatively stay within that tradition, so the emphasis is on the church as a group of Christians who do certain things, mainly things consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but here at the end of this chapter and near the end of the book, he suggests that something else might be going on.

Not surprisingly I want more than Velvet Elvis’ brief flirtation with the mystery of the Church. I want to sit and listen to those who claim that something else is going on.  I don’t simply want to put a very human view of the church (the church is merely what its members make of it) alongside an assertion that  somehow the church is more than the collective effort of individual Christians, and say no more.

Jacques Maritain articulates this mystery as the difference between the personnel and the person of the Church (note the singularity, “person”).  I don’t know if I agree with Maritain, but it begins to articulate the longing I’m attempting to express here.  If church is just the people and not also something that transcends and binds us together and nurtures in us the mind of Christ, then I despair of this thing we call Christianity. However if the church is more than our collective action and activity and is being, (a being) that can be who we are beyond what we do,then there’s grace and then there is the loving call to be a saint.

 

Sermons on the way to an ecumenical ecclesial longing

Today is the Second day in the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I’ve reviewed some recent sermons as I’ve been thinking and praying these past few days.  These I think are some steps along the way to where I am at right now, and what I’m trying to work out in this space called Ecclesial Longings.

First a sermon  that was written and preached nearly 4 years ago now, but it relates to this Years theme and reflections for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. provided by Christians in Canada

This sermon was just preached two years ago, and seems only more relevant to our context.

Enjoy also let me know what these sermons stir in you?  Let me know how you respond to these exhortations.  Do these sermons fit with other posts in Ecclesial Longings and some of my recent reflections on ecclesiology?

I hope you enjoy these reflections as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and pray for and reflect upon the unity of the Body of Christ.

Follower of Jesus or member of the Body of Christ?

I have begun work on a book, at the moment theological and philosophical reflections on ministry at the edges of denominational and institutional Christianity.  I’m not against denominational and institutional Christianity (I’m deliberately avoiding the word “church”, ecclesia).  The marginal path I have followed (in relationship to denomination and institutions) wasn’t calculated.  However, it also isn’t terribly surprising. In seminary I was quite open about my participation and identification with goth subculture.  This and my ecumenical marriage to an Episcopalian was seen by some institutional types in my denomination as two very large obstacles to my placement in congregations they oversaw.

I never had the chance to prove them wrong: a couple, goth and Christian, just after seminary approached my wife and I asking us to help them discern if intentional Christian community was something for them: we began to meet, share meals, offer hospitality and study of Scripture and monasticism.  To our surprise they asked us to found a community with them, The Community of the Holy Trinity.

A year later I was approached by an American Baptist, Tripp Hudgins, about participating in an ecumenical church plant, eventually named Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler.  Intrigued and interested I took the idea to Herb Freedholm, then Superintendent of the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church (my denomination), and he sent me as the Covenant pastor of the church start, saying that I and the Covenant needed to be involved in this and that the details would be worked out along the way.  7 years later I was ordained to a call and ministry that had radically changed, after years of being a licensed but not ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

In participating in starting an intentional Christian community and an ecumenical church plant I was seeking to be more fully part of the church (I really don’t know whether or not to capitalize the word, lower and upper case so fraught with meaning).  My seminary training and personal study had lead me to deeply question the ecclesial nature of all forms of Protestantism.  My internship was half spent researching and writing a paper on apostolicity as a mark of the church, who has and who could claim apostolic continuity (or succession if you prefer).  Engaging monasticism creatively(June 2003 was the founding of the Community of the Holy Trinity, before the term New Monasticism was coined and applied to a form of intentional Christian community), and by starting ecumenical congregation were attempts to find or realize that apostolic continuity as someone already on the edge of Protestantism (I had already begun to write icons according to Eastern Orthodox canons/rules/tradition).  Through out this time the claims of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to simply be the Church (capitalization seems appropriate here) have been unshakable and yet also claims which I’ve been unable to embrace.

There’s a hymn of my childhood that still moves me ” I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.”  It’s a lonely hymn, though.  I have sought to follow Jesus to be a disciple, and that following has lead me to ask questions about the church and being a member of  the Body of Christ.  In this questioning and longing I’ve been lead to admit that simply following Jesus or being a “believer” is the beginning not the destination.  We are to be Christ, not individually but in some corporeal sense, in a form not a formless mass of all individuals who might claim to follow Jesus. This is a persistent conviction.  Doesn’t Jesus say something about this? Some who think they are following him will find that they have never known Jesus Christ.  But I’m also baptized, there is something to this sacramental act, it takes us beyond following and discipleship. isn’t that what the “Great commission” implies? 

Even with all these questions about the Body of Christ and if or how I’m a member of Christ, I still want to say that this ministry at the margins I have been doing for nearly 11 years, has been an ecclesial act.  How this could be so, and why I continue compelled down this path is part of what I think I want to explore in this book.

Keep a watch here, these are the things I’ll be wrestling with more as I attempt to refine a foci for the book, and work out what it will include.  Some of it may end up here first, though mostly what will appear here will be what is tangential to what I writing.