Friday, November 20, 2009

Understanding the character of the church (pace ++Rowan)

What if we fundamentally misunderstand the character of the church? Suppose we thought that the church was a body of one kind, and it turns out to be a body of another kind? Is it too late to recognize what God in Christ through the Spirit is up to within the communion of God, and in mission in the world; and thus change how we understand the church? No, says, ++Rowan, in his Willebrands Symposium address.

Please read the address. DO NOT DISMISS IT AS ANOTHER NERDY WORDY ESSAY. The church cannot afford to deceive itself about its true character and purpose before God. We have too much to lose if we get it wrong, and so much to gain if we get it right!

Here are what I consider to be the most fruitful parts of the address, with my comments in italics ...

When all is said and done, we have more in common as churches than differences:

"The strong convergence in these agreements about what the Church of God really is, is very striking. The various agreed statements of the churches stress that the Church is a community, in which human beings are made sons and daughters of God, and reconciled both with God and one another. The Church celebrates this through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion in which God acts upon us to transform us ‘in communion’. More detailed questions about ordained ministry and other issues have been framed in this context.

"Therefore the major question that remains is whether in the light of that depth of agreement the issues that still divide us have the same weight – issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance). Are they theological questions in the same sense as the bigger issues on which there is already clear agreement? And if they are, how exactly is it that they make a difference to our basic understanding of salvation and communion? But if they are not, why do they still stand in the way of fuller visible unity? Can there, for example, be a model of unity as a communion of churches which have different attitudes to how the papal primacy is expressed?

"The central question is whether and how we can properly tell the difference between ‘second order’ and ‘first order’ issues. When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?"

What is the church? Is it a body organized by prescriptive rules whose life is measured by its faithful obedience to presciptions? This was the pre-Vatican II view of Roman ecclesiologists. It, arguably, is the view of some forms of evangelical ecclesiology found in Anglican circles, with appropriate substitutions of, say, 'Word' for 'sacraments':

"Part of what Vatican II turned away from is a way of talking about the Church as primarily an institution existing because of divine decree, governed by prescription from the Lord, faithfully administering the sacraments ordained by him for the salvation of souls – ‘an external, visible society, whose members, under a hierarchical authority headed by the pope, constitute with him one visible body, tending to the same spiritual and supernatural end, i.e., sanctification of souls and their eternal happiness’ (Pietro Palazzini, s.v. ‘Church (Society)’ in the Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. F. Roberti and P. Palazzini, originally published in 1957). But what is missing from this account is any real explication of how the nature and character and even polity of the Church are grounded in and shaped by the nature of God and of God’s incarnation in history. A theological understanding of the Church would be one that makes this connection."

There is another way, a way rediscovered by Willebrands and Congar, and embraced by Vatican II, continued by Kasper, and also found in recent Anglican-Orthodox dialogue. This is the ecclesiology of the church imaging the trinitarian communion of God:

"In broad outline, the picture is something like this. God is eternally a life of threefold communion; and if human persons are to be reconciled to God and restored to the capacity for which they were made, they must be included in that life of communion. The incarnation of God the Son recreates in human persons the possibility of filial relation with the Father, standing in the place of Christ and praying his prayer; and only the Holy Spirit, which animates and directs the entire human identity of the Incarnate Word, can create that filial reality in us. To be restored to life with God is to be incorporated into Jesus Christ by the Spirit; but because the gift of the Spirit is what takes away mutual fear and hostility and the shutting-up of human selves against each other, it is inseparably and necessarily a gift of mutual human communion also. The sacramental life and the communal disciplines of the Church exist to serve and witness to this dual fact of communion, with the Father and with all believers."

In other words, when we focus on God as communion, on the church as human persons in communion with God, then church itself is a communion in which love replaces fear, hostility and division between us. On this model of church-in-relation-to-God, Christians are confronted not with prescriptions which we may disagree about, and thus divide ourselves, but with the logic of God's love for us: being incorporated into the love of God we must love one another. For the true church understanding itself truthfully division is no more possible than it is for God himself.

++Rowan says much more, tackling some of the issues which remain points of division between Anglicans (and other Protestant churches) and Roman Catholics, but the essential point is laid out above: if the Church of Rome is true to its new ecclesiology of Vatican II, itself a theology of the Trinity grounded in Scripture (perhaps especially in the Johannine writings), then the presenting issues of ordination, primacy, etc should not, in the end, divide us.

But, mutatis mutandis, all that ++Rowan says applies to the Anglican Communion and our own unity. Do we love one another?


Kurt said...

As far as Rowan goes, I think he deserves a little praise. So, one and a half cheers for the good Archbishop: “Hip, hip hooray! Hip, hip...”

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn USA

Howard Pilgrim said...

"...hooray! Hip, hip, hooray!" That was rather stingy of you, Kurt, so I will complete the wholehearted accolade you seem unable to give ++Rowan.

When I read through his address in Rome, following the link from the high-profile article it got in the NYTimes, I felt unreserved pride in what Rowan was saying to Rome on behalf of all Anglicans. As Peter put it in his preceding post, he has got his Mojo back. Far from being apologetic or wounded in response to the Pope's action, he questioned the ecumenical significance of that initiative, and did so on the basis of agreed understandings of solid progress in ecumenical dialogue expressed by Cardinal Kasper. It amounted to a dignified and prophetic rebuke to those who have been hailing the Pope's initiative as something that made previous ecumenical dialogue passe.

This is leadership I can support and admire. It tells me that we are all heading forward towards Christian unity, not back to Rome.

Rockin Rowan!

Peter Carrell said...

I stand by some earlier posts in which I say that Benedict has shown remarkable leadership (measured by the constraints of being the "Bishop of Rome"), but Rowan has (now) risen to the situation. So, here's a thought: are we bystanders privileged in this year of our Lord 2009 to see two of the most intelligent men to grace the stage of Christian history express that intelligence through outstanding leadership?

Anonymous said...

So are we saying that the whole superstructure of the Church - Bishops, Dioceses, canons and statutes - though of the well being of the church, are not of the actual being of the church (indeed i hope we are, but I'm not sure that will go down very well in Rome).