Thursday, February 08, 2007

Church—ONE, but what kind of ONE? Giving the Church expectant and triumphant its vote!

A discussion starter from Peter Toon

“One Lord, One Faith, One Church,” we sing, and “I believe in one….Church,” we chant and say. Then we read what St Paul declared to the Ephesians: “there is one Body and one Spirit…one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism…”

There is, of course, a major question as to what we mean by “One”—whether it be a numerical unity or an organic unity, or both, or something else. Let us leave this question to later and begin by considering a very common modern attitude within North American Episcopalianism/Anglicanism, that the Oneness of the Church only applies to space and time in this cosmos.

From Baptism to Burial

Let us reflect upon the position, seemingly held practically (if not theoretically) speaking, by many leaders today that “the Church is primarily an earthly society, which we enter by baptism and leave by death/burial—that is, it is a continuing terrestrial organism with a constantly changing and overlapping membership.” Here the Church may be likened to many human societies which persist through space and time and whose membership is constantly changing as people join it and leave it (e.g., like the U.S. Congress). And like human societies, the Church has a governing body of which the most prominent aspect is being governed by bishops, who are seen simply in terms of successors of the apostles and as the people in charge. (Here the Episcopal office is like a relay-race where each runner drops out as he passes on the baton to the next.)

If one examines the agenda and the resolutions of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church from the 1970s, looks at the kinds of literature being published by its publishing houses in the last 40 years, and listens to the public statements of its Presiding Bishops, then one concludes that the Church is primarily an earthly society with a mission to change the world by introducing into it more “peace and justice” and with greater “respect for human dignity”. And, accordingly, God is presented as essentially the God who is around, within and for this cosmos and this earth in particular. There is no clear expressed belief in the utterly transcendent Sovereign LORD (the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity) who created the cosmos out of nothing and who through the Incarnate Son, Jesus, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, is creating a new heaven and a new earth, which are everlasting and where the fullness of human potential will be realized in the worship and service of this same LORD and in the beauty of holiness. Rather the emphasis is upon the God who enfolds and inhabits this world (i.e., not Trinitarian Theism but at best Process Theology or Panentheism).

Before this mindset gradually entered The Episcopal Church from the 1960s onwards, there was within the same Church (PECUSA) the deep conviction, held by many, that the Church as we know it now as creatures of space and time is only the fringe or the outpost of the whole Catholic Church of God. The One Church of God is militant on earth, expectant after the grave waiting in his presence for the Second Coming of Christ to the earth, and (to be) triumphant in heaven with the exalted Christ and the holy angles. So the local church (diocese and parishes) is a manifestation in space and time of the fullness of the Catholic Church; and thus her members, who have been baptized and meet at the Table of the Lord, are very much only a tiny minority of the total membership of the One Church of God. And within this belief the Bishop is not merely one in a series in a relay-race but is rather the local apostle who both embodies the unity of the Church and who ties this local church to the whole Church. Further, while sinful human beings, who believe the Gospel of the Father concerning his Son, enter the Church as militant by Baptism they do not leave it at death, but they pass into the Church expectant and thus on and into the Church triumphant.

Central to this mindset is the conviction that the Church as “Catholic” is not the same as the Church as “Militant here on earth.” The Church as Catholic and as One is of heaven and earth, not only of earth (Hebrews 12:22-24). “Catholic” covers militant here on earth, expectant until the Lord comes again, and triumphant, seated with him in glory everlasting.

Doctrines have practical consequences and applications.

The current Episcopal Church doctrine that the Church is the divine society we enter through Baptism and leave by burial/cremation logically and morally requires that the agenda of the Church be this-worldly, that is concerned with making this world a better place. And, as we have observed, the agenda of this Church is truly concerned with bringing the “kingdom of God” to earth and thereby greatly improving the lot of human beings, especially the poor, weak, sick, down-trodden, despised and neglected. In this system of thought, Jesus is the One who embraces the outcast and the needy as Savior.

So it is not unexpected to be and to do this, The Episcopal Church accepts secular views of what is right and good for people who live on this earth and have no prospect of going anywhere else from it. Thus its heavy commitment to modern theories of human rights and of what is human dignity, including the doctrine that in “Baptism” God gives to all the baptized the potential and right to assume later any ministry in the Church, if the Church actually calls one to that ministry (so whatever one’s “orientation” one can be in principle a clergyperson, even a bishop, if one is baptized).

Had the leadership of The Episcopal Church seen this Church as a small earthly part of the Church Militant and thus a part of the Catholic Church, which is expectant and triumphant in and through Christ Jesus, then, without denying a temporal mission. it would have concentrated on its vocation of calling people out of the evil age and sinful world into the kingdom of God and the family of God, as the new people of God of the new heaven on earth—and it would have known, as history has so often illustrated, that those who are the most heavenly-minded are the most earthly-useful. And when it came to voting in General Convention, it would have voted bearing in mind the already cast vote of those promoted to the Church expectant and triumphant. Thus innovations in doctrine would have on principle been rare, and only in the sense of applying truth to new and challenging situations.

Of course, to take the high ground and to act and vote with the Catholic Church is a very challenging and difficult thing for a part of the Church militant to do in modern America where individualism, relativism, pragmatism, therapism and utilitarianism are so powerfully present—we have only to look at the Continuing Anglican Churches, the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Mission in America, groups who seek to be orthodox, easily to find examples of submission to the standards of culture rather than of the kingdom of God (with marriage discipline for clergy standing out as a major example of submission). Nevertheless, it makes a tremendous difference to how a Synod votes if its members remember that the Church militant is only a small part of the whole Catholic Church. In such a mindset, innovations in doctrine and morals should be rare and only in terms of applying and updating of the received tradition (e.g., in area of medical ethics and use of the earth).

The Catholic Church as One

Many Protestants affirm that the Church is One in its invisibility, as the total number of the elect known unto God and found both in heaven and on earth. It is One in the sense of being numerically one and organically one in that each and every member is united to Christ Jesus by faith and through the Holy Spirit.

Many Roman Catholics affirm that the world-wide, global organization known as the Catholic Church and under the authority of the Pope as the successor of St Peter is the Catholic Church and is one numerically, organizationally and organically.

Anglicans in their best moments and doing their best theology have insisted that the Church is One both numerically and organically but not in the Protestant or the Roman Catholic form, but more like the [Eastern] Orthodox form (where there are patriarchs and a college of bishops, but not a single, all powerful Pope, above the college of bishops), but without the excessive claims of traditional Orthodoxy to uniqueness as the only, true Church.

The Church, even in its many different forms and denominations worldwide, is numerically one Church in that, in comparison with Islam and Judaism, there is one religion, Christianity, professed by millions who gather in churches, and the aggregate of all these is the Christian Church.

The Church is organically One in that all the baptized, who believe the Gospel, are united to Christ Jesus through the human nature he made his own from the Virgin’s womb; and thus, united to the One Christ, by the Holy Spirit, they are united through, in and with him, the Mediator, to the Blessed Holy Trinity (see John 17) so that in the deep and mysterious words of St Peter, they are “:partakers of the divine nature,” even as also they are the adopted children of God the Father. This organic unity is not without expression in space and time and the historical Episcopate, which is understood to be the continuance of the College of Apostles through space and time, is the sacramental means whereby the Church militant is maintained as organically one. (This is why for Anglicans the question of who may be ordained and consecrated to the apostolic office of Episcopos is critical. The innovation of The Episcopal Church is to claim that both women as women. and human persons as living in same-sex partnerships. are suitable candidates for the office of Bishop as the local apostle of Jesus Christ.)


The emerging leadership of the emerging new Province of the Anglican Communion in North America (replacing The Episcopal Church?) needs to have at the front of its common mind the doctrine that the “votes” and the mindset of the members of the Church expectant and triumphant, who are in the majority, need to be counted as plans are made for the future.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon Septuagesima 2007

No comments: