Friday, December 14, 2007

Local Church as a Microcosm of the whole

Reflections on whether this is so in North American Anglicanism

Theologians have often taught that the local church is in theory, and should be in practice, a microcosm of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God. I agree with this statement.

I want to explore it a little and then ask questions about the Anglican Way in North America within this way of thinking theologically.

We need to recognize that by local church they refer not to a local congregation or parish; but to a situation, as in a diocese, where there is a Bishop and his presbyters and deacons ministering to people in a given area in a cathedral parish and further congregations. It is assumed that this Bishop is in communion with neighboring Bishops and thus he represents the local church to the whole and the whole to the local church.

By microcosm is meant a miniature universe or world in itself, and so in referring to the local church it states that the whole essence of what is the Holy, Catholic Church is present locally. That is, that everything that God has provided for man’s salvation and sanctification and for the right worship of the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity is present.


Because of the divisions within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church (Orthodox from Roman Catholic and Anglican from both, and so on), one may say that the local church (e.g., an Orthodox or Anglican diocese) can never be fully and totally a microcosm of the whole; it can only be in a sense a microcosm of the branch or jurisdiction to which it belongs. This recognized, one may claim that within an Anglican diocese which is true to its own heritage of worship, doctrine and discipline, there is a microcosm of the whole, even if it is say only 90 or 80 per cent a true microcosm.

However, this claim to be a microcosm, as indicated above, also requires the local church (diocese) to be in fellowship with the other dioceses around (in the same Province or whatever the regional association is called). Also, this claim cannot tolerate the possibility that there are in the same region of the diocese and Province other local churches of the same name, competing for the same territory and souls, and making the same claims. Therefore, if there are two (or more) competitive form of the Anglican Way existing side by side and in competition (even if friendly competition) then the claim to be a microcosm is virtually negated.

But it will be observed that over the centuries the major Churches have learned to live with and tolerate the side-by-side existence of dioceses and provinces, bearing the Orthodox or Roman Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran names. But they all know, as commissions have stated often, that what is the ideal is that there be one and one only local church locally so that it can truly be in a full and real sense the microcosm of the whole Church.

The traditional answer of the Church of England has been simply that the Roman and Orthodox Churches, while being genuine Churches, are in such basic error in important matters that to work against them in any region is justified (see Richard Hooker, On Salvation and the Church of Rome, 2007, from for more on this theme). Today, most Anglicans see the existence of parallel dioceses and claims part of “the ecumenical problem” which seems to be unsolvable this side of the Second Coming of Christ to earth.

So, admitting that there is a real problem due to historical divisions, one can I think still make the claim that the local church (that is diocese with bishop and clergy and people) is a microcosm, even though not a perfect one. And, at least the Anglican Way can make sure that it does not add to the problem by creating parallel dioceses and competitive groups in the same geographical area and the like. Successive Lambeth Conferences have insisted with clarity that Anglicans should aim not to encourage or have parallel dioceses or provinces; or invasions without invitation of dioceses and provinces.

It appears that where Anglicans have placed themselves now in the U.S.A. (and increasingly so in Canada) is in a situation where they have set aside totally the idea of the local church as the microcosm of the whole, and they have adopted instead the commercial model of competition in the marketplace (read mission field of secular N. America) as the right, healthy and good way to go in this part of the world. Not only is there locally grown competition (REC from 1873 & various Continuing churches originating in 1977-8 and after) but also added competition from abroad (missions founded by Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda et al). So that in one given metropolitan area there may be as many as a dozen or more Anglican jurisdictions working alone and effectively against each other.

Now one can blame The Episcopal Church for failing to be the microcosm that it often recognized in its history it was called to be—and this is surely justified for the schisms have been from It by those who felt It was in error; but this does not remove all blame from those who seceded from it and now have adopted the commercial model of competition as the basis for the Anglican Way, which they claim that they desire to renew.

In the grace and mercy of God, it may be that some or all of the competitive parts (known as denominations, jurisdictions, convocations, missions, networks, etc.) still reflect through the bishop, clergy and people a glimmer of what a microcosm is in reality. But it is surely only a glimmer; it cannot be a shining light due to the lack of unity in truth and truth in unity.

If this is so, then, if we have a true heart for the Anglican Way, we need to find a way to make the glimmer into a brighter light. Such will only be possible through growth in unity toward the One Head, Jesus, and toward one another in truth. If there is no such growth soon, and the divisions continue and grow as they have in the last decade, then the only conclusion to be drawn will be that the Anglican Way as a branch of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God in North America has failed; and this failure is to be seen as the ruins of what was once—a lifetime ago or more— a single spiritual household wherein was grace and truth.

December 6, 2007

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