DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Faith in Search of Understanding
6. The Church
by Anthony Freeman

This subject is not concerned with church buildings, but with the Church in the sense of the Christian community. I'm going to here give the standard party line first, and then consider how varied the picture actually is.

The New Testament contains a hundred or so different images, pictures, models and metaphors for that community - and one is indeed the image of the building, with individual Christians described as �living stones� in its construction. But I shall concentrate here on just two of these models: The "People of God" and the "Body of Christ".

The People of God
The earliest Christians were Jews who were not conscious of the formation of a new religion, but rather saw the Christian gospel as an opening out of the national religion of the Jews to a world-wide membership. There was already in Judaism a persistent tradition that salvation for the Jews would not be a private affair, but an event in which all the world would partake.

For instance, God had said to Abraham, "In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12.3). And in one of the so-called "servant songs" of Second Isaiah, the Lord says:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up only the tribes of Jacob and to restore the remnant of Israel: I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth� (Isaiah 49.6).

And the prophet Zechariah says:

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem . . . In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew and say: Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you� (Zechariah 8.22�23).

The Jewish tradition also maintained that at a time chosen by God there would be an outpouring of his Spirit upon his people. So Joel had written:

I shall pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams � and whosoever calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved� (Joel 2.28�32).

And Ezekiel had said:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you � and you shall be my people and I will be your God� (Ezekiel 36.26�27).

The early Christians saw in the events following the death and resurrection of Jesus a fulfilment of these prophecies, a belief given vivid expression in the account of the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2. On that occasion men of all nations were portrayed as hearing the gospel in their own language as the disciples spoke in the power of the Spirit.

From this standpoint the Christian Church was quite literally the assembly (in Greek the ecclesia) of God�s people, both Gentile and Jewish. It was not so much the new Israel as the true Israel, the rightful inheritor of all the promises of God to his people of old.

Paul works out this thesis in great detail in Romans, chapters 9-11. He cites the prophet Hosea in support: "In the very place where it was said to them, �You are not my people,� they will be called sons of the living God" (Romans 9.26; Hosea 1.10). He also cites Isaiah: "I have been found by those who did not seek me, I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (Romans 10.20; Isaiah 65.1).

This way of thinking about the status of the Church gave it a sound historical pedigree, and allowed Christians to appropriate to themselves the Scriptures of the ancient Israelites for their own use.

The Body of Christ
The metaphor of a body is used to explore two sets of relationships. First, that of individual Christians to one another, complementing each other, co-operating with each other, all suffering when one does, and so on.

And second, the relation of the individual with Christ: sharing in his death and new life, partaking of his victory over death, one with him in his divine Sonship.

In this context we may note an important difference between the application of the metaphor in Romans and 1 Corinthians (where Christ is seen as the whole body), and in Ephesians and Colossians (where Christ is designated the head of the body). The latter is generally regarded as the inferior version, and this is one of the considerations that leads some scholars to doubt whether Colossians and Ephesians are authentic letters of Paul.

These two models of the Church in the New Testament - the People of God and the Body of Christ - both allow for the importance of the individual Christian as well as of the Church as a whole. The relationship between the parts and the whole is both explained by, and makes clear the central importance of, the two "gospel sacraments" of Baptism and the Eucharist. In contrast to the five lesser sacraments, such as marriage and ordination, which involve some individuals but not all, Baptism and Eucharist are described in the Prayer Book catechism as "generally necessary to salvation", meaning that they apply to every Christian.

(a) Baptism
If the Church is the People of God, how does one get one�s passport? If it is the Body Christ, how does one become a member? In the days of the Old Testament it as easy: the People of God were the Children of Israel. You were born into membership of the religious community by virtue of being born into the tribe and the nation. However, you could only be a full member of the worshipping community if you were born both Jewish and male, and underwent the ceremony of circumcision.

By New Testament times there were considerable numbers of non-Jews who were attracted to Judaism by its high moral tone and its comparative freedom from fanciful myths and legends. These converts to the Jewish way of life - called proselytes - could never become full Jews, but they were received into a kind of associate membership by undergoing a symbolic washing, and also - if they were men - by circumcision. So when gentiles first wanted to become Christians, at a time when the Church was still a movement within Judaism rather than a separate religion, it was natural that the same double method of initiation should be adopted.

Within Judaism, symbolic washing - or baptism - had not only been used for receiving converts; it had also been undergone by many who had been born Jews, as a sign of repentance and renewed commitment to God and his commandments. We are familiar with this from the ministry of John the Baptist, but he was not unique in applying a spiritual significance to ceremonial washing.

So the Christian movement, from the outset, adopted this already familiar ritual to signify both the washing away of past sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. (The link between sprinkling with water and the giving of the spirit went back at least to the time of the prophet Ezekiel, writing some 500 years before Christ.) Nobody seems to have had a problem about that.

But there was a difficulty - a deep-seated and deeply divisive difficulty - when it came to circumcision: should this also be required of non-Jewish males converting to Christianity?

It was Paul who insisted most vigorously that Baptism, and Baptism alone, should be both the necessary and sufficient sign of joining the Church. Thus he could remind the Corinthians: "By one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body" (1 Corinthians 12.13). At a stroke this put everybody in the Church on an even footing. Jew and gentile, male and female, slave and master: all joined the Church in the same way and were equal members without distinction of race, class or gender.

Once established in this way, Christian baptism became of much greater theological significance than its Jewish counterpart. It was seen as the means whereby converts not only signified their repentance, but actually received the forgiveness of sins, as they sacramentally shared in both the death and new life of Jesus Christ and became members of his body, the Church (Romans 6.3; Galatians 3.27). In baptism a person was born again (John 3.3) and entered into fellowship with the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 13.14).

(b) Eucharist
Baptism is a once-for-all act, like any birth, but the life of fellowship in the Spirit needs continual sustenance and refreshment. This comes in the Eucharist, of which Paul asks the Corinthians:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, one body, because we all share in the one bread (1 Corinthians 10.16-17).

Compare this with how he spoke to the Romans about Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead [�] so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6.3-4).

The similarity of his language about Baptism and the Eucharist is not accidental, nor is the emphasis on the blood of Christ and his death. In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, having recited the events of the Last Supper and Jesus� words over the bread and the cup, Paul goes on: "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11.26). The word I translated as "sharing" also means communion, fellowship, participation, and so on, in what became known as �the un-bloody sacrifice� of the Eucharist. It is a "sharing in" the death and new life of Jesus, not a "sharing out" or dividing up of his physical body and blood.

So a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10.16 would read:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not our common participation in the saving death of Christ, in which his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins? The bread which we break, is it not our common fellowship in the risen life of Christ, as we live by the power of the holy Spirit in his body, the Church?

Thus Baptism and Eucharist are the means whereby we first enter and then renew our fellowship in the Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ; and it is by that fellowship that we appropriate to ourselves the benefits of Christ�s death and resurrection.

The Historical Reality
What I have given you so far is the theory of the Church and our membership of it, as it is set out in the New Testament and especially by Paul.

Now we must look at the historical reality, which is rather different.

From the earliest days, there have been two fundamentally opposed views of what the Church is, and what Christian discipleship requires. They have been given the technical names formalism and rigorism.

Formalism emphasises the minimum standards for Church membership. It sees the Church as all-embracing, a school for sinners, a hospital for the spiritually and morally weak and ill. It seeks to draw the boundaries as widely as possible, presenting the Gospel as good news, as comfort, relief, and salvation to all who do not positively and persistently reject it.

Rigorism, by contrast, sets out the highest ideals for Christian discipleship. It presents the Gospel as a challenge, as a call to arms in the spiritual fight against the powers of darkness. Its Church is an elite corps, the storm-troops of the Kingdom, composed of those who have forsaken all to follow Christ. No room here for faint hearts or the weakness of the flesh.

Both attitudes can find justification in the scriptures. We find in the New Testament plenty of evidence that the battle lines between the two approaches had already been drawn, even before the teachings of Jesus in the gospels had taken their final form.

The parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13 is an argument for an inclusive Church ("Let them grow together until the harvest") as against the rigorists who would prefer to weed out - literally - those whom they felt were not to up to the mark. The marriage feast in Matthew 22 is another plea for an inclusive assembly. The servants are bidden to invite in off the streets "as many as they found, both bad and good". But the rigorists get the last word, and in a strange twist at the end of the parable, one guest is unceremoniously ejected for not having on a wedding garment.

That ending has proved a stumbling block to many a congregation - and to not a few preachers as well, I dare say - but seen as part of the battle in the early Church between rigorists and formalists, it makes perfect sense. In subsequent Christian history, most renewal movements have been zealous reactions against a Church that had become formal and lax. What prevented the whole movement from tearing itself apart in such conflicts was the decision to accept a double standard by which the two elements could be held together. It became accepted that there were two possible styles of discipleship.

A Christian could decide, as it were, to read either for a pass degree or for honours, to aim for a higher or more modest grade of spiritual attainment. The biblical justification for this was found in Matthew 19.16�22, where the rich young man asks what he must do to attain eternal life. First he is told to "keep the commandments"; but when he replies, "I already do that, what do I still lack?" he is told by Jesus, "If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you possess and give to the poor [...] and come follow me."

The answer to the man�s first question laid down what became known as the precepts of the Christian life, the minimum standard for which every believer must strive. The additional requirements - for perfection - were styled the evangelical counsels. That is to say, they were optional extra disciplines which might be taken up by high fliers.

In the first Christian centuries, and right through the Middle Ages, this distinction was accepted and led in practice to the formation of two classes within the Church. There were secular Christians, who lived ordinary lives "in the world", who owned property, raised families, conducted business, and so on, while following the basic precepts for godly living set out in the Ten Commandments.

And then there were monastic Christians, who followed the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their religious superiors. They lived "apart from the world" in convents and monasteries.

Many biblical parallels were drawn upon to justify the double standard. It was seen as being foreshadowed in pairs of characters such as Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha, and the beloved disciple and Peter. The idea of graded achievements within the Christian life was justified by reference to the "many mansions" which Jesus had spoken of in his Father�s house; these were assumed to refer to rooms of different splendour and status.

Then there were the various seeds, all falling into the good ground, which nevertheless produced varying yields, "some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some a hundred-fold". And Paul had also got in on the act, likening the different spiritual achievements of his fellow-Christians to the building of houses in "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble" (1 Corinthians 3.12).

This double standard had the great merit of allowing formalists and rigorists to rub along in one Church, even if tensions and jealousies did arise between the secular and cloistered branches. But the concept has always had its critics, and it was totally repugnant to sixteenth-century reformers, who regarded the ability to opt for a lower standard as a virtual licence to sin.

The Reformation Churches
The rejection of the double standard by the reformers was one of the seeds of the rampant disunity among Christian communities that exists today. In the medieval Church - and also in the Roman Catholic Church as it emerged from the counter-reformation - the pattern was for a zealous group who thought things had got too lax to form a new religious community.

First came the various order of monks - Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian; then the friars, Franciscan and Dominican, and finally the later orders such as the Jesuits. These various orders each had a very different ethos, and sometimes were extremely hostile to each other. But they were all within the one family of the Catholic Church.

Among Protestants the pattern of renewal was different. Because of the "all or nothing" view of discipleship common to Protestants, a revivalist group would not feel able to remain within a lax and formal mother church, but would break away and set up its own true church. Then, within a few generations, that new church would become formal and lax and a new break-away group would form, and so on.

The result is that today there are literally thousands of independent Protestant churches, while there is still only one Catholic Church - plus a handful of churches such as the Church of England and the Old Catholics, who have broken with Rome but still regard themselves as part of the historically ordered catholic Church, even if the Pope begs to differ. (And when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope in particular was very clear that bodies like the Church of England did not warrant the name "sister churches", which his more ecumenically-minded predecessor Paul VI had used.)

Another reason why Protestants tend to be less scandalised than Catholics by a lack of organisational unity is their emphasis upon the individual, rather than the Church, as the basic unit of salvation (if I may put it that way).

As a broad generalisation, a Protestant will treat the Church as a convenient but not essential gathering together of individuals who have been saved by virtue of their personal faith in Christ. Catholics, on the other hand, regard the Church - the Body of Christ, the People of God - as the saved-and-saving community, and that salvation is available only through fellowship within it.

"No salvation outside the Church!" is a slogan going back over 1500 years. This being so, there is clearly a much stronger motivation for Catholics than for Protestants to avoid disunity and to belong to a clearly defined universal Church.

A third long-standing difference in attitude between Protestants and Catholics concerns what is known as "the invisible Church". This, curiously, tends to work in the opposite direction and provide Protestants with a kind of pragmatic equivalent of the double standard which they had rejected.

When the reformers split with the Catholic Church and started developing independently, they found themselves in a dilemma. They had all been brought up Catholics and they all believed in the one holy Catholic church as defined in the creed. But now they were out of communion with it. So they resurrected an old idea of a universal invisible church. In other words, the one holy universal Church was indeed a reality, but was not to be identified with any external, visible organization.

So Protestants taught that just as God had warned the prophet Samuel, when he was selecting a king from among the sons of Jesse, that "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart", so the members of the true Church are known only to God, inwardly. We humans cannot distinguish outwardly between true believers and hypocrites within our congregations.

Therefore the holy universal Church - consisting of all true believers in every age - is invisible, and cannot be identified with any one church body, or even the sum total of all church bodies, here on earth. Consequently, since nobody knew who the true believers were, it was safer to keep everybody on board. "Let them grow together until the harvest", when the Lord who knows the secrets of all our hearts will sort the weeds from the wheat.

This is the theologically respectable way in which Protestants could denounce the double standard and still maintain a moderately undemanding code of church membership.

The Church�s Ministry
I will close with a brief word about the Church�s ministry. Every church has some form of organisation and authorisation of those who lead its worship and make decisions affecting its life. It might be the splendidly hierarchical and bureaucratic machinery of the Vatican, or a small independent chapel where everything is decided by a meeting of the whole congregation, or just about anything in between those extremes.

Catholics have a system of ministerial priesthood, with leadership and authority very much tied to it. Protestants claim a priesthood of "all believers", but that by no means implies the democratic form of church government or what is nowadays called "every member ministry". For instance, the Second Helvetic Confession, issued in 1556 and among the foundation documents of Calvinism, says this:

The priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another. For the priesthood � is common to all Christians. Not so the ministry � For the Lord himself did not appoint any priests in the New Testament � but he did appoint ministers who may teach and administer the sacraments.

I doubt whether any bishop could teach John Calvin much about top-down leadership.

The problem that divides the Christian traditions in relation to ministry is the source of its authority, in particular whether it requires the involvement of a bishop in the apostolic succession.

I made a thorough study of this subject back in the late sixties and seventies, in connection with various projects to create an organically unified church in England that would include the Church of England, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and a number of other bodies. (The United Reformed Church, created in 1972, is the sole visible sign of all that endeavour, and even then in places like Devon the independent Congregationalists refused to join in, and are still a force to be reckoned with.)

I came to the conclusion that there are three levels of authority required by any ordained minister in any church.

First is the authority inherent in his or her own personality, moulded by a life lived under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This is a kind of authority held by every Christian to some extent, and it is by no means greater among the clergy than the laity, but without it no individual minister could function.

Second is the authority vested in the minister by the local Christian community. In the case of the Church of England, this includes both the formal licensing to a particular sphere of work by the bishop, and also the acceptance of the priest�s ministry by the local congregation. Again, this local level of authority is not unique to the clergy. It is shared to some extent by lay ministers, churchwardens, and other officers of the church.

Third - and this is where things get more contentious - there is the authority conferred by the universal (catholic) Church at ordination. For Catholics the only source of this universal authority is the pope. Any ordaining bishop acts merely as the pope�s deputy, and no such ordination service may take place without the specific signed authority of the pope, according one of the famous papal bulls.

In the Church of England, every diocesan bishop acts with the authority of his own office as representative of the universal church in the matter of ordination. Within certain very broad limits he can ordain anyone he likes, and there is no further authority higher up the chain of command whose permission he needs.

In the Methodist Church this highest level of authority - the actual ordaining body - is not an individual at all but the Methodist Conference, a corporate body in which the oversight, or episcop�, or "bishoping role" of that church is vested.

And for each form of church governance the situation is different, with the distinction between the local and universal church sometimes narrowing almost to vanishing point.

That is why questions of church order and questions of church ministry always end up having to be tackled together, if gross misunderstandings are not to arise. This is not the moment to go into all this, but I could hardly claim to have discussed the Church, however briefly, without at least indicating some of the issues involved.

In conclusion I would add that I have been able to do no more than touch upon a few of the key aspects relating to the Church. But I hope that taken altogether the series has helped to clarify some of the persistently confusing but essential and central features of the Christian faith.

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