I find the very different images used to describe ‘church’ fascinating. In Avery Dulles’ seminal work he describes five models: institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. He suggests that no one model tells the whole story of the church, but in ‘being’ and ‘doing’ church, elements of these five aspects are at play.
Lexicographers tend to be less imaginative. The Oxford Dictionary defines church as:
- A building used for public Christian worship.
- A particular Christian organisation with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.
- Institutionalised religion as a political or social force.
And rightly so, for that is how the word ‘church’ would generally be defined, both by those who who associate with its institutions, and those who do not.
The United Reformed Church’s Basis of Union (1972), its founding document, describes the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, the agency through which God’s mission is outworked in the world (Clauses 1-4). However, its “unity, holiness catholicity and apostolicity… have been obscured by the failure and weakness which mar the life of the Church” (Clause 5). As a consequence the Church must “ever be renewed and reformed, according to the scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (Clause 6).
Reformed ecclesiology understands the church to be both an embodiment and exemplar of what it is to live in full covenantal relationship with God. It is also an educator to bring people into that relationship. However it can be argued that historically the Church has struggled to meet this purpose. In response to this paradox, theologians have developed the notion of the visible and invisible church, the visible church being that which we can see, fallen, broken and imperfect as it is, while the invisible church is the church as God desires it, perfect and in full relationship with God.
In the modern era particularly, with its focus on individualism, becoming part of the invisible church has been connected with the understanding that personal salvation is achieved through belief in Jesus Christ, with those existing outside the church condemned to eternal damnation, even though they may not realise it.
For a minister engaged in a gritty, day to day ministry to those who would be considered church ‘outsiders’, I instinctively felt that this highly theoretical concept failed to engage with the messiness of life. I also struggled with an understanding of church, membership of which seemed to rest so heavily on one particular doctrine. One member of Hug Cullompton illustrated this perfectly the first time I met her. She said of her experience as a teenager living in the Midlands:
When I was Baptised and confirmed I saw it as the beginning of an exciting new spiritual journey. I wanted to be challenged and I was desperate to learn more. I went to my minister, who told me I was saved, and that was what counted. I had already ‘made it’. For me that was nowhere near enough. And that is the day I began to walk away from the church.
Today she is a person of deep faith and spiritual understanding, but none of that is a result of membership of a church. Hers isn’t a unique experience by any means. That so many people I have encountered have wanted to explore a sense of the divine, but felt unable to do it within the context of ‘church’, truly saddens me.
I decided to search instead for a concrete theology of church and mission, scripturally based and properly thought through; one which I felt genuinely engaged with what it is to be human and in relationship, deeply or vaguely, with a creator God who is love (1 John 4.16). I read statements from great Reformers reaching back as far as the sixteenth century, but also more current documents such as the Basis of Union, and books such as Ian Mobsby’s The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century, and Pete Ward’s Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church, both written in 2008.
Both Ward and Mobsby understand the Church to be a living organism. It is the agency through which God in Christ breaks into the world, by the power of the Spirit, incorporating God’s people gathered as one into an eternal, intertwining dance. Moving and constantly changing, and with a strong emphasis on mutuality and love, the church is a reflection of the Trinity.
This emphasis on movement and fluidity reminded me of how Vincent Donovan changed his understanding of church in the face of his experience in rural Kenya. The signifiers of the ‘visible church’ – a hospital, school and mission house – had no relevance among the population of indigenous, nomadic Masai. The only way for Donovan to bring the Christian faith to these people was to leave the bounds, both of the mission station and his concept of the Church, and venture out, seeing where in the desert God was already at work, and attempting to join in.
My reading and reflection, combined with my experiences on the ground, helped me to realise the need to step out from within the confines of the church which had shaped me. My aim was not to create either ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ church, but to join together on a journey of pilgrimage with a group of people, also wishing to make sense of, and give purpose to, the sense of the ‘divine embrace’ they had already experienced. In Hug Cullompton I found just that: a group of individuals in relationship with God, albeit beyond the bounds of traditional church. As we began to grow into a community, we became more than friends. We were people on a mission; open to the leading of the Spirit and determined to become agents of change, in the name of the God with whom we were in covenantal relationship, even though none of us would ever use that phrase.
I am not saying that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of church is wrong, I would, however, suggest that, in the light of my experience, it might be missing a clause. To the first three I would add a fourth definition of church:
- a pilgrimage people, an ecclesial community, located temporally and geographically within God’s redemptive plan for the world.
Suggested Further Reading
Dulles, Avery, 1988, Models of the Church (2nd ed.), (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan)
Karkkainen, V-M, 2002, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Ecumenical, Historical and Global Perspectives (Nottingham, IVP)
Mobsby, Ian, 2008, The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century (London, YTC Press)
Volf, Miroslav, 1998, After our Likeness: The Church as the image of the Trinity (Cambridge, Eerdmans)
Pete Ward, 2008, Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church (London, SCM)