“It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.” (Rowan Williams, “The Lutheran Catholic,” in Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings, p. 221)

This comment from Rowan Williams identifies a thread that caught my attention in my latest reading of The Gospel and the Catholic Church. Covenant bloggers were reading and discussing it together at Nashotah House Theological Seminary as a prelude to the recent Living Sacrifices conference. Readers of Covenant will be very familiar with the lines at the end of Ramsey’s book, where he claims vindication for Anglicanism only in that it points to something beyond itself, of which it is a mere fragment:

Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its soul. … For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.” (p. 220)

Long before Ramsey reaches this conclusion, though, he has already sounded loud and clear the warning that Williams identifies: the greatest hindrance to the full visible unity of the Church, the disposition that the structure of the Church is given to resist, is the sin of ecclesial self-consciousness. The structure of the Church — Catholic (a visible society living one universal life) and Apostolic (sent by and historically continuous with the one redeemer in the flesh) — is what the Church is precisely because this outward structure essentially manifests the inward call to each and to all to die to themselves in dependence upon the whole, to lose one’s individuality in the visible universal and historical society that preceded any individual member, and in which each finds new life by incorporation into the one life-giving vine that is Christ’s body. But the way the Apostolic and Catholic structure does this is by demanding from the individual a death of self-consciousness.

The faithful Christian will not draw attention to himself as an interesting specimen of life in Christ, but dying to all interest in himself and his “experiences” he will focus attention upon the redeeming acts of Christ in history, as the centre of man’s prayers and praises for all time. (p. 44)

The Church is Apostolic because it looks away from itself and “back to the deeds of Jesus in the flesh.” And the Church is Catholic because, although “it will indeed be aware of its own immediate union with Christ,” it will nevertheless “see this experience as a part of the one life of the one family in every age and place. By its dependence upon the Church of history it will die to self-consciousness and self-satisfaction” (p. 44).

Self-consciousness is what tore apart the Church in Corinth.

“Each one saith, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, and I of Christ.” In this verse three sins are described; they dare to speak as an “each” instead of as a member (each one saith); then they dare to talk about themselves and their “positions” (I am); and finally they dare to speak about other Christians as if they were great individual personalities, a Paul, a Cephas, an Apollos. Those who say “I am of Christ” (the superior “non-party party”?) are just as sinful, for their attitude is just as self-conscious. (p. 51-52)

Paul meets the Corinthian schisms born of self-consciousness with both the gospel of the cross and the structure of the Church, and for Ramsey they are the same thing. Paul addresses the Corinthians on behalf of and in the name of the universal Church (“all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place” [1 Cor. 1:2]), and reminds them that the Word of God came to them, not from them (1 Cor. 14:36). Thus he removes all grounds for self-promotion, and claims whatever spiritual and intellectual gifts they might have as having significance only insofar as they are given away for the sake of the whole body.

The ecumenical payoff is that ecclesial triumphalism inevitably obscures that to which the ecclesia exists to point: “self-conscious Catholicism can miss the deeper meaning of the Catholic church; self-conscious Evangelicalism can miss the strength of the Gospel; and self-conscious Liberalism can foster intolerance of temper and rigidity of thought” (p. 215). To reject ecclesial triumphalism, of course, is not to say that visible ecclesial structures don’t matter, or that there’s not a visibly identifiable Church anywhere. Ramsey’s whole point is that visible structures do matter. A common faith, historically continuous sacramental practice, and the hierarchical ordering of mutually dependent offices are the means by which the gospel is carried through the generations.

The prescribed attenuation of self-consciousness is merely about remembering where the Church begins and is essentially constituted.

Jesus Christ, in His solitary obedience, is the Church. Its existence does not begin with the addition of Jesus to men or of men to Jesus. The Israel of God is Jesus on the Cross; and those who will be united with Him will enter an Israel which exists already. (p. 21, emphasis original)

No one can claim a corner on the Church because the Church was already there in its fullness in the broken body of Christ on the Cross.

Nor does such a rejection of triumphalism necessarily even deny that there are varying degrees of “communicative fullness” (Williams’s term) in various Christian communities. A community that does away with an apostolic form to its celebration of the Eucharist — which, for Ramsey, means its being ordered around the episcopal office — might lose something of its “communication of the inner fullness of the Body’s reality,” that is, its transparency to and disclosing of the eternal self-offering of Son to Father that is the heartbeat of all reality, a self-offering manifested in time on the Cross as “the one event in which the Church actually subsists,” and continually remembered through history in the sacrament of the altar (Williams, pp. 218, 222). But, as Williams points out, a community might also be missing something of this fullness if it has no place for the manifestation of gifts of prophecy (if we take seriously Paul’s picture of the differentiation of gifts in the Body).

The point, therefore, is not to reject concrete structures, nor even to sidestep real arguments about ecclesial fullness. It is merely to say that we can only approach discernment about such matters with self-forgetting humility — confident humility, perhaps, but confident only because the Lord is faithful to his promises that his Church, the Church that he is, will never fail: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” The question is, as Williams concluded in an address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2012, Where are we looking?

The enemy of all proclamation of the Gospel is self-consciousness, and, by definition, we cannot overcome this by being more self-conscious. We have to return to St Paul and ask, “Where are we looking?” Do we look anxiously to the problems of our day, the varieties of unfaithfulness or of threat to faith and morals, the weakness of the institution? Or are we seeking to look to Jesus, to the unveiled face of God’s image in the light of which we see the image further reflected in ourselves and our neighbours?

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart serves as curate at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City. A collection of his Covenant posts is here.

Mac was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was baptized, confirmed, and sponsored for ordination at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. He completed his undergraduate degree in Chapel Hill (UNC, 2009), where he was nurtured for a season among evangelicals in various campus ministry groups before ultimately settling in the ecclesial tradition of his youth, having discovered that “evangelical” and “catholic” are two sides of the same coin.

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