This piece originally appeared on Sep. 20, 2007, only two days after Covenant was founded. It served as an important initial statement in and for a troubled Anglican Communion. Nearly ten years later, it is remarkable to consider how the challenges facing the Communion have changed drastically and yet, in their essential form, hardly changed at all.
The version below is lightly revised. The second part will appear tomorrow.
It was suggested to me that I might usefully write something around the evangelical-catholic vision of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, of blessed memory, and about how that vision might illuminate the issues we currently face.
I would first say: If you have never read Ramsey’s wonderful book The Gospel and the Catholic Church, you should drop everything you are doing, find a copy, and read it. Ramsey combines a very lucid and straightforward style with uncommon insight into Holy Scripture’s deepest meanings.
With respect to unity, Ramsey explicitly devotes an entire chapter to the subject — “The Meaning of Unity.” But of course what he says throughout The Gospel and the Catholic Church bears on the issue of Christian unity.
The purpose of the Church, according to Ramsey, is to gesture toward the cross, to point the way toward “the question-mark of Calvary at the centre of its teaching.” The Church is there as the fellowship instituted and sent by the Christ to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Christians “are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus Christ is known and where witness is borne to the Resurrection from the dead” (p. 4).
This is indeed the Good News for which the world had groaned, and for which the hearts of many in the world remain restless. So the scribe Ezra:
If I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, show this also to thy servant: whether after death, as soon as every one of us yields up his soul, we shall be kept in rest until those times come when thou wilt renew the creation, or whether we shall be tormented at once? (4 Ezra 7:75)
For the advent of the Christ was the advent of creation’s renewal. His sufferings herald for all who receive him, who believe in his name, “power to become the children of God” (John 1:12). In Christ therefore is the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people, that he will take them to himself, that they will be his, and he theirs; that they will know that he is the Lord, their God (Exod. 6:7). In Christ, God has remembered his promise of mercy.
Christ is manifest in his obedience-unto-death as the chosen of God, the Father’s solitary heir, at once the ekklesia, the whole assembly gathered into one flesh, self-offered in perfect devotion, an anamnesis of the promises of God. Ramsey quotes Wellhausen: “The Messiah is the Incarnation of Israel’s universal rule, He and Israel are almost identical, and it matters little whether we say that Israel HAS or IS the Messiah.” On the cross,
Israel rejects Israel, and in the isolation of Calvary Jesus alone is Israel, the Son, the Servant. The vineyard has been lost to its former husbandmen, and the PEOPLE OF GOD consists only of the ONE who, rejected by His own, is dying on the Cross, alone the Servant who obeys and alone the place where the name and the glory and the will and the promises of God are seen. Jesus Christ, in His solitary obedience, IS the Church. (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 21)
Yet the death of Christ at once shows the essential unity of the Father and the Son, and consummates the mutual society of God and man. “From the first, the will to die was a part of the Messiah’s identification with men” (p. 23) — the Son left his divine prerogatives, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and came to earth not to be served but to serve. The self-giving of God manifests itself in history, within the context of fallen creation, as the humiliation of the Son.
We know the self-abandonment, the kenosis, of Jesus as the revelation of Messiah, as the drawing-near of the kingdom — because the kingdom is where God reigns, where his will is done. On Calvary, Jesus Christ does the will of his Father. On Calvary, God’s kingdom comes (John 19:19). Thus the cross manifests the essential unity of Father and Son, in a bond of love that is itself divine. “Behind the historical events there is the unity of the one God. This unity overcomes men and apprehends them through the Cross” (p. 49).
The identity of the self-abasement of the Son with the inheritance of the kingdom in history cannot be apprehended by “those who are perishing”. Therefore the cross is the destruction of the wisdom of the wise, and the thwarting of the cleverness of the clever (1 Cor. 1:18). As Ramsey says, “the philanthropist, the reformer, the broad-minded modern man can never understand, in terms of their own ideals, what the Church is or what it means” (4).
For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform, namely to teach men to die to self and to trust in a Resurrection to new life which, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle this world’s idealists. (p. 8)
The world will never understand the Church because the world will never understand the cross — because the life of the Church is the gift of the Crucified. The broad-minded modern man sees in the Church a society constituted in renunciation of the telluric contexts within which he seeks a living, within which he looks for life. For the Church’s fellowship “springs from and bears witness to the events of Jesus in the flesh. The events created the fellowship and the fellowship mysteriously shares in the events” (p. 48). In his beautiful systematic work Hymn of Entry, Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronikita asks “What is my calling? It is, if possible, to die in God.”
Thus not only is the historical life of Christ the wellspring of ecclesiality, but in an event of mutual recognition (which is the epicenter of every relationship — of relationship itself), the Church finds her vocation in bearing-witness (μαρτυρέω — 1 Cor. 15:15) to God in Christ. Her essential work lies in gesturing toward the Bridegroom, in recommending him to those beyond the borders of her common life, that all people might find fraternity in the bond of Christ’s peace, that he might be all in all.