We shouldn’t be surprised by recent statistics detailing the drastic numerical decline of the Episcopal Church, as analyzed on Covenant by the Rev. David Goodhew. If you have been immersed in the church’s life these past 20 years, it is what you might expect. Still, having the numbers laid out all in one place is shocking. They are numbers that parallel Anglican decline all across North America, and that reflect a broad weakening of Anglicanism in almost all Anglo-American nations around the globe. Any young or aspiring Anglican cleric in these parts of the world would be imprudent not to feel a shadow cast upon the future. Who wants to take to sea on a sinking ship?

But prudence here is not the same as faith. That Anglican decline tracks with the decline of many churches and that more and more of even once seemingly healthy denominations are now being swept into a downward demographic curve is small comfort. But it does point to some wider dynamic at work within Christian communities of the West in particular. Is the Church disappearing? God forbid! Even if the number of true believers ends up being small indeed at our Lord’s return (Matt. 24:12, 14; Luke 13:24), the promises of Christ for his Church are indefectible in their final grace. What has become apparent, however, is that standard claims for what this body ought to look like, in terms of worldly descriptors, are no longer historically valid.

Young Christians (like their forebears) have long been treated to expectations about the Church’s form that are simply misleading: the true Church, they have been told, is always growing, is well resourced, strong, bold, coherent, focused. These elements have been theologically undergirded by images or models of the Church that float free of history, as in the types Avery Dulles made famous: institution, herald, communion, sacrament, even servant.[1] So, we expect growing institutions, bold heralds, strong servants. This is clearly not the normal profile for most of our churches today. Faced with this dissonance, there is an understandable press to go in search for the real thing, somewhere else. There are handbooks, conferences, inspirational speakers, missional strategies, novel communities, all vying for the prudence of those formed by a false picture of what the Church really is today. What they offer is simply not true.

Our churches are in fact scattered, often confused, groping for direction, increasingly impoverished, and separated into incoherent local nodes of frequent self-regard. This is the Anglican Communion; this is the landscape of most of our Christian communities. Yet they still constitute the Church. What Church? The Church in and as Diaspora.

Advertisement

Diaspora is not an image of the Church. It is, rather, a historical descriptor of the Church at a given time. The word, originally Greek, simply means dispersion. It has come to refer to Israel in exile from her land, and existing throughout the world as a people scattered, assaulted, and embedded within other nations. The Diaspora has described Judaism outside of the Land since the Assyrian deportation of northern Israelites around 735 B.C., and the phrase Diaspora Judaism took in all Jews around the world, at least until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

A Christian appropriation of this exclusively Jewish meaning is quite modern. Based on a few possible references to Diaspora in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:1; James 1:1; Acts 8:4), some German theologians took up the term to describe the Church after World War II. They were eager to reconsider the Church as a kind of leaven within the larger post-War society, building up the modern world from within. Christians are dispersed witnesses, the argument went, within this deeply chastened world now finally come of age. More recently, the phenomenon of widespread emigration from certain parts of the world has led scholars to speak of the African or the Asian Diaspora, and to designate the churches that have grown up in these ethnic emigrant communities as diaspora churches (e.g., Nigerian churches in London or Korean churches in California). More particular missional theologies tied to this ethnic diaspora phenomenon have also been proposed, which some have argued might be applied to the larger Church on the analogy of a great ethnic outreach.[2]

But as the great Dutch New Testament scholar Willem C. Van Unnik argued nearly 60 years ago, this kind of creative application of Diaspora to the Christian Church is historically suspect.[3] Positive uses in the New Testament (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1) and by church Fathers of words cognate with the term — verbs meaning dispersed and so on — had nothing to do with the original Jewish referent; and when Diaspora is used by the Fathers, it describes the punishment of Israel at God’s hand, the Jewish people’s scattering among the nations far from the Promised Land.

I agree with Van Unnik’s central exegetical point: to speak of Diaspora is to speak of God’s judgment, not some missionary strategy. But Van Unnik was constrained by his guild’s mostly supersessionist presuppositions (“the phrase, ‘the diaspora’ […] of the New Israel is a total absurdity,” church and diaspora is a “contradiction”). He thought the Christian Church was fundamentally distinct from and had moved beyond Jewish Israel, and thus the Church could not herself assume the form of Israel’s exilic burden. Scholars like N.T Wright continue to promote this idea in their own way.

But simple observation tells us otherwise: the Church really does look like Israel today. Surely, this is at least intuitively grasped by most aspiring clergy, even if it is a difficult idea to embrace. To describe the Church empirically is to confront the fact that the Church’s life is not alien to the life of Israel herself, that they are one and the same. It is an exegetical assertion that is only recently being rediscovered, and that its truth has been so long forgotten is perhaps one reason for the Church’s contemporary condition: Gentile Christians for too long have insisted that the Old Testament does not apply to them directly, and this insistence has blinded them to their visage. To rediscover that “Israel is us,” however, is to have one’s eyes opened to what God is doing; it is to look around with a freshness of spiritual vision, to take note, to find our place at last in the whole Scriptures. That, as it turns out, is a matter of hope.

For what God does is of course right by definition. What God does, therefore, should never be feared, except if accepted faithlessly. One might ask, of course, if there is good news in making such a claim. How is the specifically Christian gospel capable of being proclaimed if the Church of Christ is Diaspora, that is, simply Israel under judgment? The question is central. Diaspora is a divine act, visited by God upon his people. But it has a wider purpose, after all, just because it is God’s people who are being visited. God enacts Diaspora as a kind of wrenching love (cf. Hos. 2:14). God’s act of judgment through Diaspora is designed to lead to repentance, to a new reliance upon divine grace, and a deepening and transformative trust and love, so that God’s redemptive purposes might be fulfilled. Taken as a whole, this is divine grace at work. Even more, rather than describing some pre- or even sub-Christian Jewish episode, the fact that Diaspora is divine grace at work means that it is the work of the Word, the Son of God. Repentance, a new reliance upon God’s grace, is what the Messiah comes to accomplish, embodied in his own flesh.

The historical form of this work of grace has now taken on its own contours. We are today actually seeing clearly the joining of Jew and Gentile in the body of Jesus through the Cross, as the grafted olive branches are joined to the root of Jesse and Israel’s fullness is being manifested through judgment and renewal. Perhaps Diaspora is exactly the way that the gospel is shown to the world. If so, then Diaspora is visible, not just in the shape of dispersion, but in the form of its lived receipt. This is the challenge of Christian faithfulness that is only now having to be faced.

The response to this, however, has been consistent and, as it were, culturally creative. Diaspora Judaism is focused on several commitments that, for all their diverse cultural creativity, were fairly consistent in their general forms: family, learning, and prayer, in an integrated way. First, then, families: from North Africa and the Near East to Poland, families were conceived, gathered, and raised through the prioritized efforts of adults to become just this, mothers and fathers in religiously educative love to children. This is something that Western Christians, it must be said, have largely abandoned as a divine goal.

Diaspora Jews, second, ordered their individual and communal life to learning, especially to scriptural study, immersion in the tradition of the elders, and the discipline of religiously ordered thought. Rabbinic study and teaching, as we know, went far beyond the insipid superficiality of most modern Christian claims to adult study, but took in the breadth of the past and the ladder of heavenly ascent through contemplation.

For in the end — and third — the goal was godly worship, weekly as a family at shabbas (the center of prayer) and community, daily for all adults. They understood that words and thoughts, song and prayer, served as the ordered praise of the God whose personal care had placed a Jew in just this place that constituted Diaspora as grace, for all its de-centeredness, its sometimes incoherent diversity, and its disconnected communal strategies. The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv once quoted Psalm 118:17 (“I shall not die, but live”) as the motto for its exhibit of the culture of historically scattered Jewish communities, Diaspora existence is ultimately life-giving, for it is founded on the deepest kind of hope.

The grace of Diaspora, however, must be received. That is the work for young Christian leaders to explicate and inspire. I have no idea if repentant family life, learning, and worship will attract people to our churches. That is not the purpose of Diaspora, in any case. Still, I suspect it might, because God is merciful, his mercy is given in just this form of Diaspora, and mercy is a balm to the burdened soul, of which there are so many in our day. The Christian faith is a gospel faith, that is proselytizing at its core, since it is founded on the sharing of good news. But that good news must be rooted in the reality of world and Church both, of which a Diaspora faith is rightly reflective.

There is no missional Christianity in the West, furthermore, apart from such a reality. And Anglicanism, in the West especially (and along with other churches), mirrors Israel’s Diaspora in its starkest edges. That’s what the statistics are suggesting. But some of Anglicanism’s cultural gifts — its traditional concern for families and their common life, its broad scriptural commitments, its rooted worship of the holy God — also mirror the promised fruit of Israel’s Diaspora, like tools that, though now dulled, are waiting to be sharpened. Many young persons have become aspiring Anglican clergy precisely because they intuit the gifts. Are they willing to be patient sharpeners of their purpose?

Philip Turner once called for a greater rabbinic clergy in our midst, and that is surely the deeper divine calling for younger clergy today.[4] This may not demand novel topics for formation or experimental ministry in themselves. But it will demand a much greater focus, and a sense that mission is bound up with depths of commitment to certain traditional forms of ministerial labor, now pursued with a kind of martyrly freedom and risk. In the Talmud, we read:

When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema. And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?[5]

Whatever this time is for the Christian Church, it is one in which our Diaspora is akin to Rabbi Akiva’s. Given that Diaspora occurs in the face of opposition, scattering, uncertainty, incoherence, and even danger, the vocation requires sobered expectations, persistent prayer, unwearied tilling of familial soil, extended study, and courageous steadfastness. It means uttering “I will not die but live” before the massed acolytes of death. Yes, it is a deep and astonishing calling, that in being given at all bespeaks of some great upwelling mystery of hope. There is nothing imprudent about pursuing it.

Footnotes

[1] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (Image/Doubleday, 2002). The later edition added another model, which Dulles preferred: a community of disciples in particular, which has a good deal of overlap with some responsive forms of Diaspora.

[2] Cf. Luther Jeom O. Kim, Doing Diaspora Missiology:  Toward “Diaspora Mission Church.” The Rediscovery of diaspora for the Renewal of Church and Mission in a Secular Era (Wipf & Stock, 2016).

[3] Willem Cornelis van Unnik, “Diaspora and Church in the First Centuries of Christian History” (1959) in Sparsa  Collecta. The Collected Essays of W.C. van Unnik: Part Three (Brill, 1983), pp. 95-105. Scholars like Richard Bauckham have disagreed. A wonderful talk by Garwood Anderson at the recent Living Sacrifices Conference on 1 Peter ecclesiology is an example of such fruitful disagreement.

[4] The Harvest 11:1 (2001), p. 19.

[5] Berakhot, 61b (accessed Aug. 22, 2017)

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of