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The Church substantial and the Church national

As General Convention nears, we find ourselves in a season of “re-imagining” the Church. As a Methodist clergy colleague and I agreed, there must be something in the water, as TEC does TREC and the UMC embarks on its equivalent process of institutional reform. However, the water will turn out to be purple Kool-Aid if we cannot be clear about what the Church is, or rather, where the Church is, substantively speaking. There are three places in which the Church is substantively found.

The first and most essential is the parish. The local congregation is the domus ecclesiae, the house of the Church, the place in which the assembly of the People of God gathers and dwells. The substantive reality of the parish is founded on the substantive presence of Christ in the sacraments, which are concelebrated there by priest and people. All other topoi in which the sacramental life of the Church are celebrated are exceptions that prove the rule: the local assembly is The Holy Place, the hagios topos, par excellence (if you’ll forgive the mixed, but alliterative, loan words).

The assembly of God’s people, gathered into the local parish, knows itself by its primary act: communion. Everything else in the life of the Church either serves the purpose of this communion, or it is a dead thing. But the parish, gathered in the presence of their risen Lord, is communion. Again, we must be absolutely clear: not the parish as an institutional/legal/financial entity that would be seen by the eyes of the secular State, but the parish as assembly in the kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a people whose glory can only be witnessed by the eyes that perceive the glory of God in their midst as the Eucharist is celebrated. This is all that matters and all that exists, ontologically speaking. The reality of the Church is based on the Real Presence revealed and offered for the life of the world in the Eucharistic assembly. It is a personal reality: Christ’s own presence. And it is a reality based on the discrete persons who gather in the parish to know Christ even as he disappears in the consumed Sacrament prior to sending them out in mission. The parish is the only place where the Paschal mystery is substantially lived.

The local congregation is, in the words of megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, “the hope of the world.” This hope is to be found nowhere else. Not in diocesan offices nor in the space where General Convention will meet. These may serve this hope, but they are not the hope. Only Jesus Christ, known in Word and Sacrament, read and received in the parish, can communicate that hope, that life, to the world. It is in the parish, the local assembly, where lives are transformed and individual Christians and the whole Body grow into the full stature of Christ. In the words of John Paul the Great (as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus styled him, and from whom I got this quote):

The parish is, and should be, the first and foremost place where the faithful encounter and are invited to share fully in the life and mission of the Church.

He went further, “The diocese should always be understood as existing in and for its parishes.”

Hopefully, quoting a pope can provide me some cover from charges of rank congregationalism! But it is a helpful reminder that, as we “reallocate resources,” we should be aware that the removal of resources from parish life is a theft. It is stealing God’s money. Of course, Jesus was crucified with two thieves and gave one of them paradise: that should give at least half of our bishops hope.

Which brings us to dioceses and their bishops. The two competing models for the authority of bishops in their dioceses seem to range from (a) that of a baron in his fief, inviolable except on grounds of outright treason, to (b) that of a satrap who receives his territory as a gift from the imperium and is totally accountable to the Emperor/Presiding Bishop for it.

One fantasizes in the mode of Daniel 6:

They could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because the Bishop of Dallas was faithful. And the other satraps said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Dallas unless we find it in connection to the law of his God.”

A third, perhaps unspoken, model used in larger dioceses would be (c) the CEO turning in good returns for his/her New York investors.

All these models are as corrupt and lifeless as the political and economic forms from which they are taken, and with them they will utterly pass away and be destroyed.

A bishop is never more a bishop, is never more transparent to the primitive apostolic form and sacramental essence of episcopal calling than when celebrating the Holy Eucharist in a church, a local assembly of Christians. Communion is the sufficient and only source of his authority, and everything else he does either serves this end by building up the local congregation (the ordination of presbyters, for example) or is a dead thing that dies the death.

The Holy Eucharist alone vests the bishop with substantial authority because its celebration makes Christ present with his authority to forgive sins and give new life. Therefore, the bishop’s authority is derived from Christ’s own, and not from any political entity, even if it is churchly in origin.

Finally, because the bishop can offer this service of love in a multitude of parishes, a beautiful array of assemblies, he is able through his personal (not institutional or canonical) ministry to transform and bind together these many congregations into the microcosm of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. The diocese is the microcosm of the Great Church, precisely in its nature as a sacramental connection between congregations, a sharing in the one Body of the one Lord.

This sharing goes back to the communion demonstrated by St. Paul’s collection for the Church in Jerusalem; it is reflected in the guidance offered to the Church in Corinth by the Church in Rome in 1 Clement and in the letters of St. Ignatius to the local churches in several cities. The definite article is required because no other “unit” (an obnoxious word) of churches can be this. The diocese is the basic building block of the Church because it is the only sacramental building block. It is “sovereign” (a horrible loan word from secular politics) only because Christ is sovereign. But Christ’s sovereignty is sufficient for it.

Dioceses gather into our Anglican Communion and are its only substantial constituent members. That this is so is demonstrated by a simple custom of the Lambeth Conference. When invitations are issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury they do not come in the form of an invitation to our Presiding Bishop, or other primates, to “Come to my house, and please do feel free to bring along about 150 of your best purple-shirted friends.” Rather, they are sent directly to individual bishops. They are the sole objects of invitation, the guests to the feast.

As we’ve seen in the recent past, the Presiding Bishop can’t get anyone invited who isn’t invited (telling the bouncer, in effect, “he’s with me”) or can’t get anyone who is invited to be disinvited. This simple practice is telling, in my judgment. It bespeaks an intuitive awareness — not yet obliterated by recent politics or the hegemony of nation-states — that dioceses are the only substantive organization of assemblies in the Church, other than the Church herself, and are thus the only proper recipients of an invitation to be in a communion of communions. And let me add that the Anglican Communion, itself, is only worthy of the term and only has ontological significance to the extent that it is leaning into full communion with the other communions (Rome and the East, for example) that make up the whole body of faithful people. All its other characteristics — its Englishness, its institutions, its instruments of unity — anything that does not serve the end of witnessing to its members regarding the life of the Triune God as communion, anything that is not ready to dissolve into the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, will wear away with time like limestone on a river bank.

So what of the “national church?” TEC, for example? National “Churches” are non-things. They do not exist and have no ontological weight (pondus). As von Balthasar put it more circumspectly, “The existence of a visible Church of the Lord in the midst of history can only have a remote analogy with profane “peoples,” “States,” or “communities.”” Such secular ways of organizing human beings cannot be a “reliable support” for the House of the Spirit (Mysterium Paschale, 261).

I ask, is the Holy Roman Empire anymore a meaningful ecclesial term? Will “The United States of America” always be? The idolatry of the nation-state is perhaps Anglicanism’s original sin and afflicts the Communion as much as Orthodoxy’s ethnic chauvinisms hamstring the latter’s mission in North America (and the world).

National groupings of dioceses, however, can be very useful things for the mission of the Church. While incompetent to revise the Church’s faith, doctrine, and order, a shared language and cultural setting makes coordination of the printing of liturgical and catechetical materials a perfect task for national church gatherings. Additionally, sharing resources and personnel for the succor of the poor and for the sustenance of the Church where it dwells in under-resourced settings (Episcopal Relief and Development) is a wonderful work in which TEC can and does engage. Finally, the training of bishops and oversight of seminaries that form those responsible for leading the celebration of the Eucharist is a critically important task that is deserving of the necessary resources. Here alone is plenty for a national church gathering like TEC to do, and the orthodox can and should participate in all that is truthful in these areas of national mission.

However, in restructuring the national collaboration of dioceses and in the reallocation of resources, all involved should keep their eyes on that which has substance: the ontological weight that comes from the work of Christ in the Eucharist. The parish, the diocese, and the communion, these three abide. And the greatest of these is the parish.

The featured image is “Parish Church of St Nicholas, Thorne” (2005) by Jim Landerkin. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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