by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together
Ora et labora: Living together in unity
'Behold how good and how lovely it is when brethren live together in unity' (Psalm 133:1)
Community—Club or Communion?
In recent years, many social commentators have argued that as people have become more urbanised, they have also become more disconnected from each other. Popular writings and media-comment suggest that there is a longing for 'community', but it seems to be on quite restricted terms. In this respect, people want to choose the 'community' to which they belong—which suggests more a matter of mutual association than real community.
A community is not something created through the will of a group of individuals but rather a context in which humanity lives and operates. It therefore includes all people, both the likeable and unlikable, the good and the bad, the saint and the sinner. We belong to a community because we live in it rather than because we subscribe to a set of ideals or beliefs about it. Community can be likened to citizenship (or possibly family)—which is a state of being connected to each other politically, culturally and situationally, rather than belonging to a particular group of like-minded people who choose to socialise with each other.
Conversely, while the institutional church also articulates the modern desire for community, it nevertheless operates more as a religious club by emphasising membership to it through adherence to particular beliefs and the exhibiting of particular behaviours. On the one hand, it seeks to include people (and sometimes says it is open to all), but on the other hand it still seeks to exclude people who do not believe or do the right things. Of course, the narrower the definition of membership the more exclusive and sectarian it becomes.
Rather than offering a radical critique of the exclusiveness of modern pseudo-communities, much of the institutional church has instead become a reflection of the spirit of the age—competitive, controlling materialist and discriminatory. It therefore fails to connect with many people, intentionally excludes others, and often lacks the diversity and openness expected of a healthy organisation. This is probably one reason why, as McCrindle Research has reported, only around 8% of Sydney's population now has any regular church involvement.
Exclusivist behaviour works against the spirit of 'covenant' that I addressed in my last article. Today, society tends to seek a 'social contract' by getting people to agree to a code of beliefs that then result in a set of behaviours. In contrast, a covenant acknowledges a series of relationships that in turn bring identity and transformation. In baptism, the church follows the notion of covenant by welcoming a person into 'God's family' rather than into the institutional church and, like the prodigal son, that person remains a member of God's family even if they 'wander far off' (Luke 15:11–32). It therefore seems that neither the terms 'club' nor 'community' adequately reflect what the church should be.
Moreover, the mystical church (as against the institutional one) is principally the gathering of God's people in all their diversity and brokenness with a view to their being the continuing presence of Christ in the world today and of becoming part of God's kingdom in the future. In this context, God resources and empowers people for mission in the world. However, this concept is multi-dimensional, for it extends down through history (over time) and across cultures (or space). It is for this reason that we tend to talk about the church in terms of being a 'communion' and emphasise the relational connectedness between peoples, which better satisfies the idea of covenant.
Unity and Diversity
The New Testament describes the gathering of Christ's followers in terms of 'koinonia', a Greek word meaning 'communion by intimate participation'. It emphasises the aspects of sharing and fellowship in communion with one another. The concept appears in the Book of the Acts, where part of the early church is described in these terms:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:42–47)
It may well look like an unobtainable ideal, but it is the goal of Christian communion. Nevertheless, there is clearly a problem; for the Bible talks in terms of unity, yet how do we account for the myriads of divisions, schisms, sects and failings of a body that is meant to be a sign of God's presence in the world? Responses to this vary from an apathetic shrug of the shoulders in acknowledgement that 'it is the way of the world, nothing can be done, so we should just all keep doing our own thing', to a more belligerent position that suggests 'of course we should be unified, and as my church is the 'right one' then everyone else should join us!'
Part of the solution to this dilemma is to appreciate the distinction between the present state and the future hope; which is to say that the church lives and operates in the flawed present world and reflects this, but it is meant to be become God's kingdom in the future. In theological terms, it is a matter of eschatology. Schism, failure and sin may occur in the institutional church however we have no excuse but to recognise this, change our ways, and seek God's transforming power to become more a reflection of the mystical communion. To fail to acknowledge this or to seek to excuse or defend bad behaviour is to choose to remain in sin and brokenness, and the transforming power of God is therefore diminished, both in the life of a person as well as in the church and the wider world.
It is also important to recognise that the church is a very diverse organisation, and an aspect of this diversity is to recognise that God provides a huge range of gifts for the benefit of its corporate life. As St Paul wrote:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7)
The implication of this is that the church needs this diversity of gifts (and people) to remain healthy, and that the gifts given it are for the corporate good, not for the benefit of an individual. To be sure, the nineteenth century idea of robust individualism and self-interest would seem to have little Biblical warrant.
The church is therefore unified in its service of God, yet it lives in diversity because it is made up of a complex set of peoples that are resourced by God in a variety of ways. People are not all the same, either socially or psychologically and this fact finds expression through a range of different cultures and behaviours. The church reflects this diversity through its different cultural expressions, structures and practices but is unified in its following of Christ. It therefore needs diversity so as to remain strong and ready to engage with a world that is both fragmented and rapidly changing.
Sacrament to the World
The Anglican Catechism states that a sacrament is 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace' (APBA p. 817). The Anglican Church recognises the two great sacraments of Baptism and Communion (which we often call the Eucharist, a Greek word meaning 'thanksgiving'), and also the five 'sacramentals' (or means of blessing) of Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, Marriage and Anointing. However, it may be understood that there are many other ways by which people inwardly experience the grace of God, expressed through outward actions and signs.
The church, as koinonia, demonstrates the intimacy of relationships in communion; which in turn reflects the communal nature of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the Trinity is a set of relationships so too is the church, especially in its gathering together of which the Eucharist is its sign. Through the Eucharist, God and his people meet and have fellowship. An aspect of this fellowship is the nurture of God's people through word and sacrament, by which they are empowered to carry out God's mission in the world. It is also here that the people of God are unified as followers of Christ (both with those present as well as the wider mystical communion down through time and across the world), and here the Holy Spirit provides the church with gifts and empowerment for ministry.
The church therefore does not exist for its own sake, but rather for the sake of others. Its structures, ways of operation and goals should therefore reflect this principle. It is also in this way that the church takes on a sacramental role of being a means of God's grace (or unconditional love) to the world. In theological terms, this is called 'incarnation' or the embodiment of God in the world.
Customers vs Participants
An ongoing temptation for the church is to become consumerist in its approach to faith, by which I mean to see religious practice as a commodity to be traded in a competitive market place. In many respects, it is unsurprising because consumerism is a dominant aspect of the culture of western society.
People have become disconnected from the experience of church as 'mystical communion' and have instead sought a church that 'provides for their needs'. In this way a more consumerist approach to church life has arisen; such that attenders are more concerned with what they receive from the experience of church rather than what they contribute to it. Indeed, what develops in this situation is a diminishing regard for the quality and integrity of relationships and an increasing concern for style and product! In this way, church attenders have tended to become more like customers in a religious emporium than members of the body of Christ. Some church structures have embraced this model with a degree of success - if numbers are to be the gauge of success. However, it is a far cry from any sense of koinonia; for, as Christians, we are called to be participants in the body of Christ. Such participation is to be understood through the concept of covenant, which describes the relationship between God and people and the corresponding responsibilities they have to each other.
So, what might Christian communion look like?
First, it needs to be acknowledged that it is extremely diverse, because there is no 'one way' of being a Christian. The church around the world and down through the ages has, and does, operate in many different cultures and includes people of all types socially, psychologically and intellectually. It is therefore naïve and dishonest for any group to suggest that there is only one way of living the Christian life, indeed it is a denial of reality - more the behaviour of a sect than a church.
Secondly, the binding force of Christianity is Christ himself and not the church's beliefs, behaviours, regulations or leaders. Our salvation and hope for life is to be discovered through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and not because we do or believe certain things. Through love and trust God makes a covenant with us and promises to be part of our lives. When we recognise this, and commit ourselves to serving God, it has the power to become a transforming force in our lives and, by extension, the world around us.
Thirdly, the Christian life is worked out in the world. It is not about escaping the world, but instead a matter of engaging with it. Our participation in the work of God is to be who we are, while committing ourselves to God and using our gifts and talents within the community with the added understanding that God is present in these ordinary things of life.
Finally, Christian communion finds its fulfilment and fruitfulness through participation in life. Christianity differs from a philosophy in that it is more than just a set of human ideas about life and community. While theology is important, it is an enabling activity rather than an end in itself and tends only to make sense when lived. Worship, study, prayer and good works transform both the individual as well as the broad community, and they have the capacity to change the world when practised—a matter of deeds not words.