January 8, 2008

Communion and Church

It became apparent in comments on two of my previous posts that one of our difficulties in carrying on reasonable discussion lies in the different meanings given to words we are wont to use quite a bit. These are church and communion. In both cases the words are used in an ideal and a real sense — and this creates some of the difficulties I outlined in an earlier essay on that subject.

Thus people can speak of the church as the Body of Christ, of which all the baptized are members; but we can also speak of the various churches and even the “national or particular churches” — to say nothing of our parish churches! I can speak of the communion-in-Christ that belongs, indelibly, to every Christian; while at the same time acknowledging that theological or doctrinal divisions can lead to ruptures in the day-to-day communion of one Christian body with another.

I was being quite consciously (and perhaps uncharacteristically) idealistic when, in that previous post, I noted that communion in Christ (based on baptism) is inviolable. That does not mean that I do not recognize the existence of the breaches between believers. What it does mean is that I hold it as an article of faith that our divisions are secondary to our unity. Our ecclesiastical unity is recoverable precisely because our divisions, however deeply felt, are superficial wounds: no part of the body is completely cut off, however tenuous the connection with the whole. It is not just that one part of the body ought not say to any other, “I have no need of you,” but that one part of the body really can not make that judgment. (1 Cor 12:21) However disagreeable we may become, we are stuck with each other. Divorce is not allowed.

Just as the lapsed or even the apostate are not rebaptized upon their return to the life of faith, so to, I firmly believe, our divisions can be healed without recourse to a fundamental re-invention. What we are called upon to do, in the spirit of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, is to focus upon the elements of our identity that we recognize in each other, and celebrate them as a basis for unity even if we continue to disagree about secondary concerns.

Obviously there are doctrinal differences among Anglicans of different traditions, and even greater differences between Anglicans in general and Roman Catholics or Presbyterians or Methodists in general. These differences are real, and I by no means wish to minimize them more than is necessary. What I do want to do is put them in their proper perspective and focus upon the articles of faith that we share and affirm — among which is the principal of the dignity of baptism as incorporation in the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

I would like to suggest a term for this Church of shreds and patches, which, like it or not is the Church of which we all are members. In the spirit of the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant, I would like to suggest we recognize that we are the Church Dissonant. And, through God’s grace, may we work to decrease the dissonance and promote harmony.

Tobias Haller BSG


bls said...

Yes, that's good. "Unity" is a shibboleth, and a false idol. Even the wonderful Anglicans Online has gotten into the act now. This week, you find this on the front page: "Christian communion is historically reciprocal, deliberate, public, duty-creating, love-impelling, and church-strengthening."

Well, I love Anglicans Online, but come on: what can they be thinking of? The church has never been like that. And, worse, the church still worries about "unity" before it does about repentance of its own sins. We don't need "church-strengthening," of all things; the church needs to make itself vulnerable at last, and to stop lording it over the rest of the human race. This is its most central fault, and "strengthening" is the last thing we ought to be thinking of.

I'm happy for what's happening now; in A.A. we know that "hitting bottom" is a good thing. People only ask for help when they are so far down they can't get up on their own.

The church needs to be made humble, first, and to fix itself before it can help anybody else.

RFSJ said...

said, Tobias!

I like the Church Dissonant very much. And I also like the point that our unity-in-Christ always is more dynamic (in the koine sense of power) than the unity-in-communion, our ecclesiology, if you will, which is always flawed because we are still flawed, although forgiven.

You do a great job of synthesizing what has just been rattling around in my own mind and heart.



Anonymous said...

i suppose i like what you say!

but i also hold to that old anglo-catholic wry comment, which is consonant with much of what you say....that, in opposition to the Reformed, i believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

which is to say, i do not believe in two churches, one visible and one invisible, as the Reformed teach.

and this is, is it not, what we are talking about? the Reformed think of the real (invisible) church, and the visible (unreal?) church.

but the old anglo-catholic conviction is that this is so much claptrap. it is the church visible--with all its warts--which is also the invisible and true Body of Christ.

for the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox this is easy. for anglicans it is hard, but precious, ground. i am not willing to abandon it.

so while you talk at the end of the militant/expectant/triumphant distinction--not division--i hear the echos in your post of the visibile (imitation)/invisible (true) church distinction so dear to the Reformed.

as i say, the ground on which i stand is not easy ground, but it is the only rock around upon which to stand!

i just read recently the conviction of the PCUSA, that the decision of each governing body is the decision of the whole church, unless and until overturned by a higher governing body. ironic, no, that a Reformed treatment should have it thus? but this is the truth.

it is hard--and the metaphysics of this stance are, indeed, hard to work out! but i hold to it nontheless, despite being so uncertain as to the details.

Anonymous said...

Of course, "dissonant"! Phenomenologically that has always been one of the notes of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Dissonant!

I think good Brother Thomas sets up something of a false dichotomy here: I think it is not "visible" (i.e., Catholic) vs. "invisible" (i.e., Protestant), but "institutional" vs. "mystical" -- or. more accurately, institutional AND mystical. And it is the mystical dimension which has been pretty well ground underfoot in all the current unpleasantness.

As you put it well, Tobias, there are those who may disapprove of or despise or bloody well hate me, but they cannot live a full Christian life without me, because I am mystically one with them in Christ.

If one thinks only institutionally (as they seem to be doing), they can probably figure out a way to throw me out of their in-group, but even if they do, I am still not "gone", and they will eventually have to face up to the fact that they and I are still limbs of the same Body.

Dissonance, yes! that's reality; but amputation, no! that's an impossibility. Only God can do that (and God won't!).

The complicating factor is that none of us on earth has institutional access to this huge global Body. The only place we Episcopalians can turn for such access is the General Convention, and however inadequate or "incomplete" it may be, it is all we have to work with. There is no other over-arching structure to represent the Mystical Body (and even in the unlikely event that some kind "Anglican Covenant" happens, it will still be access to only a fragment of the Body).

It is sort of like the distinctions between Plato and Aristotle: Plato says that reality is "out there" somewhere in heaven and we live with only shadows; Aristotle says that reality is intimately bound up with what we experience here and now.

Anyway, on the basis of anyone's reality, we are stuck with (a) dissonance and (b) the General Convention -- and most of us can live with that, however un-ideal it may be.

June Butler said...

Would it be correct to say that the mark of Baptism is indelible?

I like "Church Dissonant" - the church whose parts make different noises, sometimes to the point of cacaphony, but still the church, still the Body of Christ, striving toward harmony.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thomas and John-Julian, I suppose I fall in that via media of wanting to keep the tension of the Incarnation in my ecclesiology; so that it is a bit of "both/and" -- which means that my idea of church is "bigger" than the Reformation model (that wants to be the "perfected" church). I note that we have some hints of this even in Anglicanism, as in the definition of the church being where the pure word is preached and sacraments duly administered which seems in tension with what follows: that assemblies of fallible people also err. But then who said Anglicans were consistent, even in their Articles of Religion!) I'd rather stick with the idea that the church is all of us -- and oy do we make a mess sometimes!

Mimi, I think the indelibility of baptism is something to be hopeful about. However far we stray, we never become completely detached, never completely lose our identity tag that says "Return to... Postage will be paid."

Peace to all.

Anonymous said...

"The complicating factor is that none of us on earth has institutional access to this huge global Body."

Obviously 1 billion Catholics and several hundred million Orthodox Christians would disagree with you. God's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is not a Platonic ideal but a living reality necessary for salvation.


Erika Baker said...

I can’t say whether we need big theoretical/theological distinctions between visible and invisible church, or institutional and mystical church. Maybe we do need complex way of expressing what is really quite simple. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Our relationship is not defined by how we see each other, but by virtue of having the same “parent”. And so we can move to different rooms in the house, can leave the doors open or locked, can talk to each other or say “you’re not my sister any longer, I’ll never play with you ever again, never, I won’t. So there”.
It say a lot about us, but nothing about the fundamental relationship we all have with God.

Anonymous said...

A little off topic, but close to my heart. Please, a few more words about "the indelibility of baptism". My 44 year old son-in-law is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. His sister says he must be baptized in the Holy Spirit, confess Jesus as his Savior. He says his baptism is enough. She says it doesn't count because his parents did it for him. How do we speak to her; what do we say?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael,
Anglicans also believe themselves to be part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of course. In addition, since Vatican II at least the official RC position has tweaked "extra ecclesiam null salus" so as to be able to include non-Papists. Note the bendings of logic in John Paul II's essay on the subject.

Sorry, Fr. Michael, but this ultimately means that while the church may "subsist" in the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, that entity is only one (though a secure) realization of the fullness of the whole Church of Christ, which, as I said, and as the Conciliar and Papal documents insist, has no single and exclusive institutional expression on earth.

Clearly there are some Roman Catholics and some Eastern Orthodox who might think otherwise. They are wrong. As Pope John Paul II said, salvation is through Christ, for which the Roman Catholic Church is one supremely important means; but salvation in and through Christ is mysteriously available even to those who "do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her." Thus, the "ideal" of the Church is what is ultimately salvific, both within and without its "real" expression in the Holy Catholic Church of Rome.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

It still amazes me when I see people who think they are advancing God's cause when they seek to place limits or conditions on salvation. It is God in Christ who saves, not us; we neither earn it nor merit it.

But to answer your question, we believe that baptism with water, at whatever age, includes the Holy Spirit -- that is, we baptize into the fullness of God, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some churches teach only what they call "believer baptism" -- but that seems to place a severe limit upon God's action to save. As for his parents "doing it for him" -- well, that's the nature of the church: we are none of us alone, but all part of the Body of Christ: and it is that whole body that is sanctified, as much as each individual organ or part. And what God has joined together -- and saved -- let not man put asunder. Those who take upon themselves the authority to decide who is saved and who isn't are assuming too much: fellow defendants should not seek to sit in the judge's chair.

Anonymous said...

Grandmère Mimi said...
Would it be correct to say that the mark of Baptism is indelible?

The American BCP states on page 298, "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble."

Anonymous said...

""Unity" is a shibboleth, and a false idol."

I would have thought there'd be some agreement that it's something we profess to believe in every week in the Nicene Creed.

"It still amazes me when I see people who think they are advancing God's cause when they seek to place limits or conditions on salvation."

Toby, that is something that universalists and Calvinists have in common, I suppose. Both would say that we have no control, that there are no conditions, no participation on our part.

There's a nice overview of the subject here:


This is what I think Cardinal Dulles tends to do best. It's not terribly flashy, but it strikes me as a fair summary, with some decent effort at synthesis.

--rick allen

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, the problem is, as I said at the outset, that we have common words with different meanings. When I say the Creed, with its reference to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, I take it to refer to the single Body of all the baptized: faithful or backsliders, "protestant" or "catholic" -- there really is only one church, and this is the Unity to which the Gospel refers.

Others, saying these same words, are thinking of the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, or the Eastern Orthodox, or maybe, as you suggest, the Genevans -- or, who knows, the Sanctified Brethren! These are the ones who place additional (and not Gospel-based) limits on the extent of the Body, and suggest that Baptism is not sufficient to create an enduring relationship with that Body, but some kind of additional supererogation (conformity to rules, obedience to a hierarchy, a "true" proclamation of the gospel, etc.) are necessary to be "the Church." To my mind, this is the genesis of sectarianism, and shatters the unity for which Christ died.

This is not to say I do not hope for greater cooperation between the various sects and denominations that style themselves "churches" -- as indeed they are in one sense of the word. But the Universal Church that I affirm in the Creeds is also just as real, even if some of its members actually deny the fact by their actions.

And I suppose, yes, I incline towards a universal view of salvation via baptism in the same sense, and to the same extent, that Jesus and Paul did -- it is possible to reject salvation, but it is not something one can "miss" by failing to have lived up to someone else's expectations. I don't entirely disagree with Cardinal Dulles (he is, after all, after a fashion one of my parishioners!). But the situation is more nuanced than even he describes; principally because the whole issue of what the NT means by "pistis christou" is the hinge of the debate: is it "faith in Christ" -- that is, the individual's assent to salvation and choice of baptism and live in Christ; or is it "faith of Christ" -- that is, is the action of Christ in redemption as universal an act, having universal effects to all willy-nilly, as the fall of Adam was in its opposite and culpable direction? The latter seems to be at least suggested by the Pauline view, and it has the virtue of explaining tough issues like the fate of pagans who haven't heard of Christ without inventing a special pleading. This is an unresolved tradition in the Scripture and Tradition -- and the solution has usually been to see it as both/and rather than either/or -- though this is another point on which various sects divide.