Among the many churchy words and doctrines that we possess, there is one that will always provoke disagreement among Christians. The word is ecclesiology. It is not a word at that is used much in ordinary Christian conversation but it does describe an area of theology where Christians are often deeply divided. The word simply means the doctrine of the church, its nature, its purpose and its place in the world. This blog post is an attempt to show that although the word ecclesiology is not much used, the areas of doctrine which it covers are of great importance. We need to talk about them to understand one area of division in the church today.
The Anglican church in which I served as a full-time clergyman for some 40 years has a variety of perspectives on ecclesiology or the nature and purpose of the church. I myself represented and stood for a traditional understanding of Anglican ecclesiology. This traditional approach has always emphasised the relationship of the church congregation to the wider community of which it is part. The word ‘parish’ has always had two meanings. It means (in the Church of England context) the gathered Christian congregation. Simultaneously it refers to the wider community, which is made up of every single person who lives in the locality. The church, the parish church, has always accepted some responsibility for everyone. Parishioners had certain rights in relation to their local parish church. They could on request be married there, have their children baptised and in the end request the services of a clergyman to conduct their funeral. For most of my ministry this loose relationship between the local church and the wider community was an active reality. In trying to make it work I found that I got to know an enormous number of people. My first church in Croydon had 20,000 souls within its boundaries. This, back in the 70s, required the clergy to be very busy with weddings baptisms and funerals. Obviously the three members of staff could not know more than a tiny percentage of the people who lived in their parish, but we still felt under an obligation to serve everyone as best we could.
In the smaller parishes where I served as a Vicar, it was possible to build a relationship with a considerable percentage of the people who lived in the community. In Gloucestershire I had a single church benefice with around 1200 houses. It was physically possible to knock on every single door before Christmas, even though some houses were only visited every other year. Not everyone was at home when I called with a Christmas card, but the effort to go door-to-door in an attempt to see the faces of residents, represented a vision for parochial work that has now been effectively abandoned. The vision I had was that, as far as possible, every single person living in that community would regard the church as their church, even though they never came to the services. William Temple, the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that the church was the only institution that existed for the benefit of those who were not its members. That was very much my vision, even though for practical purposes, the church played a very small part in the lives of many people who lived within the physical boundaries of my parishes. The idea of the church, clergy and people, existing to serve the people of the wider community was still a vision that sustained many of us. The words of the communion service, ‘send us out into the world to live and work for your praise and glory’ were words of a church that firmly believed that it existed in order to go out and serve.
The older vision of the church as a community which gathers to be resourced for the work of service and love has, in many places, been superseded by another priority. Theologically speaking, the church has become a place where people come to be ‘saved’. The church is understood to be like an ark sailing across a tempestuous sea, trying to rescue individuals who are drowning. This particular vision is quite radically different from the first. The church is no longer seen in its corporate dimension but more as a collection of individuals who have made a choice to be saved. The emphasis inside the building is one of looking inwards, focusing on providing salvation and ensuring correct doctrine. The world outside is no longer a place that needs to be leavened like a loaf requiring yeast, but it is a place of darkness, corruption and danger. This particular emphasis in ecclesiology is often rooted in a vision of great pessimism for the future and which finds its inspiration from passages in the book of Revelation. The future coming of Christ to judge the world will involve great destruction and there is very little optimism for the world in this perspective. It is then better to focus on the salvation of individuals than to worry about trying to save the world. It is already hastening towards its own destruction.
I have presented two visions of ecclesiology which are at two ends of a continuum of belief. Most people will not hold consistently to either one of these extremes, but a majority will be found somewhere in the middle. Although I am trying not to caricature the ideas of conservative Christians over their understanding of the church, I am still suggesting that we all have to face that there are these two contrasting visions and emphases of what the church is for. Is it mainly for the salvation of its members or is it a place where people can come in order to serve the world better? Another way of stating the question is to ask whether Jesus died for Christians or for the whole world. When we quote the famous verse from St John’s Gospel, which contains the words: ‘For God so loved the world’, do we emphasise the first past of the verse which speaks of God loving the ‘kosmos’? The alternative is to read the verse with an emphasis on the second part: ‘Whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’. In a way our ecclesiology will be defined by which part of the verse we want to emphasise. I personally will always wish to focus on working out the implications of God loving the world and what this might mean for the work of the Church and the Christians within it. Of course we need Christians to be people of conviction and passion, people who are confident of their salvation. But we also need a vision of the way that Christians are to be people who want to continue the work of loving the world as God in Christ does. This New Testament vision of what a disciple is, a continuing to love the world, is a vision for the Church itself. This speaks far more of the way that disciples are in the business of being light and salt to the world than being only concerned for their individual well-being in the place beyond the grave.