A Vision for the Church
One of the most memorable characters in Alice in Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat. This creature has the unusual ability to appear and disappear, in whole or in part, when ever it is convenient. It is often portrayed issuing statements from its visible head while it’s body is nowhere to be seen.
In the view of many people, the Christian faith resembles the Cheshire cat. There is a head (Christ) and a number of teachings issuing from his mouth (the Bible), but He does not seem to have anything like the body mentioned in the Scriptures themselves, which it calls the Church. People feel that they can be perfectly good followers of Christ without having anything to do with His Church.
This individualistic approach to Christianity is understandable within our society. We live in a much less communal lifestyle than most people before us. Whereas others lived around the communal campfire, a town marketplace, or even a tenement stoop, modern means of communication have made it possible for us to live in increasing isolation from one another. With our postal system, telephones, radio and TV broadcasts, cars and planes, fax machines, and the like we can live in the farthest suburb, shop by calling an 800 number, pay by mail, and – best of all – unplug all these conveniences when we want to be alone. We could even use the skills and laborers of others without having to interact with them as persons.
The way technology has transformed our society has, of course, touched the way that we look at our Faith. We can put our parish contribution on our charge card and then stay home and watch a TV preacher or hear a recording of Christian music. In short, we can take up all the devices available to support our Christian life but use them to replace our experience of church instead.
God Forms A People
The Cheshire Cat – the head without a body – exists only in Lewis Carroll’s story. Our experience of God in Christ is the exact opposite, for it is His aim to make us all one body in Him. He created us as a community with the living need for living together, for “it is not good for man to be alone that am” (Genesis 2:18), and for living in communion with Him. Our identity, in God’s plan, comes not so much from our individuality as from our connectedness with creation, with others, and with God Himself.
As we know, even God’s plan hit a snag, as our desire for autonomy fractured these relationships. As the book of Genesis records, yielding to this side of our humanity causes us to be alienated from one another, from creation, and from God. We are evicted from paradise, not so much as punishment as the inevitable consequence of seeking autonomy.
Because our broken nature continually urges us to separate ourselves from one another, God has worked through our history to bring us back together in fulfillment of His original plan. Because it is the entire human family that He calls to be in fellowship with Himself, His love for us is always shown in the context of the community.
God’s dealing with the Jews seems to contradict that plan. They are set apart as a separate people, a distinct community that was not to mingle with others. And yet this was precisely so they would come to see that true human society demands a relationship with God. Their “peoplehood”, to invent a new term, was not to depend merely on tribal or racial characteristics, but on their faith in the one true God. As with Adam and Eve in the Garden, they were to form one community with Him. As such it was to be a preparation for an even richer experience of fellowship with God.
In Christ, the “barrier of hostility” (Eph 2:14) separating the Jews from other nations is destroyed. In it is no longer only the physical descendants of Abraham who are members of God’s family (Rom 9), but anyone who trusts in God as Abraham did. There is a new Israel, as “those who are not my people I will call my people, and those who were not loved, I will call ‘beloved'” (Hos 2:25). God has expanded the ranks of His community to include anyone who would share in His life. Yet, although this community is not limited to a single racial or ethnic grouping, it is a people nonetheless.
When people use the word “church,” they are often referring to a building usually their parish church or another neighborhood landmark. But when this term is used in Scripture, it never refers to a place or to a ‘where,’ but always to a ‘who.’ The word literally means the ‘assembly’ or the ‘gathering,’ the people who are being called by God to live in fellowship with him. The church is the regrouping of the descendants of Adam and Eve, called back to the fellowship of the Garden. Living as it is in unbroken communion with God, the Church is that segment of the human family in which His original purpose for mankind is being fulfilled.
The Church takes us back to the creation, but the story of creation in the book of Genesis takes us still further back: to before time began. The Scriptures tell us that the human race finds its model or pattern in none other than God. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26), says God, and then creates a family. Many Church Fathers saw this statement as pointing to the fact that God himself is a ‘family,’ the Holy Trinity, and that none of us is ever complete as an individual. God has given us the possibility of being completed by being in relationship with others, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in fellowship of with one another. Since our human nature cannot be fulfilled except in community, the gift of the Christian life can be lived only in community as well: that community we call the Church.
In Christ and in the Spirit
In each of our lives, there are many communities. We belong to clubs, classes, and professional associations: groupings of many kinds, formed when people decide to come together for one purpose or another. But in the church, we have a fellowship with God as well. He is part of our gathering, and He in fact is the One who has called us together in Christ.
This is what is meant when St. Paul, echoed by many Fathers, speaks of the Church as “the community of the Holy Spirit.” The Church is not simply a human community called together by like-minded persons in a religious bent. It is gathered by God whose Holy Spirit dwells in it, enlivens it, and makes its activities the occasion for divine action.
The Church is further described in the New Testament as ‘the body of Christ.’ This image says several things to us. First of all, it indicates that Christ is the Head of the body. He is the One who gives the direction, the energy, and the life to the entire organism. This image also speaks of the indescribable intimacy which exists between Christ and His church. There is no closer bond in existence than the union of the varied aspects of the human person. They share one life, affect one another in every way, and depend on one another as well. And, as the head does not exist without the other parts of the body, unlike our friend the Cheshire Cat, neither does Christ exist any longer without His Body, the Church.
We see this divine presence manifested in the variety of spiritual gifts which are continually bestowed on the Church. St. Paul described many of them. Some we might call extraordinary gifts, such as prophesying, healing, or working miracles. Other gifts involve authority, such as the exercise of headship: being an apostle or pastor. Still, other gifts are concerned with more ordinary activities of the body such as teaching, extending charity, and helping. In these, as well as the other gifts, that have become evident throughout the history of the Church, such as the witness of martyrdom or monasticism, we see the evidence that the Lord is within His community. These signs are the fruit of God’s presence in His people.
Another consistent sign of his presence is evident in the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments, when God answers the Church’s prayer to transform the situation into a vehicle of His presence. But the mysteries are not the only event in the Church’s life in which the presence of God is shown forth. Every aspect of the Church’s life can manifest the presence of God when its activities are conducted with the awareness of that presence and dependence on his guidance
And so, in all the facets of the church’s life, we find that we have been gifted by God with nothing less than His own presence in our midst. Whenever we receive a gift, we are called to respond to the giver by accepting what we have been given, by taking care of it, and by treating it with something of the care that we would show to the one who has given it to us. The same is true with the great mystery which is the Church. We are called to be stewards of this vehicle of God’s presence. Yet, at the same time, we know that many – perhaps most – church activities are conducted oblivious to the Spirit within and or to Christ its Head. As a result, they are sometimes fruitless, and at other times they may even manifest the presence of another spirit far from only. This is because, while the Spirit of God dwells in the Church, He does not oblige us to respond to His presence. Church life, like our own personal Christian life, is meant to be one of synergy, our conscious cooperation with God within. The Church is human as well as divine because it is us as well as it is God.
The tension between the presence of God in the Church and the effect of our broken human nature on Christians points to still another reality in the life of the Church. While the Church is essential to experiencing God’s plan for us, it is also an inadequate vehicle for seeing that plan fulfilled. This is because the Christian community is but a token or pledge of the Kingdom of God to come. In that kingdom, we will live in perfect harmony with the Lord, something only hinted at in the life of the Church today. But that life, which will be complete in eternity, has begun now in the Church. Here, it is possible to share the divine life, to live in fellowship with God, and to have the Spirit of God dwell within us. This is what the Church is all about, what all its structures, institutions, and rites are intended to reveal to us. Thus it is the Christian community itself which is, as St. Paul calls it, the temple of God in which His Spirit dwells (1 Cor 3:16). It is the building which we construct through our life together in Christ.
What is the “Local Church”?
When we speak of the church in the above images, we sometimes give the impression that we are describing an abstract or ideal Church. We may not see the presence of God in our personal experience of Church. Perhaps this has been partly responsible for the tendency to think of the Church as a world institution of which we are simply a division. Many people have come to see their local parish or diocese much like the local McDonald’s: a branch of a big, multinational corporation with national and state offices and identical outlets throughout the world. Wherever you go, you can find the same Big Mac and fries that you will get that sure hometown store.
This is not the image of the Church we find in Scripture and in the consistent tradition of the Christian East. Here the local Church is not portrayed as a ‘part’ of a universal Church. Rather the local Church is an incarnation of the entire Church, in heaven and on earth. Just as the risen Lord is fully present in each particle of the Holy Gifts which are “broken but never divided, eaten but never consumed”, so too, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, is fully present in each local Church throughout the world.
The average Christian tends to think of the “local church” as meaning the neighborhood parish. The Church’s understanding of that term is different. Rather a “local Church” is that group of believers gathered around its bishop with his priests and deacons, and which is in communion with its sister Churches throughout the world.
Let’s explore the various aspects of that definition.
First of all, as we have said above, the Church is a “who,” not a “where.” It consists of all those baptized in Christ, in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Because He is our bishop, Sayyidna is not more a member of the Church than the infant christened in the parish last Sunday. If your baptism has made you a member of Christ’s Body and a temple of his Holy Spirit, you have the fullness of Christian life in you. There isn’t any more.
The Spirit does give a variety of gifts to His Church. All these gifts are important, but the one that has been recognized since the first century as absolutely essential is the gift of overseeing the life of the community which is given to the bishop. He is the one who presides over the entire life of the community, especially the Divine Liturgy in which each local Church finds its identity. Thus the bishop is the focal point of unity in the local Church: you simply cannot have a Church without one. That is why St. Cyprian of Carthage would say, “The people united to their bishop, the flock clinging to their shepherd, are the Church. So you ought to know that, while the bishop is in the Church, the Church is also in the bishop” (Letter 66,8).
When we speak of local Church, then, we mean that community of the believers headed by its bishop which we have come to call by the institutional terms of eparchy or diocese.
At the beginning of the Church’s history, there was probably only one Christian community in a given area. Their bishop presided at a single liturgy which they all attended. In some respects, then, the local Church resembled the modern day parish. But because the church is not some kind of a monarchical state, the bishop in these communities was always surrounded by a group of presbyters or elders who were his advisers and associates in the ministry of the headship, and by another group, the deacons, who were responsible for the material affairs of the community. Because they had these positions of responsibility, they also had prominent roles in the worship of the community. The presbyters surrounded the bishop at the Holy Table and the deacons attended to the material requirements of the service
As a local church began to grow, subgroups developed, especially in outlying areas of the cities and it was increasingly difficult for everyone to gather in one place. So bishops began sending some of their presbyters out to these satellite groups as his representatives. Our modern day parrishes, under the leadership of a presbyter, are the results of this development. The parish, then, was a kind of mission from the bishop’s cathedral to accommodate those believers living far from the center of the local Church.
The bishops role as father of every parish in the diocese is expressed in many ways to this day. Most visible is the bishop’s chair traditionally found in every parish church, whether the bishop is present or not. It serves as a reminder of his relationship to the local parish. The bishop the is commemorated by name in all public offices of the Church (Liturgy, vespers, etc.) and, through his representative, the presbyter, is part of all activities of the parish.
Churches in Communion
No local church stands simply on its own feet. While each diocese fully reflects the entire Christian life, no diocese sprang into being in and of itself. A few local Churches, such as the Apostolic Sees of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch or Jerusalem, were gathered around the Lord’s own disciples. All the rest throughout the world are the daughter Churches of the others.
The life of the local Church is maintained and strengthened through its communion with its mother Church and also with all the other local Churches with which it shares the faith. Thus our identity as a local Church is ratified through our relationship with our mother Church, the patriarchate of Antioch, and through it with all the other local Churches throughout the world. The worldwide Church is, therefore, more a family of families than in international corporation.
All these dimensions to the local Church are fully realized in the Divine Liturgy, especially when celebrated by the bishop. Then the whole Church is seen as coming together to experience and celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit working in its midst. Bishops, presbyters, and deacons, surrounded by all the faithful, come before the Father with the assurance of an adopted family, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our communion with other local Churches is expressed as well. As the Bishop prepares to receive the gifts, he opens the antimension, the decorated altarpiece signed and blessed by the patriarch as a sign of communion. The bishop’s response is to pray for the patriarch and synod and, through them, the Pope and all other bishops with whom we are in communion. Thus the fullness of the Church is made manifest in unity.
It is in this vision of Church that our own community, the diocese of Newton, has taken shape and lives. But every vision must be realized in the concrete, unless it is to remain the only a dream. And so, to know the Temple of God which is our local Church, we must begin to look at the living stones of which it is being built: to see who they are and what they are doing to realize this vision for our day.
For your reflection
- 1. When I hear the word “Church” do I think of:
- “Us” or “them”?
- A building or people?
- A parish, the diocese, or the worldwide body?
- An institution or a community?
- 2. Does the description of our local Church in this chapter differ from my previous idea about what a local church is? If so, how?