Note: this a transcript of her address, not a formal paper.
In 1902, Fr. Alfred Loisy, that infamous father of Roman Catholic biblical modernism, quipped, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and it was the Church that arrived!” His rueful remark encapsulates not only his personal rebellion against the hierarchy of Rome, but also the attitude of many Christians who concentrate upon Jesus, rather than upon what they label “the institutional church.” The latter, with its many flaws, inconsistencies, scandals, oppressive structures, ineffectual interventions, and divisions, is for them at best an embarrassment and at worst a liability. In our darker moments, no doubt each of us might be tempted to empathize.
How far these attitudes are from the depiction of the Church in the New Testament! “I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mat 16:18 RSV); “God obtained his church… with the blood of his own Son” (Act 20:28 RSV); “Christ … [is] the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-2:1 RSV); “through the church the manifold wisdom of God [may] now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10 RSV); “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27 RSV); “Christ nourishes and cherishes the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29-30 RSV); “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32 RSV); “The Church of the living God [is] the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1Ti 3:15 RSV).
When Bishops Keith Ackerman and Michael Nazir Ali first planned this conference, their aim was to help us to dig behind the presenting symptoms of our day to the root problems. A “faulty ecclesiology”—that is, a mistaken doctrine of the Church—was one of the difficulties that they discerned. It is certainly the case that ecclesiology appears is a, perhaps the major point of debate among thoughtful Christians in the twenty-first century. This is a natural development from the global nature of our world and the failure of the Protestant experiment, as major denominations implode, and novel communities multiply like rabbits. We have also seen an abating of hostility against Roman Catholicism by many Protestants, a new awareness of the Eastern Orthodox community, and a newfound interest in what is called “Great Tradition” of the Church, by those weary of novelty and in search of roots. What IS the Church? Where is it to be found? What are its characteristics? This has been, indeed, my own search over the past 40 or so years, as I moved from the nonsacramental and missional Salvation Army, through a significant sojourn of 25 years as an Anglican (with a small detour midway in a “non-denominational” community) and into the ancient Orthodox Church, specifically the Antiochian jurisdiction, where Christians first took that name, back in the days of the apostle Paul. In the Salvation Army, I met Jesus; in the Anglican communion, I grew to love worship; in Orthodoxy, I met the Church, with all her saints, past and present. I am delighted that his Grace Bishop Ackerman counts me his dear friend, and that he has trusted me to come and to speak to you about the nature of the Church: it is wonderful to be gathered with you all again!
This morning we will fasten upon three aspects of the Church, as opened up to us by the Bible, the Church fathers, and some helpful and holy contemporary theologians: these resources will surely help us to discover the mind of Christ. Let us, then, probe the nature of the Church as apostolic, conciliar and concrete.
I First, What does it mean to be apostolic?
Here we probe the very identity of the Church, who she is and with whom she is in fellowship. As St. Paul puts it, “God has appointed in the church first apostles” (1Co 12:28 RSV). His words should be uncontroversial, for they describe the actual flow of Church history. Our Lord chose twelve, whom he named apostles, and said to them: “those who receive you receive me and the One who sent me.” But this is not simply a historical reality, as though the apostles were merely the first witnesses or officers. Their firstness, their primacy, is also a mysterious present reality: consider John’s Holy City with its “twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14 RSV). What does one see when one looks at the Church?—first and foremost, the apostles!
Acts two describes for us the fledgling Church, giving a little vignette so that we can see how it looked, and understand better where we have come from. In the first place, the early Church was in the company of the Twelve.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. Acts 2:42-44
Look closely! Here Luke actually paints for us a word picture, placing the word “of the apostles” between the words for teaching and koinonia (communion, or fellowship): the teaching OF THE APOSTLES and the koinonia OF THE APOSTLES. Their being taught and being in fellowship with the apostles was also connected to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers—perhaps the prayers over the bread? When they gathered in worship with the twelve, then, they received the apostolic witness and teaching in the Liturgy of the Word (we Orthodox speak of the “little Entrance”) and then moved with the apostles into the Eucharist (for we Orthodox, the Great Entrance). Well, what was that teaching? What was that koinonia?
Listen in on Peter’s sermon, Acts 2:22-36: 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—23 this Jesus,1 delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because bit was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope.27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, band of that we all are witnesses.33 being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand,35 until I make your enemies your footstool.”‘36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Act 2:23-36 ESV)
Notice that St. Peter moves from the crowd away from the phenomenon of the Pentecostal signs, to JESUS, the center of the community. He uses Scripture and logic, telling the history of God’s actions in the world, and focusing upon God’s covenant with his people. He highlights the great victory, where Jesus vanquishes sin and death by his crucifixion and resurrection. He moves on to the ascension, that upward movement of Jesus which has a parallel downward movement of the Holy Spirit to stay with the Church, fulfilling God’s promises. The sermon closes with a call to them all that they repent and be baptized, all of them. The very center of it, remember, is Jesus himself, who received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, who has “poured out all this that you yourself are seeing and hearing,” says Peter. Repent, and believe, “And you [plural] will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself.”
Effectively Peter is saying, as he “stands with the eleven” “we are all witnesses”—come and join us in the household of the Holy Trinity, by being baptized into God’s name. Then, as those who respond are “added,” they go on to devote themselves to the whole of the apostles’ council and to their communion, their fellowship—a koinonia that is a manifestation of the Triune God. The converts enter into a larger company, a larger space, a larger action. It is not “me and Jesus” but “us.” Jesus is the centre of the communion, of the worship, a worship that involves the mind (as they hear the teaching and believe), the body (as they join themselves physically to the apostles and receive the sacraments) and the spirit—as they are made One by the Holy Spirit. Awe falls upon them all as their lives together are offered to God.
Please notice that we see here an actual connection with the apostles. It is not simply a matter of accepting what they have said, but of joining their company. Even the apostle Paul, though called exceptionally by Jesus in an extraordinary resurrection visitation, was instructed and baptized by Ananias, and was ratified by Barnabas, a delegate of the apostles, who introduced him to the Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch. Eventually, when there is controversy in the Church, St. Paul submits his teaching to the apostles, and shows his indebtedness, visiting Jerusalem for a meeting and bringing his collected alms to the poor there. Early Christianity knows nothing of the lone ranger missionary: the apostles are missional agents, but their presence also indicates the location of the Church. With them, mission and ecclesiology come together, as we should expect from our Lord’s commission to the apostles to go and baptize into the Trinitarian name.
Of course, simply being in physical connection is not a magical means of entering the church—consider the sad case of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit and to the apostles. It is not a mechanical means to fellowship with God—but it is those who are in actual connection with the apostles who are added to the Church. This real link continues throughout the Acts, as the message is taken to the Samaritans, and to the Gentiles. Always there is a tangible connection with the original twelve: their primacy is the way by which God builds his Church. As Paul Vallière reminds us, “Early Christian churches did not appear by autogenesis” (Conciliarity, ch 1).
What about today? Well, firstly, the Church acknowledges the “communion of saints.” God is the God of the living, not the dead, and so the apostles are still present to us as we worship. But there is another thing. We hear in the Acts that everywhere the delegates of the apostles went, they “appointed presbyters in every church, [and] with prayer and fasting committed them to the Lord” (Act 14:23). This involved bodies (prayer and fasting), and hands, just as hands were also imposed to give the gift of the Holy Spirit to Christians in general (Acts 8:18; 2 Tim 1:6). Again, there is an actual connection: hands laid upon Saul; Paul’s hands upon Timothy, and so on. It is God’s work, but involves human action. This may seem oddly specific, but it is important, for we are physical as well as spiritual and conceptual beings. It is no more odd, is it, than the continued practice of immersing in water or consecrating bread and wine?
Yet, there is a common Protestant impulse that dismisses this element of tangible mystery in our connection to Christ and the apostles. One prominent scholar involved in historical Jesus research pictures Jesus as a countercultural philosopher and teacher of life, who challenges those who are watching him, “See how it’s done: you can do it, also!” In his estimation, Jesus simply passes on a lifestyle, not himself. Jesus’ sheep know better, of course. But it is perhaps more tempting to adopt a similar view with regards to the apostles, thinking that their sole function was to make sure that the message about Jesus did not die out, and that all that they have taught us is now safely enshrined in the Scriptures, for each individual to read and put into practice. This is not the picture that we get in the Scriptures, where the apostles send delegates, who appoint elders, and where deacons have a ministry, nor in the second century, where the three-fold order emerges with clarity. Bishop Papias, for example, said that he gave priority the living voice of, for example, Polycarp, who had been with the John: “If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regards to the words of the elders [or apostles].” It was the link with the actual persons that mattered, for they had known the apostles, who had personally been with Jesus. In the same way, St. Irenaeus speaks about the rule of faith, received personally from the apostles as powerful enough to prevent an illiterate Christian, one who could not read Scriptures, from giving in to heretics!
One theologian puts it this way, “Just as the Apostle Peter is the rock upon which the …community is built, in the same way every bishop becomes the rock of his community. For St. Cyprian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and (Pseudo-)Dionysios, all the bishops are successors of Peter … The agreement among bishops is a sign of the faith of Peter” (Meyendorff, via Aghiorghoussis). Nor are we to think of the message trickling down, with fear of dilution or being distorted like broken telephone. This is because the succession of the apostles in the bishops is not merely institutional or “canonical,” but, as Fr. George Florovksy puts it, “the mystical foundation of Church unity.” Like the eucharist and baptism, something is going on here: the ongoing episcopate is “something other than a safeguard of historical continuity or of administrative cohesion. It is an ultimate means to keep the mystical identity of the Body through the ages” (Fl. Catholicity of Church, 16). It is more like the vitality of DNA, ensuring the continuous line of a family, than a business arrangement. It is in the episcopacy, in chrismation or confirmation, in the laying on of hands or the imposition of holy unction, that “Pentecost becomes universal and continuous” (16).
The primacy of the apostles and the bishops that have been appointed through them, then, is a sine qua non of the Church. They are the foundation of our mystical city, the necessary limbs of the Body of Christ. As some would say, the threefold order appears from the Scriptures and early Church history to be of the esse, and not merely the bene esse of the Church. That is, it is a matter of its very being (esse) and not simply its practical “well-being” (bene esse). Those of us who know the episcopacy up close and personal may smile a bit, as did, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who, according to Metropolitan Ware, when asked whether bishops were an advantage to the Church said, “It is difficult to say that they are an advantage but they are essential.” But in the Church, the spiritual truth is clear: Cut flowers severed from the root can only survive so long. To be apostolic is to cleave to the apostolic and episcopal teaching AND koinonia, to be actually one with them.
All this may be making some here nervous: has Christ instituted a top-down hierarchy that rules the Church, and if so, what happens when a bishop goes rogue? Is there a balancing feature in the Church to keep primacy honest and true? Yes, alongside primacy there is the characteristic of conciliarity. The thing about a council is that in it, a bishop is simply among his peers, and no longer the leader of his own flock: thus conciliarity stands in “creative tension” with primacy. Who are we in the Church?—we are people in personal connection with the apostles and their successors. But HOW are we in the Church?—we are conciliar, from the inside out, from head to toe.
II What does it mean to be conciliar?
Here we concentrate upon the mode of our existence—the HOW… If apostolic is connection with twelve persons, with who they are, then to be conciliar, that is, to be shaped by and expressed in councils. This is to understand the Church in connection with an event, or action—a WAY of being. To be sure, not all have celebrated councils, so that the word “synodophobia” (Hans Raun Iversen (synodofobi), Critique of Churchless Christianity) recently has been coined. Even in past days, at least one great was skeptical of the value of formal councils of bishops. For example, in 382, Gregory the Theologian explained to his friend Procopius, “I am determined to avoid every assembly of bishops. I have never seen a single instance in which a synod did any good. Strife and ambition dominate them to an incredible degree….From councils and synods I will keep myself at a distance, for I have experienced that most of them, to speak with moderation, are not worth much….I will not sit in the seat of synods, while geese and cranes confused wrangle. Discord is there, and shameful things, hidden before, are gathered into one meeting of rivals.”
On the other hand, we must deal with the reality of the Church, and how she has expressed herself from the very beginning. Perhaps we can begin not with formal and regular councils, but with the general idea of meeting together for consultation and decision. Let us remember, for example, that the very word “church” means “those called out” (together), and that the time of worship is described as a synaxis—a Greek word related to “synagogue,” a “gathering together.” If the Church is expressed by its coming together, then gathering is at the very center of her being. As Alexander Schmemann—of blessed memory—puts it: “Before we understand the place and the function of the council in the Church , we must…see the Church herself as a council” (“Toward a Theology of Councils,” in Church, World, Mission: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the West, St Vladimir’s, 1979, 163).
Consider, for example, this famous icon of Pentecost, where the apostles appear to be gathered around a table for consultation, as the rulers of the Gentile world waits outside the door to hear the gospel and respond. As a contemporary Anglican theologian puts it, ““Councils are one of the signature institutions of the Christian tradition” (Vallière). Anyone with a Russian background will not be surprised, for in their recitation of the creed, the adjectival form of “conciliar” is used as a Slavic equivalent of “catholic”—“I believe in the holy, sobornuiu (conciliar) Church.” The Russian word “sobor” is the word for “council” from which we get the neologism sobornost, a Russian word now being used by theologians to encourage the conciliar nature of the Church. This is not such a bad translation, is it, since “catholic” means literally, “according to the whole”, and evokes the idea of the whole Church living and deciding together. If the Church can be aptly described in the Russian translation of the creed as a body that lives in a conciliar way, then conciliarity is no marginal matter. As theologian Nikolai Afanas’ev said, “at the moment of its establishment the church contained within itself a potential council.” (Tserkovnye sobory I ikh proiskhozhdenie, 2003)
The earliest stories, of course, show this to be so. Consider The Acts of the Apostles, which deals carefully with questions of authority and decision-making, giving us illustrations and patterns to follow. Acts 11:1-18 shows God’s family in deliberation after the Holy Spirit has acted dramatically among some of their number. (Read) This passage comes after a series of visions and encounters between God and his servants Peter and Cornelius, and between the apostle Peter (with his friends) and a household of Gentiles who come to conversion. The passage is remarkable because it is a great coming together of three narratives—the story of the Spirit’s dealings with Peter, the story of the Spirit’s dealings with Cornelius, and the story of the Spirit’s dealings with believers in Jerusalem. In this three-layered narrative we find visions (the visions of both Peter who sees the sheet of unclean animals, and of Cornelius who sees an angel coming into his house). We also hear these same visions reported several times, slightly added to with each telling; we hear words from God that accompany the visions, we listen to a sermon and a speech, and we learn about an early Church debate. What a drama!
A chart may help us to see exactly how the story unfolds:
Vision Ia Cornelius and Angel (10:1-8)
Vision Ib Cornelius and Angel (10:22-26)
Vision IIa Peter and Animals (10:9-20)
Vision IIb Peter and Animals (10:27-29)
Vision Ic Cornelius and Angel (10:30-33)
Peter’s Missionary Speech (10:34-43)
Jesus is Lord of all…
everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness
Dramatic action of the Spirit
Peter’s “Defense” , including Vision IIc and Id (11:1-18)
Setting and Accusation against Peter: you entered a Gentile’s house
Vision Id Peter retells Cornelius’ vision Vision IIc=Peter retells his vision
Confirmed by remembering:
God’s Action at Pentecost
The Word of the Lord
And by reasonable interpretation Then the whole Church concludes! (verse 18)
This complex story framework, with its embedded visions, enacts a new chapter in Luke’s presentation of the experience of the early church. We are dealing with a pivotal episode! Indeed, this episode is so important in the book of Acts, that it is also referred to later in chapter 15, in the first ecumenical council of the church. Also, the many tellings of the visions, and the repeated words from the Lord give us the sense of something very weighty going on. [go back a slide] There is also that neat literary way in which both of the key players—Cornelius and Peter—each have a vision about the other, and thus are brought together. (The Roman numeral I refers to the vision of Cornelius and its retelling, and Roman numeral II refers to the vision of Peter and its retelling.) [go forward again] Cornelius actually had a vision of an ANGEL STANDING IN HIS HOUSE, and the whole trial at the end of the chapter is about whether the holy people of God are allowed to enter into Gentile territory without being made unclean. Perhaps we think that Peter’s vision is about whether Christians have permission to eat food that is not kosher—remember that he has a sheet of unclean animals let down from heaven 3 times, and is told to kill and eat? Well, perhaps food is involved, but the vision is not primarily about food. It is about Cornelius’s household, about those outside of the household of God, who will be cleansed and brought inside. How? By the holy entering into their domain. Just as the Lord Jesus has entered into our fallen world, so Peter is called to enter into the world of the Gentiles, even to eat with them! Peter’s imagination is prepared for this by the vision, and his way is paved for him by an angel, a holy angel, who has already entered into Cornelius’s gates. The whole complicated story moves towards a decision, or rather, a recognition by the church of what God is doing. In the final verse, the apostles declare (11:18)—”So then God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Let’s carefully consider the interplay of the various authorities that God has given to his people–the Scriptures, the living life of the faithful Church, and the wisdom and authority of godly leaders. Let’s also talk about how these authorities come together, rather than collide, and how we can avoid the trap of seeing these in conflict, as some do today. The story and decision-making that we see in Acts 10-11, then Acts 15, and finally a later notice in Acts, can help us.
First, there is the double-vision strategy that God uses in this story—God says complementary things, things that fit together, to more than one person. While the Spirit is speaking to Cornelius, he is also speaking to Peter. Cornelius is not alone, nor is Peter—they have representatives, who stand in solidarity, explaining to each other how it is that God seems to be acting (10:7, 22, 23). Now, of course this is a famous strategy in literature, and we have seen it already in Acts, used by Luke (who was an educated author): remember how Saul has a vision at the same time that Ananias has a vision that he must go and heal Saul? But it isn’t just a strategy—it is a sign of how God works. We are not isolated individuals in the Church, nor have we been created to be islands, alone. “It is not good for man to be alone” was God’s first word of critique at the dawn of creation. This is not just a principle of who we are, but also of how we are to understand, even understand the Bible. Consider the fact that God has given to us four gospels! And 2 Peter 1: 20-21 says “First of all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture opens itself automatically to interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but holy human beings, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God.” The very structure of the story, then—people hearing words from God, seeing visions, and bringing these together for understanding—this structure shows how God works among us. Among US, not just in the imagination of one person. Notice how the twin visions are told over and over as the two primary actors come together (a total of 5 vision reports!), and then come to a climax in Peter’s missionary speech, where he says what God has shown him. Finally, the visions are again rehearsed as Peter defends himself, and helps the believers in Jerusalem to understand.
Secondly, this is not some brand-new thing that has no connection with the gospel. The story comes to its climax as Peter proclaims about Jesus, and as the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit. Indeed, what happens to them (10:44-48) is not seen as something unconnected with what God has been doing in the Church, for the Gentiles are immediately baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The coming together of Cornelius and his household and the apostle Peter makes this is a kind of twin Pentecost. Peter witnessed to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem on that first giving of the Spirit. Now he witnesses to the Gentiles, and also witnesses what the Holy Spirit does among them, so that he can explain to the rest of his colleagues what God is doing. And what he can tell them is that the effect of his preaching has caused the Gentiles to speak God’s very word and to praise God (10:46). The life, ministry, death, resurrection of Jesus has issued in an apostolic church that has power to proclaim God’s word, and that grows, because together believers come to know the One who is the word. ALL this is centered around Jesus, my friends, not around the mystical vision of Peter, nor the worthiness of Cornelius, nor the cleverness and boldness of the apostles. What is happening honours the Lord Jesus and raises him up, helping more and more voices to swell the chorus of those who tell the truth with joy.
Next, it is interesting how the meaning of the visions unfolds naturally in the story, and in the action. It isn’t a matter of someone seeing a vision, and someone clever figuring out what it means. Rather, Peter follows, step by step, God’s directions, as does Cornelius, as do the disciples in chapter 11, and God’s meaning becomes clear. This is different from some kinds of visionary literature, for example, the strange books that we call apocalypses. So naturally do the interpretations come, that we hardly notice them: “Do not call unclean what God has cleansed,” “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness”, “The Spirit told me not to make a distinction,” “So then, God has given even to the Gentiles repentance that leads to life.”
The whole thing unfolds like a tree, and we are drawn into the story. There is no sense of an esoteric vision, or mystery being “decoded” by an expert. Of course, the apostolic position of Peter and the others are important—for they have seen Jesus! But the whole church is in this together.
Okay, so far we’ve seen that God speaks to several people, in ways that harmonize.
Next, we’ve seen that what he says and shows is intimately connected with the Lord Jesus, and consistent with the gospel. Then, we’ve seen that it isn’t a matter of being clever in figuring out what God wants, in forcing the evidence to go in a certain way, or in a certain privileged person being given THE interpretation to pass on to others. The church sees this unfold, and interprets the meaning together. Peter has to learn, as well as the other apostles—they learn together with the Gentiles. Yet they do have a special role, don’t they. For they have been with Jesus, and they know his style of ministry, his way of calling to repentance and cleansing and healing.
There is yet another unifying factor that weaves its way throughout the story. Look how many times in the story people pray: 10:2, Cornelius prays; 10:4 the angel speaks about Cornelius praying, 10:9, Peter prays, in chapter 11, Peter explains about how he was praying, and once the assembly in Jerusalem has heard about the whole thing, they stop attacking Peter, and praise God! Chapter 11 begins by Jewish Christians questioning “Did Peter break the law?” It ends with an understanding that God has begun, through Peter, the mission to the Gentiles: “So then, to the Gentiles, God has also granted repentance unto life.” The issue of entry into Cornelius’s house is replaced by the issue of Gentile homes being united to the household of God. The whole assembly comes to understand this because they are thinking things through together, by prayer, by reference to what they know of the Lord Jesus, by listening to how the Holy Spirit has acted in harmony with the Gospel. The Church’s decision is made by seeking the face of God.
Let’s back up a bit and look at some of the aspects of Peter’s sermon in chapter 10: 36-43. Jesus is Lord of all, Jesus healed all who were oppressed, Jesus appeared, after his resurrection, to the apostles, who were to be witnesses. The prophets bear witness to him, that he is the means of forgiveness. Peter in this sermon assures Cornelius that the coming of Christ is the fulfilment of God’s dealings with Israel, the people whom Cornelius so much admires, because he is an adherent, if not a circumcised convert to Judaism. Cornelius, the Gentile, has even fallen at Peter’s feet! But Peter wants to make it clear to Cornelius that the whole role of the apostles is not that they should themselves be honoured like that, but that they should witness to the power of God and the lordship of Christ. As he does this, the Holy Spirit does his gracious work, and the Gentile church is born!
To sum up, then:
• The Holy Spirit directs us not idiosyncratically, but together.
• What the Spirit says is consonant with what the prophets have said in the past, and with the apostolic proclamation of Jesus, who came to heal us from death, sin and oppression.
• Discerning God’s will and truth is not a matter of figuring out an impenetrable mystery, nor do we need a special person to interpret it. We will come to these things together as a church.
• What the Spirit teaches will lift up the Lord Jesus.
• It is by prayer that we prepare to hear the word of the Lord and see what he wants us to see.
Amazingly, of course, Peter’s lesson had more in it than even he knew at the time. Five chapters later in Acts the Jerusalem council must meet solemnly to figure out what to do about the lifestyle of the Gentiles and the problems that table fellowship was posing for those Christians who were keeping kosher. This is the great apostolic council, in which they have to work things out further: part of their deliberations include a re-visiting of Peter’s vision and experience with the Gentiles in Cornelius’s house.
After Peter’s experience, an ad hoc meeting was called, which we read in chapter 11, to make sense of what had happened to one of them. The apostles concluded that Peter had been right to baptize the Gentiles, as we saw. But in chapter 15, the particular question of the Gentile converts and whether they had to keep the Torah, needed to be more formally decided, for it had become contentious. The answer to that was buried in Peter’s vision, but had not been clear to them at first. Sometimes a word from God contains more than we know at the time; sometimes a vision is deeper than we realized. But God does not contradict himself. And God continues to reveal things to us that are in continuity with the witness of the prophets and the apostles. When the leaders of the Church got together in Acts 15 to debate the question of Gentiles and kosher living, this was the outcome of the discussion. James, after listening to all the discussion, speaks for the entire assembly, and a letter is sent out to the new communities:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…
to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church…
and with this the words of the Prophets agree… (Acts 15:28; 15:22; 15:15)
If something strikes us as completely novel, not part of the story, or not honouring to the Lord Jesus, then we need to turn to prayer, and to the word, and to each other. For he is not a God of confusion, but of order and of truth! And this is not simply a matter for the bishops to determine, though the decision first comes from them. For later in the Acts of the Apostles, we read this about Paul and Barnabas: “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” (Act 16:4-5 ESV)
The proof of the pudding was, so to speak, in the eating—in this case, LITERALLY in the eating together of Jew and Gentile! That is, Paul and Barnabas had been at the great council recorded in Acts 15. They brought James’ declaration—which was the decision of the whole council—to the churches outside of Jerusalem, who clearly received the decision, since they were strengthened, and grew numerically. The insight of Peter with the Gentiles, approved by the apostles in chapter 11, clarified and extended to apply to all Gentiles in chapter 15, is received by all the churches, and health is the result. Clearly, the new churches who also read the Scriptures, saw the decision of Jerusalem as ratifying God’s promises to call the Gentiles: “I will give you as a light to the Gentiles” (Is. 49:6) and further back in God’s word to Abraham: “by your seed shall all the nations of the world be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). And so they received the decision from Jerusalem. Holy men and women spoke as born along by the Spirit—they spoke in harmony with what God has said in the past and was saying then to other saints. Here is the final step in our understanding of conciliarism—the decision making involves the whole church, though it is formally enacted by the episcopate.
The story is told of an Orthodox bishop in one of the Canadian northern territories who visits a parish for the first time. He celebrates the liturgy, preaches the sermon, and then offers to field questions from the congregation. He is barraged by a slew of very basic inquiries, “Who is Jesus? Whose Son is He? Why do we say, Our Father?” and so on. After about 10 minutes, he turns to his priest, and says, “Father, I mean no disrespect, but it seems that your people are not yet very well acquainted with Orthodoxy.” The priest, it is said, retorted, “Oh no, your Grace. My people are well acquainted with the faith, but they want to make sure that you are as well, for if you are not, you cannot be their bishop.” I’m not sure what the history of this little parish was with the episcopate, and why this happened, but it establishes an important point: the bishop (and his priest) lead the prayers: but the people must be able to say Amen! The Bishop ordains the priest, and bishops consecrate another bishop: but the people must be able to call out, “he is worthy!” The celebrant calls for the Holy Spirit to come down on the mysteries and on the assembly, but the people cry out “Amen, amen amen!” The laity, then, also plays a role in decision making. It receives, and assents—or perhaps not.
There have been, after all, illegitimate councils at various levels, even ecumenical levels, in the Church. There was the famous “Council of robbers” in 449 that mistook the natures of Jesus Christ, and that made its decisions in an irregular fashion. Most of the Church, east and west, accepts seven ecumenical councils, but the last three were rejected by many during the reformation—perhaps, now, with a better understanding, say, of icons, these decisions will be reconsidered by some Protestants. (Certainly it is the case that FIF has formally affirmed all seven councils. With regard to the last council, what was decided about icons, and its compatibility within Anglicanism, I recommend the wonderful article by the very Rev. Robert S. Munday, An Anglican View of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. I also urge those of you who are unsure, or who want to understand the issue better, to attend my dear friend Fr. Chad Hatfield’s discussion of icons!)
We have, all unaware, slid into the matter of ecumenical councils, formally called councils with participation of bishops from the entire Christian Church, in 325 (concerning the divinity of the Son), in 381 (concerning the divinity of the Spirit) in 431 (concerning the nature of Christ and holy Mary) in 451 (concerning the two natures of Christ) in 553 (when more was said about the Trinity and Christ); in 680 (when Christ was described as having a human and divine will) and finally, in 787 (which gave theological reasons for the use of icons in the Church) These major councils were interconnected with particular exigencies, and made decisions that were received by the Church, both east and west. There are those who think that the continuation of such councils is essential for the Church—this is the doctrine of conciliarity. I suspect that they are right, and yet I want to affirm that there are other means of vitality for the Church until that becomes possible, including our very dependence upon these ecumenical councils.
But the spirit of conciliarism is more basic than the calling of ecumenical councils for significant trouble-shooting. We meet together at various levels of our life together—as a parish, in a region, in a province, and so on. These different KINDS of councils have an old and august history, with provincial councils beginning in the fourth century, and the great council of metropolitans starting a little later in that same century. Such meetings are not uncomplicated in the divided state that Christians experience today. Consider the chequered history of the WCC, which has declared its existence to be pre-conciliar, that is, as merely moving towards the time when there will be a true ecumenical council again; yet it actually seems to take decisions, suggesting that think its authority to be actual. It is this confusion about power that has led some concerned traditionalists to eschew ecumenicism as an imposition and weakening power in the Church.
It would be truly wonderful, if the time could come when a Council could speak on behalf of all Christians, and could be sealed by a common eucharist, as the ecumenical councils appeared to have been. But all those who name Christ, even those who hold to the Nicene creed, are no longer in a position to practice the eucharist with each other. Nevertheless, there are some things that we can do. The French distinguish between different kinds of meetings, separating a “concile” from a “conseil”—the former is an episcopal body that makes decisions, later to be embraced by the people; in distinction, a conseil is a gathering for conversation, dispute, clarification of opinions, and possible advice. Our meeting here is a very lively conseil of Anglo-Catholics who may meet over eucharist—and you have invited some of us to be guests at the deliberations! There are other broader examples of conseil that have proven to be useful—for example, the Paradosis conference that I attended last fall along with other creedal Christians. At such events, we must not enter into communion prematurely. But we can make lasting friendships, pray together where the worship remains thoroughly Trinitarian and uncompromised, take council together to decide about matters of common cause, and come to understand each other, so that we do not caricature each other’s positions, As one who sojourned mostly among evangelical Anglicans, I had no idea, until researching for this paper, that any Anglican body formally accepted the seventh council! Thank you for the opportunity to understand you better, my anglo-Catholic friends.
As for what happens at councils, it must be admitted that there are no clear-cut external criteria to decide at the moment whether a council is binding or not. In the end, we come down to “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”, and time will tell whether a council was actually authoritative. Meyendorff reminds us, “True councils have always been spiritual events” (16). Again, “The authority of councils depends upon their being the true voice not only of episcopal, but also of ecclesial consensus… If this does not happen the council is rejected as a false council” (11). Here we must step carefully. It is important to remember that true ecumenical councils were rejected by many in their own day, such as during the Arian controversy: sometimes the minority can be right! At any rate, councils at various levels (whether concile or conseil) are essential events in the Church, and we are indebted to our forebears for braving the unpleasantness, even the danger, of disagreement, and for clarifying important matters for us. As the blessed Augustine put it, “They held to what they found in the Church; they taught what they had learned; what they had received from the Fathers, they transmitted to the children” (S. Augustine. C. Julian., II. 9). To meet for deliberation is essential to the health of the Church; moreover, it is expressive of her very nature. Speaking of the Church and her eucharist, the apostle declared, “We, though many, are one body” –just as the Holy Trinity is Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
So, then, the Church is apostolic in nature, and conciliar in nature. These adjectives describe the WHO (a matter of identity) and the HOW (a matter of mode or action). Of course, who we are is also tied up with how we act, so these things intersect. When John the Baptist send disciples to ask Jesus if he was “the one to come,” Jesus pointed to his actions of healing the sick, casting out demons, and preaching the gospel. When we ask about the Father, Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Incarnation is the ruling principle in our faith, not mere appearances or hints about God, but a revelation in Jesus the Christ. What you see is what you get.
Is that also true of the Church? I would like to finish by suggesting something that may be more challenging than the first few points, but which I believe is integrally connected with them. Just as the Church is apostolic and conciliar, so it is concrete.
III What does it mean to say the Church is concrete?
Here we are talking about the what-ness, the quality of the Church. In my seminary circles, many are now speaking about “being Church,” and avoiding the definite pronoun, “THE Church.” Let me remind us of the description of the early Church: they gave themselves to the teaching and to the communion of the apostles. They were numbered. They were recognizable. They were concrete. It wasn’t simply that someone read something that Peter or John had written, and said, “Yes, that rings true! Let’s believe this and create a church.” The concrete connection was part of the whole thing, including the extraordinary experience of St. Paul, an apostle untimely born—born prematurely, without all the preparation of the other 12. He joined himself to them! Indeed, this giving of ourselves to the apostles is enjoined in the catholic letters of the New Testament:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of a human being, but human beings spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pet 1:16-21)
Here the apostle says that they were eyewitnesses, and had the prophetic word confirmed to them by what they saw and heard. That more luminous lamp, their witness to what they saw, is the beacon for Christian today, who have need of the apostles and others in the Church. Being a Christian is not a matter of autonomously reading the Scriptures, but of understanding them in the light of the apostolic Church. And it is not simply a matter of doctrine: in the Johannine epistles, the elder speaks of the hearing, seeing and handling of the Word of life by the apostles, and calls his “children” into koinonia with the apostles and the holy Trinity: “the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1Jo 1:2-3 ESV). Second and Third John also speak about this fellowship as something that is not simply conceptual, but that happens when persons who have seen Jesus are in contact with others: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (so that our joy may be complete)” (2Jo 1:12; 3Jo 1:13-14 ESV).
Instead of this emphasis concerning actual contact with the apostles, by which we can know where the Church is, we find other ideas today in abundance: a misplaced humility that refuses to name the Church as a thing, but only speaks of her as a kind of action or mode, when we “live into our actions as church;” an institutional view of the churches that see them as organizations to gather together autonomous Christians for the purpose of encouragement; a conceptual view of the Church that defines this mystery only confessionally; a magnanimous but incoherent view that pictures the Church as a tree with various branches, though these branches have irreconcilable doctrines and practices; and, along with most of these, what I would call an docetic ecclesiology. “Docetism”, remember, was the doctrine that Jesus was not truly human, that he only appeared to be human, without a true bodily existence. We worship a God who truly became human, who became a zygote in the hallowed body of the Theotokos—that one whose womb was “more spacious than the heavens” because it contained God himself. Similarly, Jesus’ body today is not merely an appearance of an invisible Church: it is concrete, with recognizable characteristics: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. This involves an actual connection with the Lord in baptism and the sacraments, an actual connection with the apostles in our believing, worshipping, and structure as we gather around bishops consecrated by and after the apostles, an actual order in the service and leadership of our priests and deacons under our bishops, an actual participation with each other conciliarly, an actual connection of bishop with bishop, and an our actual connection with the saints and the angelic hosts in worship.
I realize that this is complicated to talk about, given the strange anomalies—let’s face it, the mess of today— with different groups that claim the label “church,” with some that eschew the word altogether, with overlapping jurisdictions within one communion, with communions in competition or collision. It is also important to remark that to say the Church is visible should not mean to remove her mystery, or to forget that she is not yet teleios, complete: Jesus gave us the parable of the weeds and tares, to which we must take heed. We do not see everything, and there are those who will be revealed as members of the body in due time. But we do see. And what we see is that Christianity is not simply a religion of the head (though our heads are important). Indeed, Jesus did not come to institute an “ity” or “ism” but to found his Church, a Holy Body with an identity, a mode of being and a recognizable shape: she is tangibly connected to the apostles and those whom they appointed, lives conciliarly in union with her bishops, and can be seen by those who are looking for her by what she professes, how she lives, and the company she keeps. One of the biggest challenges, I would venture to say, for Anglicans, is the continuing insistence that a common liturgy is sufficient for unity. Vallière is instructive here:
Episcopalians often claim that the unity of their church is grounded in a common liturgy rather than in doctrine or discipline, and they see this grounding as a good thing because it instantiates communion while allowing for diversity in the church: “We have different ideas about many things, even most things, but we still pray together” …Without a conciliar dimension the liturgical argument… licenses evasion of important theological issues and disciplinary needs.…Appealing to liturgy will not conjure away the divisions.
Vallière here is commending conciliarity as a means to get real. But such conciliarity itself must be real, not the kind of indaba dialogue seen in Lambeth 2008, which amounted, it seems to “a talking shop”—this is odd, since the Zulu process of indaba was actually instituted for adjudicating controversy, not simply for dialogue.
Conciliarity will only work if Anglicans—and others who join with them—truly represent the current state of affairs in our communities, offering a frank disclosure of differing views on the nature of the Church, on what happens in the sacraments, on the character of ordained ministry, and indeed on what is essential to the faith. It is not enough to gather around worshipful words that are differently interpreted by different members: all of us must truly learn, as St. Paul encourages the Corinthians “to say the same thing.” The same holds true, I would venture to say, for formal declarations: any common statement that comes from a gathering body is only as valid as its common interpretation by those who embrace it. Of course, a statement is meant to create a space within which there may be some variation of meaning—but it is not meant to host contradictions or incompatible views.
A recognition of the Church herself as genuinely apostolic, as conciliar in nature, and as concrete, is, I pray, a good beginning point. Nor must we despair concerning the current lack of consensus as we face the world. C. S. Lewis, who came from the outside, had some good words to say concerning this:
We are all rightly distressed…at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact, despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. (God In the Dock, in The Collected Works, 204)
“That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age.” Here is very practical advice—It is by looking to the apostles and Church fathers, and understanding them in relation to our own day that Christians can perceive the true nature of the Church. Lewis here gives the same advice as Fr George Florovsky, who in his untiring ecumenical discussions of the last century hoped by an illumination of the Fathers to recall his Christian friends to an “agreement with all the ages.” In all of our questions, the ancient Fathers remind us of this promise:
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:18-20 ESV)