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    The Church Is an Institution

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 4:32 PM [General]

    I've just come across this response to the 2009 General Convention (of the Episcopal Church, if that doesn't go without saying) from someone who is (as far as I can tell from his blog) a progressive leader in the emergent church movement:

    When did we come so far off the rails that the words “convention,” “legislative,” and “committees” become constitutive of our promulgation of the gospel? My favorite tweet came a couple days ago from a clergywoman (“rev” was part of her Twitter handle!) that simply read, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGH!!!!”

    [. . .]

    I implore [my Episcopal friends] to look beyond the gay issue. The bigger issue is that they employ amedieval form of church polity strange hybrid of medi...bishops, dioceses, sextons) and modern (legislation, amendments, committees) polities, which will inevitably fail in this postmodern, wiki-world.
    Since Circle of Hope, the church (if I'm even allowed to call it that) I attend on Sunday evenings and am associated with in a myriad of other ways, has a lot in common with the emergent church movement (including what I perceive as its fundamental conservatism), this sort of opinion isn't unfamiliar with it. And at the end of the day, I think it's just a sign of two radically different ecclesiologies held by different portions of the Body of Christ. (Unsurprisingly, I think one is right and one is wrong, and even less surprisingly, I think the one I hold is the right one.)

    Admittedly I give myself a huge amount of lattitude in interpreting the Creeds (and I am an Episcopalian because I don't feel I could give myself that much lattitude while remaining intellectually honest within the context of the Roman church), but the Creeds are central to my understanding of who I am as a Christian and what my relationship to and within the mystical Body of Christ is and should be. The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

    In a time when it might seem that everything in our denomination is up for grabs (and I'm not sure that it shouldn't be!), one of the real defining fundamentals of Episcopal practice is what is known as the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I'll pass on that Wikipedia tells us it is
    a four-point articulation of Anglican identity, often cited as encapsulating the fundamentals of the Communion's doctrine and as a reference-point for ecumenical discussion with other Christian denominations. The four points are:
    1. The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation;
    2. The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds), as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
    3. The Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
    4. The historic episcopate, locally adapted.
    The Church is an institution. Furthermore, it is an institution which, while currently fragmented, strives for unity and catholicity--and every Episcopalian (like every Roman Catholic) prays for the eventual restoration of unity to the Church even as we recognize the deeper, more fundamental unity and catholicity of the Body of Christ can never be broken. While "the Church may have fallen into schism within itself and its several provinces or groups of provinces be out of communion with each other, each may yet be a branch of the one Church of Christ, provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church and to maintain the Apostolic Succession of its bishops" (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, as quoted in Wikipedia). Questioning the institutionality of the Church would be, to me, something akin to questioning whether the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally begotten from the First (not that questioning anythingshould ever be out of bounds!). Most fundamentally, I eschew the individualist impulse of Protestantism which places the piety of the single believer above the sacramental life of the community.

    For me, that comes with the whole hierarchy of bishops, priests, deacons, and lay members as a traditional organization which has not yet outlived its usefulness. The episcopate is necessary for apostolic succession (obviously). The diaconate is Biblical. And I affirm the value of the ordained presbyterate (of all races, genders, and sexualities) to act as the representative of Christ (in persona Christi) in the ex opere operato celebration of the sacraments ("magic Jesus hands," etc.). 

    This does not mean there is not plenty of space to do and be "a new thing" while continuing the work of the historic, institutional Church--especially as our understanding of just what it is the Church is called to do improves over time. An Episcopal parish (or any other liturgical-ish mainline congregation) can and should bear a lot of the hallmarks of an emergent church, very possibly operating out of a store front or a movie theatre, while all the time retaining the value and strength which comes from having as a resource the cathedral which houses the See of a member of the historic episcopate (or non-historic episcopate, for the Methodists relevant Protestant denominations). And of course it doesn't mean that I think the Episcopal Church--or any other church--can survive without an involved, active, and dynamic laity which takes leadership roles. (The founder of the religious order which ran my high school was, after all, the patron saint of lay ministers.) But I don't think there's anyone in any of the liturgical traditions who actually thinks that, and all the confusing voting is precisely in place to facilitate that as best it can. It's deliberately built into the very structure of the church polity in an attempt to distinguish TEC from the Church of England, where power flows (or at least flowed) from the top (the Sovereign) down. 

    So I think it's much too soon to conclude that TEC's "strange hybrid of medieval and modern polities [. . .] will inevitably fail in this postmodern, wiki-world." I think instead it has room within it to become an even stranger hybrid, to incorporate within itself postmodern strategies of engagement without having to throw out the medieval or the modern. (It's already incorporating those strategies in many cases.) That's what it means to be a broad church, a via media. The end result may look--no, will look--radically different than TEC does today, just as TEC looks pretty darn different than it did a hundred years, or than the C of E did three hundred years ago, or than the RCC did a thousand years ago. But it'll still contain within itself those things which are fundamental to itself as an institution.

    Or to put it another way, the cathedrals aren't going anywhere.

    No, we're not Congregationalists, and at some point, a beaurocracy becomes necessary. But we're not Congregationalists precisely because we don't think being the Church is something that any congregation (or even any denomination!) is capable of being on its own, or should even try doing its small part outside of communion with the whole. Beaurocracy and hierarchy are an inevitable effect of our creedal attempts to, as part of our catholic tradition, actualize the unity and catholicity and apostolicity of the Body, while being respectful of the diversity of beliefs and practices which exist within our Communion.

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