by David Jennings
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018

The discipline of ecclesiology is the study of the church. What can be said of use about the contemporary church and its relevance and meaning?

If a stranger arriving at a town railway station were to enquire where the church was, a local might well point to a large building in the centre of the town, possibly with a prominent spire or tower. Those of us involved in the church know better: the church building is not to be confused with the church, the ecclesia, the community of the people of God. But do we not often confuse this ourselves?

Sometimes we refer to the ‘church family’. This begs an understanding of family that often can be exclusive, and even with a common understanding of what it is to be in a family, the definition is stretched when applied to those attending church, many of whom would not form part of what might be called a traditional family. Often it can be difficult to penetrate the walls of the family. It is recorded that a visiting bishop, observing the church notice board proclaiming that ‘all are welcome’, asked the congregation what part of the word ‘all’ they did not understand! A further confusion, especially in respect of the Church of England, is talk of church members. The Church of England is not a membership church with appropriate lists and subscriptions, though some might echo the words of Hamlet,

‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’.

The defining category for the C of E is parishioner rather than member. Membership of the church is conveyed through the sacrament of holy baptism; the liturgist Professor Paul Bradshaw once opined that baptism is the unrepeatable rite of initiation and the eucharist the repeatable rite.

How then can we describe and speak about the church; what could be a relevant and inclusive ecclesiology? The great Dutch Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx suggested that,

‘We need a bit of negative ecclesiology, church theology in a minor key, in order to do away with the centuries-long ecclesiocentrism of the empirical phenomenon of ‘Christian religion’: for the sake of God, for the sake of Jesus the Christ and for the sake of humankind’ (Church: The Human Story of God, SCM Press1990).

This represents a challenge for any church as it seeks to understand the human predicament and any appropriate ecclesiastical response that remains faithful to God in Christ in the contemporary situation. There is a real sense in which the Church must be seeking to constantly renew and reform. Such has been evidenced in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council, significant changes in the C of E, not least through liturgical renewal (the place where Anglican doctrine is to be experienced), and the ecumenical movement.

For the C of E, the parish church is the locus of the church, its activities and its mission, and such should be both affirmed and supported, not least by well-trained and competent parish priests. Furthermore, the parish church should be one of the foci within the community for issues arising and associated with the same. The church that loves and supports the community amongst whom it is set exposes itself to the risk of being loved in return. Giles Ecclestone pointed out,

‘applying this to the church at the local level, we can say that where members of the community project their concern about the meaning of life and death onto the parish church, and the clergy and congregation willingly accept these projections, then a fruitful encounter can follow. But if the local church does not accept such projections, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, positive and negative, then the church becomes increasingly cut off from its community’ (The Parish Church?, edited by Giles Ecclestone, A R Mowbray 1988).

Other projections can be equally important for the contemporary church.

At a time in the life of the Church when the parish church and parish clergy appear to be less valued and less resourced than other expressions of church life, both centrally and in new projects and programmes ostensibly designed and implemented to secure that rather nebulous concept called ‘church growth’, it is important to return to the presence of the parish church, which in itself can and must give added value to community life and engagement.

Parishioners will see through the somewhat quaint vanity projects designed and implemented to get them into church, whilst often neglecting real issues both at local and national levels, together with major international concerns. Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank suggest that the parish church is the

‘central emblem of Anglicanism’

and the commitment to nation and community that it represents, is completely undervalued. One of the saddest elements of the original Mission-shaped Church report was its attitude to Christian tradition and to the parish church in particular. It seemed that the parish was being asked to die so that new forms of ‘being church’ might live’ (For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions, SCM Press, 2010). There is much to consider in the light of this critique, and there is much ecclesiology to engage with at the present time. Perhaps a challenge comes from Alan Billings (a priest ordained in Leicester Cathedral and now Police Commissioner for South Yorkshire) when he throws the gauntlet down:

‘How ironical if the place of religion in public life in this country were to be undermined not by aggressive atheists… but by a certain type of Christian. The real enemies of the Church of England may not be without but within. But while some of those who are trying to change fundamentally the nature of the Church of England know exactly what they are doing, there are many more who have not understood just what is at stake’ (Lost Church: Why we must find it again, SPCK 2013).

Billings final sections address finding the human in the divine, purposive presence, and modesty, humility, service. Good ecclesiological principles!

What is ecclesiology? A study of the Church for our times; recognising gifts already received and experienced, and challenges for the future. An ecclesiological warning, however, from Bishop Richard Holloway:

‘its very existence now threatened, the Church is in danger of becoming a club for strict believers…’(Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, Canongate Books 2018).