"I believe in ... the holy catholic church," we say in the Apostles' Creed.

So where is this "holy catholic church"?

One answer: the holy catholic church is nowhere. There is no church which is perfectly holy. And there is no church that functions perfectly as a coherent whole (cat-whole-ic).

Or perhaps better: the holy catholic church is not yet. When Christ returns, the church on that day will be perfectly holy, and perfectly catholic.

But what do we do now? Where is the church in the meantime?

The church today is becoming holy and catholic. It is tempting to choose one or the other: to look either for a holy church, or for a catholic church:

  1. First approach: the church should be as holy as possible. This leads naturally to a separatist kind of independency. I seek personally to be holy, and I join the holiest local congregation that I can (within reasonable practical limits). And that local congregation will associate loosely with other like-minded congregations. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the church. I am at liberty to ignore all other so-called "churches". I have no need of them. Holiness is the overriding consideration.
  2. Second approach: the church should be as catholic as possible. This leads naturally to the ecumenical movement. I want to identify with as many other Christians as I possibly can. So I will join a congregation of a large denomination. And within that denomination, I will seek to immerse myself in ecumenical activities. The goal is to have all people who call themselves Christians closely connected together within one "church". Doctrinal and ethical considerations are secondary; what matters is the unity of the church, and nothing should be allowed to threaten that. Catholicity is the overriding consideration.

I hope it's clear from those descriptions that I don't particularly like either approach. One's approach to church should show commitment both to holiness and to catholicity. What does this mean in practice?

  1. Catholicity should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to love the unlovely. Perfect (or near-perfect) holiness should not be a prerequisite for Christian fellowship. Within a congregation, those who are immature in their faith should be welcomed and loved into maturity. The same is true between congregations and between denominations. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21, ESV).
  2. Holiness should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to maintain the purity of the church. It should not be the case that every kind of error and vice is embraced and affirmed as being good. "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:11, ESV).

My own context is England, and the conservative evangelical part of the church. What might be the implications for me? I think the main danger within the conservative evangelical part of the church is to neglect catholicity. Conservative evangelicals tend to be strong on holiness, both of doctrine and of life, but most of these congregations seem to associate as little as they possibly can with congregations that wouldn't fit the conservative evangelical mould. And that seems to be true both outside and inside the Church of England. (Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the impression I get.) Efforts surely need to be made to express some kind of interdependence with congregations that are not (yet!) conservative evangelical congregations. This presumably means associating in a non-trivial way (more than the bare minimum possible) with congregations that wouldn't belong to the FIEC or a Gospel Partnership or Affinity or Church Society or Reform. Unless "conservative evangelical" and "Christian" are taken to be synonymous (and I don't think anyone claims they are), then a commitment to the catholicity of the church must surely be demonstrated by some kind of recognition of Christians outside of the conservative evangelical camp.

Speaking personally, I find myself somewhat drawn towards the Church of England as a result of this. It is (currently!) possible to be a conservative evangelical within the Church of England—in fact, most of the major conservative evangelical congregations in England belong to the Church of England. And being in the Church of England forces you to associate at least a tiny bit with the wider body of Christ. So if a conservative evangelical wanted to express some kind of commitment to a wider catholicity, it seems that being in the Church of England would provide a good starting point for that (better than being in an independent congregation).

Perhaps in a sense I'm saying that a greater commitment to catholicity will lead to a growth in holiness. Holiness comes as a consequence of the (catholic) church building itself up, and without some measure of catholicity, there will be very little growth in holiness. Individual Christians grow in holiness not primarily in isolation, but primarily through belonging to a local congregation. And as congregations recognise that they belong to each other, there will be a similar growth in holiness and maturity.

Comments very welcome...!