I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Church. Why? I suppose I’m beginning to appreciate the importance of the Church as a visible community of people on the earth. When Jesus returns to the earth and everything is renewed, the earth will be cared for by a renewed humanity, with Jesus at its head. And the Church on earth in our day and age is that renewed humanity. Or, perhaps better, she is becoming that new humanity. The Church on earth is the outpost of a presently-unseen city. She is embedded in the world, but lives personally and socially and culturally according to the customs of that city, awaiting the day when that city will triumph over all the pale and oppressive imitations that currently dominate the earth.
So I really can’t continue to think of the Church primarily in invisible and “spiritual” terms, as though the visible Church on earth was no more than a temporary signpost pointing towards the real Church. I believe in one Church, not two churches.
So, as I was enjoying my first visit to Liverpool Central Library last week, taking careful note of where the books fell in the Dewey Decimal Classification, I was delighted to stumble across a small book on The Anglican Understanding of the Church by Paul Avis (1st edition, 2000). Delighted, because it was (1) about the Church, (2) about the Anglican understanding of the Church, and (3) small. So I borrowed it and read it (which is more than can be said for most of my books, which I tend to buy and not read). As I need to return the book to the library, permit me to jot down a couple of key points.
Central for Avis are the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist (the Lord’s Supper):
[B]aptism and the eucharist provide the primary ecclesiological condition for the mutual acceptance of one another as fellow Christians, united with one another through our union with Christ (p.49).
The sacraments thus have a vitally important role in making the Church visible, and lead us to work towards the visible unity of the Church.
Anglicans are committed, by their tradition of ecclesiology, to the visible expression of the Church’s unity. They do not believe that a spiritual, inward unity is enough. Article 19 of the Thirty-nine Articles focuses entirely on the visible Church. It defines it as ‘a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’ (p.76).
Avis first notes that “congregation” in this Article almost certainly refers to a national church made up of dioceses, rather than to a local worshipping congregation (the modern usage of the word). Then,
Second, contrary to a popular misconception, the churches of the Reformation — the Church of England among them — did not think of the Christian Church as essentially invisible. True, … there is undoubtedly an invisible dimension to Christ’s Church. But the Reformers did not believe that the true Church would ever cease to exist in a visible form on earth (p.77).
So the visible unity of the Church on earth is a real concern for Anglicans.
This concern is grounded for Anglicans in the normative model of the incarnation, which is the real visible embodiment of God in human life. The visibility of the Church, and therefore of its unity, is expressed in a number of ways: the public reading of the scriptures, the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, pastoral care, the exercise of episkope [oversight] and the practice of conciliarity in church government. These all entail visible, structural and institutional forms. They make us visible to each other and visible to the world (p.77f, emphasis added).
The Church became flesh, we might say.