There’s an idea about the church floating around, which is being represented as Anglican, and which strikes me as rather odd. The church, it seems, has no enduring or tangible existence, nor is it visible as a global entity, but it simply pops into the world, out of nowhere, in its entirety, whenever a group of Christians gather under the word of God.

This idea is being represented as Anglican, mainly on the basis of a misreading of Article 19, but also more recently based on a mix-up between two Hookers: Richard Hooker (1554-1600), a notable Anglican, and Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), a puritan congregationalist.

My purpose in this post is simply to assemble a few quotes in order to begin to trace the lineage of this understanding of the church. (I’m no expert on the topic, and would value any additional quotes and references in the comments.)

First, and most recently, we have William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, in a talk on ‘The Bible, sexuality and the Church of England’, delivered on 17 July 2019.

The recording begins with a correction (of sorts) about the two Hookers, clarifying which Hooker was quoted, but neglecting to mention the small detail that Thomas Hooker was not an Anglican. The section about the church begins just before 11:00.

So ‘church’ or ‘assembly’ is a gathering of God’s people under God’s word (12:10).

Taylor then explains that, biblically, this applies exclusively to two assemblies: the invisible universal church, and the local gathering of the church. This is all based on the assembly of Israel at Mount Horeb (Dt 4:9-10). This is taken to be the first ‘church’, which is reflected in the New Testament in the universal church as an invisible assembly (Heb 12:22-24). This eternal assembly is then manifested on a local level:

Church is any group of people gathered under the word of God (17:09).

There follows a discussion of Article 19, and a quote from a certain Hooker (from 17:45).

Second, William Taylor again, speaking at the inaugural ReNew Conference in 2013 (I believe; recording no longer available online):

For as good biblical Anglicans – true Anglicans – we believe:

  • that there is just one church, catholic and apostolic;
  • that this one church finds visible expression in the here-and-now, wherever groups of faithful Christians gather under the word of God;
  • and that such assemblies, churches, congregations, call them what you will, ought rightly to relate to one another with true confessional integrity (15:49).

Third, William Taylor again, earlier in 2013, speaking at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA) on ‘Ministry in a changing world’:

We believe in the local church. And if you go to Article 19 of the Church of England … (42:50).

Fourth, and probably most significantly for the British context, here is Sydney’s Phillip Jensen, speaking in London at the 1986 EMA on ‘God’s Plan and Pastors’:

I take it that the word ‘church’ mean an ‘assembly’ and a ‘gathering’ (24:25).

For example, in Acts 19:32, 39 and 40 uses the Greek word for ‘church’ to describe the crowd that gathered for a riot, and for the local council. Jensen then mentions various sources, such as Alan Stibbs’s book, The Church, Universal and Local.

Deuteronomy speaks of ‘the day of the church’ (9:10; 10:4; 18:16), referring to the gathering at Sinai, when

they gathered together around the voice of God to hear the word of the Lord. That is the church (27:40).

Next we head to Acts 7:38, where Stephen describes Moses as ‘in the church in the desert’.

What is the New Testament day of the church? Hebrews 12:22 (as above).

In the New Testament, the church is the gathering of the people of God to hear the voice of Christ … (31:15).

We then have the familiar misreading of Article 19, which (apparently)

defines the church as the gathering together of the faithful men to hear the word of God and have the sacraments rightly administered. The gathering of the faithful around the word of God. That’s how the Church of England defines the church (32:00).

What about today?

Whenever we gather, we gather in the name of Christ, Christ is in our midst … . What is the local meeting that we have? It’s the church of God. See, when Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:2) … he doesn’t say ‘I’m writing to a part of the church of God’. He writes to ‘the church of God, in Corinth’. The church of God is not made up of lots of different parts. So, the part that meets down there is part of the church of God, we’ll call it the ‘finger’ part, the part over there is the ‘brain’ part of the church of God. That’s not the body of Christ. Each congregation is the church of God. For when two or three gather in the name of Christ to hear the word of God, they are the assembly of God, they are the church of God. That is what the church is. … But the church of God is where Christ’s people gather to hear his word. Your home groups: they’re churches. They’re the church of God. They’re not part of the church of God. … The church is where Christ is. And where we gather in his name to hear his word, there he is, be there two of us, or three of us. He is there. That is the church of God (32:35).

Fifth, no doubt Jensen was influenced in Sydney by the Ecclesiology of Donald Robinson and D. Broughton Knox. As the blurb for a recent book by Chase R. Kuhn tells us,

For the past forty years the “Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology” has been the predominant ecclesiological model in the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church of Australia, one that emerged out of a series of theological contributions over two decades. The impact of this ecclesiology can be seen today across four continents (Australia, Europe, North America, Africa). … Here, the ecclesiologies of Donald W. B. Robinson (Vice Principal of Moore College 1959-1973, Archbishop of Sydney 1983-1992) and D. Broughton Knox (Principal of Moore College 1959-1985) are presented systematically, then analyzed and evaluated. Here, finally, is a thorough theological engagement with their provocative doctrine of the church.

In that book we find the connection with Alan Stibbs (1901-1971):

Robinson also became acquainted with Alan Stibbs while in the UK. Stibbs was one of the leaders of the evangelical resurgence in the UK in the mid-twentieth century and authored two small though influential books on ecclesiology [The Church, Universal and Local (1948) and God’s Church (1959)]. Stibbs and Robinson found great agreement on the nature of the church. Stibbs wrote [in his essay, ‘New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church’ (1950)],

‘To sum up the two sides of our Lord’s teaching about the church, we may say, on the one hand, that the one great church of God exists invisibly in the heavenly places. It is to Christians an object of faith, not of sight. On the other hand, the only thing that exists visibly in the world as an earthly counterpart to this heavenly fellowship is the local churches, the meeting together in many places of those who profess the faith of Christ.’

… These conclusions on the nature of the church led Stibbs, like Robinson, to find the notion of an ecumenical earthly church unbiblical (pp. 60-61).

More about from that essay by Stibbs is available in a blog post by David Clancey, who writes:

Stibbs[’s] concern is to show that this local gathering is the church; not just a part of it. In a very helpful illustration he draws our attention to the moon. When we see a crescent in the sky ‘one says not “there is part of the moon” but, “there is the moon”. For the part that is visible is genuine moon; and, what is more, it is actually, though to us invisibly, united with all the rest of the moon’ (234).

So our trail takes us back to Alan Stibbs. But was he the first to articulate this kind of ecclesiology? It would be interesting to know…