Being ‘Catholic’, that is, having an idea of the ‘whole’ of the Church in times of change

In the late nineteenth century, the Church began to care for the poor in ways that had not been seen before. So the idea was born, for our times  at least, of the ‘welfare state’, which came to its fullest expression in the UK after World War 2. But after a while, the idea of ‘looking after people’ gave rise to the profession of ‘Social Work.’ People now prepare for this profession in the universities, and ground their work not in the love of God, but in other forms of thought.  So something that was once connected  to the Church ends up wanting its own life, and then goes its separate ways.

This kind of movement happened within the Church too. The Baptists had a great idea about wanting adults to come to faith, but made the mistake, I think, of building a whole denomination around it. So something that was once connected to the whole Church, with a particular genius, ends up being a bit narrow when it tries to be the whole thing. This happened to the Methodists too, and later to the Salvation Army.

I set all this background because, again, the church is in a time of change and development. Within the Church of England there is a movement called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’ which has a definite missionary impetus. These fresh expressions might take the form of moving to a Pub, and having a discussion, or doing what has been called ‘Messy Church’ where there is an activity for families with young Children, followed by a Bible Story and prayer that might go for 20 minutes. There are lots of other ‘Fresh Expressions’

But what worries me is the tendency for the part to think of itself as the whole, and for ‘Fresh Expressions’, which have their genesis in congregations, to become separated from congregations as they want to ‘grow up’ and take on independent identities for themselves.

So if ‘The Part’ is not to think of itself as ‘The Whole’ we need some way of thinking about ‘The Whole’ that relates each part to the other.  This is the origin of the word ‘Catholic’. It comes from Greek, meaning ‘kata-holos’ ,’according to the whole’. Each expression of Church needs to be an expression of ‘The Whole’, or needs to know how it is related to the whole of the Church.

This question was the one that exercised St. Paul and gave us the image of ‘The Body of Christ’. He says to the Corinthians, remember, ‘Can the hand say to the foot I don’t need you? Or the eye to the tongue, I don’t need you?’ Christ is the head of the Church, and the Spirit of Christ, in everyone means that everyone recognises the same Spirit at work in different places. Messy Church and Fresh Expressions are trying something new, but that does not mean that they are not dependent upon and part of the same Church that they are potentially separating from. The same is true of existing congregations. They too are part of ‘The Body of Christ’ and although they may look strange to newcomers,  the parish Church is also a legitimate ‘expression’ of Church. Messy Church and Parish Church belong together. So the first thing is a mutual recognition of the Spirit of Christ in the whole of the Church.

But I think that a way of thinking about ‘The Whole’ has to do with the central process that everyone shares, that is, the process of becoming Christian. Those of us who have been Christians for a long time need to be living the ‘Baptismal Life’. That is a life that is characterised by ‘dying – entombment- and rising.’ This is how we are being ‘changed from glory into glory’ as the hymn suggests. If we are not, then we are not a ‘fresh expression’ but a stale expression of Church, and if we are not bearing fruit, we deserve to be ‘cut off’. The process by which we became Christians in the first place is the process by which our lives are lived and we are renewed.

Interestingly enough, I saw this quote on the ‘linked In’ social networking site that I’m a member of. It is talking about ‘mentally strong’ people and says “Mentally strong people embrace change and they welcome challenge. Their biggest ‘fear’ ,if they have one, is not of the unknown, but of becoming complacent and stagnant. An environment of change and even uncertainty can energise a mentally strong person and bring out their best.” That is what a parish Church should look like, at its best.  

I remember a story from an evangelist who was converted as an adult. He said ‘I thought I was joining the Navy, Christ’s ship, and was ready for action. When I arrived in the ‘ship’ of the Church, I found that most of the people I met thought it was a retirement cruise.’ If we make claims for ourselves as the Church, then we need to be worthy of the name, so that when we receive new people, there is some place for them to go.

But how do ‘fresh expressions’ find themselves in relation to ‘the whole’? I think that they represent the evangelistic, mission edge of the whole Church. Here, we hold ‘enquiry groups’ for people who are ‘up to’ finding out about the faith, but we also hold discussions in the hotel after Eucharist in Villars, and our ‘movie nights’ and planned other activities are a form of ‘fresh expressions.’ The aim of the game is to invite these people into the life of Christ, within the context of this congregation. They also need to be ‘changed from glory into glory’ but at he moment, understanding the sacraments, participation in the Eucharist and so on are steps beyond them. But it is a mistake to think that a discussion in a pub or some form of ‘messy Church’ is the whole thing. It might be a form appropriate to where people are up to, but it is not the ‘whole thing’. Some modesty about how a person becomes a Christian, and what the whole process might look like would give the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement some
credibility.

I learned something about this from my younger sister. When my nephew was living in London he was going to ‘Hill Song’ church. It is not my cup of tea, and strikes me as a bit shallow. But unlike us, it speaks to a whole new generation that we do not.   I was speaking to my sister in these terms, and she said ‘Well he is going somewhere. He is still connected to the faith. That has to be better than not.’ When my nephew returned from the UK he joined, and made his contribution to his local Uniting Church. He seemed to have an idea of the ‘catholicity’ of the Church.

So it is easy to have an idea about ‘them’, when my commitments are to ‘us’. But the take home message for me about the discussion of ‘Messy Church’ or ‘Fresh Expressions’ is the one that says ‘how are we being renewed? How are we expressions of ‘Catholicity’ in the sense that we know and understand how to take people on the ‘whole journey’ from beginning to live the baptismal life as ‘fellow travellers’ to continuing to live this life of renewal as mature Christians. 

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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