Monday, Dec. 4, 2006  

What constitutes the Church as a Communion?

The Catholic Church: The Communion of the Holy

by Canon John H. Heidt
Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Fort Worth


For several years, from the 1970s when I first wrote a paper for Bishop Clarence Pope called Commucatio in Sacris, I have argued that Jesus founded the Church primarily as an inter-personal communion supported by juridical structures rather than as a juridical structure with various degrees of inter-personal communion. I am as convinced as ever that this is correct, and more and more people seem to be thinking the same. Among those who know the difference, many people find membership in the Anglican Communion far more important these days than membership in the Episcopal Church. Words like ”broken communion,” “impaired communion,” and “full communion” are bandied about with careless abandon. Yet the more they are bandied about, the less specific their meaning seems to become. The question presses upon us: What constitutes the Church as a Communion? What makes us a holy nation, a royal priesthood? What connection is there between the diocese of Fort Worth and the holy city New Jerusalem that St. John saw descending out of Heaven as a bride adorned for her husband?

This is the crucial question before us.

I realize now that in the past, when I have attempted to answer the question, I have started in the wrong place, examining the life of the church here on earth rather than the far greater reality of the church in heaven. Fearful of seeming too evangelical, I have not taken seriously enough St. Paul’s understanding of the church as the communion of saints, nor seen the significance of the close juxtaposition of the church with the communion of saints in the Apostles’ Creed - the two separated only by a semi-colon in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

We cannot understand the church in the present world unless we have some grasp of its character in the world to come. So this afternoon, having recently risen from under the surgeon’s knife, I want to try to redress the balance, though mindful that once in the past, when another attempt was made to write a theological dissertation from a hospital bed, we were all treated to [John A.T.] Robinson’s Honest to God. I will try to do better.

To gain a right perspective on the nature of the church, we must look primarily, though not entirely, to the world to come as pictured in the Book of Revelation. When we do, the first thing that strikes us is the dominant place of imagery and symbol in that world. It is a world full of palm branches, harps, and crystal seas, of crowns, thrones, and trumpets. It is a sacramental world, a world of holy things as well as holy people, a world of “mysteries.” (Revelation 1:20) Remembering C. S. Lewis’s comment that “people who cannot understand adult books shouldn’t read them,” we must not get bogged down trying to figure out the literal meaning of all the individual images. But their presence should be taken very seriously. Both in form and matter the Book of Revelation resonates with the sounds and images of a Solemn High Mass celebrated on a great Christian Festival. And herein we find the key for understanding the essential nature of the church as a communion.

The earthly church today is a pledge of that final day when it will become coterminous with the whole universe – or universes, if some contemporary physicists are to be believed. Like the church itself, the whole world to come will be a sacrament –or rather a sacrament of sacraments. For the last 30 or 40 years, ever since the more orthodox writings of the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, we have grown used to such talk. Everything has become a sacrament; Jesus is the sacrament of the Father, the church the sacrament of Christ, sex the sacrament of love, and so on. Much of this helps us talk about the analogical unity among all elements of the creation and between the creation and the Creator. But glib talk about a universal sacramentalism can easily lead us into mere insignificance as the English philosopher, Anthony Flew, warned us many years ago when he pointed out that if we call everything blue, ‘blue’ will have no meaning. We can only talk about the church as sacrament if we keep before us the inward and spiritual reality effected by its outward and visible signs. St. John’s Revelation is very clear about this. The inward reality is none other than the worship of the Lamb. Worship, not mission, not even salvation, is the focus and purpose of the church – the meaning and end or goal of the universe, the reason for all we do and for all that happens to us. In various degrees the church of the Parousia is a sacramental participation in the life of the Lamb as St. Paul described it in his letter to the Colossians:

“ share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves… He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

And not only do we participate in His glory but in his suffering as well, for St. Paul goes on to say, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” and “To them [the saints] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”  (Col. 1:12-29)

Here is full inter-communion with a vengeance, and it all centers in communion with Christ “who dwells in us and we in Him.”

There are degrees of participation in the heavenly church. Heaven is a Kingdom, one household with many rooms, neither a Republic nor a Democracy. The four and twenty elders are closer to the throne than others, and among them one is on the left and another on the right even though Jesus refused to say which would be which. Rank upon rank of the sons of Israel stand before the throne with the seal of God upon their foreheads, and myriads of martyrs from every nation stand about as far as the eye can see. There is a hierarchy of sacramental participation just as on earth there are degrees within the sacramental system itself, as our catechism and articles acknowledge. Here is hierarchy; here is holy order. And where there is order there is also law.

Throughout the entire Book of Revelation there is no mention of law, and St. Augustine argued that in Heaven there are no laws because there is no sin. As far as the moral law is concerned, he was quite right. One of the great things about the world to come is that no-one will be worrying about morality. Everyone will so enjoy being good, that they will have neither the time nor the energy to think or argue about being good.

Then St. Thomas Aquinas came along and pointed out that even though there is no sin in Heaven the saints still need someone to direct the traffic. It will make no difference whether they ride on the right or left hand side of the road, but someone will have to decide and the others will have to obey. The world to come, like the present one, will be a physical world, transfigured in one form or another but physical nonetheless, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace in which cars and trains and planes can give God the glory, but can also run into one another. We will all have resurrected bodies, but they will be bodies none the less. When St. Paul talks about our “spiritual bodies,” he is talking about bodies under the complete control of spirit, the perfect expression of who we really are. Our spiritual bodies will be outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual realities – perfect sacraments, just as the whole cosmos will be a perfect sacrament of the presence of the Lamb.

How then does all this relate to our portion of the church here on earth? What do the Revelatory images of St. John tell us about our own parishes and diocese? And what critical leverage do they bring to the current state of the Episcopal Church? For the writers of the epistles: SS. Paul, Peter and John, the author of Hebrews and others, there is a very intimate relationship between the communion of saints and the earthly church. They are the reality and we are the “shadow of things hoped for.” We are living in the world of C.S. Lewis’s Shadowlands.

In itself this all sounds very Platonic and can lead us to think that the real church is an invisible collection of individuals existing only in some vague ideal and unobtainable world that we just can’t quite put our finger on, a priesthood of all believers rather than a holy priesthood, one that can lead us to believe that we had better keep our eyes on the institutional church of this world and let the invisible heavenly church take care of itself.
But the relationship is much closer and deeper than this. The author of the letter to the Hebrews is quite clear. Though the tabernacle built by Moses was but a shadow of things to come, we live in the post-Mosaic dispensation in which Christ has made all the shadows real. As Hebrews tells us: “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3) And in different words St. Paul says much the same: “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”  (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. 1 Cor. 15:22-24)

Plato must be modified by Aristotle, just as St. Augustine had to be modified by St. Thomas. There is a wonderful and mysterious co-inherence in which the ideal is contained in the concrete, the universal in the particular, the throne of the Lamb in each of our parish tabernacles, the heavenly city in the Diocese of Fort Worth. When we begin the mass we kiss the altar to identify ourselves with the relics of one of the martyrs in heaven; when we consecrate the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of the Lamb, we turn this world’s goods into the building blocks of the world to come.

Just as in the Heavenly church there are degrees of participation in the life of the Lamb, so to a lesser extent the same is true of the church here on earth. We are all members of one body, but not to the same degree. St. Paul can address members of the Church in Corinth as saints and at the same time tell them to quit fornicating. The heavenly church is the model, the exemplar of the Church on earth. The church on earth is, if I may be excused for using the word one more time, an imperfect sacrament of the heavenly communion of saints, the City of God called out from the City of Man.

Yet we need not apologize for using sacramental language when talking about the earthly church, for she is a true sacrament, though due to the sins of her members, an imperfect one, much as priests are walking sacraments, though unworthy. Because we live in an imperfect church of unworthy ministers, the Lord has given us specific Sacraments as most sure and certain means of grace. And these are not open to a period of reception, because, by their very nature and purpose, any period of acknowledged doubt as to their reality or authenticity invalidates them ipso facto.

When we call the Church a Communion, we are talking about a sacramental communion, a communion of inter-personal relationships formed and sustained by assured sacramental means of grace not of our own choosing. All talk about impaired communion and broken communion has to do with whom we celebrate the sacraments and from whom we receive them. Broken Communion must be sacramentally broken, and impaired communion, sacramentally impaired.

All disorder in the church is a serious matter, but sacramental disorder is far more serious than a disordered faith, for while a disordered faith is detrimental to the spiritual well-being of the individual believer and to the church’s witness in the world, sacramental disorder destroys the church’s common good and its communal well-being. That so many of our people were far more distressed by the consecration of Vicki Gene Robinson than by the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was not symptomatic of Episcopalian faithfulness but of Episcopalian worldliness. It was not the Bible, nor the church’s tradition, nor moral theology that made Episcopalians spring into action, but the homophobic prejudices of the culture they inherited.

What then of the Episcopal Church as a whole? It has many ear-marks of being a Communion, united by “bonds of affection,” But in itself it is not a sacramental communion but an institution containing a sacramental order established and maintained by canon law. It is intended to support sacramental communion and all those “bonds of affection” which flow from it. This responsibility was abrogated in 1976 when General Convention disordered the church’s sacramental order and in so doing also destroyed its ecclesial authority. Power and political confrontation soon overcame rational discourse and adoration.

A body of laws which cannot be enforced by the consent of the faithful is no law, and with the loss of law the support and sustainer of sacramental communion has also been lost. Sacramental Inter-communion breaks up, both internally and ecumenically, and we are reduced to some form of congregationalism, forcing every Christian community, from the family to the diocese, to find a jurisdiction compatible with their own interpretation of scripture and tradition.

Yet it is in the sacramental life of the local congregation that we find the Catholic Church, neither at 815, nor for that matter in the Vatican or in any other particular jurisdiction. The problems confronting us do not stem from false jurisdictions but from sacramental disorder and the breaking of the sacramental bonds between heaven and earth. Only at the altars of our particular parishes will these be restored and disorder healed through priests faithfully and sacramentally united with their apostolic bishop.