Which church?

I’m taking an ecclesiology class this semester, and classes started last night. Early in the discussion, there was a distinction made between the “congregation”, meaning the folks who gather to worship together in a particular place on Sunday, and the “church”, meaning the whole body of believers, all Christians everywhere.

This is not too dissimilar from the distinction between the “local church” and the “universal church” that I’m accustomed to; but I’ve found that at least in my tradition, I need to make more distinctions than that.

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for an earlier ecclesiology class, following the terminology used by Susan Wood in “Baptism and the Foundations of Communion,” in Baptism & the Unity of the Church:

For clarity, one may distinguish between:

  • the worshipping assembly (the people, with a priest, gathered around the altar for the 10am service at St. Mark’s church on Main Street),
  • the parish (the community, with its priests, one of whom serves as pastor, that gathers at St. Mark’s at various times),
  • the local church (the community with its priests and bishop that gathers – in spirit if not in body – around the altar at the cathedral downtown),
  • the confessional communion (the network of local churches in full communion with each other through their bishops),
  • the Church of Christ on earth (all living Christians, in various confessional communions and independent churches),
  • and the una sancta (the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, that includes all times and all places; the church of the creed).

The term “universal church” has been used to variously signify one of the latter three, and will therefore be avoided except in direct quotation. (As the meaning of the unadorned term “Catholic” is a matter of contention between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, it too will be avoided.)

A challenge for me as a Roman Catholic studying in an ecumenical context has been the decentering of the Roman Catholic church from ecclesiological discourse. I ran into this in my very first experience with the EI: the class I sat in on during shadowing week was a course in the history of the ecumenical movement, and it only gradually penetrated that when the professor said “the church”, he didn’t mean what I was used to hearing. I remember it was quite disorienting, the more so because I had not expected it: I’d been engaged with non-Catholic interlocutors in informal discussions and study groups for quite some time, so I’d thought that I was not only prepared for, but accustomed to, ecumenical discourse. Surprise! All those earlier discussions had taken place within a RC framework. It makes a difference!

The RC church tends to get sloppy in the “universal church” language because it is our self-understanding, as articulated in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, that the church of the creed “subsists in” the Catholic Church which is centered in Rome. (“although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” LG I.8)

(What does “subsists in” mean, exactly? I think that it was deliberately left ambiguous. More specific language was rejected. I hear it with the following connotations: abides in, manifests in, is manifested in, is the primary earthly locus of, is in some sense identified with; but is definitely *not* equivalent to, strictly identified with, or coterminous with.)

Looking back with a little more experience in decentering the RC church from the discourse, I can see that this taxonomy applies primarily to episocopal churches, in which there exist bishops who preside and oversee one or more congregations and who function as an instrument of unity through their communion with their fellow bishops.

For non-episcopal churches, it seems that the worshipping assembly, the parish, and the local church are collapsed into a single entity, which one might call the local church or the congregation.

These local churches may still belong to a larger entity resembling a confessional communion, although its structure, conditions, and ecclesial status may vary. For example, if I understand correctly, the UCC churches understand themselves to be in covenant with each other as a sacred responsibility and essential element of their self-understanding as church, whereas the Baptist churches understand themselves to be affiliated with a network of other Baptist churches as a matter of convenience and efficiency in doing the Lord’s work, but this network does not constitute a larger “church” in any way.

The free church tradition, particularly, will tend to see no intermediate ecclesial structure between the local congregation and the Church of Christ on earth. However even episcopally-organized churches may highlight only these two elements in their worship; I’ve spoken to Lutheran friends who clearly think of “the church” as meaning either “the local congregation” or “the Church of Christ on earth”.

I know almost nothing about how the relationship between the Church of Christ on earth, and the una sancta church of the Creed, is considered in Christian traditions other than my own, but it is significant to me because I think any good ecclesiology must be grounded in eschatology.

And of course, as a Roman Catholic, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, the friends we have in heaven are an active part of my faith tradition and of my worship life. It’s not that we worship the saints; we worship with the saints. One of my favorite parts of the liturgy is the moment at the end of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer. The presider invites us to join “with all the choirs of angels and saints”, and I picture them all gathered around the altar from heaven, singing with us as we sing:

Holy, holy, holy, LORD,
God of power and might!
Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
Hosanna in the highest!

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3 Responses to Which church?

  1. Bill Herdle says:

    There’s an inconsistency in your taxonomy that arises from assuming a continuity between church and religion. I’m used to using “church” to describe an organization like the RC Church that manifests in very physical ways, such as collecting funds, supporting a clergy, owning property, proselytizing and so forth. This definition works well for the first few levels of your taxonomy, but does not describe either of the last two, which depend on philosophical concepts and belong in a taxonomy of religion.

    The break between the first four and the last two categories is illustrated by the difficulty of placing RC Church into this taxonomy. It is larger than “the network of local churches in full communion with each other through their bishops” but it does not encompass “all living Christians”.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Actually, “the network of local churches in full communion with each other through their bishops” precisely describes the RC church, as articulated in Lumen Gentium 22 and 23. LG describes the bishops of all the local churches (that is, all the dioceses) as a “college” (in the sense of colleagues, collegial), but the idea is the same. The Pope is the head of the college of bishops by virtue of his position as the Bishop of Rome, which is his most ancient title. There’s a trace of this in our worship, as well; all the eucharistic prayers have a line something like “we offer [the eucharist] together with N. our Pope, N. our bishop, and all the bishops.”

    (More precisely, this description applies to the Catholic Church, which consists of the Roman Catholic Church plus a number of smaller rites that are in communion with Rome.)

    The communion is not just philosophical, based on shared doctrine and understanding of the gospel, but also juridical and organizational. This can be seen more clearly perhaps in the Anglican Communion, which doesn’t have an equivalent of the Pope but does have a structure of governance that involves all the bishops.

    But your point about the first three elements having a more concrete, physical manifestation is interesting. I think this is to some extent an issue of scale: people tend to encounter physical manifestations of the church only on the scale of a reasonably-sized human community.

  3. thewaterisfine says:

    Coming from a faith tradition that has utterly NO emphasis on the una sancta, that has been a draw to me in the Episcopal church. I don’t think we manage to incorporate as full and deep an appreciation of the great communion of saints as the RC does, but it has been a powerful and (relatively) new experience for me to, as you say, worship with the saints of the church. The experience of our faith as existing across the temporal barriers of time and space has been an incredible revelation for me in worship. It’s pretty incredible to think about!

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