The Church is the family of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. – The Book of Alternative Services.
Most Canadians, when asked what a “church” is, picture a building, perhaps of brick or white clapboard, with stained glass windows, gothic-style arched doors, a steeple or bell tower, and a cross on top. Perhaps if you asked about “The Church,” they might identify an institutional structure. Very few, I suspect, would talk about the family of God, the body of Christ, or the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“Ecclesiology” is the word theologians give to the study of the theology of the Church. Sometimes, ecclesiology starts from the Bible, or the traditional teachings of the Church through the centuries, to describe what we believe God wants the Church to be and do. Sometimes, it starts from examining how the Church manifests itself in the lived experience of Christians and seeks to discern what we learn about God from there. Often, ecclesiology moves back and forth between the two.
Ecclesiology matters. What we believe about the Church, what we believe about how God works through the Church, matters. It matters because it impacts all of our lives together. Yet, we don’t often talk about what we believe about the Church. What is the Church for? What makes a church, a church? How is God speaking to us through our church? How is God using our church to speak to the world?
For centuries, in the Church of England and its daughter churches throughout the communion, we’ve understood that:
Often, we’ve subconsciously qualified the equation, so that “building” is a certain kind of building (probably not a school gym, storefront, movie theatre, auditorium, or someone’s living room, although many churches do gather in such places). “Priest” is a seminary-educated person who works full time in the work of the congregation for a stipend (although in many places priests may not have seminary training, may not be paid, and may not work for the congregation full-time, part-time, or at all). “Sunday worship” may be Morning Prayer or Holy Eucharist in our subconscious minds, but it is likely led from a smaller burgundy-coloured book or a larger green-coloured book with a particular style of music and speaking, and leaders wearing certain kinds of clothing (although, in many churches, worship takes place on other days of the week and takes a myriad of different forms).
Some of those qualifications are part of our Anglican heritage; some of them likely come from the particular congregations to which we have belonged. Some of those qualifications are appropriate; they help us to understand who we are as Anglican Christians. Over time, we have come to understand how these traditions help to shape us and how we believe and live as followers of Jesus.
Some of those qualifications, however, are not helpful.
In the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, between 35 and 40 percent of our parishes actually fit into the above formula for what makes a church. The majority do not. Some don’t have their own building. Some don’t have their own priest, but are led by lay members of the parish, with a priest visiting from time-to-time to provide sacramental ministry. Some worship at times besides Sunday morning, and of course what that worship looks like varies significantly from place to place.
We know that New Testament churches were small, often no more than a couple of dozen people. They worshipped in the homes of believers or continued to attend community worship in synagogues; they didn’t have separate, set-apart buildings for “church.” They often worshipped on Sunday morning as “the Lord’s day,” to recall the day of Christ’s resurrection, but some continued the Jewish practice of Saturday worship. “Priests” weren’t called that yet, but it appears that particular leaders in their communities presided at worship and when they shared the Lord’s Supper (which took place in the context of a regular meal rather than as a separate, special rite).
It wasn’t for hundreds of years that Christians started to have separate buildings set aside for worship, and those buildings took many different shapes in different parts of the world. While bishops (overseers) and deacons are mentioned in scripture, it was a similar wait before the four-fold order of ministry we know – laity, deacons, priests, bishops – was established in any organized way. Initially, when there were only one or two congregations in a city, the bishop of that city was able to worship with every congregation every week. Only later, as the church grew, did local congregations raise up members to have hands laid upon them as priests, and these priests were still not dedicated full-time to the work of the Church, but rather simply served to officiate at worship. It would be even later that priest-as-career would develop, and priests appointed by a bishop from outside the worshipping community was a later development still. (Deacons were, and are still, normally members of the community raised up for this particular ministry of service to the most vulnerable.) While the first-century text, the Didache, outlines a form for Holy Communion we would recognize, the varieties of worship the Church has seen through its history is truly boggling.
If there’s one lesson ecclesiology teaches, it’s that, through all ages and through all cultures, there is both remarkable similarity and remarkable diversity in what we mean when we say “church.” Clothing and wording, buildings and clergy, so much can be different. But in all times and in all places, the Church is the family of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. As long as we’re remembering that, and striving to live it out, we are truly the Church.
Heather McCance is a priest who serves as Diocesan Ministry Developer for Rupert’s Land. When she’s not working, she might be at the gym, curled up with a good novel, or leading the 13th Winnipeg Brownies.