The Christian Church and the Wider Society
by Charles Davis
Chapter 5 from A Question of Conscience Hodder & Stoughton, 1967 pg 220-229
This brings me now to the final point in this discussion of the prospect
for the Church: the relation between the Christian Church and the wider or
inclusive society. Here I have to pick up again and apply what I have
already said about the social change from fixed hierarchical orders in a
closed situation to freely created organizations in an open situation. But
first I need to present what I consider a sound understanding of the nature
of the visible Church.
The visible Church is no longer regarded as the community of the exclusively saved. The problem of the salvation of the unevangelized came into theological prominence with the geographical discoveries of the fifteenth century, which made theologians aware of the millions of men cut off from the preaching of the Gospel. From that time onwards it was impossible to treat the unevangelized man of good will, living in ignorance of the Christian message, as an exceptional case to be solved by appeal to extraordinary interventions. After much complicated theological discussion, agreement has eventually been reached that the gifts of salvation are universally available outside the visible boundaries of the Church. All men, whatever their historical and cultural situation, can reach a faith and love, a sharing in the life proclaimed by Christ, sufficient to participate in redemption even here on earth. Since, according to Christian belief, there is no salvation apart from Christ, the universal availability of salvation implies a universal, though latent and unrecognized, presence of Christ in his saving activity. In brief, the saving gifts of Christ are not confined to the visible or empirical Church, but are present and operative throughout mankind. And the visible Church does not mark the limits of Christ's presence in the world; he is present universally within the historical process as a whole.
The recognition of the universal presence of Christ and his saving gifts demands a change in our understanding of the relation between the visible Church and the world. What it implies is the rejection of the concept of a secular, profane world from which the Church is set apart as the exclusive area of the sacred. Some writers have expressed this by saying that Christianity has abolished the distinction between the secular and the sacred. I think that this statement is too sweeping and creates confusion. Christianity retains and has indeed clarified the distinction between the secular and sacred .dimensions of reality and of man's existence. It is important to recognize both the autonomy of the secular and the transcendence of the sacred. But to distinguish secular and sacred within the complex totality of human existence, affected as this is by God's transcendent gift, is not to separate them. And the universality of the sacred, namely of God's saving gift through Christ, means that there is in the concrete no secular world, no merely natural or secular order standing over against the visible Church. The visible Church is not an enclosed sacred area within a profane world. There is no profane world in which to place it. The sacred gifts proclaimed by the Church are present throughout mankind and within human history as a whole. And if the world is understood in the Johannine sense as the realm of those who reject Christ's salvation, that world exists within the visible Church as well as outside it.
How, then, shall we conceive the visible Church and its purpose ? The visible Church is the disclosure of what is present universally in human life and history. It stands as the permanent embodiment of the explicit revelation of God's purpose for all mankind. Its purpose is to manifest the meaning of human life and history as a whole and make known the source and manner of the salvation God offers to all men. It is thus the manifest as distinct from the latent presence of Christ. Through the Church Christ remains visibly in the world and provides a visible sign of salvation and anticipatory expression of the Kingdom. And as the visible presence of Christ and his saving gifts, the Church is intended to be an effectual sign, serving the mission of Christ to men as a pioneer force under the movement of the Spirit. The visible Church is Christ's vanguard in the advance of mankind through history to the final Kingdom.
We can deepen this concept of the Church by comparing Christian existence with ordinary human life as found in the concrete-notice, not with a merely natural human life, which is only an abstraction. Christian faith is not the introduction of an entirely new world of thought, nor the exclusive attainment of a special kind of commitment, nor the possession of an esoteric body of knowledge. It is the explicitation of a commitment and convictions found in the form of an implicit faith among all sincere men, who follow their consciences and thus remain open to the hidden promptings of the Spirit. Christian beliefs and values are perceived and cherished by men who have not come to an explicit faith in Christ and remain outside the visible Church.
The Christian life is the strengthening, promotion and celebration of all good and genuine human life. It is not the creation of a special kind of existence nor the erection of a separate form of religious life nor the following of an exclusively Christian way of life.
Christian fellowship is the discovery and building up of universal human fellowship. It is not the establishment of an exclusive Christian fellowship. The purpose of Christian liturgy is not to achieve a deeper and exclusive community experience among a special group. It is the disclosure in symbol of the meaning and basis of the human community itself.
In brief, the consequence of denying the existence of a secular world over against the visible Church is that the Christian community or visible Church is the manifest emergence of that common world of meaning which is constitutive of the human community itself. It is the coming into explicit consciousness of that world of meaning which men are endeavouring, though only with a slowly growing awareness, to make incarnate in a universal community of mankind.
All genuine community at the human level is, as I have previously explained, constituted by a common world of meaning, freely created by the active intelligence of men and embodied in social relationships and social structures. This is also true of the Christian community as a human community. It is constituted by the Christian world of meaning, which is grounded upon the free commitment of faith, deepened and extended by the developing understanding of that faith, and embodied in social relationships and structures.
We have been accustomed for so long to identify the visible unity of the Church with a clearly defined social structure and with organizational unity that it is difficult to accept the more flexible concept of the visible Church required by the new understanding of the relation between the Church and the world. But the fundamental principle of the visible unity of the Church is not organizational unity but-the unity of a common world of meaning as socially embodied and expressed. Since, however, the Christian world of meaning, constitutive of the visible Church, coincides with the common human world of meaning, constitutive of the human community itself and present already universally, though struggling for expression and implicit in great measure, it is impossible for the visible Church to have dear boundaries. The centre is located, but the boundaries are blurred. The centre is Christ, visibly present through those who are explicitly committed to him by faith. But it is difficult to say where even an explicit faith in Christ begins or ends among the varieties of its formulation. And who can say where Christian meaning in general as found in particular values, beliefs and actions ceases to be socially expressed in a world where Christ is universally present? Every human community is constituted by meaning as socially created and socially embodied. Community begins and ends where the common meaning constitutive of community begins and ends. The Christian community or visible Church is the social expression of that common world of meaning which, through the universal presence of Christ's salvation, is constitutive of the emergent universal community of men. The boundaries of that social expression will inevitably merge indistinguishably into the general. human community. And this corresponds to the experience of Christians, who find that the lines of their visible and social unity as Christians with other men do not correspond to the organizational boundaries of their Church.
Granted however the lack of clear boundaries, Christians with an explicit commitment to Christ will create, develop and embody their Christian world of meaning in social relationships and social structures. The social relationships they will create and embody in structures will correspond to the three kinds of relationships I have already analysed in discussing the human community. In so far as these relationships are grounded upon an explicit Christian faith, they become constitutive of the visible Church.
We may first take the I-Thou relationship of deep personal commitment and intimate friendship. Sharing a common faith that affects the depths of personal and social existence, Christians in meeting one another will form personal friendships and small interpersonal groups. These small groups for intimate, face-to-face association and co-operation cannot be organized in any strict sense. They arise according to opportunity and circumstance and depend upon personal initiative and the many unanalysable factors that lead to friendships. Their grounding upon the Christian faith is not achieved in any formal manner, but secured by the genuinely personal, living and active faith of the persons involved. In the environment of such groups, each one's faith is strengthened and developed and each one in his turn contributes to the Christian becoming of the others. What such groups do varies. They are in general hidden centres of Christian mission in regard to both the formation of the participants and the bearing of a Christian witness to others. These groups are not selfish and enclosed, but like all genuine friendships provide a secure basis for an outgoing love towards other men. Increasingly such groups are ecumenical and find denominational differences irrelevant to their deep Christian commitment. And some people who are not Christians are brought within them and meet the Christian faith in this way. If they do not themselves become Christians, they learn to respect the Christian faith and find a unity with Christian believers. These interpersonal groups are the deepest form of Christian presence in the world and constitute the origin and animating core of the wider Christian movements and organizations. Christian renewal has generally sprung from such groups.
However, to meet its wider social functions and be commensurate with man's social existence, Christian faith needs a more general social expression. It requires embodiment in organizations, with the objectified or limited relationships these carry with them. But in keeping with present social consciousness, the organization of the Christian community will reflect what I have said about the organization of society in general. The organizations will be freely created by Christians themselves; their structural principle is the freely creative. intelligence of the believer, an intelligence enhanced not destroyed by faith. They will be many and various, each organization limited in function and purpose. All the organizations will be relative in value and open to change. There will be room for improvisation and organizations that no longer serve a useful purpose will be allowed to die. New organizations will be created or old ones adapted as the need arises. Further, the Christian will be left in the open situation characteristic of the present stage of man's development because no organization will embrace or claim to embrace his total Christian existence.
Some of the organizations will be distinctively Christian. They will be created by Christians for a distinctively Christian purpose. Thus, they will gather Christians together in wider groups, though in differing ways, to express their faith and engage in public worship. Or, they will organize Christian evangelization more systematically and on a wider front than can be achieved by small interpersonal groups. Or, they will promote Christian education and by various means foster an open communication amongst all Christians, and in that way serve to keep Christian individuals and groups in touch with the Christian tradition as a whole.
In other organizations, whether created by Christians or not, Christians will work with others in the general service of mankind and for the practical recognition by everyone of the unity of all men. Such organizations form part of the embodiment of the Christian world of meaning. I repeat that it is wrong to try to establish clear boundaries. Indeed, some Christians will fulfil their Christian mission within purely secular organizations. In so far as they ground themselves upon the Christian faith and, while respecting the proper autonomy of the secular, see what they do as being within the general context of the Christian world of meaning, their work forms part of the visible presence of Christ and his Church in the world. The visible Church reaches out to the total human reality and merges into the universal human community.
The third relationship in which the Christian world of meaning is embodied is that created outside all established and organized relationships by chance encounter with a fellow man in need. This relationship is determined and limited by the demands of the particular situation, but there is an imperative need for the recognition and fulfilment of such ad hoc demands if the open situation in which men are now placed and the complexity of modern organized society are not to lead to the destruction of many individuals. The teaching of the Gospel is an unambiguous summons to meet such demands with generosity and alacrity, so that Christians are left without excuse for any neglect. In many ways such unorganized love, meeting the needs of others, however inconveniently and unexpectedly they may be thrust upon us, is the most characteristically Christian expression of commitment to our fellow men
These, then, are the three forms of relationships in which the Christian world of meaning finds social embodiment and is thus made constitutive of the visible Church. There is, I maintain, no necessity to bring them under a single, over-arching organization and within a unified social structure. The unity, preservation and transmission of the Christian world of meaning will be secured by open communication among Christians within a diversity of social structures and relationships.
The desire for an over-arching organization embracing the totality of Christian tradition, life and mission springs, it seems to me, from a threefold misunderstanding.
First, it is in effect nostalgia for a static, hierarchical view of reality and society, now, however, irretrievably past. Such a view does not correspond to modern social consciousness. But there is always the laudator temporis acti, and I need not tell the reader that there are those who lament the advent of modern society and yearn for the stable, relatively unchanging orders of the past. Needless to say, the past is usually conceived idealistically. But apart from that, the past cannot be recreated. Within a modern context, a hierarchical order is distorted into a vast organization without the safeguards provided by a truly modern approach, which insists upon the relative limited value and changeability of all organizations. There is no over-arching organization for secular life today. Even the State and nation embrace only part of our lives, which culturally and socially are increasingly international. I do not see the need for a total Christian organization. To attempt to form one would create immense dangers. God forbid that the present Churches should unite to form one, vast unified organization.
Second, the desire shows a failure to recognize that the only all embracing framework for the saving mission of Christ and the work of Christians is mankind and human history, not the visible Church The visible Church cannot be demarcated by clear boundaries from the human community itself. Christians should not attempt to confine it within the limits of a single, exclusively Christian organization.
Third, the desire rests upon a misconception of the relation between the visible Church and the world. The visible Church is not an exclusive area of the sacred, marked off from a profane world. The visible Church is the human community itself as rendered manifest in its nature, destiny and dependence from Christ's salvation. Christians bear a mission to foster an explicit consciousness among men of the common world of meaning already embodied in Christian social relationships and structures. But there is no call to embody that common world of meaning in a single organization or institutional structure set over against the world. The total embodiment Christians are working for is not the visible Church, but the universal community of mankind, which coincides with the final Kingdom. In brief, the Christian community is a present and historical fact There is no need or possibility for an individual to create his own Christian Church. It is already there in the world. At present, it is divided into different social entities, which have drifted or broken away from one another and are only now, overcoming their mutual antagonism. These divisions obscure the common world of meaning which persists, despite the divisions. Christians must engage in a renewal, which will draw them closer together in a fellowship and open communication, make possible common Christian activity across the denominational frontiers and render the unity of Christian faith and mission more apparent to themselves and the world. But such renewal requires expression in a reorganization which will not patch up existing institutions nor seek after a single organizational unity, but which will restructure the Christian community in accord with modern social consciousness. It should be clear from the account I have given of the social structure appropriate to the Christian Church in the modern world at the relation between the Church and the wider or inclusive society will be fluid and incapable of being juridically formalized Christian groups and organizations, grounded upon the free, personal commitment of faith, will be many and various, scattered among the other voluntary groups and organizations found in modern, pluralist society and not always clearly distinguishable from these. For that reason the Church will have a pervasive influence throughout society. Perhaps it would be helpful to contrast this fluid structure with the two earlier ways in which the relationship of the Church to the inclusive society has been structured, namely the societal Church and the sect. In using the phrase "societal Church" I have two features in mind. First, the Church itself is formed into a society, existing as a complete, juridicially organized and unified social entity. Its structure, though given a spiritual meaning and competence, reflects the political organization of a State. Like a State it is a power structure, with a central legislative and executive authority and administrative officials, though all is given a spiritual interpretation and directed to a spiritual purpose. Second, this Church is integrated as a society or unified social entity into the public social order of the wider society. The integration has been achieved in different ways. In the Middle Ages Church and State were merged into a single politico-ecclesiastical unity, though with a constant tension and struggle between papal and imperial or regal authority. Later there were the established Churches: the Church of the nation was given an exclusive or privileged status and thus, with varying degrees of freedom, made part of the public order of the State. More recently the association between Church and State has generally become much looser. But even without establishment the State will often give the Church juridicial recognition, perhaps to the extent of paying Church ministers or arranging Church . taxes. And where there is no juridicial recognition by the State, a Church existing publicly as a society inevitably becomes a de facto public institution, forming part of the public social order, with a place alongside other public institutions. The voice of the Church is identified with the statements of Church officials. Church officials will negotiate with State officials when they consider that Christian or ecclesiastical interests are at stake. And if policy demands that account be taken of the Christian reaction or point of view, State officials will approach Church officials, either publicly or privately.
A societal Church is ill-adapted to the needs of Christian mission in the secular world of today. In all its forms it is really an obsolete survival of the past order of Christendom.
Established Churches violate the principle of the secularity of the State, which, as I have argued in God's Grace in History, (1) Christians should now fully recognize. When establishment of the Church still possesses effective meaning, it restricts, threatens or even directly violates religious freedom. When largely meaningless, it cheapens and confuses the genuine mission of Christians to society.
But even where the association with the State is loose and informal, a societal Church cripples the witness of Christians to the Gospel. It almost inevitably makes Church officials anxious about the public standing of the Church, concerned with institutional position and privilege, frequently to the extent of compromising the uncomfortable truths of the Gospel when these have social and political repercussions. I have already discussed this effect earlier in the book. And since the voice of the Church is identified with the silence or castrato notes of Church officials, the more vigorous witness of ordinary Christians is treated as dissonance and ignored by other Church members and by the world at large. Further, the existence of the Church as a public institution alongside other public institutions is now having the paradoxical effect of restricting the influence of the Church to the private sphere. Because the Church exists alongside the other institutions of society, it remains outside of them, cut off from all the decision-making processes that determine social, economic and political life. It organizes itself around the residential community, which in modern society is increasingly a private sphere, kept separate from public and business life. Although the Church is constantly urging Christians to bear witness to Christ in the environment of their secular vocation, this remains secondary in relation to Church-life. As an organized body the Church is primarily end indeed almost exclusively present in the private sphere. Its presence in the public sphere, apart from providing a ceremonial adjunct, is limited to a defence of Church interests and protests against legislation it considers immoral. It is not present as a vital force within the ordinary working of social institutions.
For all these reasons I consider the more fluid structure of the Church I have described a more effective vehicle for Christian mission. Only when the Church ceases to be a separate public institution will Christians through their informal groups and limited, adaptable, multiple organizations carry their witness to Christian truth and love throughout every area of social-and political life
The sect is another earlier form of the relation of the Church to the wider society.
The sect is characterized by it's opposition to the dominant order of society. Since the established order it opposes is usually both ecclesiastical and political, its opposition takes the form of a spiritual protest with political and social repercussions. Historically, sects have been based on a refusal to conform to an established religion or Church. Hence they have clashed with both ecclesiastical and political authority. Sects, therefore, are made distinctive social entities largely by what I believe sociologists call collective negativity. In other words, they are essentially opposition groups, or the negative counterpart of a dominant order. For that reason they are usually enclosed, tightly knit groups, showing the features we designate as sectarianism. Their narrowness has often been aggravated by their advocacy of a world-denying spiritualism
. The flexible structure I have proposed for the Church would not make the Church a sect, because it is an open structure, marked by a positive acceptance of the world and co-operation with society. Despite the rejection of a societal Church, the proposal refuses the narrow, enclosed organization of a sect and urges an openness to all Christians and to society generally. And I am not advocating an exclusive Church of the spiritually pure.
Nevertheless, the opposition of sects to the established order does contain a measure of truth, which should not be overlooked. If Christians are true to their mission, they will constantly find themselves in opposition to the status quo, to the established order of society, to what is fashionable and commonly accepted. Complacent acceptance of any dominant order is a betrayal of the Gospel. All social institutions-and this includes all Christian organizations- are ambiguous. They are marked by the sinfulness of men, by their imperfect grasp of truth and by their failure to love earnestly and consistently. Every social order, every social organization, every social policy and practice should be constantly subject to criticism and correction in the light of the Gospel. Despite their openness and positive intent, Christians will often have to become dissidents. It is important, however, that they should learn that their own policies, practices and organizations also come under the judgement of the Gospel.
(1) Collins, Fontana Books, London, 1966, pp. 26-30. 227