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Professors Hauerwas and Milbank on the Church and the Kingdom of God

by
05 January 2012

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From Canon John Thomson

Sir, — “The Church does not possess Christ: his presence is not confined to the Church. Rather it is in the Church that we learn to recognise Christ’s presence outside the Church” — Professor Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (1986).

It is indeed time to proclaim a Kingdom-shaped Church according to Professor Hauerwas. This proclamation can happen only as the Church is formed through the practices of Christian discipleship into a faithful witness that can thereby recognise the presence of the reign of God among those who are not part of the Church.

Professor Hauerwas is not inviting Christians to become a morally élitist community, but a community whose story witnesses to and discovers Christ’s life within the world. Such a community is characterised by the friendship of Jesus for the stranger, and is, therefore, outward-looking and open to the wisdom of that stranger. (“Will the Real Sectarian Stand Up!”, Theology Today, 44/1 (April 1987), 87-94).

It is, therefore, a community that is engaged with those around it, as is evident in Professor Hauerwas’s friendship with those with special needs, in his commitment to the vulnerable of society, and in his conversations with the gay com­munity.

Nevertheless, the Church must engage as a consciously Christian community, or it will simply dissolve into a pale reflection of contemporary liberalism. This is not about withdrawal or exclusivity, but about witnessing to the truth of the story of Jesus as the Church, the “organised form of Jesus’ story” (A Community of Character (1986)).

While there is much to discuss about Professor Hauerwas (Com­ment, 30 December), one thing that is not up for debate is his commit­ment to the shaping of the Church by the reign of God.

JOHN B. THOMSON
Sheffield Diocesan Director of Ministry, and the author of Living Holiness: Stanley Hauerwas and the Church (Epworth, 2008)
95-99 Effingham Street
Rotherham S65 1BL

From the Revd Matthew Duckett

Sir, — The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s criticism of Professor John Milbank’s ecclesiology is insightful. A belief that the Church is the site of the ideal society because it is a group that models the ideal teaching can lead some to think of it a moralistic exclusive club, if the Church is viewed simply as a human construct.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether Dr Rayment-Pickard’s counter-argument does not rely on a false dichotomy between the Kingdom and the Church. It is true that Jesus said a great deal about the Kingdom and not much about the Church. He also did not write any books, or tell anyone else to. But all we know of his teaching comes from the books that were, in fact, written; and all of them were written in, and for, church communities. The New Testament texts, including the Gospels, are unavoidably ecclesial: the teaching of the Kingdom cannot be separated from the Church.

Jesus founded a community of disciples to be both the bearer of the Kingdom message and the place where it starts to manifest in concrete human society. And, although Jesus himself did not say much about the Church, the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline epistles have a great deal to say. The imagery of the Body of Christ, a living organism in which Christ recapitulates a renewed humanity, is repeated too often to be ignored.

Indeed, the Kingdom is God’s initiative in Christ; and the Church is the movement of human society into that Kingdom. Not, perhaps, the “site” of the ideal society, as Professor Milbank would have it, but at least where that society is beginning to become real. And not only human society. Salvation, as texts such as Colossians 1.15-20 make clear, is both ecclesial and cosmic. The Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, wrote: “the entire universe is called to enter within the Church . . . that it may be transformed into the eternal Kingdom of God.”

None of this requires that the Church be seen as an exclusive club. Indeed, quite the reverse: an orthodox ecclesiology must be inclusive and generous. The re­demp­tion wrought by Christ is, in God’s will, universal, limited only by the extent to which creatures may refuse to participate. We may and should say that the movement into the Kingdom is happening in the visible community of the Church, but we cannot say where it is not happening.

The ultimate boundary of the Church, “outside of which there is no salvation”, is stretched as far as the love and generosity of God revealed in Jesus will go. And I believe that that is a very long way indeed.

MATTHEW DUCKETT
Little Ilford Rectory
124 Church Road, London E12 6HA

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