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So, what is the Church all about?

17 May 2013

Robin Greenwood commends a wide-ranging primer

Seeking the Church: An introduction to ecclesiology
Stephen Pickard
SCM £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT632 )

TEACHING opportunities during the stay of Dr Stephen Pickard, former Assistant Bishop of Adelaide, at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, in 2011, triggered this introduc- tion to the study of ecclesiology. Acknowledging his indebtedness to the late Professor Dan Hardy throughout, Pickard's nine chapters investigate the identity of church as a constantly shifting dynamic, intensely engaging with God in worship, word, sacrament, service, and witness.

Chapters 1 and 4 especially root the entire search for how to be Church in the interconnectedness between God, humanity, and those who know and respond to the divine attraction. He takes it as axiomatic that the vocation to discipleship is a pilgrimage "in the company of others", becoming "a redeemed sociality".

He illustrates this conviction theologically through the narratives of the nation of Israel; the new epoch inaugurated by Jesus's embodying and announcing the Kingdom of God; and the phase of the resurrection and Pentecost communities. Seeking the Triune God of love involves "deeper communion with the world of this God and its peoples".

Pickard illustrates the constantly shifting language in which theologians have pursued the nature of the Church. He prefers terms that portray an eschatological trajectory rather than "steady-state" or "blueprint" ecclesiology. Intertwining scripture, history, and theology, he addresses virtues and practices of the Church as a deliberate embodiment of the gospel. A recurring emphasis on a feminist critique of previous thinking is linked with a celebration of the recovery of the contribution of women to becoming Church.

Echoing Schleiermacher's investigations in the 1920s, and Gunton's in the 1980s, in a chapter on natural ecclesial heresies, Pickard links mistakes about God and sustained faults in the conception and prac-tice of the Church and ministry.

For example, a Pelagian impulse to over-emphasise works over grace leads to overwork and anxiety; a Docetic ethos that plays down the humanity of Christ contributes to top-down, uncollaborative, tightly controlled, and sacralised leadership.

There is a helpful chapter discussing how the renaissance of Trinitarian theology, notably in the works of Catherine LaCugna, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and John Zizioulas, continues to develop as a framework for a truly mutual Church. He notes the dangers of too great a reliance on aspirational descriptions of Trinitarian relations. Instead, he indicates recent developments linking the formation of Church with immersion in the holiness of God and the work of the Spirit in drawing humanity into relationship with the Father and the Son.

This is a vital area. More reference to the works of Sarah Coakley and Elizabeth Johnson would have been helpful to readers beginning to explore this territory.

Dense, but accessible, Pickard's relatively short book takes the student over a wide canvas. There are helpful pointers to a Church that is not ashamed to be eucharistically focused, but always open to God at work, especially in the vulnerable and broken parts of humanity and creation. With each chapter come questions and reading suggestions. I thoroughly commend this book to all who are engaging their hearts and minds to release new gospel energy in the Church and in our society.

Canon Robin Greenwood is Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Monkseaton, in Newcastle diocese. His book  Being Church: The formation of Christian community (SPCK) is to be published later this year.

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