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How ‘being church’ gets self-conscious

04 October 2013

David Martin reflects on the issues that prompt ecclesiology

Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography
Christian B. Scharen, editor
Eerdmans £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30  (Use code CT213 )

ECCLESIOLOGY is about the norms or "notes" that should properly govern what we mean by "church", which is why "church" often appears without a definite or an indefinite article. Church is a way of being together "in the world" but not of it, and it has roots in the varied conceptions found in the New Testament, and in later elaborations arrived at in very different circumstances, often to demarcate boundaries.

As the contributions collected here indicate, that can become a very complicated exercise, especially once the Church or a Church is commandeered (or puts itself forward as a candidate) for purposes of general social control, and is even conceived as virtually coextensive with society or the nation. Reading the contributions through, one speculates that current interest in ecclesiology derives from the salience of issues, such as gender, that present themselves as crucial boundary markers; from problems related to the uncertain boundary between core membership and ill-defined peripheral attachment, particularly as these problems feed into questions of establishment and the parish; and from exercises in joint ecumenical action.

Here I was surprised to find the goal of unity taken for granted, when, in areas of interest to me, such as the global expansion of Pentecostalism, vitality is associated with conflict and division.

The clash between assumed norms and empirical realities provides the rationale of the quest for a dialogue between normative ecclesiology and ethnography - for example, congregational studies. Different aspects of the Christian repertoire (for example, Charisma or Founding Fatherhood) are emphasised and acquire resonance in different social circumstances, which means that faith has something to gain by seeking ethnographic or sociological understanding. Just what the gains and problems might be is explored in two initial chapters, one jointly by James Nieman and Roger Haight SJ, and the other by Harald Hegstad.

The next section concerns congregations and worship, and includes an interesting analysis by Paul Fiddes and Pete Ward of the elements in the liturgy of baptism emphasised in the practice of a Charismatic church, St Aldate's, Oxford.

The final section relates congregations to the wider society, and includes a discussion of "God at street level", focused on how Dutch pastors identify themselves when coming alongside and listening to addicts, and an inquiry into the part played by homosexuality in disputes within the Episcopal Church in the United States. The chapter on homosexuality is by Christopher Craig Britain, and draws attention to the far-from-evident meaning of words such as "liberal" and "conservative" used with such confidence by parties to disputes, and to the special problems that the issue of homosexuality presents to liberal Catholics. There is an impressive introduction by the editor, Christian Scharen.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

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