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Engaging with modern society

28 March 2014

Edward Dowler considers differing views of the Church militant here in earth

Generous Ecclesiology: Church, world and the Kingdom of God
Julie Gittoes, Brutus Green, and James Heard, editors
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT533 )

The Real Church: An ecclesiology of the visible
Harald Hegstad
James Clarke & Co. £20

IN THE view of the authors of Generous Ecclesiology, the debate between enthusiasts for the Church of England report Mission-shaped Church (now celebrating its tenth birthday) and for the critique of it by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank in For the Parish  has now become unhelpfully polarised.

This thought-provoking series of essays (particularly thought-provoking are those from Stephen Conway on episcopacy, andJeremy Morris on the Anglo-Catholic social tradition) reflectson some of the key issues in what aims to be a more eirenic and charitable register, although this is somewhat undercut by less-than-generous descriptions of those who hold positions other than the authors' own - such as, for example, "static, self-preoccupied and defensive", "arch", "pugilistic", and "mean-spirited".

Central to the various themes that run through this volume is the insight that, while the structures and practices of the Church should be valued in a way that is not always evident in Fresh Expressions, we should avoid conflating the institutional Church with the Kingdom of God - a tendency that they perceive in For the Parish. As Robert Thompson puts it: "God is always already present in his creative and energetic plenitude outside the body of Christ which is the Church, in the world that he has made."

Thus, the Church should seek to engage positively with modern society rather than constantly criticise it for hedonism, consumerism, and triviality - Brutus Green mounts a spirited defence of Lady Gaga on this point. Moreover, those who, like the majority of the authors, come from mainstream Anglicanism can afford to be generous to those who are engaged in other forms of missionary endeavour.

Although in many ways I would love to concur with their optimism about positive engagement with society, and the prospects of a "mixed-economy" Church, I feel that it is harder for us to avoid somesharp questions than the authors admit.

In the former area, Green, following Luke Bretherton and originally R. A. Markus, characterises St Augustine of Hippo's view of the saeculum (human society in the present age) as an "open, ambivalent, and undetermined" neutral space in which Christians may happily affirm all sorts of good things that are going on.

This is questionable, however: Augustine is very clear that, although the Church on earth is far from perfect, and although we owe loyalty to our earthly society, the Church is different from theState because she is ruled by Christ, and not by Caesar. If anyone is the author of the "dualistic" or "binary" thinking that the authors of this book frequently deplore, it is surely the man who wrote that "two loves have built two cities". Aspects of modern Western life, such as the triviality and violence of public entertainment, stifling bureaucracy, and rampant consumerism - signs of a society in decay which Augustine himself would have recognised - surely do need to be sharply highlighted.

The perennial question, perhaps, for the Church of England is whether we are so assimilated into this society that we lack the necessary perspective from which to do this.

Then, however "generous" we are, is it actually possible to hold together in a mixed economy those who have contradictory visions of what the Church is and should be? One of the episcopal contributors, Stephen Conway, robustly writes that "Fresh Expressions must intend to express all the marks of the Church as soon as possible." Yet in the opinion of another, Jonathan Clark, "none of our ways of worship or church life can claim to be definitive. . ." (What, really? None of them?)

One contributor, somewhat surprisingly, claims that "nothing is more exciting . . . than when bishops take informed and prayerful risks, and share prophetic wisdom." Perhaps one risk that bishops might occasionally need to take is lovingly to call to order an increasingly anarchic situation rather than, as seems to be the current tendency, seeking to devolve as many decisions as possible to a local level.

In another work on ecclesiology, The Real Church, the Lutheran theologian Harald Hegstad again analyses an Augustinian theme: this time, the distinction between the visible and invisible Church.

In this lucidly written work, which he has himself translated from Danish into English, Hegstad argues that we should dispense with a Platonically inspired idea of the invisible Church which exists above and beyond the real-life community that gathers in the name of Jesus for worship and fellowship. The Church is orientated towards the Kingdom of God, and will one day be gathered up into the Kingdom, but, for the present, what you see is what you get.

This being so, the Church can appropriately be examined not only by study of the Bible and doctrine (important though these are), but also in its empirical reality by disciplines from sociological and organisational perspectives.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is  Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, in the diocese of London, and Director of Continuing Ministerial Education in the Edmonton Episcopal Area.

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