I’m getting a tad annoyed at people talking about “organic unity” when they mean “institutional unity.” When I say, in the words of the Nicene Creed every week, that I believe the church to be “one holy catholic and apostolic” I mean every word. There is one church of Christ, made up in an organic union of all baptized persons with Christ as its Head. This is the official teaching (doctrine) of the Episcopal Church, and can be found in the Catechism on page 854 of the BCP.
There is one church. All of the disagreements with this doctrine are either from those who think there is more than one church, or that they constitute the only one true church, or who have confused institutional structure with ontological substance.
This is not to say that the institutional is unimportant; but it is best put in perspective. Any institution built on a foundation other than Unity In Christ will not long stand. Whether there needs to be — or ever has been or ever will be — a single institutional church coequal with the Body of Christ; or whether that foundation is wide and broad enough to support a number of more or less independent and autonomous structures, cooperating in various ways as the Spirit empowers them: these are questions the answers to which seem to me to be glaringly obvious.
As I reflected on Tobias’ post I thought about the following words of prayer from the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for “The Dedication and Consecration of a Church.”
Through the ages, Almighty God has moved his people to build houses of prayer and praise, and to set apart places for the ministry of his holy Word and Sacraments…. Everliving Father,… accept us now as we dedicate this place to which we come to praise your Name, to ask your forgiveness, to know your healing power, to hear your Word, and to be nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son…. Lord Jesus Christ,… be always near us when we seek you in this place. Draw us to you, when we come alone and when we come with others, to find comfort and wisdom, to be supported and strengthened, to rejoice and give thanks. May it be here, Lord Christ, that we are made one with you and with one another, so that our lives are sustained and sanctified for your service…. Holy Spirit, open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, that we may grow closer to you through joy and through suffering.
The instructions concerning the service make clear that it is a dedication and consecration of the building and its furnishings. That suggests a very limited view of the Church, one which is co-terminus with the physical space. The words of these prayers, however, have no such limitation. They are much more profound and expansive revealing that the Church is characterized more by relationship. The words do not simply focus on the place. They focus on the affective bonds that take place within the physical space we generally think of as “the church.” As such, they describe the Church as God’s people praying, praising, being forgiven, being healed, hearing the Word of God, being nourished with sacramental food and drink, being comforted, supported and strengthened, being given wisdom, rejoicing and giving thanks, and finally, being united with each other and God for God’s service. They are describing relationship or, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, “the sphere within which union with God takes place in this present life, the union which will be consummated in the age to come, after the resurrection of the dead.”
The relationship and union that takes place within that sphere suggests, maybe even demands, that we consider and engage the Church as an atmosphere or environment rather than a container.