How Big is the Church?

How big is the church? That is, how are we to understand, determine, recognize and, perhaps more importantly, remain within that sphere, described by Lossky, in which union with God takes place? In a world and a Church that is increasingly diverse and challenged by a pluralistic society the answer to this question has profound significance not only in the life of the Church but also for the life of the world.

I recognize, however, that it is not possible to establish a formal definition of the Church. “For, strictly speaking, there is none which could claim any doctrinal authority. None can be found in the Fathers. No definition has been given by the Ecumenical Councils.”[1] This absence of a definition is evident in St. Cyprian’s and St. Augustine’s differing understandings of the Church. St. Cyprian understands the Church in the same way as early explorers understood the world. It is flat with distinct edges and one can fall off into the “outer darkness.” St. Cyprian’s unexpressed presupposition is “that the canonical and charismatic limits of the Church completely coincide.”[2] For St. Augustine, however, the Church is more like a round world in which it is difficult to establish hard edges, clear beginning and ending points. The Augustinian position “admits the existence of some enigmatic ‘sacramental sphere’ beyond the canonical borders of the Church Militant. This is a sort of third ‘intermediate state’ between the Church of God and the outer darkness of ‘this world.’”[3]

Likewise, the Orthodox and the Anglicans begin their ecclesiological understandings in fundamentally different places. Anglicans “do not believe they alone are the one true Church, but they believe that they belong to it. Orthodox, however, believe that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church of Christ.”[4] A consequence of these different starting points is that Anglicans recognize different stages of progressively closer relationships between churches and corresponding degrees of eucharistic sharing as manifesting the already existing unity they share in Christ and as creative of even greater unity. This intercommunion is not a part of Orthodox ecclesiology. Communion for them can be only between local churches that have a unity of faith, ministry, and sacraments. There can be no differences in faith if communion is to exist.[5]

At the risk of making a very broad and overly simplified comparison; the Orthodox focus on what is whereas Anglicans focus on what might be. I write this not as a critique or value judgment but rather with the recognition that both approaches are necessary to understand and more fully be the Church. By itself the Anglican approach risks relativism and a failure to hold to the core nucleus of eternal and unchanging doctrinal truths. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, risks an individualized ecclesiology resulting in isolationism. Anglicanism and Orthodoxy can offer each other a necessary balance.

Taken together the two approaches recognize the “already and not yet” aspects of the Church. They hold in tension the need for permanence and change, stability and movement, limits and growth. These pairings, coincidences of opposites, suggest that we should not seek a final definition of the Church. For to do so risks choosing either permanence, stability, and limits or change, movement, and growth. In making that choice the Church is seen either solely in its historic development, as a society on the earth, or as abstract and heavenly mysticism. Either way the incarnational nature of the Church is destroyed. “There can thus be no satisfactory and complete definition of the Church. “‘Come and see’ – one recognizes the Church only by experience, by grace, by participation in its life.”[6]

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Notes

  1. Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View in The Collected Works of George Florovsky, vol. 1 (Belmont, Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Co., 1972), 57.
  2. Georges Florovsky, “St. Cyprian and St. Augustine on Schism” in The Collected Works of George Florovsky, vol.,14, p.49.
  3. Ibid., 50.
  4. Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue, The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 11.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (London: The Centenary Press, 1935), 12.

7 thoughts on “How Big is the Church?

  1. Thanks Mike. Great article. It strikes me that this “struggle” for definition is ultimately the struggle of the nature of Christ. Human and Divine, Immanent and Transcendent. My experience has been that everything belongs (thank you Richard Rohr). The Gospel of Thomas talks about when the 2 become 1. I guess I could go on, but suffice it to say I agree. We need each other. Can we learn to be in communion? I hope so.

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    • John, I think you are right that as we ponder the Church we must do so in terms of Christology, both the human and divine aspects of the Church. Maybe if we begin to heal that divide within ourselves individually it would be easier to see in and express with and through others.

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  2. Fascinating posting, Mike. I shared this with my brother (a convert to Greek Orthodoxy), and while also finding this quite interesting, he raised the possibility that “any attempt to combine the Anglican approach with the Orthodox is going to necessarily end up looking more like the former than the latter.” In particular, he noted that insofar as we Episcopalians/Anglicans are willing and able to share communion with groups like the Methodists, Presbyterians, etc., we’ve traveled to a place where the Orthodox cannot follow. Given what I know about Orthodoxy, I think he’s right.

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    • Bryan, I think you and your brother are correct. I wonder though if there is a way to hold the two approaches in tension without confusion and without separation. The Orthodox seem to focus more on the canonical limits of the Church whereas Anglicans, to borrow an Orthodox concept, might be viewed as applying economia. I recognize, however, that economia can never be used to condone heresy and that is not what I am proposing. I see truth in both approaches and believe (hope?) that we each have something to offer the other. It seems if we can hold the two approaches in tension they will provide a necessary balance. What this might look like or how we do it, I do not know.

      Peace, Mike+

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  3. Mike,

    Speaking as an Episcopalian/Anglican, I am in agreement with you. And I, too, would like to find a way to hold these two approaches in tension. But as much as I admire Orthodoxy, I do not find the same willingness to be as flexible as I typically find within Anglicanism. I say that, not to be pejoratively critical of Orthodoxy, but in recognition of what I’ve come to understand about how they believe and practice the integrity of who they are.

    Along those lines, I commend a piece written by Fr. Seraphim Rose entitled .

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    • Thanks for this link Bryan. I think your earlier comment about an inflexibility is accurate. My experience is that the Orthodox tend to take an all or nothing approach. It both attracts and frustrates me!

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