Since at least 2003, we have been squabbling in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, arguably over the issue of human sexuality. (In this case, however, as in many cases of marital discord, the fight is probably not about what the fight’s about.) That’s not what I’m going to write about, and I hope not to write about that topic until I can say something that will bring the people of God together rather than tear them apart. But I do think this squabble provides an excellent example of two competing visions of the Church.
In the first model, the Church is a holy place where holy people come to do holy things. I grew up with this vision, and it saturated my understanding of the Church, probably from the moment of my baptism. Raised in an Irish Catholic family, I served as an altar boy from the age of six. It was not uncommon for me to serve at three services on Sunday. I acquired a deep and abiding love of liturgy, vestments and all the other holy things one could find in church.
This model understands the Church as struggling towards “true righteousness and holiness.” Eph. 4: 24. Corinthians seems to reinforce this understanding of the Church:
Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be your father,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.’
2 Cor. 6:17-18. This view of the Church seems to motivate Jesus in the cleansing of the Temple, when he tells the money-changers, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you have made it into a den of thieves.” Matt. 21:13.
The second model of the Church sees its role as essentially that of a hospital for sick people. In the Daily Office this week, we heard Jesus endorse that vision of the Church. The Pharisees commented on Jesus’ regular association with notorious sinners.
But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Matt. 9: 12-13. C.S. Lewis affirmed this view of the Church in Mere Christianity when he wrote: “Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing to say (as far as I know) to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.”
Each of these visions of the Church claims the moral high ground, each relies on Holy Scripture to support its understanding of our work. So, who’s right? The appropriate response seems decidedly Anglican: they both are. We need both understandings of the Church. Our churches must be places where people encounter the holiness of the living God, and where broken people come for healing. Without both visions, we have shrunk the Church, and we have diminished the body of Christ. I hope you’ll join me in praying, along with St. Francis, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis