Strong local communities: crucial but not enough.
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
"The Church as particular and universal: Why strong local communities are crucial – but not enough"
Silvianne Aspray, University of Cambridge
The background of the series of talks on Community, Worship and Society, of which this talk is the first, is the debate the Church of England about the role of parishes in civil society. Are the historic forms taken by the Church merely accidental and can therefore be replaced at will, or is there some theological value in them?
As a Swiss reformed pastor, I come to this debate as a bit of an outsider, but this may not necessarily be a disadvantage. The perspective I would like to offer is essentially summarised in my title: “The Church as particular and universal: Why strong local communities are crucial – but not enough”.
What interests me in the debate about whether or not historical parish structures with salaried priests and beautiful buildings are somehow hindering the mission of the Church is that it brings to the fore a polarity which is - or should be - inherent in all ecclesiological reflection. The polarity goes as follows: If Church wants to be Church, it necessarily needs to be both particular and universal. Both local and global. It needs to be a local community, but also linked with the global catholic church. This polarity is difficult to maintain, and it seems to me that we often fail to maintain it - focussing either too much or not enough on the local community. And yet the Gospel can only be proclaimed in word, sacrament and life when both poles, the local and the universal, are valued.
In what follows, I would like to focus on each pole of this ecclesiological polarity in turn. Let us begin, then, with the thesis that the Church is not church if it is not particular and local. In other words, the Church is not Church if it is not community or a fellowship.
On a basic experiential level, this is a pretty uncontroversial claim, I think. It is simply the case that if the Church did not take the form of some kind of community, we could not experience any such thing as Church in our lives. There is no Church where it’s only me, or even just me and God. Faith is relationship – both with God and with human beings. One comes with the other. The Psalmist sings in Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” It is good, it is pleasant when sisters and brothers in Christ worship together, look out for each other, support each other, sometimes challenge each other, then the Church becomes real.
In my own spiritual biography, a small local community called the Casappella was crucial. This community was (and still is) an experiment in new monastic forms within the Reformed church in Switzerland, where three families and a group of 20-somethings live in a block of flats right next to an otherwise rarely used chapel on the parish grounds, and are committed to share life to some degree – through one community dinner each week, and regular evening prayers in the Chapel, for instance. Each member commits to staying for a year at a time. In my 20s, I was part of this community for a good four years. Living near a number of others was not always easy, but it is hard to describe how much of a difference the experience of living in this setting made to my spirituality. I had been raised in a Christian home and had never really drifted away from Christianity, but it was this community which made Christianity and the Church really come to life for me. It was the liturgical life of the community in our shared prayers as much as everyday life in community that was precious. I remember times of heartbreak when the simple gestures of a hug in the staircase, or a little note put under my door by a member of the community made such a difference. And so did the ability to run down to the chapel in my slippers at any time of the day or night to light a candle there and pray.
Now of course such forms of reinventing ‘monastic’ kinds of living for today are not for everyone – even though I do find it interesting that they are cropping up everywhere. What is crucial, however, is that Churches which foster community and friendship among their members flourish. In a society plagued by isolation and loneliness, community is precious. And by community, I mean the sort of place where I experience that I am more than just a number, more than just a customer. Where I am recognised a person with my story, my gifts and in my ups and my downs.
And in order to foster this kind of real community, the Church needs to be local – and ideally meet in the flesh. To be sure, the online gatherings we all got used to during the lockdowns were and are better than nothing, and for vulnerable members of our communities that is still the case. And yet, I think most of us felt that something was missing when Churches had to go entirely online. And what was missing, was, that we could do what communities do: recognise each other as the people we are: A nod and a smile across a pew for those who prefer to be a bit more private, a chat over coffee for those who love to chat, an encouraging pat on the back, a helping hand with the shopping – all those things are embodied, and they need to be embodied.
The Church is attractive when it is a community, when it offers this kind of embodied place of welcome. We all know this. But let us dig a bit deeper into the theology behind this. And a good place to go to think theologically about community is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work “Life Together”.
Bonhoeffer, as many of you will know, was a German theologian who was murdered by the Nazis. In the time leading up to the second world war, he thought a lot about Christian life together, and experimented with monastic forms of life, especially in a seminary in Finkenwalde, where he trained the future leaders of what would become the Confessing Church. I would like to mention two elements of the Christian community as highlighted by Bonhoeffer.
First, Bonhoeffer opens his book “Life Together” with the observation that it is not simply to be taken for granted that Christians have the privilege of living among and celebrating with other Christians. Christian community is a gift, and we don’t always value it properly. Published in 1939, at the brink of open war, with the Church under huge pressure to become Nazified, we can imagine why this would have been on Bonhoeffer’s mind. But the basic insight, that it is a gift if we can meet openly as Christians for worship and community, is still true. The pandemic is one way in which we have learned about this gift again – but looking at our brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere in the world today is another one. Many fellow Christians cannot openly worship together or live in community for fear of their lives. Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the contemporary world - even if by the grace of God this is easy to forget in this country. So Bonhoeffer is right: Being able to meet with other Christians, and for the Church to be a local, visible, physical community, is a precious gift which we should be grateful for.
Secondly, Bonhoeffer reminds us that the first part of the ecclesiological polarity I am talking about – that Church needs to be local, particular, tangible – is grounded in Jesus Christ and his incarnation. The Church is to be a visible, tangible, real community because Christ became man: visibly, tangibly, really.
We have already seen it: the gift of community is so precious because we are embodied beings. We long for the bodily presence of brothers or sisters because we are not just souls, we are bodies, too. The concrete, real, physical presence of other Christians around us responds to a deep need in us. And theologically, this is justified, or indeed sanctified because the Son of God appeared on earth in a body. When God’s son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on our being, our nature. We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. Christian community means community in and through Jesus Christ.
But such a community is not an ideal which we must try to realize, Bonhoeffer points out. Rather, it is a reality that is already there, and in which we may participate. What does he mean by this? Well, we all know that the gift of community can be a fraught gift. People can be irritating, annoying, difficult – yes, even our fellow Christians, and indeed, I myself may be irritating to them. Because this is so, Bonhoeffer is wise to remind us that as a community, we belong to one another only in and through Jesus Christ. If anyone can help us overcome our egos which so often block the way between us and our neighbours, then it is Christ.
Put differently: Jesus Christ not only helps us to know who God is, he also helps us to know our brothers and sisters and see who they really are. For they, like us, are members of the body of Christ, living stones used that are being built into a spiritual house. If we live in Christ and Christ in us, as the Gospel of John puts it, then we can start to see our neighbours in this light, through Christ’s eyes, as it were. Then our egos no longer block the way. This is what it means that as a community, we belong to each other only in and through Jesus Christ.
Put differently again: Given the incarnational nature of our faith, it is fitting that we should learn about God through embodied encounters. God ordered things in such a way that we should seek and find his truth in the mouth of a fellow human being, through the witness of a sister or a brother. Some things need to be told to us by someone else, we cannot tell them ourselves, and even reading about them is not quite the same: words of forgiveness, for instance, need to be told to us from without. The same is true for words of admonishment, or words of encouragement.
So when Bonhoeffer says that the Christian community is not an ideal which we must try to realize, but a reality that is already there, and in which we may participate, he means that the Christian community is something that is made possible and willed by God in Christ. It is both a precious gift of God (as in, we don’t need to start from scratch), but also a gift which asks something of us. We are called to unwrap this gift and make good use of it. Our job is not to realise an ideal, but to actualise the potential of the reality which is already there. The foundation is laid.
So much for Bonhoeffer’s theological fleshing out of the first part of the ecclesiological polarity we are considering today: namely, that the Church needs to be embodied, local, real in short: a community.
I said at the beginning that it is easy to over-emphasise one of these two poles, when it is crucial to hold them both together. The Church as a local community is attractive in an age of loneliness, as we have seen, and the church as an embodied community is incarnational like Christ. So those who emphasise the need for more community in our Churches are right, and they are also right to stress that community plays an invaluable role in our mission and evangelisation today. A lonely world longs for community.
With regard to the challenges posed by some to classic parish-structures, we can ask ourselves: Do classic parishes hinder or foster community? Do trained, salaried priests and beautiful old buildings hinder or foster the sort of community we have been talking about? The embodied, Christologically-grounded community of the people of God? Because if anything stood in the way of the Church actualising its potential as a community, tapping into the reality of the community in Christ that is there for us, then it would indeed be standing in the way of our mission.
As I said, I don’t know the details of the Church of England’s situation and I am speaking as an outsider here. But from my experience with a sociologically similar Church in Switzerland, my hunch is that IF there is a problem, the problem is not with the buildings or the salaried priests per se. Both can be fantastic in fostering community. Rather, the problem may be with the mind-set of thinking structures or buildings first, instead of thinking of structures and buildings as a means to an end.
Be that as it may, let me now come to the second – shorter – part of my lecture which is about why even though strong local community is crucial for the life of the church, it is never enough. The Church is not Church if it is not also universal and catholic.
Those who rightly emphasise the need for Church to be local and community-focused sometimes are in danger of forgetting this bigger picture. So why do we need this bigger picture? I would like to name four reasons, ranging from the more sociological, to the more theological (though the two are obviously always mixed).
First of all, if the Church is nothing but a local community, she is in danger of becoming cult-like. If there is not enough accountability from without to keep the dynamics within a community in check, then strange things can happen, which can damage people seriously.
In my experience, flourishing communities sometimes have the tendency to loosen their ties to their denominations, as they seemingly don’t need them any more. But they do. Without the structures of accountability provided by their denominations – from safeguarding experts, to bishops, committees, synods, you name it – without these structures, there is a danger for Church communities to develop a life of its own which is not healthy.
And not only this, and this is my second point, communities without ties to the larger, universal church, also are in danger to be short-lived. Anybody can found a Church community if they so wish, and many do. But will those communities be still around in 20, 50, 100 years? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The old structures of the larger church, as slow and tedious as they sometimes seem, they are also the guarantors of keeping things running through the ups and downs of particular times and specific people. They keep things steady for generations. It is short-sighted to cut ties with them because they seem to stand in the way of the community now.
The third reason why the Church cannot or should not only be a local community (as important as such communities are), is that if we lose touch with the global church, we lose the riches of forms of Christianity other than our own. It is good for liturgical communities to be in communion with those more focussed on social action and vice versa. Those centred around the sacraments do well to be in communion with, and occasionally challenged by, those who focus more on the preached word, and so forth. Receptive ecumenism, the sort of ecumenism which asks “what do we need to learn from other traditions?”, rather than “what do they need to learn from us”, is only possible if we are connected to such traditions, be that within our own denomination, or beyond.
And the fourth and most theological reason why local communities are not enough is that the Church is always more than we can see. Catholicity does not only mean a sense of connectedness with Christians in other places, geographically, it also means a connection with Christians in the past, and with those parts of the Church that are not visible.
When you read Augustine’s short explanation of the Apostle’s creed in the so-called Enchiridion, a Handbook for the instruction in the Christian faith written in 420, his reflections on the line “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church” are at first glance most peculiar. Right from the start, when he explains what the holy Church is we believe in, he speaks about angels. He mentions the church on earth, the pilgrim church, only in relationship to the church in heaven, where the angels and saints praise God forever.
I recently read this text, the Enchiridion, with a group of doctoral students, and they were all baffled. Somehow, when we hear “Church”, most of us don’t tend to think about angels first. And yet it is good to have this perspective to balance out any all-too present-focused, worldly perspectives. When we worship as a community, we not only do this as the locally gathered body of Christ. We also gather with all the angels and saints. When we sing “holy, holy, holy” we join the choir of the angelic hosts!
We don’t know much about those hosts, their names and orders – Augustine, in the same section of the Enchiridion, is remarkably and explicitly reserved about speculating too much about the angels. I quote: “This part of the Church which is composed of the holy angels and powers of God will become known to us, as it really is, only when, at the end of the age, we are joined to it, to possess, together with it, eternal bliss. But the other part which, separated from this heavenly company, wanders through the earth is better known to us because we are in it, and because it is composed of human beings like ourselves.” So Augustine reminds us, that the universal Church is both, the Church in heaven and on the earth.
So these are four reasons why the Church, in order to be really and properly Church, cannot (or at least should not) be a local community only: (1) otherwise it is in danger of becoming cult-like and (2) likely short-lived, (3) it misses out on learning from the riches of other forms of Christianity, and (4) it forgets that the universal Church includes the angelic Church in heaven, as much as the Church on earth.
In summary, let me re-iterate once again the polarity which we have been exploring. In order to understand the Church rightly, we always need to try and hold together two poles: the Church needs to be both particular and universal. Both local and global. It needs to be a local community, but also linked with the global catholic church.
As I said, it is not always easy to maintain this polarity, and to focus instead exclusively on one end of it, at the expense of the other: either emphasising the need for a good local community only, or emphasising the need to be connected to the catholic church only. And yet, I maintain, the Gospel can only be proclaimed in word, sacrament and life when both poles, the local and the universal, are held together, and both valued.
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