The Pope recently reconfirmed the Roman Catholic's church position that only churches with apostolic succession are true churches, for those of us in the protestant tradition we are 'ecclesiological communities.' This may lead some to wonder whether we as protestants/evangelicals can have any truck with our Catholic brothers and sisters and perhaps deep church is at best a sticking plaster for ecumenicalism or at worst some sort of consipiracy/cover up/hush up/suck up?
In these revolutionary post-church/pathological-church times I wonder if we need to move beyond arguements of legitimising our existence as gathering of Christians and instead address the question facing us in the west of why we should bother gathering at all?
Do we still resonate with the thoughts of Ignatius, from the 2nd century, that 'where Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church' or Irenaeus, ''where the Spirit of God is, there is the church and all grace' or does that church now only consist of an audience of one - namely me (as pope, priest and parishioner).
Is chosing to be an independent/individual Christian a contradiction in terms? What can the deep church/deep ecclesiology response be to the question of not just defining “church” but addressing the questions of church: “so what?” and “then what?”
Whilst acknowleding the dangers of blueprint church and the romantic quest in vain for the perfect church - I think we also need to critique our own western ecclesiological lens and inparticular the underlying theme of individualisation/self-determination. My own suggested sketch for this critique for me would be for a Trinitarian lens - one informed by a 2/3 world view [where they have the opposite dilema an emphasis on the many but not so much on the individual].
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this but also like to hear any “lens” recommendations of your own, rose tinted or otherwise…
1. God who is one and three, individual and communal:We can see the salvation as being reconcilled to the Father, through Jesus by the Spirit. As Christians we have a fundamental belief in a tri-une God but how does that belief affect our ecclesiology? We have a God who exists in harmony with the tension between the individual and the community, who is both one and three. Indeed we have Jesus praying to the Father that we would be “one as we are one” and yet sees no contradiction in us created with unique individual love such that the Father knows the number of hairs (or lack of them) on our heads.
Maybe in our individual focused western world we need to hear more from the theologians of the 2/3 world to help us explore this more. Archbishop Tutu for instance has contrasted the western with the African notion of being human by setting Descartes "I think, therefore I am"against Sotho and Nguni phrases "I am because you are; you are because we are," or "a person is a person through other people."
For Tutu, the African worldview is one in which "none of us come into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings... the solitary, isolated human being is a contridiction in terms."
Is the solitary, isolated christian through choice also a contradiction in terms? To paraphrase Fee-Nordling, as Jesus points out in the story of the lost sheep/coin/son we have a God who loves us and searches us out as individuals but that is not how the tales end. The sheep is returned to the flock, the coin goes back in the purse and the son retakes his place in his family – in other words God is not about just us reconciling us with himself but also with each other, of creating us as image bearers who will bear his name and nature across all lines of division, distrust and destruction.
2. God of reconcilition and a community/people of reconciliation: Paul writes in Colossiansthat it is in/through/by Jesus that all of creation is reconcilled to God. And perhaps one of the most amazing things about the NT is how this story continues to grow, the little community established by Jesus spreads like yeast through dough, breaking out from national/religious/sociological/class/gender/race and any other barrier.
This breaking through is not with out tensions, arguments, misunderstandings, mistakes, prejudices, fears etc but the kingdom of God seems to be larger than any of these. Indeed the miracle is not that people are wildly in love with each other but that that can love each other and stay together in a community despite these tensions. That their belief in Jesus as Lord and reconciler of all things, allows them, through the work of the Spirit, to learn to be reconciled with each other such that Paul can write on several occasions that in Christ Jesus there can be no jostling for position/power/status on any other grounds.
As followers/image beares of a God of grace we are a people of grace: we love because we are loved, we forgive because we are forgiven, we bless because we are blessed and we reconcile because are reconciled. As much as our own humanity is being restored we seek to restore the humanity of the poor and oppressed as well as the oppressor.
3. ubuntu Jesus - (re)creation and (humanity) restoration: in the african language of Nguni the word ubuntu can be translated as humaneness but this fails to convey the African world view which is more that this is the esential quality that distinguishes us from the animals - the quality of being human and also humane.
The person who has ubuntu is known for being compassionate and gentle, who uses their strength on behalf of the weak, who does not take advantage of others - in short someone who cares, treating others as they are human beings. We could say that a full demonstration of ubuntu is shown by Jesus - God made flesh to show us what our humanity can be like when are reconciled to him, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives cultivating ubuntu within us.
The spirit of ubuntu, restoration justice not retribution, was what underpinned the vision of Archbishop Tutu for the Truth and Reconcilliation Committee in South Africa. In his own words:
"the central concern is not retribution or punishment but the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity he or she has injured by his or her offense."
I wonder how such a view shapes your own understanding of Christ, his cross, the justice of God and heaven/hell?
4. God is Love and love is the higher law– God is defined by John as love and the revelation of his love for creation/the world is made manifest in the sending of Jesus into the world. Jesus prayer was that even though he would go, the Father would send another, the Holy Spirit, to continue to both the means of loving reconciliation and the way of making known the source of reconciliation.
If love and the making known of love/reconcilation/shalom is both the raison d'etre and modus operandi of the trinity then it may help us to see around another tension of church/God/world? We can often focus on one set of relationships Church to God in worship or church to the world in mission but struggle to be able to do both.
If we are being made as imager bearers of God we see can see that in Jesus we have the example of full humanity who is reliant fully on the Holy Spirit in order to live out a life of obedience to the Father. We struggle in our own nature, particularly with submission/suffering /servanthood to/for/behalf others. It runs counter to our core of self-determination and our desire to maintain quasi-independent self governed territories within the kingdom of God – as a friend of mine once remarked, servant leadership is alright until you start getting treated like a servant.
Again the worldview of the 2/3 world maybe helps us follow the Spirit rather than Plato. An African world view would be that of an omnipresent spiritual world, in which the ancestors and saints are as much part of one's experience as people now living. I find this helpful in breaking down the barriers of modern christianity, between the sacred and the profane, the spirtual and the secular, the church and the world.
For example, Tutu's biographer notes that for him, "elderly women in his congregation, even if they were treated as non-enities by their white employers, were people created in God's image, to be held in awe and reverence as if they were God. To allow such people to suffer was not simply wrong; it was blasphemous, for it is to spit in the face of God.
Mission and church, worship and justice, to me then would seem not to be such opposites afterall but the product of us, to paraphrase Eugene Peterson’s version of Romans 12:1-2, submitting/sacrificing our everyday eating, drinking, working and walking around lives to God, which we can only do with the Spirit helping us.
To answer my own question then I would say yes, and deep church is not just a way of replicating western heritage but opening us up to critique across history and continents. But what say you?