The loss of church as public

My first location for this post is as a church planter, trying to grow a church in the post Christian, secular materialist, and post church context of Europe. What does it mean within this context to try to establish a vibrant church community that enables Christian's formation and grow in faith, and for people in our local community to convert to that form of life, as Christians, in and through our church plant?

Alastair MacIntyre has demonstrated how practices are prior to institutions, and yet good practices are only sustained over time by institutions. However those very institutions over time corrupt and undermine the good practices they were set in place for.

In referencing MacIntyre, I betray my second locations for this post, of being within 'emerging church' discussions and conversations (whether others consider me legitimately located within this context is another question).

Within my context the protestant church has seemingly retreated into the subjective private gnosis of 'relevance' with it's myriad progressions of worship aesthetics, be that charismatic revivalism, purpose driveness, or alternative worship, whilst on the other hand it has turned to a reified and objectified faith around some form of biblical fundamentalism.

There are many types of shading to both of these streams, but they do seem to me to have something deeply in common, the shared feature of a loss of 'genuine public'. There has been either an unwillingness to question current ecclesiologies and the inherent corruptions and distortions of the institutions of church that debilitate it from a genuinely 'public life', whilst on the other hand there has been the naïve and often-bourgeois indulgent fantasy of being 'post institutional' with regards to ecclesiology, that often goes as far as an ontological 'post-church' articulation.

Where the church in modernity has been reduced to an association of religiously interested individuals, and most ongoing critiques of that association seem to continue to spawn even more religiously associated individuals, is there any hope or need to establish churches that reflect more than a dissolution into private clubs that reflect the tastes of their members? And with that assertion I betray my other location, that of my PhD research.

In order to address that problem, to seek to diagnose its condition and extrusion within consumer culture, and to find and offer an alternative public ecclesiology, I have been orienting myself within the discourses of Catholic Social Teaching, Radical Orthodoxy, and Anabaptist theology. Unsurprisingly given the nature of my problem area, and thesis, my method has increasingly located itself within 'political theology', with the hope of finding an 'embodied' and 'public' form of church.

I have been recently been drinking deeply from the wells of William Cavanaugh, Bernd Wannenwetsch, and Reinhard Hütter. They have given me theological descriptions to my intuitive anxieties from working in the field as a church planter (I must plug the upcoming conference at Calvin in May with some of these writers, that I am more than a little excited about attending).

With regards to this loss of 'genuine public life', Hütter delineates five current ecclesial responses that he does not see as exhaustive:

1.) A return to the State 2.) A return to Rome (and I would add for many the turn towards Canterbury) 3.) A continued splintering around protest (I would find the children of the protestant reformation birthing the post-church movement here) 4.) A continued confessional church a la Bonhoeffer, that seeks to remain grounded in word and dogmatic confession 5.) A new charismatic principle of the hermeneutical horizon of discussions about confession

All of them are fascinating areas for discussion, but it is the last one, given my locations as a church planter, and my emerging church context, that I find for the purposes of this post the most interesting.

(And without any detailed analysis of these responses, I will lay my cards on the table, in that I think we can find ecclesial hope in the embrace of all of them, as well as the anticipated sixth alternative that Hütter offers)

Much of the emerging church has been self consciously located around the notion of 'conversations', and whilst I have found it's largely irenic dialectic immensely helpful, I think Hütter exposes one of the ecclesial limitations of this emerging church moment.

When doctrine is no longer something we orient ourselves around, i.e. there is no 'giveness' and instead dogmatics becomes a dialogue partner that 'discloses it's content within the nexus and horizon of communication', no wonder there is no 'giveness' and public to church life.

In other words ecclesiology collapses into the conversations about church, the flux and idealizations of talking about what church might be (and often the pathology of what it isn't), such that ecclesiology remains a hermeneutical horizon of discussions about church, rather than a concrete reality of growing and new communities with new Christians. No reference is needed to practices and habits of concrete church locations and communities.

Or to put it another way, if there is no 'church', no concrete third space and alternative to 'us' and the public, if we too easily resent the notion of any third and institutional entity between the consumer quest for 'community/fellowship', and us as autopoietic agents, surely the church will continue to be forced into producing 'private religious associations'?

Hütter suggests that there is no third space between the content of Christian traditions and individuals appropriation of that content for their own private spiritual formation due to this inherent and continued aporia of protestant thinking.

William Cavanaugh offers us a Eucharistic theo-politically imagined public for ecclesiology, Bernd Wannewetsch a similarly grammatically embodied public worship, and Reinhard Hütter himself an explicitly pneumatological ecclesiological that overcomes the modern alternatives of 'autonomy' and 'heteronomy' with a doctrinally embodied practice.

With all this I am seeking for a new ecclesiological method, an 'institutional hermeneutic' if you will, that enables the release and development of good practice, whilst remaining suspicious of itself, without falling into the naivety of post-intuitional thinking. An ecclesiology that enhypostatically epitomises the institutional realism of Alasdair MacIntyre.

I am increasingly convinced that what we need is a real 'public' church that counters the modern state church, and the private god space associations of much that is emerging. And until we do, we will see little in the way of vibrant communities filled with new and growing Christians, at least in Western Europe.

So I turn to you, gentle reader. Do you see a similar location for the problems of ecclesiology, have you interacted with my discourse partners, and what alternatives do you see available?

Jason Clark – London

(Please excuse any typos given my typing this on the fly, and with far too much haste whilst on holiday)

(Bibliography: Reinhard Hütter, "Suffering Divine Things", Bernd Wannenwetsch, "Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens", and William T. Cavanaugh, "Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ" and "Theopolitical Imagination")