THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
What is the Church?
In theory, that seems like a straightforward question, so it should have a simple answer. But like so much of the Christian faith, there is much more to it.
Article XIX gives quite a precise definition of “a congregation of faithful men” (and let’s just assume the unwritten women, shall we, since the use of the word ‘man’ has historically meant ‘humanity’?) So let’s take that statement word by word.
People. People make up the Church.
Compare this with the Revised Catechism of the Church of England (drawn up in 1962) describes her as “the family of God and the Body of Christ through which he continues his reconciling work among men.”
Both implicitly stress that you cannot be Church on your own. You want to, but whether we use the word ‘family’ or ‘congregation’, Church is something we do together. Family suggests bond, brother and sister, children through adoption; and also sibling arguments, struggles and tension. Congregation suggests a gathering, coming together. In his translation of the Bible into English, William Tyndale used ‘congregation’ to translate ekklesia, rather than Church, an intellectual distancing of the people from the ecclesial authorities. Both imply relationship, reflecting the very nature of the Holy Trinity, a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Whether we are faithful is another matter.
To the author’s of the Articles the members of numerous other churches were already to be found wanting, and in due time the Reformed Church would continue to split as certain doctrines and practices would cause groups of Christians to draw their own particular line in the sand, making people which side to stand. I’m not denying the importance of these debates – a continual discernment of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today matters, because God can and does do new things, and we want to be listening to God, but equally we do not want to move away from shared orthodoxy following the wrong spirit.
But as a group of faithful but falliable people, in striving for ‘true’ faithfulness the worst aspects of human nature seems to be given full voice. In our bickering, historical and today, there is a real risk that we forget why we came together in the first place. We are our own Tower of Babel, reaching to heaven and then falling into disarray of disagreement and division.
So can Church be recognised by its deeds?
Article XIX reminds us that we, the Church, are where the Word of God is preached (and hopefully heard) and the Sacraments are duly ministered, specifically thinking of Baptism and Holy Communion.
These are the vital actions of and for the Church. They are the building blocks we use to strive for holiness, in the building up of the faithful, and for the sharing of the Good News with the world. If we are not doing those things, we are not being Church.
We need only return to the Bible to see that this is true. In Acts 2.44-47 we are shown the daily pattern of life for the early Church:
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
People outside the Church recognise the Church by the actions of those who make up the Church. So when they recognise godliness in those people, they are drawn into the life of the Church, but when there is only disagreement on display, then the Church can become a barrier to its evangelism.
Can we ever be One Church, in the unity that Christ prayed for? (John 17.11)
I have a genuine hope that the answer is yes. When two or three Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, when we hear the Word of God and break bread together, there we have a foretaste of what One looks like, for He is with us. Even if we pray for it, perhaps we’ll never manage it as the Church militant here on earth, human nature being what it is, but the Church Triumphant is.
O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Book of Common Prayer