Effective Signs of Grace?

John Cole

Effective Signs of Grace?

What if we could see ourselves as ‘sacramental’ people?
What might this say about how we engage in God’s mission?

And what can we learn about how we may nourish one another?
Three key virtues in a relational Church: unity, reconciliation, and covenant love

“The Church should never be defined merely in terms of its activities
as an institution, but always in terms of
the character and purpose that it receives from God through grace.”

From the Common Statement of the Anglican~Methodist Covenant (paragraph 83)

John Cole, formerly National Adviser (Unity-in-Mission) for General Synod’s Council for Christian Unity, offers his reflections on where, across many decades, he has seen evidence of Spirit-filled relationships that have enlivened communities of Christ’s disciples in both urban and rural settings. The common thread appears to be their mutual trustworthiness, and their deep sense of gratitude for the grace of God at work amongst them. A final section in this paper offers a reflection from the perspective of the search for Christian unity.

  1. Sacramental people

In the middle of the twentieth century, in the decade or so before Rock and Roll and the Beatles transformed pop culture, a revolution took place widely in parish churches across the Church of England. The traditional Sunday morning service of Mattins and Sermon was replaced by a sung version of Holy Communion, which was mysteriously called ‘Sung Eucharist’. Only those who are now nearing four score years will remember the mixture of unease and excitement that greeted the change. We were invited to discover that we were ‘the Lord’s people round the Lord’s table on the Lord’s Day’.

There can be little doubt that the new Sunday morning service arrangements contributed a new vitality to many local congregations. Week by week, vast numbers of worshippers across the country were regularly being given a wafer and a sip of wine. Previously most would have only experienced this – in line with the requirement in the Book of Common Prayer – “three times a year of which Easter shall be one”

As we received this ‘sacrament’ (like ‘eucharist’ this was a term that we did not fully understand) we were told that this wafer and wine were “the Body and the Blood of Christ”. Some of us also heard terms such as “the Real Presence”. We caught a sense that something special was going on, something that might bring us closer to God. I’m sure many of us felt this deep inside, but did we really grasp its significance? What does it mean to speak about ‘sacraments’? And how might this help us to see ourselves called to be ‘sacramental’ people?

  • * *

The heading of this paper, ‘Effective signs of grace’  is how the great theologian of the Catholic tradition, St Thomas Aquinas, summed up his understanding of ‘sacrament’ in the 13th century. For me it opens up a whole new way of understanding about ourselves and the mysterious universe within which we are such a tiny part, and with that a glimpse of God’s self-presentation in every moment and every interaction that we have with other things and other people day by day. Could it be that every event, every action, every encounter that we experience in daily life – and not just the pleasant ones – all have the potential to be recognised as more or less ‘effective signs of the grace of God’? To turn this around, does this mean that we as Christ’s disciples – or even as human beings “made in the image of God” – are already living and engaging with others as more or less ‘effective signs of grace’ today? And if we are less than ‘effective’, what is the problem?

  • * *

A sign is only effective when someone recognises it as a sign and responds to its message or meaning. Different signs demand different responses. The Highway Code divides signs between compulsory and advisory, and uses a variety of different shapes and colours to distinguish what kind of message each sign offers. Other signs generate more emotional responses – especially perhaps when some action is not intended as a sign but we find ourselves noticing it as ‘significant’. 

‘Grace’ is another word that we use in the context of our Christian faith without thinking much about its meaning. We only recognise ‘grace’ when it triggers a response of gratitude within us. Grace and gratitude are two perspectives on the same relationship, flip sides of the same coin. 

This helps to explain how, in the context of worship, a wafer and a sip of wine can also be ‘body and blood of Christ’. They are indeed ‘effective signs of grace’ because they trigger in the hearts of worshippers that deep sense of gratitude. “Feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” says the person administering the bread and wine, according to the traditional wording in the Book of Common Prayer. The consecration of the bread and wine is not some magical act performed by the celebrant; it is a reality that is recognised by the whole congregation – a ‘Real Presence’. It is recognised through not just the shorter consecration prayer provided in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but through the integrated ‘Great Thanksgiving’ – from the “Holy, holy, holy” through to the “by whom, and with whom, and in whom …” of most modern liturgies. And, of course, as we have now learned, ‘thanksgiving’ is precisely the meaning of the word ‘eucharist’.

  • * *

Grace and gratitude are indeed two perspectives on the same relationship, flip sides of the same coin. This is the healthy relationship in which we as humans are called to be in relation to God and to God’s created order. In this relationship we can be co-creators with God. Without it we will only be destructive, exploiting our planetary home and those around us out of self-interest, behaving as if we were God. Of course we are imperfect, often self-preoccupied, and liable to inflict damage on others and on our environment – sometimes deliberately, but more often without realising it. Perhaps that’s why discovering in ourselves a deep-seated gratitude for God’s grace is so important. Only as we know that we are still being healed, can we offer healing to others.

2. Unselfconscious evangelisers

All this colours the way in which Christ’s disciples are called to relate to those who are still at other stages on their spiritual journey – in other words, how we are to be engaged in God’s mission. We start by recognising that our own spiritual journey has not reached a final conclusion. Any “blessed assurance” that we may feel is itself only an ‘effective sign of grace’ –  a sign, not a complete package that we can ‘possess’. At the beginning of my eightieth year and still in reasonable health, I am increasingly aware how much I still need the grace of God now and in the years ahead. Life’s bittersweet experiences will always challenge any feeling that somehow we ‘have arrived’. William Cowper’s poem, “O for a closer walk with God …” sets the tone for me, offering a glimpse of the source of grace. The poem offers this perhaps especially for those who have suffered bereavement during this pandemic. The key verse for this is often omitted in hymnbooks, so it is worth reading the poem in full on line.

It is humbly reassuring, therefore, to discover that, if we are to be sacramental people, effective signs of God’s grace, our continuing imperfection – our brokenness – is inevitable and is not incompatible with integrity or credibility. We can still learn what it takes to be trustworthy. The ‘body of Christ’ that we receive at Holy Communion is a body ‘broken for us’. We do not have to be perfect in order to communicate Gospel. If fact, if we give the impression of being self-righteous – ‘holier than thou’ – we are being completely ineffective as a sign, which only works if it is pointing beyond itself.

It is almost a generation since the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s. After four massively expensive national evangelistic campaigns around the middle of the decade, a review conducted by the Evangelical Alliance concluded that all this effort achieved little more than some closer co-operation between different Christian traditions. There was little sign that it increased the number of churchgoers – and even the closer co-operation between Churches seems to have been lost as denominations become increasingly concerned for their own survival. 

It has been said that Gospel communication is about ‘out-reach’, not ‘in-grab’. However, even self-conscious ‘outreach’ is always likely to be manipulative – a ‘performance’ rather than the sharing of a journey. We will be engaged as effective signs of God’s grace when we are ‘tuned in’ with others in an unselfconscious empathy. We cannot claim to be immune from the stress and anxiety that so many are feeling as the pain and fear associated with the pandemic morphs into a cost of living crisis.

So instead of planning how we can sell the Christian Gospel to the community, how we can ‘evangelise’ others, perhaps we should check the New Testament. St Paul is clear that his ‘telling of good news’ is nothing he can boast about. In his second letter to the Corinthian Christians he describes how his own ‘thorn in the flesh’ was given to him, he says, as a constant reminder that Gods grace is sufficient for him. Only once in the New Testament (in Revelation 10.7) is ‘evangelise’ used as an active verb with people as its object – and the one doing the evangelising is God. Elsewhere, especially in St Paul’s letters, the term is expressed in a distinctively Greek form, the so-called ‘Middle Voice’. In this form, it conveys the notion that ‘gospelling the gospel’ is something St Paul cannot help doing. Those who hear him must decide for themselves whether his message is good news for them. Is this what made him such an ‘effective sign of grace’?

It is worth noting more generally that whether any message is ‘news’ is only decided by those who hear it. It might just be ‘information’. Their emotional reaction will show whether for them that news is good or bad. The emotions can range from anger or fear or sadness to sheer joy. We can experience different news items as everything from gut-wrenching to heart-warming. And we usually do not need to think before these reactions overtake us. This is why all of us are at risk of being taken in by misinformation, destructive and manipulative attempts to mislead us with ‘fake news’. Recipients of news face the difficult but necessary task of deciding which news sources are trustworthy. Trustworthiness seems to be key to achieving healthy relationships in all aspects of life in our broken world.

Even the language we use, whether written or spoken, is in fact only ‘sign language’ – pointing more or less reliably to a reality beyond itself. One of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, insisted that the Word of God received through the scriptures is delivered sacramentally. The truth of the Bible belongs to God; it cannot reside in the words themselves.

Back in the late 1980s the members of a Diocesan Board of Mission met to make plans for the Decade of Evangelism. In a diocese very largely consisting of small village parishes, we were wondering what our priorities should be. Rather than toss around a range of conflicting opinions, we agreed that we would stay silent for twenty minutes and then go round the room to hear what scriptural references came to mind – hoping that they might be sacramental of God’s Word. The outcome was unexpected but compelling: the message that stood out from the rest, repeated by several of those present, was “Feed my sheep” from the final chapter of St John’s Gospel. For us the Decade became a call to enable each other – as well as others in the communities we served – to deepen our spirituality. This was what would perhaps enable us to be more effective signs of grace.

So why do churches spend so much time and effort on ‘mission’ and evangelistic campaigns – as though they feel they have to do God a favour? Might they be better deepening their experience of God’s grace in their own lives, becoming sacramental people, through whom others may see something that draws them closer to God? Thankfully many church people do have that effect on others as they get on with their daily lives. These people would also be the most surprised if they ever discovered that this was the case – as they would also be the most likely to admit to their continuing need for God’s healing love. This constant ongoing awareness of God’s grace – so that our whole character is shaped by an overwhelming sense of gratitude, overwhelming because such grace is so energising yet so undeserved – is what allows us to be sacramental people, modest but surprisingly effective witnesses to the healing and life-giving presence of God.

3. Curators of spiritual wells

How then can Christ’s disciples be nourished so that they live their lives as ‘unselfconscious evangelisers’, ‘sacramental people’?  I have asked this question of a great many faithful church people over the years – Christians of many traditions – although I have usually expressed it more succinctly as “Where do you find your spiritual wells?” Their answer, almost universally, was “not in Sunday worship”. Instead they pointed to a whole variety of opportunities to meet in small groups, usually with Christians of other traditions, and not normally under the direction of an individual leader. They mentioned Cursillo, Julian groups, and Maranatha as well as more informal groups; they talked of being part of the Northumbrian Community, of going on retreats in places such as Lindisfarne or visits to Iona. Those who went as young people on visits to the religious community at Taizé in France continued to speak of it as transformative. Their relationships in these groups were at a deep level, and their eyes shone as they talked about them. 

Was there a problem with their Sunday worship? I think not. I have come to believe that their meeting to make eucharist – usually in a larger group – was their opportunity to share with others their gratitude for God’s grace that they had already experienced, and to receive in the sacramental bread and wine affirmation of the continuing gift of grace and God’s presence in their lives. 

The idea that all churchgoers would be enriched if they also had the chance to experience and explore their discipleship within smaller groups is not new. It gained renewed attention around the time of the Decade of Evangelism, but seems to have been overlooked more recently. ‘Base ecclesial communities’ were first labelled as such amongst Roman Catholics in South America. A similar notion was given expression within the Cell Church movement amongst Evangelical Anglicans. A small group, involving among others Peter Price (later Bishop of Bath and Wells) and Jeanne Hinton from the Post Green Community, promoted “A New Way of Being Church”. Peter Price’s book “Seeds of the Word” (DLT 1996) provides a glimpse of how groups operating without a designated leader might open up this “New Way”. All three initiatives seem to have faded away. The limitation of Cell Church was perhaps that it was overly structured – organised, when it seems that cells can only thrive, grow, and maybe multiply, if they emerge and develop organically. For ‘New Way’ the problem would appear to have been that this new life existed ‘below the radar’ of the institutional Churches and, if it was noticed, it was discouraged or even disowned. 

In principle, however, it seems clear that ‘base ecclesial communities’ are a vital part of what makes up the Body of Christ, and I am sure that many similar small groups continue to exist ‘below the radar’. The Holy Spirit can and does work within such small groups of Christ’s disciples to transform them, and the essential ingredient to allow this transformation to happen appears to be when there is mutual cherishing and trustworthiness between all participants. 

The cornerstone of these and all healthy relationships is when each participant is committed to being trustworthy. Sadly, we live in a society that discourages trust; and indeed a naive trust merely shows us to be gullible. However, the more we organise our lives on the basis of distrust, the more we are treating untrustworthiness as normal.

A group may also be more open to the Holy Spirit’s transformation when it is deeply embedded in its local community, striving to meet its needs. The base ecclesial communities in South America developed as effective signs of God’s grace as they embedded themselves in the favelas, among the residents of their city’s slums.

4. Still ‘combatting enthusiasm’?

Almost the only place where such Spirit-filled relationships may still be expressed as part of the parochial structure of the Church of England is in remote villages that still retain a strong sense of community. An example might be a hamlet I once visited deep in the Lincolnshire fens, far off the tourist trail, where life would be very difficult if residents did not support one another in a host of ways day by day. Tiny congregations in these communities need only to be reassured that they are not fifth rate congregations but first rate cells, bonded because they are the village community.

Time was when the majority of Church of England parishes could be assumed to be integrated communities, inherently diverse but mutually committed, albeit usually with a clear social hierarchy. Churchgoers were then inseparably part of that community, and representative of that community. In each parish their Vicar then slotted in to the social hierarchy somewhere near the top. The Vicar was their ‘parson’, and in the 19th century as village populations grew, and as Methodism was also spreading widely – not least because of the vitality of their small ‘class meetings’ in people’s homes – diocesan bishops encouraged those with enough private means to build their own vicarages to take up freehold incumbencies. The reason given by one bishop for creating these new benefices was that it might “combat enthusiasm” – in other words limit the growth of Methodism! Today these vicarages are among the most expensive private houses in the villages, and clergy are few and far between. Yet nineteenth century expectations of parish clergy still linger, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. What began as deference to the parson has morphed into concern – and even complaints – that the Vicar can no longer fulfil their expectations.

Alongside this, as towns and cities expanded, eventually draining the population away from the more rural villages and turning others into commuter suburbs, so the concept of the ‘parish’ with a parson in charge, however desirable, became increasingly divorced from reality. In larger towns and cities residents are hard put to know which is ‘their’ parish church. Churches of different denominations can be found on High Streets and on street corners, like chains of shops, and the minister is perceived as akin to a shop manager purveying a rather ill-defined ‘product’ for “those that like that sort of thing”. Those who do “like that sort of thing” then feel free to opt for the version of the product (or of the sales technique) that they like best. 

The result of this consumerism is congregations of the like-minded. Cosy relationships are, of course, possible in these congregations. New faces arriving at the church door may well be welcomed as ‘customers’, but they can also go unnoticed for weeks. In these echo chambers, the scope for spiritual growth is limited as is the depth of their empathy with the diverse communities amongst whom they live. 

* * *

If a Spirit-filled relational culture is to be developed, parish clergy would nowadays appear to be caught in a double bind, trying to meet conflicting demands and expectations. Even though the number of baptisms, weddings and funerals has been declining, there will always be more demand for individual pastoral care than a clergy-person has time for. Yet at the same time the same clergy are facing demands, often from the diocese, to develop a new mission-oriented church life. The question is then whether the mission is identified with God or with the Church.

Either way clergy are under pressure, and this may explain why many clergy feel they must act to keep things ‘manageable’. Over the years I have met too many parish clergy, conscientious and faithful, who were stressed and frustrated by the conflicting demands of the job. Too often their reaction was become autocratic, to ‘take back control’ – still feeling the need in effect to ‘combat enthusiasm’. Nothing could happen unless they had initiated it and supervised it. Sometimes this reflected a lust for power, but more often it was just a way of coping with complexity. These pressures may well explain why so many parish clergy appear reluctant to take ecumenism seriously – and are so often defensive with each other at Deanery Chapter meetings.

The tragedy is when the Vicar’s need to maintain control has the effect of stifling the growth of relationships in smaller and less contrived groups. Subconsciously  such groups are perceived as a threat. If they really came alive, they might become an alternative power base, threatening the Vicar’s power and authority. Here are two cautionary tales:

Some years ago I encountered a group of eight lay people from different traditions who had first come together for an ecumenical Lent course. Years later they were still meeting every two weeks for prayer, discussion and to discover what they could do next as to develop hope within their local community. Here was a Spirit-filled relational culture; but with anxious faces they warned me not to reveal that I knew what they were doing. Their heartfelt plea was Please dont tell the Vicar!”

On another occasion, the local Reader opened her house for a bread and cheese lunch during Lent. After Easter those who came agreed to continue to meet. Over time relationships within the group deepened to a point where they were ready to share their feelings about meaning in life – and at that point, when someone spoke about their visit to Iona, the experience morphed and, for one person, it proved to be a gateway into an overwhelming sense of Gods presence in her life. Sadly however, the incoming Vicar apparently felt threatened by the group. Was it too powerful, too much out of his control? Equally sadly, both the Reader and the group eventually broke their links with the parish. Was the Reader also too committed to staying in control?

So how can the Spirit-filled relationships that people experience when they find their spiritual wells be ‘cultivated’? Perhaps ‘building a relational culture’ is not something that a church institution can achieve. The more urgent task may be to avoid behaviour in our church institutions that inhibits the growth that the Spirit is wanting us to enjoy.

In fairness these pictures date back twenty or more years. Perhaps times have changed.

5. The blessings of powerlessness

Better ways may perhaps be found when the entire Church, bishops, priests, deacons, administrators, lay people, discover the blessings of powerlessness. 

Clergy, by virtue of their ordination, are not ‘leaders’ in any sense recognised by the secular world. They may be called out as ‘first among equals’ by reason of their individual gifts; but any status is not theirs by right. However, in a local church community what clergy contribute will always be pivotal. Essentially they are there as intermediaries, connection-makers, ‘bridge-builders’ (cf the term ‘pontifex’ traditionally applied to bishops). As such they will be working to help Christ’s people to live creatively with diversity, rather than enforcing conformity; they will be making ‘organic’ connections rather than oiling a machine. Above all they will recognise that they are there to enable Christ’s disciples to draw closer to God through Christ, and that nothing they do must get in the way of that. 

All this means that ordained leadership in Christ’s Church is only true to its calling when it accepts that it is powerless. This is a particular problem for the Church of England, which appears to expect more from its clergy than almost any other Christian tradition. Excessively high or misplaced expectations of clergy will always be matched by inappropriately low expectations of laity – aggravated by the Church of England’s historic culture of deference. If clergy try to meet these expectations, the unfortunate result is that they take all power and responsibility into their own hands. Responsible lay people are disabled and forced back into juvenility or adolescence. Or else they leave. Congregations that collude with this will never grow up. 

Even local ministry schemes can reinforce this misappropriation of power. Many of the day to day tasks that parish clergy see as part of their ministry could be and should be properly seen as the shared responsibility of the whole local Church community, lay and ordained. Local ministers are not volunteers, deputising for the clergy-person. 

There is an inevitable human tendency for individuals to accumulate power when others let them take over responsibilities that should be accepted by the community as a whole. It is very obvious in government, even when lip-service is paid to the democratic ‘will of the people’. The same tendency is equally observable in the Church. But there is an important difference: In Christ’s Church we are called to surrender the power associated with leadership in favour not of the will of the people but of the leading of the Holy Spirit. The whole idea of having Synods was to enable the whole people of God, lay and ordained, to discern together the leading of the Holy Spirit. The current heavily politicised synodical process in the Church of England seems a long way from fulfilling this. 

Whoever is given specific responsibilities towards building purposeful community must constantly reassess the extent to which he or she is accumulating power – and then do whatever is necessary to give it back to God. 

6. Reshaping a communion of communities

Within our parish system, can we find ways to identify and cherish the small groups that may from time to time morph into places where the Holy Spirit is discovered and God’s presence is felt?

It is clearly difficult and possibly counter-productive to try to create such groups. Apart from anything else, it conflicts with the natural instinct of local church leaders to want to create a harmonious whole within the congregation – perhaps even a ‘conformist’ whole, everyone ‘singing from the same hymn-sheet’. Yet the Gospel message of “See how these Christians love one another” only gets its energy when the love is seen in the context of diversity. 

Fortunately even the most monocultural of our eclectic congregations will contain hidden diversity. Individuals and groups will already be associating with small groups of colleagues and friends, or engaged in projects alongside other people from a variety of backgrounds. Rather than trying to keep people’s discipleship entirely ‘in house’, might it be better to be cherishing members of the congregation in terms of their involvement in life outside the church? This might mean encouraging church people to get involved in existing charitable initiatives to meet needs in their local communities, rather than consuming all their energy in parallel initiatives sponsored in the name of the Church. Christ’s disciples are called to be ‘effective signs of God’s grace’ in terms of all their relationships, expressing their trustworthiness not just within the congregation. It is the same Holy Spirit bringing healing, hope and meaning in people’s lives, whether or not people give credit for it to their local church. 

At an even more basic level, maybe we are simply being called to be good neighbours. It is doubtful if even the tiniest of parishes should be regarded as single integrated communities. A researcher looking at the social structure of a Lincolnshire village with a population of c1000 was amused when she identified a ‘pecking order’ among the social groups and organisations that abounded in the village. In this case the group that had priority when booking dates in the village calendar was the cricket club!

The challenge may be to find ways to bring the good news of God’s grace in people’s daily lives, as individuals and their various social groups, back into the meetings of the congregation and retelling it there, thus creating a positive feedback loop between worship and daily living. This is important because these experiences are what will give substance to our thanksgiving in ‘eucharistic’ worship. Sharing these experiences will earth our worship in the reality of daily life. 

So much of the Holy Spirit’s work evidently takes place ‘below the radar’ of the institutional Churches. It is overlooked and undervalued seemingly because those responsible for the institution’s ‘survival’ feel the need to take credit for the good deeds, rather than thank God who is the source of all grace. To paraphrase the thoughts of John V Taylor in “The Go-between God”, our task is “to find out what God is doing, and join in”. This is the evidence of God’s grace to which we are called to be effective signs, and for which we can feel genuinely thankful. Sunday worship will then be something we will be eager to engage in, and not just because we “like that sort of thing”.

7. “Become what you are”
~ and a perspective from the search for Christian unity

A final thought: Living as sacramental people is an ongoing process – a ‘becoming’ as much as a ‘being’. “Become what you are” is a recurring theme in St Paul’s letters: We are to become “through Christ” what we are “in Christ”. 

My experience as a mission development adviser in the service of all Lincolnshire’s mainstream Churches ensures that I cannot think only of the Church of England. I could have wished that this current initiative to “Build a Relational Church” might have taken more account of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as received within other Christian traditions. Perhaps this is for another stage as this initiative develops. 

However, a ‘relational Church’ will never be complete if we only seek to build it within the Church of England – still less if we only focus on reforming our congregational life. The quality of our relations with Christians of other traditions is no less important.

A key New Testament word when we are thinking about a relational Church is koinonia – the ‘fellowship’ of the Holy Spirit. Obviously this kind of fellowship involves far more than just being sociable within a club, For many decades ecclesiologists and ecumenists have rightly interpreted the word koinonia with two strands of meaning: communion (with God) and community (with each other). The Common Statement of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant speaks of “the vital organic life of the Church as a body infused by the power of the Holy Spirit, that is to say … koinonia” (Paragraph 183). Earlier, in paragraph 83, it states: “Thus the koinonia that we experience in the Christian community is not only a fellowship one with another, but also a relationship of communion with God that is both personal and communal. Koinonia stands for a full communion with God (2 Corinthians 13:13-14), a sharing in the very life of God (1 John 1:3), a partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).” The paragraph continues with a sentence that seems to capture the thrust of this present paper, and may encapsulate the message of this whole campaign:- “The Church should never be defined merely in terms of its activities as an institution, but always in terms of the character and purpose that it receives from God through grace.” 

It will be helpful if we notice a third strand to the meaning of koinonia. It was pointed out to me many years ago that, in most instances in the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of koinonia is not, as one might expect ‘communio’, but ‘communicatio’ – whose cognates in English are not just communion and community but also communication. A vital part of what the Holy Spirit gave at Pentecost was effective communication: “Everyone heard the disciples speaking in their own language.”  In this ‘reversal of the Tower of Babel,’ it is what people hear that counts, more than what people say.

A simple Venn diagram illustrates this, and suggests how these three inter-connected relationships match up with the three key characteristics of the One Church identified in the Nicene Creed – ‘holy, catholic and apostolic’.Image

A map of this sort may be helpful because it points to the link between the concept of the Holy Spirit’s ‘communication’ and a key word where over recent decades missioners and ecumenists have gone in different directions. That word is ‘apostolic‘.

Ecumenists have tended to use the word ‘apostolic’ retrospectively to emphasise loyalty to a tradition dating back to the Apostles. Missioners have tended to link it to the idea of the Church’s ‘apostolate’ – and give it a here and now and future orientation as the Church seeks faithfully to live out the mission for which it has been sent. In fact both interpretations need to be re-integrated. The apostolic tradition needs to be experienced as a living continuum within which there is an outward and forward diversifying, to communicate within context, and an inward and backward unifying, as part of what is needed to remain centred in God’s truth revealed in Jesus Christ.

What emerges through the complexity and uncertainty of local church life – and from a three-fold understanding of our Spirit-enabled relationships – is a three-dimensional koinonia, not just vertically and horizontally (as it has traditionally been pictured) but lived through time both historically, now and into the future.

The so-called ‘inter-Church process’, that has been the preoccupation of ecumenists for so long and with such limited results, is therefore to be understood as just part of the journey of the whole Body of Christ lived through relationships energised by the Holy Spirit. The language of the koinonia of the Holy Spirit (communion, community and communication) tells us what energises our relationships as disciples of Jesus Christ. The language of communion tells us how these relationships are configured. We see the brokenness of our communion in time and space – and we see the perfection of communion in the very being of God in Trinity. The languages of covenant and of reconciliation are then available to help us understand how much ‘community’ and ‘communication’ elide with each other and enable us to articulate the “character and purpose” of these relationships that come about among us through a gift “from God through grace”. (cf the quotation highlighted above).

The Biblical language of covenant speaks of gracious giving and grateful receiving, of constant love for the other, and of a purpose beyond the covenant partners. 

The work of reconciliation also takes seriously the otherness of the other, yet strives towards a depth of community and relationship through which the many know themselves to be one. 

On the basis of the Greek words used in the New Testament, McMaster and Higgins – in their remarkable workbook “Communities of Reconciliation” which focuses on Northern Ireland – offer this definition: “Reconciliation is about taking initiatives and actions that make enemies into friends through give and take and by building new and different forms of community. This kind of reconciliation is about transforming relationships and structures through lengthy processes requiring courage, risk and commitment.” It is a reconciling task which goes way beyond the diversity of the Christian Churches.

In the local scene and in fresh expressions of church life (in what were once labelled the ‘inherited’ and the ‘emerging’ churches) we are witnessing a living and ongoing interaction between the whole and the part, the universal and the particular, between inherited wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s leading, between a centred unity and a missionary diversity. Our ecumenical vocation (‘ecumenical’ in its wider meaning, not just ‘inter-church’), our call to be becoming one, is an ongoing experience. The whole of it is the work of the Holy Spirit engendering both diversity and unity, the koinonia life-force, the breath, – the breathing of which is the evidence that the Body of Christ is alive. We are not more alive whether we are breathing in or out.

At a time when fresh expressions of church life challenge our conventional behaviour within our congregations, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are ‘pilgrim people’ – not knowing where we are going. It is enough that we do know that there is the One who is leading us on the journey, whom we will come to know “even as we are known”. 

Similarly, at a time when Churches as institutions are feeling the stress of an uncertain future,  we might even see ourselves as ‘Exodus people’ – with all the overtones of a promised land, but with (on the way) miracles, manna and forty years in the wilderness. How tempting it is, in these circumstances, to rest comfortably in our existing congregations and church structures, despite their sometimes unrewarded hard labour, and carry on “making bricks without straw”!

Our calling to be becoming one in an inclusive and rich diversity, is the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17, “that the world might believe.” In Ephesians 1, God’s hidden purpose is “that the whole universe, in heaven and on earth, should be brought into a unity in Christ.” From this perspective, as when we probe the biblical meaning of reconciliation, it is far too small a thing that we should set our sights only on ‘the full visible unity’ of Christ’s Church. All this is what is involved in “becoming what we are” – a relational Church.

Maybe three lessons can be learned through the frustrations felt within the inter-Church process, and amid the pressures on Church institutions in a changing society. They surely apply equally to all communities of Christ’s disciples, large and small, from global Churches through to congregations and the smallest and most informal of cell groups. They represent three of the key virtues in a relational Church. 

We are invited: –

  • to discover and cherish the joys of unity in diversity
  • to commit to being communities of reconciliation both within our fellowships and in a broken world
  • above all to learn to live within the grace of God’s covenant love.

Could these be the characteristics of a relational Church, as it follows its calling to be God’s sacramental people, infused by the Holy Spirit’s koinonia, becoming through Christ what we are in Christ, and thus increasingly to become “effective signs of God’s grace”?