Dr Gabe Lomas knows a thing or two about liguistics — he's spent a lifetime immersed in the subject. As a priest he's also spent a bit of time immersed in theology. In today's commentary he proposes that we need a discussion around what we mean by the word "Church". It is a confusing word that can mean different things to different people, and even different things to the same people in different contexts. How do we sort out the confusion of what we mean? Would clearing up the confusion help sort some of the church's present communication problems to the world?
The linguistic and theological confusion of what we mean by 'church'...
Nowadays, we commonly use the word 'church' when referring to buildings or to a religious service, as in, "Did you go to church today?", and you hear things like, "The church teaches that the pope's infallible", or "The church should update its theology", or "You'll find the church down the road, on the right." I once heard someone say to a prospective seminarian: "Ah, John, I hear you're going to join the church." We have a schema of concepts tucked away in our heads that helps us to predict what 'church' might mean in such cases. However, instead of giving distinct labels to these different concepts and tidily putting them in order, we use the same single label over and over again, sometimes beginning it with a capital letter — difficult to do in speech — if we want to signal that we think it is significant. We use this same word to cover a multitude, not of sins, but of related ideas. And, alas and alack, what we usually end up with is a dysfunctional schema, tangled up and confused, which has a telling impact on how we think and behave as people chosen and singled out to belong to the Lord.
Consider some of the language that has been generated around the forced early retirement of Bill Morris from Toowoomba diocese, and note what the word 'church' is being used to mean in each case.
Bill Morris wrote or said:
Benedict Ratzinger wrote:
Philip Wilson wrote:
Tom Roberts said:
John Cleary (ABC 8 May 2011) said:
Andrew Hamilton wrote:
Brian Greiner wrote:
Brian King wrote:
Peter Johnstone wrote:
The mind-sets of Bill Morris and of Benedict Ratzinger can be further illustrated. Thus, while Benedict Ratzinger was still a Roman cardinal, in 1997, he wrote of the movement We are Church:
Bill Morris wrote recently:
Some analysis of the foregoing quotes...
It seems that Bill Morris uses 'church' to signal parishes, gatherings (including non-clerical?), the institution in Australia, the people of God assembled locally, and the Vatican. Philip Wilson uses it of the Vatican, the institution in general and the institution in Australia. Tom Roberts uses 'church' to mean the Vatican or the pope. John Cleary, interviewing Bill Morris, puts the epithet 'wider' before 'church', probably indicating the institution (and perhaps people) beyond the bounds of the diocese. Andrew Hamilton indicates the Catholic institution and the institution in general. Morris West (quoted by Bill Greiner) betokens the institution, the Vatican and the pope, while Brian King seems to mean the institutional structures. Peter Johnstone dignifies 'church' first with the epithet 'God's' — indicating the institution — and then with 'people of', meaning the non-clerical members.
The comments numbered 20 and 21 illustrate 'church' being used of the Vatican and the institution, while numbers 22 and 24 bring out very clearly the association of 'Rome' with control, and 'Magisterium' with draconian threats. Numbers 20 to 24 serve to illustrate the differing mind-sets of Bill Morris and Benedict Ratzinger.
Overwhelmingly, these data show that 'church' as used in the Toowoomba debate carries the meaning of institution, Vatican and/or pope, but is also seen by some (e.g. Bill Morris, John Cleary and Peter Johnstone) as meaning all members, cleric and lay. The word can be modified by a preceding attitudinal epithet, while extra dignity or force can also be signalled in writing by capitalizing its first letter.
Some consideration of the history and formal language conventions...
As part of our current writing conventions, we use the capitalized word Church of wider Christian communities when we give them titles, such as: the Uniting Church, the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the universal Church, and so on. Church is used to indicate institutions and officialdom — the pope, the Vatican curia, the hierarchy, the diocese, the parish, and so on. When used like this, it can be put in tandem with ameliorating epithets such as 'holy' and 'mother', which tend to blur and perhaps soften the image somewhat. Thus it is that 'Holy Church' appears almost benign as it wages war on the Saracens, establishes the Inquisition, and silences theologians who differ from the theology espoused by clerics in the Vatican. In the same way, 'Mother Church' conjures up the image of someone or something loving and caring, to be loved and admired by all. One would hardly think of putting forward an opinion contrary to that of 'Mother Church' — much less, to that of 'Holy Mother Church'.
Vatican II produced a hugely significant document on the church, Lumen gentium, in which the term for church, ecclesia, is used throughout with an initial capital letter . The word occurs in lower case only twice, and on its first such appearance it is given a capital 'C' by its English language translators . For its second appearance — as the plural, ecclesiae, quoted in the context of small local assemblies — the translators follow the Latin original, and keep all the letters small.
It is rarely that we use church in this manner nowadays, to talk about local groups of Christians. We have largely drifted away from that meaning, even though it is the basic one from which all the others have evolved. The word itself, 'church', is derived — via the Old English cír(i)ce and the West Germanic kirika — from the Greek kuriakē or kuriakos, meaning 'belonging to the lord'. The Greek ekklēsia, from which we get the Latin transliteration ecclesia, occurs only three times in the Gospels, and carries the meaning, 'people called out (or chosen) and gathered together'. This concept mirrors the Hebrew use of qahal in the story of the group of Hebrews called out of Egypt and assembled together by YHWH, God. The word used in Hebrew for 'group' is qahal, and the Hebrew Testament talks about the qahal yhwh — God's chosen and assembled people.
The early Christians seem to have been aware of themselves as being such a group, called out and set apart by God, belonging to the lord, modelled on that section of the Hebrew nation that had previously been chosen and gathered together by YHWH. The ancient liturgical text of 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 and the similar record in Luke 22.14-20 and its parallels, show how the early Christians saw themselves as being a newly formed covenant people. Early Christian writings used the word church in this sense over and over again, for example about the Christians at Ephesus, in Laodiceae, throughout Judea, at Antioch, at Cenchreae — and, indeed, there are 100 or more mentions of such groups in the Greek NT.
Where the Church is actually and fully to be found...
In his seminal theological writings, Karl Rahner saw Church as realised in local church assemblies. For him, these reflected the 'remnant' of faithful ones spoken of in the Hebrew Testament, in each group of which was embodied the whole of God's Chosen People. The Eucharist celebrated by the local church assembly is an instantiation of the whole Church; the total Church becomes 'Event' — truly and really present. Thus it is in the Eucharistic assembly, not in a gathering of bishops or clergy — even an œcumencial council — that Church is actually and fully to be found.
This was a theological interpretation espoused and promulgated by Lumen gentium, and it can help us to begin sorting things out a little if we use Church when we refer to a local assembly or group. Parishes, taken together, constitute what we now call a diocese, which we can refer to as church. This, in fact, is the growing usage today. Thus the diocese of Rome is also the church of Rome, and maybe we should use the label 'Vatican church' for the group of Christians that, in the current set-up, controls the institutional structures and members of most Catholic churches — as we have seen in regard to bishop Bill Morris and the church of Toowoomba.
When we offer an opinion or comment about the church, we need to indicate clearly about whom and what we are talking. Often we mean institutional structures, and in such cases it is better to use labels such as 'the institutional members of the church/Church...', or perhaps 'the Vatican church', 'the clergy', 'the bishop', 'the sisters', 'the curia' — and so on. We need to make it clear, both to ourselves and to those we are addressing, what we mean. Similarly, it might be better to use the label 'church building' rather than 'the church' when we mean the physical structure. Likewise, 'church service' can usefully replace 'church' when we're talking about the activity within that building.
The true Church is not of its nature an institution, hidebound by protocols and locked into set ways of functioning. The Church is people. The Church is us. And if time has allowed accretions to grow on some institutional structures so that they hamper our proper freedom, then we should be quite able to pull them off and realign the structures to be what they were always meant to be — supports that allow the new people of God to be and to become. How much easier and less painful it would have been had this been the operative reality when people in the Vatican started getting anxious about Toowoomba.
Christ did not found the church as it exists today, with all its hierarchical and institutional trappings. He is reported as saying that he is present whenever two or three are gathered in his name. Maybe it is along these paths that the Spirit is guiding us, the Church, to be and to become more fully what God has called us to be.
Gabe Lomas, Sydney (submitted to Catholica on 10Jul2011)
What are your thoughts on this commentary?