Last week's essay from Dr Anthony Lowes caused a bit of a stir in the reaction from Brian Pitts that we published on Wednesday but as I have argued in our forum at length HERE, I think the contributions from both Anthony and Brian are deeply valuable (and in fact not all that far apart in the core understanding of "Spirit" which was the basis of Brian Pitts' response). We have an institutional Church today in a crisis possibly exceeding the crises at the time of the Reformation or the Great Schism between East and West. If the Church is not to become some basket case like ancient Mayan or Egyptian Civilisations we need to go back to basics about some pretty fundamental things. I think that is what Anthony Lowes is attempting to do here in his critique of the structure of Church. ...Brian Coyne, Editor
The truth of the church...
The issue is, of course, the nature of this sacramentalising. What precisely of the broader communion, both in its current and its ultimate future forms, is the church meant to sacramentalise? Only by asking this question is it possible to gauge the authenticity of the church. This is not a new attempt at vaunting the marks of the One True Church. It is rather a necessary act of critical appraisal which must ever form the basis of a genuine renewing, reforming ecclesial self-consciousness. As a pilgrim people, the church is true only to the degree of its growth towards truth. The church will only be absolutely true in the end-time when it is translated into the Realm.
The church in its sacramentalising, in its signifying and its effecting, can only be authentic if it carries out its charge with the same single-mindedness in regard to the human person that Christ demonstrated. The church is a community fully conscious of its own identity. Those within it, especially those who are called to leadership and ministry, have to measure what they are and what they do against this magnificent obsession.
The church, like the Sabbath, is for the human person, not vice versa.
The church's relatively recent discovery of justice as a primary focus of its ministry may be a response to the times; yet more profoundly, it is a response to what is central about its own nature. And this is something deeper than that Christ, its formative catalyst, preached justice and the preferential option for the poor and oppressed.
Christ, the historical revelation of selflessly surrendered personhood
Christ, as the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, could not be expected to freely do otherwise. He was inspired by the Spirit, the epitome of persons-in-relation, and was himself the historical revelation of referred, selflessly surrendered, personhood; this was witnessed with peculiar power in his totally self-dispossessing death. He was oriented in his being and in his psyche to exercise freely a preferential option for whomever might be diminished in personal being and action, that is, for whomever might be personally impoverished.
The church likewise would, if it is to remain true to itself, have to express a preferential option for the personally poor. Grounded in the personal and comprising the relational, the church, in doing so, is simply expressing an awareness of its own constitution as the divine-human communion. The Church, in taking up this option, is simply practising church, rooted in the Realm.
Hearing the censure of the biblical word and human wisdom...
To effect such a preference, the Church must first exemplify a consistent striving for the realisation of those conditions within its own community which make for the full development of each person. To be an instrument of personal impoverishment (even by neglect), rather than an instrument of enlarged personal freedom and unhindered personal self-possession would be a fundamental contradiction; that is, a contradiction in its own being and in its essential significance.
The church, if it wants to be seen to be authentic in sacramentalising the Realm, has to be seen to be alleviating the material poverty of those condemned to live subhuman lives and to find ways of ensuring their essential food and clothing, housing and work opportunities. It needs to be challenging corporate sin in the form of oppressive and exploitative political and economic structures and to be pioneering and advocating improvements in education for the masses.
Yet that is not all.
Promoting personal autonomy...
The church must be seen to hear the censure of the biblical word and the accusation of human reason and wisdom, as they are directed at its own too often domineering, unresponsive and excessively historicised structures. To be sacramentally potent, the church must be seen to be promoting personal autonomy rather than dependency, maturity of judgment and discernment rather than robo-conscience, robust initiative rather than passive subservience, a truly conserving boldness and magnanimity rather than craven caution that passes for obedience and humility. As Michael Richards contends:
If the [c]hurch is our Mother, that does not mean that we never leave the womb, that we remain for ever comfortably settled in a warm home where all our needs are looked after and where we never have to stand on our own feet or exercise any initiative. . . There is no going back to the womb; one only becomes a true son (or daughter) of Mother Church, relating oneself to Mary also, as to a mother, by a response of faith that looks forward to an unknown future, not back to a comfortable and familiar past.
In its essential function of being the self-aware, sharply-defined focus of the Realm, interpreting itself in the light of its remembered and reflected-upon experience of the Christ-event and the identity-establishing dynamism of its tradition, the church must be seen to exhibit a "catholic mind" and possess a "catholic heart" — astounding in its breadth, flexible in its understanding, reconciling (without destroying) cultural distinctiveness, sustaining and nurturing (rather than crushing) diversity. Only in creating such a climate can the church become convincing as the ground of personal enlargement.
The metaphor that David Cunningham develops to urge this diversity-within-unity upon the church involves polyphonic or symphonic music. He invokes Bonhoeffer's image of cantus firmus — the dominant melody or line in music to which all other melodies are counterpoint. He also presses von Balthasar's work, Truth is Symphonic, into service of this theme. What he is advocating is 'a "musical" unity of differential flux, not a fusion or synthesis that is achieved at the expense of . . . diversity.' As an alternative expression of his ecclesial goal, he uses Bakhtin's phrase 'a communion of unmerged souls'. He brings his argument to sharp focus in a quote from John Millbank,
For Christianity, true community means the freedom of people and groups to be different, not just to be functions of a fixed consensus, yet at the same time it totally refuses indifference; a peaceful, united, secure community implies absolute consensus, and yet, where difference is acknowledged, this is no agreement in an idea, or something once and for all achieved, but a consensus that is only in and through the inter-relations of the community itself, and a consensus that moves and 'changes': a concentus musicus.
This line of argument is not a justification for the church becoming a hot bed for the promotion of bourgeois individualism, with its self-absorbed craving for personal fulfilment and its inevitable frustrated outcome — a vacuous loneliness. (This is a secular siren song that modern liberal democracies emit to inveigle the ecclesial mariner passing by on a pilgrimage to more intense personalism and more deeply realised communing.) On the other hand, it emphatically excludes the erection of some sort of institutional collective, hiving corporate loneliness within the clearly patterned cells of due process and precedent, brittle structure and oppressive historical accretion. Walter Kasper makes this very point:
Individualism and collectivism are two opposing extremes which are alike in that they both leave the individual alone. Both of them fail to grasp the essence of the human person, who can only find happiness and peace in ties of affection, in shared judgments and common purposes, in mutual sharing and in concern for personal values.
By returning repeatedly to a full appreciation of its essential nature and purpose, the church will magnify all within it that is constitutionally personal and therefore constitutionally communal.
A consequence of viewing the possibilities of the church from this perspective is that it highlights, as profoundly self-contradictory, any assault upon and attempted minimisation of the stature of personhood within excessive ecclesiastical institutionalism. An insisted upon, all-encompassing uniformity is the death of living human connectivity.
The institutional obsession with control...
Further, Cunningham points up the origin of institutional obsession with control. It comes, he maintains, from several deep-seated fears, from the belief that 'multiplicity is necessarily a scattering to the winds, leading to naïve forms of relativism and isolationism' and therefore from 'the desire to eliminate one's enemies, to efface or consume the otherness of the other, to exercise power in such a way that the difference implied by an opposing force is subordinated and ultimately extinguished.' Could it be said that this negative motivation is behind the current strains evident within the curia?
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes