We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
This string of adjectives, as proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, is usually quickly said, and sometimes feels as though a part of the many things we use to fill up the clause concerning the Holy Spirit. But it is so much more than that.
In my experience, the four adjectives are usually only talked about as three. Or, I should say, only three are normally referred to or talked about. “Holy” is always interesting - how is the church ”holy” and what is the “holiness” of the church to consist of. We can debate for quite a while about what “Catholic” means. And “Apostolic” can be tagged with a few different nuances, some worthy and others not. But in many conversations, we might forget that we also believe in One holy catholic and apostolic church.
I’ve certainly hinted at unity, if not already written about it explicitly. This post is focusing specifically on the unity of the Church–what it means to believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church–and what this means for Sunday morning worship.
Where does this unity spring from? Is it enough to say that Anglicans and Lutherans each believe in the Trinity? This is significant, but it’s only scratching the surface. The unity of the Church rests much deeper than confessions or articles of belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word for “church” in the New Testament is ecclesia, the same Greek word used to translate qahal in the Old Testament, a word referring to the congregation of the people of Israel, the chosen race, called out by God himself. By attributing this word to themselves, the Christians of the New Testament claim that “they are themselves the ecclesia of God. To them belong the promises and privileges of the Israel of God, and their unity is a unity of race” (Ramsey, 40).
In the New Testament, ecclesia refers to both the Body of Christ and to the local congregation. The distinction is important:
The very word ecclesia forbids us to think of any merely local community; the ecclesia in a place is the one race as existing in that place, e.g., the ecclesia of Corinth is the one called-out-race of God that exists in Corinth, as in many other places (Ramsey, 40).
P. T. Forsyth puts it this way:
The total Church was not made up by adding the local churches together, but the local church was a church through representing then and there the total Church…it was one Church in many manifestations; it was not many churches in one convention…The great Church is not the agglutination of local churches, but their prius;…the local church was not a church, but the Church…the totality of all Christians flowing to a certain spot, and emerging there (Lectures on the Church and Sacraments, 40).
The local church–the parish we attend on a Sunday morning–is meant to be a window into the one Church which we proclaim in the Nicene Creed. By its worship, practice, and affiliations, the parish is to inform those within and without the Church as to what that Church is.
But we didn’t just pick up the name ecclesia. It’s even deeper than that. Church has at its core “fellowship.” This fellowship can refer to a number of things, but the New Testament makes it clear that the unity which we are discussing, “this wide and deep and many-sided unity is made possible only by a real contact with the historical events” (Ramsey, 41).
That which we have seen and heard, we declare to you also, that you may also have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3)
“Fellowship is essentially fellowship with the historical events” (Ramsey, 41). Jesus’ passion and death (as written about before) created the fellowship, and that fellowship has the honor of sharing in these events. How does this come true, or how is this made real, in practice? From personal experience, and as Ramsey knew, the celebration of the Eucharist is a sharing in the body and the blood of Christ, and a means by which Christians are “one bread one body” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), not only because they eat and drink together, but because we are brought near and even participating in the Christ’s actual death in the flesh (1 Corinthians 11:26; Ramsey, 42).
But wait, there’s more. The Church’s unity does not only depend on its historic continuity with the life of Israel and the death of the Messiah. The New Testament articulates the unity of the church in the terms of the unity of God himself.
One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5-6)
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:11).
…that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us (John 17:20).
Karl Barth went as far as to say that “the oneness of God triumphs over the whole questionableness of the Church’s history” (Romans, 396). Ramsey then says, “Unity is God’s alone, and in Him alone can anything on earth be said to be united” (42). Again I point to places where this has been taken out of the ideal and made actual in the life of worship. During the prayer of consecration of the elements (Prayer B), we pray to God saying “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” In other Eucharistic prayers we pray that “we and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
We thereby pray to be united, not only to one another in receiving, but to God himself, through the merits of Jesus Christ!
This unity, and the whole of the Church’s inward meaning, must be expressed by the Church’s outward shape and structure. Many will say that the outward structure of the Church is not important, but that worshiping in spirit and in truth, or that praising Jesus, is what matters. Yes, God is wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Yes, true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth (it’s practically the subtitle of this blog right now!). But Ramsey will go on to say that “The structure, historic and apostolic, does matter.” I’ll go on to look at this statement in the next post.
For now, perhaps because this is one of the soap boxes upon which I like to stand, will say that no parish, no Sunday morning worship service, can stand alone. Calling a parish “independent” may only feed the individualism which has no place in the church (I am, of course, sure that this is not always the case). A parish out on its own, even though it may contend for the Gospel, for truth, and for Jesus Christ himself, cannot fulfill the ultimate purpose of the Church, because the Church is not an independent organization made of individual subsidiaries having been bought out by the larger corporation. The life of a parish should flow out of its union with the organism, Christ’s Body, which preceded it.
Don’t get me wrong – I am sure that many of these parishes do great things–spiritual, edifying things, for those who attend and for the community which surrounds it. Usually a number of non-denominational churches will fall under this categorization, and I have attended many which do great work by God’s grace. They are still blessed by God. I’m saying that the potential for the message of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” spread by such a parish, distant and not connected to others, is dampened, because the oneness which it is proclaiming in its praxis is the same as being satisfied that we each believe in the Trinity, or that baptism is practiced in some form (no matter how important it is). The physical and spiritual unity of the Church of Christ, of the Body of Christ, is signified and enacted in an individual parish’s communion with other parishes, and with each parishes’ mutual union with God.
In other words, the Trinity cannot only be acknowledged–it must be known, and known intimately. The Trinity, the relationship that is God, must be experienced and must consume the life of the Church holistically, in each and every one of its members, so that the message of reconciliation between God and humanity may be proclaimed loud and clear by the Church’s life, lived out in its members and parishes.