Anglicans believe that the church can be an institution, a movement, a people, and a visible/invisible unity all at one time. We don’t need to try to be one or the other, but we try to be all of those things at the same time.
In the 19th century, many Christians downplayed the personal or organic nature of the church. Today its the opposite as many people “diss” the visible, institutional nature of the church. And I have to be honest with those of you who are new Anglicans, many of our new Anglican movements have been pulled in by this heresy (technically, its called “Docestism” which is the belief that Christ was not really fully human, leading to the belief that neither is the church supposed to be fully human, or have any human organization. The church is “spiritual” but not “human” or “physical” just as Christ was not fully human or physical, but instead was just a spiritual being). End of theological jargon…
In contemporary Christianity, we are trained to downplay structures and institutional life, and strip it all down to “The Church is People.” After all, the essence of the church is, to paraphrase the 39 Articles of the Church of England, “a congregation of faith-filled people…” People are enabled to worship God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, to learn and grow, and to proclaim through witness and life the Gospel that gathers other worshipers. In this sense, yes, the Church is people.
But is that all it is? Is the Christian Church just people who informally hangout out (or not) who have an inner intention to belong to an invisible group? Should we abandon the historic institution? Leave the organized community? Jesus was a free flowing, non-traditional guy, right?
Not really. He instituted rites, repeatable, continuing patterns that mark his Church. He also appointed Apostles, visible, responsible, and authorized leaders of the Church (not arguing a particular polity here, just saying). He told them to teach new believers “all things he commanded” which involves thought, study, and a plan and method of teaching with a high level of organization.
He sent them the same Holy Spirit who inspired Paul to set up organizational structures and visible patterns, many of which still exist visibly today, including the decision to gather on Sunday, the Lord’s day. And Paul set up elders who would train up other elders. He encouraged taking up an offering. He mentions and acknowledges the houses in which the early churches were meeting. And he recognized that all local churches were bound together into one church with an interrelationship of unity, a visible unity, which he made clear when he went to Jerusalem to confer with the Apostles. There were not invisible, independent, loosely affiliated gatherings.
Its pretty clear that Paul and the Apostles would have thought it strange if a local church had decided to think of itself “some people who follow Jesus in their own way, and occasionally gather to strengthen each other.” He simply knew that that kind of loose, disorganized movement, however sincere and well-intentioned, would not be able to pass the torch on to the next generation. He envisioned a Church that was literally built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ himself, with the human Apostles as the foundation.
Paul wanted a legacy we could pass on from generation to generation. And he wanted this legacy to invade every single place where human beings live and move. He wanted to see a Church that was human, in the sense that it operated in this human world we live in. A Church that is visible, united, and clear. He wanted a Church that was able to work together through simple but effective patterns. He wanted a Church with governance, guidelines, funds, and order. And, amazingly, he never seems to have thought that this got in the way of the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he tells the Corinthians that it is order and structure, with flexibility for local custom and culture, that is what the Holy Spirit uses. Radical individualism, sectarianism, and undefined spirituality was dangerous and disunifying.
Now is the time, if we truly want to pass the torch to the next generation, to build up our structures, to establish financial stability, to fine tune and develop great programs, to become a visible part of our community. Now is the time and we are the people responsible to dive into the challenge of strengthening and vitalizing institutional life. But none of this has to happen in a way that attacks or destroys the organic nature of the church. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. In fact, we have to keep both of those things together. I think its kind of lazy thinking that we often separate them, and refuse to try to see them together.
Because in fact, we do have visible structures alongside organic relationships. And the ones we have, that have been built intentionally are strong. But the places where we pretend to have no structures, where we downplay pattern and planing, and where we assume spontaneous growth will happen – those are the places where we have accidentally constructed sub-Christian, haphazard systems with no discernible way in or out, and with a vacuum which draws all sorts of dangerous leadership personalities. In other places we have built up institutions without any relationships or sense of ourselves as a people, and we end up with empty structures.
So as Anglicans, we have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to celebrate our institution and history, to celebrate the visible connections we have with the past, from the liturgy to the episcopate to the prayer book to the canons. All of that. But we also are a new movement, with new ideas, and new ways to plant churches and reach out. We celebrate both of those, and we have the opportunity for each to strengthen and temper the other. Both of them matter, both need to speak to the other, and neither needs to become the dominant or only approach.
That’s our classic Anglican view of church, which is really an ideal, for which we strive. The church is both fully human and fully spiritual. It needs human organization just as much as it needs spiritual inspiration. Anglicans, at our best, try to bring both of those things together in a mysterious whole.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Compass (previously known as Anglican Pastor). He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.