One church

I’ve been working through some reading for my first research essay and it’s starting to take shape in my head. Just need it to start taking shape on paper now. Anyway, it’s part of my overall investigations into the theology of emerging church (my research direction wandered off at a tangent and is now heading in a somewhat different direction from its original intent). This initial research subject is about ‘unity’. Its direction is somewhat set by having to consider the topic with more than a passing nod to Barth (as I opted to do the Barth course for credit rather than audit it). But that’s not a problem. Barth has more than enough to say on the subject of church unity.

I’ve been looking at Fresh Expressions – the Church of England/Methodist project into finding, strangely enough, fresh ways for people to express or explore their faith. In many respects it’s the background to much of what is happening within the Church of Scotland. What’s been interesting is that Emerging Church in its guises as ‘alternative worship’ or ‘seeker-sensitive’ or whatever other label one might care to apply is actually a subset of the overall strategy. By broadening out what ‘church’ is, in the sense of how to be a worshipping community, then the unity of the church is maintained. However, this opening out and creating space within the structure of ‘organised religion’ is not universally accepted as ‘a good thing’. How can one be a radical voice or a ‘fresh expression’ when one is still part of the ‘established’ church? The very fact that a group is still within the structures of the ‘parent’ denomination means that it can only ever be emerging and never really emerge.

In the book Evaluating Fresh Expressions, an article by Dr Peter Rollins, co-ordinator of the emerging church movement Ikon in Belfast, is pretty hard-hitting when it comes to this subject. He questions whether maintaining the close connection with the structures of ‘traditional’ church allows an emergent expression of church to find its real voice. He goes so far as to suggest that maintaining such a connection is a “restriction, misrepresentation and even perversion of the very message that they offer to both those outside and those within the church” (p84).

The challenge of such a view (and this is the point of the essay) is that we then have to look beyond our own denomination and tradition and consider what it means to be part of the ‘church catholic’. Barth offers a similar challenge. Church, he suggests, is, at its most basic, a statement of faith, derived from the creedal statement – “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” As such, it is not a matter of ‘knowing’ it is right, wrong or whatever, but believing that the church, the body of Christ, simply ‘is’. For Barth, that ‘being’ is marked by the work of the Spirit within and through the church. That calls into question our ideas of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of ‘doing’ church. But it also continues to call into question what it means to be church and what the purpose of church is. Barth is still, in a sense, tied to the institution of church. This, in large part, is to avoid the dangers of 0f individualistic experientialism; a danger I think some expressions of Emerging Church are at risk of slipping into. That, of course raises the question of whether it is indeed a danger. Barth’s big argument here is that we are called as a saved people, not as individuals as such. It was the nation of Israel God established, not a disparate group of individuals. But maybe that’s a subject for another essay.

In the meantime, when we consider/believe we are ‘one church’, how far are we prepared to go to count other expressions of church as still part of the body of Christ and therefore part of our Christian fellowship?

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