[This is an article I wrote for the Mt Tabor newsletter in 2006. I didn't think I had anything left for recycling on the blog!]
With decades-long severe crises in the Church, with plummeting church attendance and priestly vocations in the western world, with the near-total abandonment of biblical and traditional faith and morality, and with a weakened Christianity ripe for overthrow by religious extremists, it is high time to reflect upon the meaning and mission of the Church in the world. While this topic is far too broad to be adequately addressed here, I’d simply like to offer a few thoughts for your consideration.
Fr Alexander Schmemann’s guiding insight into the nature of the Church is that the Church is meant to be the presence, the experience, of the Kingdom of God in this world—a presence and experience that is not, however, bound to or limited by this world, but which transforms the world and directs us to the fullness of divine life in the age to come. Therefore any concept, description, theology, or experience of Church that falls short of this truth betrays the heritage of Christ and the meaning of his gift of sanctification and salvation to the world. (All references and quotes from Schmemann in this article come from The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983.) [See also some similar excellent insights from Paul Evdokimov that I gathered here.]
First I should say something about the “world.” I’ve written about this before, so I don’t need to go into detail here. Yet it is not sufficient to state simply that the Church is “in the world but not of it,” for the relation of the two is more profound. In fact, that expression may even tend to equivocate on the meaning of “world.” It is important to remember the deep ambivalence of the term. Primarily, the world is that which God has made and deemed good, as we read in the Book of Genesis. It is the world that God so loved that He sent his only Son so that we could be saved through faith in Him and through the power of his atoning sacrifice. But, as St John makes clear, it is also the world that is full of “lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes and the pride of life,” all of which is “not of the Father”; in short, it is the world that is “in the power of the evil one” (1John 2:15-17; 5:19). This dimension of “world” is the world of man’s rebellion against the inherent goodness of creation, against all that God loves, and so it a world that is bent on self-destruction, wittingly or unwittingly. Within this good/evil world the Church lives and fulfills her mission.
According to Schmemann, “The Church is not a religious establishment, but the presence in the world of a saved world.” That is, the Church is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into this world insofar as it is fallen and alienated. The Church is our access to the grace, the mystery, the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world. In St Paul’s exalted vision, the Church is the Body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Let us pause a moment here. The Church is the fullness of Christ, who fills the whole world. The Church is Head and members, Christ and us, and only thus is the Church fully herself. That is why she cannot be reduced to a mere “religious establishment,” however large or powerful—and she cannot be identified merely with her external structure and less-than-exemplary members. That is also why the Church cannot adopt the mentality and agenda of the fallen world she is here to transfigure and save. An Episcopalian bishop said a few years ago that “the agenda of the world is the agenda of the Church.” This displays complete ignorance of the nature and purpose of the Church, and it is the recipe for her self-destruction, or at least her reduction to impotence and irrelevance.
But are we not today seeing this tragic compromise with—even subservience to—the world and its ways? Theologians, biblical scholars, and pastors deny or ignore the profound and divine mysteries of our faith simply because they wish to have respectability in the eyes of their secular counterparts or of the academic world, which professes to know what modern man can or cannot accept anymore. Church leaders rely on secular experts to guide them in their own thinking or policy-making. Schmemann recounts his own experience: “I felt it quite acutely today while attending a report of our church’s committee on investment… Nobody felt the comical and demonic aspect of a discussion attended by bishops and priests who listened with genuine reverence and admiration to the financial experts: a banker and a broker. I saw for about an hour a true religious awe, which was completely absent when simple church affairs were discussed… The banker and the broker were listened to with hearty enjoyment, and questions were asked in the way that one used to ask elders, wise men and masters… This is the way that religion does not express itself any more, because religion does not have such an indispensable place any more… Religion has accepted secular logic and does not see in that acceptance either its fall or even a problem.” This is not to say that the Church should never consult financial professionals about financial matters, only that we’ve lost our priorities and direction when our admiration is more for those who are highly trained in the ways of the world instead of the saints who have learned the secrets of the Gospel and of the “life which is life indeed” (1Timothy 6:19).
There are compromises that are being made with the world that are much more serious than misdirected admiration or over-reliance on some forms of worldly wisdom. While the Church’s teachings remain unchanged on abortion, artificial contraception, homosexual activity and sexual morality in general, many pastors and teachers turn a blind eye to the widespread violations of these teachings, and some are even publicly agitating for their change. As the mentality of the world shifts to accept more permissive and promiscuous lifestyles, many in the Church agree with that bishop who said the agenda of the world should also be that of the Church. But “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and it is the Church of the living God—not the fallen and fickle world—that is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15).
Another grievous compromise with an unbelieving world is the dramatic loss of faith, over the past few decades, in the reality of the Holy Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. I guess this is one of those things that modern man supposedly is not able to accept. But if the preaching and teaching were clear and uncompromising, and the reverence manifested was worthy of the presence of the Lord—and if no one was influenced by the “world’s” opinion of the sacred mysteries of our faith—then we wouldn’t have this falling away from the Source of spiritual life in the Church, with the host of bad fruits that has accompanied it. Allow the spirit of the world into the holy of holies, and its poison will spread throughout the Church, and her ministers will be no better than secular functionaries. “O God, the heathen have broken into your inheritance; they have profaned the temple, your sanctuary…” (Ps. 78/79:1).
To be continued…