The authentic church: witness to the reality of the spiritual

Oct 23, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“No church is perfect”, admitted Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, explaining why he was leaving the Church of England to be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church – despite the recent record on child abuse and subsequent mismanagement, and despite historic theological question marks for those from a reformed Protestant background. He is answering his critics, and that discussion goes on.

But “no church is perfect”. Every local expression and every denomination is flawed, made up as it is of sinful human beings. In fact we should be amazed and thankful that the church in its various forms exists at all, given the widespread indifference, misunderstanding and hostility that Christians regularly encounter from those outside the church, and given the low levels of virtue among those inside it (including ourselves first). It is a miracle when one person comes to Christ and when another is still going as a faithful disciple after many years, and yet somehow the worldwide church is full of millions of such miracles!

“No church is perfect” – “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” – and yet, somehow, at the end, this fallen woman in the gutter will be a radiant, flawless bride, brought into full union with the perfect Bridegroom. “No church is perfect”, because the denominations, while being part of God’s mysterious purpose to broadcast his purpose and plan to all that is, visible and invisible (Eph 3:10), are also human institutions, subject to the same structural weaknesses, forces of group psychology, and spiritual powers (or ‘angels’, Rev 2-3) as other secular organisations.

“No church is perfect”, and yet that can’t mean we just shrug our shoulders and say “they’re all as bad as each other (an attitude which often leads to drifting away from Christian community and regular worship). Nor can it mean complacency, “they’re all as good as each other”, meaning that no discernment is needed about what different churches believe, teach and practice, and all that matters is love and unity.

For Bishop Michael, the problem appears to be not just the Church of England, but Protestantism, otherwise he could have joined a ‘continuing’ Anglican entity, a newly authorised Gafcon jurisdiction, or an independent evangelical church. The Bishop has drawn attention to a deficit of catholicity (small c) – a sense of one universal church believing and doing the same thing with authority to enforce it – which is lacking in Protestantism. Perhaps it is an inherent Lutheran individualism (“here I stand…”) which is at the root of tendency to break away and do our own thing.

See more articles on Dr Nazir-Ali’s pivot to Roman Catholicism, here.

Responding to Bishop Michael’s choice in a gracious and friendly spirit, Phil Ashey of ACNA points to the development (frustratingly slow for some) of a ‘conciliar’ approach within Gafcon and the Global South. Here a genuine attempt is being made to create an authentic Anglicanism which is genuinely catholic (global, rooted in history, mutually accountable), evangelical (based on the authority of Scripture and affirming the necessity of personal repentance and faith), and charismatic (Spirit-led before institutional/managerial).

In the post-Christian West, being part of a church is a choice. It is no longer “default”, an accident of birth or geography. Some may disagree, pointing to baptism, and the significance of this as a sacrament of incorporation into the church should not be minimised. But unless we are universalists, we must always affirm the importance of personal faith and active participation in the life of the local fellowship and the global body of Christ. And this is under increasing threat in our current context. As Gafcon GBE reminded us in their statement following Bishop Michael’s move, “the pressures of secularism in the West are causing many faithful Christians to re-evaluate their relationship with historic denominations, and different decisions will be made about which spiritual home can offer safety and the best opportunities for witness.”

“No church is perfect”, but some spiritual homes can offer more “safety” than others. This is not just about protection, for example from false teaching, abusive leadership, internal division, attacks from outside, financial mismanagement. Many churches in the global south have these problems, often much worse than those in the West, but in the minds of many, they are “safer”. It’s not that they are necessarily more committed to orthodoxy, but perhaps the threats to the church’s very existence are worse in a secular culture even than in places where there is extreme violence, poverty and corruption. At least there, people believe in God and the spiritual realm.

Rod Dreher addresses these problems of the threat of secularism to the church in his latest piece about the ‘Benedict Option’ idea. Drawing on the insights of an Eastern Orthodox theologian and also quoting from a Protestant one, Dreher shows that secularism does not just obscure the spiritual aspects of reality while affirming the material and psychological aspects. Ultimately secularism has allowed people to define reality by their own feelings and desires, which then undermines even the truth of objectively observable, physical reality. Conversely, the fullness of reality can only be apprehended by an appreciation of the spiritual realm. He says authentic Christians “believe that all of reality is undergirded, and founded, in a sacred order of which we are a part. We can’t make it up as we go along; we must instead be open to divine revelation, and organize our lives from what has been revealed from God, because it tells us what is really Real.”

The challenge provided by respected thinkers such as Nazir Ali and Dreher for faithful, biblically orthodox Anglicans and independent evangelicals in the West, is not just how to communicate theological truth better, to organise ourselves more efficiently, or care for others more compassionately (all compatible with a secular worldview). Rather, whichever church we’re in (because none is perfect), we also need that other dimension of reality that comes from “the sacred”; encounter with the Holy Trinity: “That is the Benedict Option: to recognize that the force of chaos of the world in the present moment is so overwhelming that in order to avoid being torn apart by it, Christians need to step back somewhat to strengthen ourselves spiritually — so that when we enter the world, we will be steady icons of light and order, bringing God’s cosmos to the chaos.”

So, while I myself remain convinced about the benefits of an evangelical and global Anglicanism, the important thing is not the label on the denomination, but the extent to which a network of the faithful can promote the gospel while understanding secularism’s threat and intentionally withstanding it.


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