I believe in the holy, catholic church

I hold in veneration for the love of him alone, holy church as his creation runs the hymn.  Out of love for Jesus there grows a love for the church.  When the hymn writer said he held the church in veneration it was for the love of Jesus alone.  He knew what is written in Ephesians Chapter 5 verse 25 that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might make her holy.   Through all the events of human history there is a divine agenda revealed in scripture centred upon the church. Jesus the heavenly bridegroom is preparing his church as a bride and the whole history of the world is the servant of this task.                                  

2000 years on there is holiness in the church even if it is still filled with sinful people!  The church is God’s never ending family filling space and time.  It is catholic by which we do not mean Roman Catholic alone.  The Greek word in the creed, used by reformed and orthodox churches as well, means whole.  To be catholic means to teach what Paul calls, in one translation, the whole counsel of God (Acts 20v27).  The church is catholic because she proclaims the whole faith to the whole world.

One opposite of catholic therefore is partial or sectarian, believing less than the whole. Despite the claims of some denominations no one section of the church can claim the fullness of catholic truth. Every branch of the church is by definition partial in its existence and inevitably somewhat local in its teaching. One nineteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury contended bravely that the Anglican Church has no doctrine of its own but only that of the catholic church. Since then the sanctioning by some Anglican Provinces of the ordination of women and same sex partnerships have weakened that claim in one understanding. However compelling the arguments for change in the church the Canon of St Vincent that holds to what has been believed always, everywhere and by all is a conservative principle honoured by many Christians.

Another opposite of catholic is exclusive. The visible church can be seen as part of the gospel and as such instituted to include all people. It is this perception that has motivated evangelisation and the growth of the church to include people from every nation upon the earth. The catholic principle of inclusion is also used to support contemporary arguments for the inclusion of women in the ordained ministry and the challenging of homophobia among church members.                  

If the church is holy why is she so divided?  Because of sin - because some people throughout history have said they know better than the whole church in its folly and have set themselves apart from it.  Archbishop Michael Ramsey expresses the paradox in these words: the church is the body of Christ and yet there exist Christians who crucify the Son of God afresh and put him to perpetual shame. We should accept the paradox not with complaisance nor with a sense of grievance but in the light of the cross…the man who knows, from the cross, his own need is not ashamed to put himself beside the other members of the church whose need is like his own; and he discovers amid the contradictions of the church’s members the risen life of Christ which is the divine answer to his need as to theirs.

Over the last century there has been a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit reminding the separate parts of the holy, catholic church of what they hold in common.  Sacramental churches have been rediscovering the Holy Spirit and the bible. Evangelical churches have been rediscovering the Holy Spirit and the sacraments.  In all of this, historical examination of the origin of Christian divisions and the recovery of liturgical and other texts from the earliest days of the church have helped generate a common sense of the things that Christians should value most.

Believing in the church has two main emphases that can be labelled catholic and reformed. Among the larger bodies, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, there is belief in the visible church as both part of the gospel and closely allied to the extension of God’s kingdom. Among the more reformed bodies, Protestant and Pentecostal, there is belief in the church more as invisible and ideal. Here there is greater indifference about the visible order of the church and her sacramental continuity eg. through the apostolic succession of bishops.

No one can have God for his Father who does not have the church as his mother is a refrain throughout Christian history. How else do people learn to pray as Christians except through the fellowship and traditions of believers? The beliefs of the Church are like photographs in a family album. What is most real is the family, not the album writes Fr. George Guiver CR. Nevertheless doctrine - like the photograph album - is a vital help to the Church in preserving her memory and keeping her true to herself and her Lord.

Is it not the case that the church is failing today?  Not in Africa, China or South America.  In Britain we are not so much failing as shrinking back from the task he gave us of spreading the faith. It does not help to live in a particularly sceptical culture in reaction against its long Christian tradition.  Even if the catholic or universal church may fail in one time and place it always seems to spring up somewhere else.

Christ cannot fail, Christians believe. Even if sinful humanity fails repeatedly in his church we have Christ’s own great promise that has been fulfilled over 20 centuries: I will build my church he says and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16v8b).  

For a 2min audio summary of this teaching click https://soundcloud.com/john-twisleton/holy-catholic-church


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