The recent failure of General Synod on November 20th to pass the necessary legislation that would allow the ordination of women to the episcopate has created an unexpected maelstrom which may result in fundamental changes to the governance of the Church of England. The central matter, of course, concerns how to make provision for those who cannot accept this development in the exercise of ministry and, no doubt, the debate as to how to do this, will continue for some time.
However, it also raises for me questions of ecclesiology that do not seem to have been aired in the debates. At a basic level this concerns a theology of the Church which is rooted in two images that are in conflict: on the one hand is the sense of the Church as the Ark of Salvation, and on the other that the Church is called to be the Leaven which leavens the whole. It seems that these two ecclesiology’s, when taken to their extremes, will always be in conflict and I wonder if this (amongst other things) lies at the heart of our present dilemma?
Taken to its extreme, belief that the Church is primarily called to be the Ark of Salvation appeals to those who need to define its nature and control the exercise of its purpose. It provides a safe-haven for those who seek its shelter and needs a strong sense of leadership to maintain its course through the rough seas that constantly threaten it. Those who dwell within it are assured of their salvation and have a strong desire that all are ‘brought on board’ lest they perish forever. What lies beyond its walls can be viewed with a mixture of feelings and there will be a deep fear of the ship being damaged if it succumbs to pressure from outside and a fear of allowing on-board those who might damage the vessel. The purity of the vessel is paramount. But, as someone remarked to me, ‘What did Noah do about the woodworm?’
The other dynamic, that the Church is called to be the Leaven that leavens the whole is less concerned with itself than its effects on the rest of society. Attention will be given to the world and there will be a recognition that God is present in all things; the Holy Spirit does not just work within the Church but (like the Leaven) throughout creation. Such a view of the Church is co-operative and believes that there will be times when it needs to change because of the movement of the Spirit working in the world. It is arguable that this theology emerged from a more ‘holistic’ time when there was no division between church and state and is prevalent in theocratic societies such as the Judaic world from which Christianity sprang.
These two theories, pushed to their extremes, may result in either the Church becoming simply an ever-diminishing Sect or a dangerous ideological movement, or it will become so identified with the world that it has no separate identity and will lose any sense of the Divine. But these are extremes.
(to be continued)