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The Church

The Christian Church has its origins in the group of disciples whom Jesus gathered around him at the beginning of his ministry. The word Church is derived from the Greek for belonging to the Lord and assembly. The Church, then, is not an end in itself, nor complete or perfect in the present, but a sign pointing to the coming Kingdom of God proclaimed by its founder Jesus Christ.

From New Testament times onwards there has been a variety of images and doctrines to describe the Church, rather than any single definition. For example the Bible describes the church in various places as the people of God, the body of Christ, a new humanity, the household or family, the flock and the faithful.

From the letters of St Paul to young churches recorded in the New Testament, and the gospels themselves, it is apparent that the Church has always been diverse, although common elements can be identified: faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the practice of baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion), preaching and teaching, an emphasis on communal love and a reaching out to those in need.

So it is that the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer can describe what it calls the visible Church of Christ as a congregation of faithful [people], in which the pure word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered, according to Christ's ordinance… It is hard for any definition, however, to give a sense that the life of the church contains at least three inherent lessons:


The tension between the local and the universal. Should the Church be thought of primarily as a local community of faith, or as a body that (potentially at least) includes the whole of humanity? 'Each community, suffering and striving in its place, IS the church of God…

But just because it is the church in its particular place, its very engagement in the requirements of that place can engender narrowness and parochialism, 'tribal' and sectarian attitudes... [this] 'congregationalist' impulse in Christianity stands in permanent need of corrective pressure from the 'great church' or universalist impulse.' (Nicholas Lash)


The tension between the church in its ordinary day-to-day reality and the perfect church as God would have it be, 'on earth as it is in heaven'. Anglicans, along with most Christians, seek to avoid the extremes represented by 'those who simply identify the mundane Church and its organisation,

hierarchy and law with the true Church, and those who deny that the perfect Church of the heavens has any connection with that found on earth, so fallible and corrupt are all its members'. (Stephen Sykes)


The tension between the search for holiness and involvement in the complexities and compromises of human history. The history of the church provides examples both of holiness movements which have separated themselves from ordinary society, and occasions where the Christians have adopted the methods of the political and social order to achieve particular ends.

St John's gospel speaks of being in the world but not of the world; and whilst this is not easy to achieve, it expresses something important about seeking to live through tensions rather than moving to one of the extremes.

There are no intrinsic reasons why the tensions outlined above should lead to Christian divisions, but they have in fact done so, particularly at and since the Reformation (sixteenth century). The crucial difference here was between the Roman Catholic understanding of the Church as a divinely given hierarchy and constitution for human salvation, and the distinction made by Luther between physical external Christendom and 'spiritual internal Christendom' (salvation belonging only to the latter). The Church of England rejected both the authority of Rome and the thinking of the continental reformers.

However, Anglicans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also wanted to affirm a continuity with the whole history of the Church, and in particular the early church. In modern times there have been strenuous efforts to overcome divisions between the churches. The Church of England continues to aspire to be both Catholic and Reformed, to base itself on the 'threefold cord' of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and to recognise the provisional nature of its own existence.

While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to gospel and church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as 'the best type of Christianity', but by its very brokenness to point to the universal church wherein all have died.

Michael Ramsey

Rev Anthony Cane

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July 2015