The Church of the Future – a sketch for the Jerusalem Symposium
Of the many topics which could be raised I want to reflect on two, the unity of the Church and, beyond that, the unity of faith. The former topic concerns principally Christians, and I will reflect on some criteria for Christian community and unity which may be drawn from the new Testament. The latter topic is broader, giving rise to questions about the extent to which Christianity should seek to integrate with other world religions.
It is impossible to be in Christian Jerusalem without observing the variety of Christian tradition. It shows itself in funny hats and funny clothes, each of which seems perfectly natural to the wearer, and absurd fancy-dress to everyone else. An atom of historical sense is enough to remind us that most of these are accidents of history, climate or geography. The most important dividing line is, however, between the Churches which show their respect for tradition by their clothes and the ritual which goes with that, and the ‘modern’ ecclesial communities whose respect for – and often knowledge of – history and tradition is limited enough to allow them to regard the funny hats and funny clothes as quaint remnants of a bygone age. Broadly speaking, the fuddy-duddies are episcopal churches and the moderns non-episcopal. As usual, the ecclesia anglicana, under whose auspices we meet, is in a bridge position – some slightly funny clothes, but no insistence on them!
So in a first question about the Church of the Future I want to see what consequences we can draw from unity and diversity in the Churches of the New Testament. The striking feature of the New Testament communities is their diversity, both within individual Churches and between Churches, the former in practice and the latter in structures. Is there a structure which is normative for a Christian community, and to which all Christian communities should conform? Secondly we will consider the problems unity within diversity of teaching and practice.
In the Acts of the Apostles Luke shows us Paul on his first missionary journey setting up communities after the pattern of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, under the guidance of elders (Ac 14.23). The structure of these Jewish communities was a council of elders presided by an archisynagogos. The structure set up by Paul according to Acts is closer to that of the Pastoral Epistles at the end of the Pauline corpus than to what we see in the authentic Pauline corpus. The same is true of many features of Acts (e.g. vocabulary, style, theological concepts), and indeed a number of scholars have held that Luke is the author also of the Pastoral Epistles as his third volume. The Pastoral Epistles similarly are much concerned about the choice and institution of two officials, an episcopos and diakonoi. They both need pretty well the same sober qualifications, but the former must have also the qualification prosth/nai (1 Tm 3.5). These structures are, as we have said, features of the later writings of the New Testament.
However, in the
earlier Pauline communities, such as we can deduce them from his letters, there
is little sign of any human structure.
There is never an appeal, such as we find so frequently in the letters as
Ignatius of Antioch, for obedience to a bishop or superior of any kind. Why did
not the local superior(s) of the churches of
The most notable
lack of structure is, however, to be found at Corinth, which does seem to have
a theoretically single community, all at sixes and sevens, squabbling over
every possible issue, claiming different models of leadership (1 Cor 1.12),
unable to settle disputes among themselves,
each preening themselves on their particular charismatic gift. As at
question arises about the focus of unity and overall authority in the first
generation of Christians. Surprisingly, both Luke and Paul suggest that the
focus of unity is the place, the
Early in Paul’s
mission there does seem to have been some authority attaching to the Church of
Jerusalem, the stu/loi as Paul calls them (Ga 2.9), for he went up first to consult them,
and announces this as a guarantee of the rightness of his mission. First he
consulted Cephas and James (Ga 1.18-19). Then, 14 years after this, or 14 years
after his vocation, he consulted oi` dokou/ntej eiv,nai, ti (2.6), who entrusted
the apostolate of the gentiles to him and to Peter the apostolate of the
circumcision. It is odd that, despite the promises of Mt 16, the authority does
not seem to attach to Peter personally, as his later treatment by both James
and Paul at
In the earliest
A much more
probable reason for the authority of
Next we must consider unity and diversity from the point of view of doctrine and practice. How much uniformity is required for unity? Is the situation of the first generation of Christians normative here also?
question in dispute was the value of Judaism. Extreme positions are taken by
Matthew and Paul. Matthew writes for a Christian community sprung from Judaism,
where it is presupposed that Judaism remains valid – a modified or renewed
Judaism, to be sure, but still Judaism. He signs himself as a scribe, bringing
out both new and old (Mt 13.52), and asserts roundly that a Christian’s dikaiosu,nh must
exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, but is to be won by good works.
Christian dikaiosu,nh still consists in observance of the Law, but the way it is to
exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees is by accordance with Ho 6.6., ‘what I
want is love not sacrifice’, a slogan repeated three times in Mt (9.13; 12.7;
23.23). This very argument, as so many other arguments in Mt, is in accordance
with the Jewish principle of exegesis (one of the seven middoth attributed to Rabbi Hillel) of
interpreting scripture according to a principle found in scripture. Other texts
in Mt make it at least arguable that Mt considers that a Christian must also be
a Jew, that even a gentile who becomes a Christian must also become a Jew. Of
the three principal boundary markers of Judaism, circumcision, Sabbath and food
laws, there is admittedly no mention of circumcision, but the Sabbath does seem
to be still observed in this community (24.9). Mt also pointedly omits the
comment in Mk 7.19, ‘so saying he made all foods clean’. The mission of the
disciples is only to
At the other extreme is Paul, who attributes no value to observance of the Law. The Law, to be sure, had its value, but only as a paidagwgo,j , leading people to Christ. It has value still, but only in the same sense, that of showing people their need of Christ, showing them what sin is (Rm 7.7). When Paul comes to explain himself to the Roman Christians it is clear that at least part of his purpose is to refute charges that he rejected the Law altogether, since he would get no support from the largely Jewish Christian community of Rome for his mission to Spain unless he could refute the charges of totally rejecting the Law which his behaviour had caused to be levelled against him – unjustly, he claims. He also attests that the Law has a further value in the sense of the vehicle of the promise to Abraham, dedicating and destining the People of God to the fulfillment of those promises. By showing that the promise is now available to all believers in Christ, Paul in practice redefines what a son of Abraham – a Jew – is: not someone physically descended from Abraham but one who shares the faith of Abraham. In his practical teaching he repeatedly shows that principles of the Law remain valid: love of neighbour (e.g. 1 Cor 13), acceptance of the prohibition of marriage within the degrees of consanguinity forbidden by the Law (1 Cor 5.1), even acceptance of Jewish customs about behaviour of women in church. But in observance of circumcision he sees no value at all, nor is the Sabbath mentioned. With regard to observance of the food laws he repeatedly emphasizes that the overriding principle is charity and building up the Church (1 Cor 8.13; Rm 14.1-12). On this matter, therefore, which had been of vital importance to many believers, Paul teaches that the unity of the Church is more important than any particular observance. How far should this principle be extended in the Church of the future?
time has come to broaden our horizon from intra-Christian discussion of
organization and authority to doctrine. I would regard the watchword of the
twenty-first century so far as globalization. The term is normally used in
financial discourse, the opening up of markets which enables the rich to become
richer and to exploit the poor more effectively to the advantage of the rich.
This conference is a partial realization of that phenomenon. Ease of travel
since the revolution in land- and air-transport in the 1960s has made the
conference/congress phenomenon possible, when people from all parts of the
world meet easily to exchange ideas informally face-to-face, as well as
formally in published works.
As we come to know one another better, and to see the extent to which our own manner of seeing and expressing reality is determined by our historical and cultural circumstances, the overwhelming question which faces us is the extent to which all people share the same beliefs, the same value-systems. The question arises again and again at every level.
Recently the Russian Orthodox
Patriarch of Moscow was excommunicated by some congregations for saying, on a
visit to the
Ø In the intra-Christian ecumenical dialogue how important are doctrinal differences? For inter-Communion the Roman Catholic church insists that eucharistic ‘visitors’ should share the faith of the Church on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist? How important is this? I would certainly agree that one who believes in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist should not offer the Eucharist to someone who had no such faith, but would Calvinistic ‘receptionism’ suffice, and on what grounds should this decision be made? Is it a mere philosophical difference?
Ø Is there a real difference in the understanding of the incarnation between Western/Roman and Nestorian Christians, or is it simply a different philosophical application of the word fu,sij , exacerbated by originally political differences and hardened by centuries of growing apart?
Ø Is the African view, described as ancestor-worship, the same as Christian reverence for the saints. Indeed is Catholic reverence for the saints idolatrous or not? Do the spirits exist in the sense in which many Shona people believe, and have they beneficial and malign influence on the course of events? Do we simply need to listen to one another and really attempt to understand what the other means, on this point? In avoiding offensive formulations are we being true to our beliefs?
The fundamental question is whether there is one truth, differently expressed in all ‘religious’ evaluations of the world. Are all our religious systems simply statements of our view of the world, and are they bound to coincide? (On some levels this is obviously not the case: how important a value is truth-telling? [Has a terminally ill patient the right and duty to know the truth however upsetting this will be?] How important is freedom of conscience? [Should it be a capital crime – as it is under Sharia law - to convert from Islam to another religion?]).
A brief, and
perhaps tendentious, historical sketch of some part of the Hebraeo-Christian
tradition may help. Already in the Hebrew Bible there is a move from tribal
religion to universalism, from the superficially pictorial to the more
reflective. However, religious language can never entirely dispense with
imagery. Thus the God of Abraham is at first conceived as a protector for
Abraham and his tribe, who has promised him safety and permanence (it is yet to
be seen whether these are embryonically the same concepts as salvation and
eternity). It is only with the Babylonian exile that
Perhaps more exciting still is the admission that there are elements in this world-picture which are not yet understood: I would understand the Book of Job as an admission of the incompatibility of this vision of a benevolent God (if I may use the word) with the brutal fact of unmerited suffering. The Job’s Comforters suggest solutions, all of which Job explodes as unsatisfactory, withdrawing eventually to the confession (not a matter of reasoning) that it does not make sense, but that the superiority of divine power and wisdom to the human intellect, expressed in the speeches of God in the final chapters, is so extreme that we cannot hope to fathom this enigma and do not need to do so.
What does the incarnation add to this picture? It is surely an expression of the divine compassion, of the involvement of the power ‘behind’ the world with human destiny and well-being, a statement of ultimate optimism and an icon of ideal human generosity and self-sacrifice. What does it mean to say that Jesus is Son of God? There must be some significance in the fact that the first human being seen to acknowledge him as such does so only when Jesus has suffered to the ultimate, as well as showing to the ultimate his union with his divine Father, in his act of obedience on the Cross. Somehow God is involved in suffering. Whether or not we can speak of the suffering of God, the recognition of Jesus at his death as ‘son of God’ conveys to me that God does not entirely turn away from suffering. Can we, similarly, get any further in understanding by analyzing the imagery of Jesus’ gift of divine peace and healing in the healing-wonders of the gospel, his bringing the horror of death and disease to an end, his gift of eternal life? Within this context, of course, there is still exegesis to be done, for different Christologies still have their distinctive part to play. It makes all the difference whether Jesus was merely declaring that the Roman Imperium was a distortion of the ultimate realities, the Sovereignty of God, or whether he was declaring against the Jewish establishment ‘the brokerless kingship of God’.
In the New Testament also there are admissions that not every problem is solved, that some illogicalities remain. I would mention
Such an analysis of imagery has, I think, its value. Whether it can support and sustain life is another matter. I personally find it more meaningful to pray ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and holy Spirit’ than ‘In the name of the Progenitor, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier’.
It is time to return to our main theme, the Church of the Future. The analyses I have here proposed challenge us in two ways. I would suggest that faith means that these analyses are unprovable; they are simply an assertion that this is how I see the world, that I cannot make sense of existence any other way. The challenge is at least double:
First, if these are some of the basic values of the Christian theological tradition, the Christian map of the world, to what extent can we Christians agree on them? They have to be lived out in a whole range of community action; can we agree on that? For the majority of us they have to be lived out not merely in a programme of action but also in a programme of prayer and praise, public and private, individual and community. Is it a matter of chance that some of us have grown up in one way of expressing this and others in another? Is one way objectively better than another, or is one way best for me simply because I have grown up in it, and another best for you simply because you have grown up in it? If one thing has become clear in the last century, it is that we cannot carry on squabbling. Should we agree to differ or attempt to schmalz the different traditions together?
Secondly, a second datum has become especially clear through globalization, and this is that there are other great religions, held with conviction and with wisdom and sanctity by others in a totally different philosophical and spiritual tradition. Globalization has enabled us to appreciate better other cultures and other philosophico-religious traditions. Are these traditions just as valid ways of looking at the world as ours are – for those in another philosophical and spiritual world? A robust Christian response to this question is given in the Ecumencial Consultation held at Baer (Switzerland) in 1990: ‘a refusal to take seriously the many and diverse religious testimonies to be found among the nations and peoples of the whole world amounts to disowning the biblical testimony to God as creator of all things and father of humankind.’ A less threatening approach was already shown at Vatican II, by its acceptance that non-Christian religions do have truth in them:
truth and grace are to be found among the nations, as a sort of secret presence
of God, God frees from all taint of evil and restores to Christ its maker. And
so, whatever good is found to be sown in human hearts and minds, or in the
rites and cultures peculiar to various peoples, not only is not lost, but is
healed, uplifted, and perfected for the glory of God and human blessedness. (
In this case we could refer to those of other religious systems in Karl Rahner’s phrase as ‘anonymous Christians’ or perhaps in the phrase of Jacques Dupuis as ‘latent Christians’. Globalization has enabled us to appreciate other cultures in a way which has never before been possible, blocked by defensiveness or religious imperialism. The way is open as never before to investigate to what extent the concepts of, say Buddhism, attempt to convey the same experiences and longings as those of Christianity, though in the language and images of a different culture. Is the Christian concept of resurrection the same as that of nirvana, the raising of the whole person to the peace, presence and liberation of the ideal and perfect being of the universe? There are, certainly, differences, possibly vital, possibly insurmountable. For example, there seems to be no concept in Buddhism of a personal God, so no concept of a personal relationship to the deity. Hence Buddhists speak of meditation where Christians use the more personal concept of prayer. Is the Western, fundamentally Hellenic concept of ‘personality’ and of personal destiny transferable into non-Western terms in a way which suggests a convergence of views? The Christian uses Hellenic terms to speak of a First Cause (which we call God). Although we know that we can use human terms only analogically of God, we cannot see that this First Cause can lack those amazing dimensions which go to make up the concept of human personality, reflexion, self-consciousness, initiation of action, self-giving, etc. Are these truths somehow expressed also in the great religions of the East? Can I ever immerse myself so totally in two so diverse traditions that I can judge whether the values and value-system expressed in Christian beliefs are expressed with equal force and truth in a tradition such as Buddhism or Islam? Keith Ward concludes his review of ‘convergent spirituality’ by asserting, ‘The many religions of the world are metaphorical or symbolic systems encoding paradigmatic forms of spiritual experience, experience leading to liberation (‘Convergent Spirituality’ in Christianity in the 21st Century, ed. Deborah A. Brown, Crossroads, New York, 2000, p. 69), that the goal of each is ‘liberation from greed, hatred and ignorance to a reality of supreme wisdom and compassion’ (p. 70). If this is the case, is it a mere accident that I am born into a Christian rather than a Buddhist culture and so follow the Christian rather than the Buddhist way? Can Buddhism contribute anything to Christianity? Can the Christian learn from Buddhism? Can Christianity bring the truths of Buddhism to perfection? The same set of questions must be asked with relation to Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and other religious systems
The most profound difference must remain the concept of salvation in Christ. As Christians, after all, we believe that all are saved through Christ: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14.6). Yet even here there is not total cut-off. We must take seriously ‘The Word enlightens all people coming into the world’ (Jn 1.9).The Word and the Wisdom of God become incarnate historically in the man Jesus Christ, but the action of the Word of God cannot be confined to the historical Jesus. It is hard to see how Jesus the Christ enlightens all people coming into the world, even if they have never heard of him, but it is easier to see how the Word and Wisdom of God enlightens all people. Jacques Dupuis makes a succinct distinction between Christ and the gospel:
There is salvation without the gospel, although none without Christ or apart from him. The operative presence of the mystery of Jesus Christ in other religious traditions is concealed and remains unknown to their members, but is no less real for that…. because in Christ the openness to God inscribed in transcendental human experience finds its total realisation’ (Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism [Orbis Books, 1997], p. 143-5).
Similarly the Spirit of God can be seen to be leading all people to the Father, even if it is harder to see this of the Spirit of Christ – the New Testament uses both expressions. Pope John Paul II, in his Message to the People of Asia in 1981 said, ‘Wherever the human spirit opens itself in prayer to this Unknown God, an echo will be heard of the same Spirit who himself prays in us and on our behalf’ (#4), and, at the World Day of Prayer in Assisi 1986, ‘Every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit’.
So is the
sticking-point the precise salvific work of Christ on
An analogy may be drawn to our participation with Adam through sin. Paul teaches that insofar as (evf w|/) we sin we are joined to Adam. In the same way by faith, that is, by trusting in God’s promises, normally expressed in baptism, we are dipped into Christ and become one with him. The trust and obedience which were deficient in Adam, that is, are deficient in human nature, reach their perfect expression in Christ. Insofar as people of other faiths submit themselves in trust and obedience to the deity, can this be reckoned commitment to Christ, even if they have never heard the Good News of Christ?
These are only suggestions for the task of the Church in the Twenty-First Century. I would see the message of globalization for the Christian Church to be the removal of barriers, a real thrust towards mutual understanding between different traditions, both within and beyond the boundaries of the Christian Church. First we need to discover whether the differences between our Christian traditions are significant and to estimate their importance. How near is Christian unity? What is Christian unity in diversity? How great is the price to be paid, and how can it be paid? Then we need to broaden our horizon to the religious traditions beyond Christianity and see to what extent we share goals and yearnings, each expressed according to our own world-view.
1. Is there an ideal structure for a Christian community?
2. How normative for Christian life is the New Testament? And historical developments?
3. Is there any need for an overall Christian focus of unity? How does this integrate with local communities?
4. What sort of unity is desirable between Christian communities?
5. How much uniformity?
6. What are the obstacles to Christian unity?
7. How much unity of doctrine is necessary for eucharistic intercommunion?
8. Can one speak of ‘revelation’ in non-Christian communities? What do I mean by ‘revelation’ within Christianity?
9. Is this ‘convergence spirituality’ mere reductionism? Are religious symbols irreducible?
10. Does the incarnation make sense in these terms? Could there be any other incarnation than Jesus?
11. What is the difference between prayer and meditation? Does ‘worshipping’ an impersonal God make sense?
12. What do you find attractive about Islam/Buddhism/Hinduism/Sikhism?
13. Is unity between world religions desirable or possible?
14. What should I do towards achieving such a Church of the Future?
15. Are other factors than those discussed more important in envisaging a Church of the Future?
 It is only in the letter to the Philippians that Paul greets e,pisko,poi kai. diako,noi . Was the structure of the Church there determined by the nature of
the town of
 A sharp little footnote in the authoritative ecumenical study Peter in the New Testament (ed . Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried and John Reumann, Paulist Press, 1973) states: ‘A later church tradition would maintain that it was then that he went to Rome and, indeed, founded the church in Rome – there is no scientific support for this tradition, and it does not deserve serious discussion’ (p. 48, footnote 114).
 I would mention three suspicious features about this list: 1. The number twelve is already reminiscent of the twelve apostles, twelve tribes, etc. 2. Clement, author of the letter to the Corinthians at the very end of the first century, who is named as bishop, was much more likely simply the presbyter in charge of external affairs. 3. Irenaeus is in such difficulty to fill his list that he names the sixth bishop simply ‘Sixtus’.
 Were Christians of the first century interested in relics? Such
interest in material relics is attested first in the late Martyrdom of Polycarp
(Polycarp of Smyrna was martyred in 160). It was normal for the bodies of
executed criminals to be thrown into the
 Raymond Brown once put to me the question whether, if Paul had had a son, he would have had him circumcised.
 For simplicity’s sake I do not discuss intermediate problems which
are suggested by the ‘Apostolic Letter’ of the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ nor by
the situation at
 Nelson Mandela, in a charismatic speech at the opening of the Said
Business Centre in
 My knowledge of Chinese culture is limited in the extreme, but my reading of the much-heralded book Wild Swans convinces me that the Chinese way of writing history, and therefore of viewing the past, is fundamentally different from the European optic, much closer to the pointilliste presentation of a succession of illustrative but mythical pictures.
 In the Methodist Roman-Catholic Theological Commission in the 1970s we were constantly discovering that different terminologies concealed fundamental agreement. ‘The Mass’ raised Methodist hackles, ‘the Lord’s Supper’ raised Catholic hackles, ‘the Eucharist’ was acceptable to all. In attempting to discover whether we agreed on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist we resorted to questions about what was done with left-overs (‘reverently disposed of’ by Methodists). Is the Roman Catholic doctrine that priestly ordination gives an indelible ‘character’ mirrored perfectly or only imperfectly by the Methodist practice that a disgraced minister re-admitted to his ministry is not re-ordained?
 Cf. Jacques Dupuis: ‘The Word, which enlightens all men coming into the world, is not tied to the supreme manifestation of the Word incarnate, nor is the action of God’s Spirit limited to the action of the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ’ (Theology Digest vol 49 no 2, summer 2002, ‘From religious confrontation to encounter’, cf. The Tablet, October 20 and 27 and November 3, 2001)
 Paul was well aware that the story of Adam and Eve was a myth (though no doubt he understood it also as a historical event) in the sense of an analysis of human sin, past, present and future. He here sees sin as disobedience to God, of which Adam is the exemplar, whom I join by my sin (Rm 5.12).