Guarding and proclaiming the unchanging truth in a changing world

Jesus, Lord of His Church and of the Church’s Mission

The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali
25 April 2012

We have been so ably led these two mornings on the Letter to the Colossians, but I want to put before you in what I have to say three very short passages from the Letter to the Ephesians, which is of course a companion letter to Colossians. There are many similarities in thought and in context and in even the people to whom these letters are addressed.

The first passage is from Ephesians 2[:19-21], which speaks of the Church as ‘the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the key cornerstone (or perhaps it could becapstone), in whom the full structure (perhaps it could be every building) is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord’.

So the Church is built on the foundation, the apostolic testimony. You may think, some people may think, that this contradicts what the Apostle had said in 1 Corinthians 3[:11] that it was Jesus Christ who is the foundation, but actually there is no contradiction because the apostolic testimony itself is about Jesus, the apostolic testimony by the work of the Spirit points always to Jesus, reminds the Church of Jesus, glorifies Jesus, brings to our mind all that Jesus has done and said and is. ‘The foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…’ Now the cornerstone is what aligns the whole wall, as it were each brick to another. And there’s acornerstone, if you like, it says “1873” over there, that is one understanding of the word that is used here – a very rare word by the way – or it may be capstone, the capstone of the pillars, that’s the other sense in which the Greek translator of the Older Testament, the Septuagint, uses the word, something that caps what has already been put together. So Jesus Christ, I think we can say fairly, is both foundation and capstone: the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone of the Church.

The second passage that I had in mind is actually from Ephesians 1[:23], if you would not mind going back to this. It is quite an amazing statement about the Church, and it says about Jesus that ‘God has put all things under his feet and has made him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.

So Jesus Christ is the head of the church in all things, not just in spiritual matters, not just in matters of doctrine or worship, but in everything he is the Head of the Church. There is ‘no vacancy’, as Mike [Ovey] was saying, for such a Head – that is always, eternally filled – because Jesus is the head of the church, and we cannot therefore look to human authority, to human rulers, as claiming any part of that Headship. I think it is very important for Anglicans at last to understand this, and it may be that I, as someone who has been a bishop in the Church of England, say it.

The third passage that I had in mind about the Church in this wonderful Letter is from Ephesians, chapter 3[:11], where the Apostle says that it is ‘through the Church that the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and the powers…’. Through the Church God’s wisdom is made known to the ‘principalities and powers’, and what are they? They are the assumptions and the prejudices and the principles by which human institutions and indeed the supernatural world are ordered and governed, or perhaps we can say disordered as well. ‘Through the Church God’s wisdom is made known…’ This is a statement, if you like, in the highest sense, of the Church’s mission: to make known God’s message, to speak truth to power, as Andrea Williams might say.

Now when we read these exalted statements about the Church, naturally we ask: to what or to whom does this apply? And there are several senses of the church, both in these letters and generally, I wish to draw to your attention. First of all, is that church, elect in Jesus Christ, which has existed from all ages, God’s people throughout the ages and throughout the world as a result of God’s gracious purposes for his creation. St Paul calls this in the Letter to the Galatians [4:26] “Jerusalem our mother which is above.” That is the Church that is meant, not simply a human institution, but of and from the divine plan. Certainly that Church is meant. But Paul is very capable of coming down to earth, so in the Letter to the Colossians certainly there is this sense of God’s eternal purposes being worked out among his people, but there are also references to local churches. St Paul speaks of the church of God at Corinth or we might say at Laodicea or Rome or Ephesus or whatever it may be. This is the church in a particular town or a particular city as it is gathered together by God’s will and the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. It is a very important manifestation of the Church. So much of what is said in the New Testament is addressed to churches such as these.

But there is, I think, another sense in which the word ‘church’ is used in the New Testament. In his letters to churches in various towns – Romans, for example or Colossians – Paul often remembers the church that is in people’s homes [Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15]. Now of course the early church did often meet anyway all together in someone’s home, but I think this usage is different. This means a part of the church in Laodicea that is at Nympha’s house or a part of the Church in Rome which is to be found in Prisca’s and Aquila’s home or part of the church in the home of Lydia or Chloe (it is interesting to see how many women are mentioned in this context). Each of these is properly called God’s church. The church in someone’s home clearly shares a likeness – people are like one another, it is a family representation – and this also allows us to express church where people are like one another, in interest or profession or ethnicity perhaps or language. I used to be rather hostile to people speaking of the church in this way, where the church is characterized by homogeneity, but I now see, from a more careful reading, if you like, of the New Testament, that there is a valid understanding of the church here that is possible. A church like that of Fresh Expressions – so many of the Fresh Expressions in this country are characterized by homogeneity. That is fine but a church like that is not enough. It has to be balanced by other things. One of them of course is the diversity of the church in the wider community. In the New Testament it is a town: Rome or Ephesus or Corinth or Laodicea, wherever it might be. These churches in the town – I suppose our parishes are not unlike this church, parishes like this one – such churches are now characterized not by homogeneity but by diversity. It is here that we noted both in St Paul and in the Letter of James instruction given about poor and rich together for instance, people of different social status – cosmopolitan centres many of these cities were – and so people of different races and languages, Jews and Greeks and many different sorts of people. So when we speak of the church, we have to keep all of this in mind.

When can we say in this situation or that, that the church of God, the church of Christ is present to a sufficient extent that the Lord is among his people? Article XIX, which is appropriately titled ‘Of the Church’, says that ‘The church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered.’ And I think each of those phrases is important. If congregations – Ashley [Null] was telling us in our seminar that ‘congregation’ is nearly a translation of ekklesia – congregation of faithful men, however that may be expressed – in a household or town-wide in a parish church, the faithfulness, faithful men, faithful people (that is important), people who have come to know the Lord, people who are committed to the following of Jesus Christ, in which the pure Word of God is preached. How often we are told here in the Church of England: ‘Vicar, you are going to keep to seven minutes, aren’t you?’ I think it is possible to preach the pure Word of God in six or seven minutes, but it is not desirable. And so ‘sermonettes lead to Christianettes’, as is so often said. The whole counsel of God has to be brought out. ‘The pure word is preached and the sacraments duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance’. That is, brothers and sisters, what makes the church, not a sociological understanding of community – I mean, that’s useful to have – not an understanding that relies purely on venerable tradition and place – I’m not saying those are unimportant – but faithful people, the preaching of the pure Word of God and the sacraments. Without these things there may be denominations, there may be ancient traditions and churches, but are they any more the church of Christ? Or has the glory departed?

I was once at a very grand assembly of a denomination in the West, let’s put it like that. It was very grand, very awe-inspiring. But in the middle of it, I had this sense that they had the form of godliness but not the power. You know what I am talking about. What makes the church has to do with the Gospel, that is to say, everything that the Church needs in its ministry – its life together, its preaching, the celebration of the sacraments – comes about because of the nature of the Gospel itself. In other words, how we are church is not different from what the Gospel is. The Gospel produces what is authentically church. This is a lesson we must learn again and again if the ecclesiais to be semper reformanda: again and again to check how we are church against the Gospel, and you’d be surprised at how much resistance there is to such an idea in some circles if you put it forward.

Of course God provides for every church in every place all that the church needs for its ministry and its mission. That’s the miracle, isn’t it, of the work of God’s grace. But it is also true that no church can be fully and wholly the church of Christ in a particular place without being in fellowship with all the other churches of Christ in all the different places. Of course, Jerusalem which is our mother above, is that transcendent reality of the Church in which by God’s grace we all participate. Of course the local church gathered together in the presence of the Lord, these are primary realities of the church, but the relationship between churches – Judea and the Gentile churches, for instance, the churches of Macedonia, the churches of Asia – these are also mentioned as somehow participating in the reality of becoming God’s people.

At the time of the Reformation, some traditions, rightly because of abuse, emphasized the absolute importance of the sacred deposit, the Word of God in Scripture; others with whom we also have to do emphasized the importance of the sacred ministry. I think that it was something of a miracle in the Anglican Reformation that we were able to keep both together – sacred deposit and sacred ministry – because the Church needs both. We need that deposit of the Word of God once for all given to the saints; but we need also, brothers and sisters, the authentic teachers called and commissioned and empowered by God, for bringing that Word alive to our people, to making sure the Word bears fruit in people’s lives, to sharing that Word with the world. Of course the sacred ministry is not on the same level as the sacred deposit. That misunderstanding can be ruled out at once. As is said in the Articles [Article XX], the Church is the keeper of Holy Writ, a witness to it, a steward of it, but always the church and its ministers are servants of the Word and not its masters.

It is true that we have to bring the lordship of Christ and the sovereignty of his Word to bear on our mission in the world, and this means really taking account of the world and knowledge of the world – philosophy was mentioned this morning in the Letter to the Colossians, science if you like – and to make serious attempts at relating God’s Word to what the world has known in the past or is coming to know now and what it may come to know in the future. Anglicans have been distinguished in trying to relate God’s Word to new knowledge, and we must of course continue to do this. However, we do need to say that revelation is about confirming reason. The priority of revelation must be maintained particularly when it relates, for example, to purpose in our world, to the meaning of creation, to human destiny, to human freedom given by God and so gone wrong because of us.

Any interpretation of the world – of the origins of human life, of the coming of consciousness and self-consciousness – that does not take account of why the world has been made, what for, and what our destiny is, must be judged inadequate because it does not fit in with the revelation that God has given us about his purpose for us and our destiny therefore in him. Now if we are going to understand how the church is and how the church relates to the world around it, understood in these different ways which I have tried very briefly to explain, what should the church be doing to be the church? There are certain things that are absolutely essential for the church, in every aspect of its manifestation, to be and to do.

First of all, it must be possible for God’s people to gather. To be a lone Christian is a dead Christian. We must gather together, must we not, to hear God’s Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to learn from one another, to pray for one another – the list is long. Any failure at any level for Christians to gather together around the Gospel is a serious failure and weakens the witness of the Body of Christ. Gathering is so important, but gathering of course must be, first of all, for the sake of praying. How encouraging it has been here for us to be here able to pray together, to celebrate the Supper of the Lord together. It shouldn’t really be remarkable for Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, but in our Communion in recent years it has become a problem. Gathering together, praying together, learning from God’s Word and from one another together – together! – and the learning has to be not just from one another, not just an affair that has to do with us, however careful the listening and however exalting indaba might be – I’ve no personal experience of it – it has to be around God’s Word! I mean, that is absolutely essential.

And then teaching together. The Church has to say from time to time something about how the world is, what issues are faced by a nation or a community or the world. From time to time, it has to declare what God’s Word is saying in this situation or that. Now the Lambeth Conferences have never been perfect – I have been closely involved with some, and I would not pretend in any way that they have ever been perfect – but until the last one it was possible for Anglican bishops gathered together in solemn assembly to speak authoritatively – whether that was about our relations with other churches, what we thought of other faiths, whether that was about the need for Christian unity, our self-understanding as Anglicans at the 1930 Conference, the coming into being of the Church of South India in 1948, the family in 1958, and then of course in 1998 on human sexuality – the Lambeth Conferences were able to say with spiritual and moral authority, even if not legal, what the Church’s faith was. But that has become impossible now. This is a serious injury to the Body, the inability to keep together and the keeping together of course comes about not only as result of consulting and learning together but of deciding together. In the ‘Appeal to All Christian People’ in 1920, the church decided together – the bishops together decided – on what terms Anglicans would be willing to talk about unity with other Christians, and that became useful not just for Anglicans but for all sorts of other Christians as well. In 1998 the bishops gathered together by a huge majority, an overwhelming majority, and decided together that they would teach in their own dioceses and provinces what they had discerned to be God’s will in terms of human sexual behaviour, deciding how important that is for our life together.

But then of course there is the will to discipline, which arises out of the common decision-making and the common teaching that the church is able to declare in the world. There was a big debate at the time of the Reformation about what place discipline should have in the church, and the Reformers were rightly wary of the excessive discipline of the medieval church. But the Anglican Reformers, as is well set out in the Second Book of Homilies [Book 2, Homily 16 for Whitsunday], make it quite clear that the Anglican tradition is for effective discipline in the Church. It is not that the church cannot exist without discipline, but that the church’s good, the church’s spiritual good, comes about through effective discipline in the Body. I mean this ought to be obvious: you know, any institution, even human institutions, cannot function without discipline. How do we expect the church of God, so diverse, with people from so many different backgrounds and issues and gifts, to function without discipline?

Well, if that’s the case, brothers and sisters, what could we be saying about our Anglican Communion today? It has been said already that the so-called Instruments of Communion that have developed over the last fifty years or so have all failed in one way or another. Even the Lambeth Conference that has existed for a much longer period than that, has been found not to be effective in setting forth the teaching of God’s Word as we understand it in the situation that men and women face in their particular context. Now in this I don’t think the Instruments can be given artificial respiration and somehow revived. I mean it’s been tried, and it may even be worth trying, but it hasn’t worked. I am sad about that, but I think we do need to find new ways of association, of coming together, not just to be warm and well-filled, but to do the essential tasks. It was successive Lambeth Conferences up to 2008, but excluding 2008, that said that the heads of the church, the Primates, have a particular role in maintaining the unity of the Church. Now both Lambeth 2008, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the progressive watering down of the Covenant have reduced, almost eliminated, the Primates from this particular role that other Lambeth Conferences were saying it was necessary for them to fulfill. I think that is a tragedy, because at one stroke it has made decision-making impossible. But I do feel that in addition to the Primates’ meeting – in a way the Primates’ meeting arises from what I am going to say next – I feel that what we need to be doing is to have a meeting of bishops, clergy and laypeople that comes together for consultation, for prayer, for identifying the issues and the opportunities that we have in our world, it comes together synodally – I’m not saying “synodically,” – synodally, let’s just say with the intention of walking together, walking in the way of the Lord. I hope that GAFCON 2 will be very much that, walking together in God’s way for God’s work according to God’s Word.

But within such a synodal and missional gathering, there must be a gathering of those who have oversight. I’m purposely avoiding the word bishops here, because it would be easy for me to say such a gathering should be a gathering of bishops. Bishops should certainly be included, but I think we’ve got to move beyond that to a gathering of people beside the bishop, in addition to the bishops, who also exercise one kind of oversight or another. That may be in the formation of people for Christian ministry; it may be people who are rectors of churches that are crucial to the future of our Communion. (I mean, rectors of churches like this one exercise enormous oversight and have very large staff which can be quite well compared to what happens in a diocese. Why should they be excluded from such a gathering?). It may be leaders in church planting ministries. This will certainly need a reform of, episcope in the Church, perhaps even of the episcopate. Now I know what I am saying is radical, and there will be natural Anglican resistance to it, even in my own mind some resistance, but I think in all fairness I must say it. I believe that in associating in these ways will make us more attuned to what actually God is saying to the churches – the local churches, the clusters of churches, you can call them if you want, not always that – and how God wants to glorify his church, the church as she is in his eternal plan and eternal sovereignty.

How do we go about it? I think it is here that the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans has a splendid opportunity to model this in our own life together as it emerges. That is to say, we do not to wait forever for non-existent Instruments of decision-making to make decisions that they will never make [applause]. You know, I’m tired of waiting. And you can’t say I haven’t had patience. But how long will this carry on? We have got to start doing this in our own life. So I’m hoping that the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will begin to show us how the Church is to gather, how to pray together, how to decide together, what to teach and also how we include people and also sometimes sadly have to exclude people, for the sake of discipline. Exclusion, by the way, is real in the New Testament but always for the sake of restoration, always for the sake of restoration.

Practically, I think what this will mean at our next meeting, God willing, when it takes place next year, is to have a mechanism that brings together people with oversight. I am quite willing to talk about how that may happen, how difficulties might be overcome, who would be included and who shouldn’t, and all that can be talked about, but we shouldn’t miss this opportunity because, in addition to the bishops, there are other people who can contribute to our gathering, praying, deciding and teaching, which is so important for us, and, what is more, when they go back to wherever they are exercising oversight they can make it real. We must make sure that this takes place in the wider context of the church gathered. I’ve always thought that Acts 15 is a very good example of how the church should gather. The whole church gathered, the apostles speak, the apostles and the elders set out what the decisions of the church are, and then the whole church sends out the message that it wants to send out to the world.

So for purposes that have to do with our next meeting, there must be a wide gathering of fellowship of listening to God’s Word together, of praying together, consulting together, but in that context, those with oversight must have a special responsibility for setting out what we believe to be necessary for the future. And the Primates of course in their meeting will enable us to gather, to do these things and, later on of course, to implement what decisions have been made.

Now I am not saying that this should happen as a replacement for the Anglican Communion (God forbid!), but I am saying that this should be a model, a lesson that can be learnt by the wider church.

Finally, we must of course remain a dynamic movement, a movement that is committed to the Jerusalem Declaration. Some structures are necessary even for movements. Living beings move, and there are some very simple living beings that don’t have very much of a structure, but a lively, developed and progressive movement needs some structure. I don’t deny that; however, we must not forget that we are a movement in mission, and this may necessitate the inclusion of some people in our common life who do not belong to the structure, who are not people who are exercising oversight, who are not bishops or Primates or rectors of churches, or principals of theological colleges, but who are leaders in mission. In my time as a bishop both in Pakistan and as a bishop in England I have emphasized the voluntary principle in the life of the Church. Of course there are some things that the church must do officially, but the growing edge of the Church, the spread of the Gospel, the coming of people to faith, their growth and their nurture in the faith, often comes about from people who have been called to fulfill a particular vocation. Sometimes it means recognition and commissioning by the Church, but sometimes it just goes on, and we have to [safeguard] this voluntary principle. Paul Perkin was commenting at the beginning of this conference about the relationship of this church to CMS. Well, CMS was a voluntary movement by people called by God to fulfill a certain vision, just as the Clapham sect generally and locally here was called to fulfill that mission. I often say that when CMS was formed, it wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, seeking his blessing, and it took two years for the Archbishop of Canterbury even to reply. But that did not stop it from doing what it had to do, and we must be praying that God will produce, as indeed he has, movements in our Anglican Communion, in our local churches, in our national churches, for bringing people to faith, for renewal in the life of the Church, for leadership in worship, and that we shouldn’t be suspicious of these movements as if they were harmful for the institutions but celebrate them as God’s gift to us today. Effective leadership, effective episcope if you like, exercised by Primates and bishops, I think part of that for the future must be recognition of, and enabling of and empowering of, this voluntary principle, in that light once again we can learn from our past.

We can be confident of Christ’s Lordship in a Church which is faithful to his Word and which seeks to bring this Word to bear on the needs, aspirations, fears and hopes of the world to which it has been sent as an ambassador. Let us humbly, but properly, recover our confidence in the transforming power of God’s Word.

This address was followed by a lively question and answer period.

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