An address at Fairacres Convent on the Feast of Corpus Christi. A conversation and tutorial with Noel Cheong is gratefully acknowledged as inspiration in this address.
A visiting student from Asia this week asked why it is that the Queen of England has two birthdays. I tried to explain that one was personal and another a national celebration. It made me think about what people sometimes say about the Church’s birthday. There are different answers possible. John’s gospel seems to indicate that it was brought to birth through the labour of the agony on the cross: ‘Mother, behold: your son’; and to the Beloved Disciple – ‘behold your mother’. Pentecost might be the ‘Official Birthday’ – when the disciples who had been through so much in 50 days find themselves now empowered. But Corpus Christi also has a place – the Eucharist in the midst of the Church proclaims the future and destiny of creation. That sounds as impossible as any miracle in the bible! Look around you, this is the future and apex of creation.
In most English Bibles, “church” is a translation of the Greek word ἐκκλησία, which usually refers to an “assembly” and has overtones of those who have been “called out”, and is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite “assembly of God”. The Church is God’s present means of saving and serving the world in its needs, the ark of salvation. Some traditions emphasise the rescue of the soul from eternal damnation, others emphasise the liberation of human beings from oppression. The church offers to the world an imperfect but true representation of Christ and his kingdom, and thereby through its example, its service, and its proclamation of the Word, reconciles people to God.
The past century has witnessed various attempts to re-formulate the doctrine of the Church. One of the most influential attempts is represented by the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), which asserted the sacramental character of the Church. Lumen Gentium articulates, “The church, in Christ, is a kind of sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all human beings.” This idea is developed by Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984), who speaks of Christ as “the actual historical presence in the world of the eschatologically triumphant mercy of God,” whereby it is “possible to point to a visible, historically manifest fact, located in space and time, and say, ‘Because that is there, God is reconciled to the world.’” Because you are here, God is reconciled to the world. Christ’s historical existence is “both reality and sign, [sacramentum and res sacrament], of the redemptive grace of God,” in Rahner’s view, “the Church is the continuance, the contemporary presence, of that real, eschatologically triumphant and irrevocably established presence in the world, in Christ, of God’s …[saving] will.” Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991) echoed this view, stating that the church “not only carries on his [Christ’s] work, but she is his very continuation.” This represents a development of Lumen Gentium, which, “did not suggest that the church is a sacrament,” but rather that the church is “like a sacrament” insofar as it was a visible representation of a spiritual reality.
Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) nuances Rahner’s emphasis on the sacramental role of the Church as the contemporary presence of Christ in the world. He writes, “[Christ’s] presence is not confined to the church. Rather, it is in the church that we learn to recognize Christ’s presence outside the church,” He reminds us that God’s Spirit helps the Church in moments of blindness, stubbornness and sin to see. Remember the parable of the last judgement in Matthew [25.35-40] when Jesus seems to identify himself with the materially impoverished – we need the grace given to the Church to see Him. The Church is also, then, “the clear manifestation of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and of course, most of all, God,” and that “it is in the church that the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.” He then explains how the church is to be a community of virtue, presenting to the world a Biblical image of patience and peace. Thus, for Hauerwas, the nature of the church lies not in its sacramental identity, but in its role as a “foretaste of the kingdom”. Despite these differences between these great and generous thinkers and servants of the Church there is an underlying unity. They alike recognise that the church is not the full story, but is pointing towards something greater than itself
So, in case we haven’t noticed, the church is not perfect. Augustine of Hippo emphasised the sinfulness of Christians, with the church as a corpus permixtum (“mixed body”) of saints and sinners, rather than a “pure body” of saints. Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) concured, commenting that although the church is “the communion of saints…sancti means not specially fine people, but, for example, people like the ‘saints of Corinth’, who were very queer saints.” “But these queer folk, to whom we too [can]… belong, are sancti, that is, [those] set apart – for holy gifts and works [of love].” In confessing belief in “the holy catholic church”, we affirm not the moral perfection of the Christian community, but our calling to perform deeds of righteousness in the world, for which the church has been “set apart” to serve.
This coming Sunday, Oxford will witness the Catholic Community walk from Blackfriars through the streets to Campion Hall. They will have a rather lovely band, and they will sing sacramental hymns. Thirty years ago, I moved into St Luke’s House in a rough part of Wednesbury, and just before I was ordained, was asked to crucifer for the Corpus Christi procession past the pub and park and through the council estate. The band on that occasion was the Methodist Church’s Boy’s Brigade band, and all they could play was ‘Here she comes just a walkin’ down the street, singing dooba dooba dibby doo dibby doo’. As I have told you before (when I sang the words) I was initially mortified, but came to enjoy it, and begin to understand it, especially as the faithful didn’t sing Sweet Sacrament Divine as planned but the words to the tune that was repeatedly played, with the blessed sacrament in our midst. The church carried Christ into the real world of Wednesbury and even sang a popular song whilst doing so.
I think the great theologians – Barth and Rahner and Hauerwas and even Vatican II – would approve. The Church is ordained to function as an ambassador, of which one of our primary responsibilities is “the proclamation of the Word of God.”, “The Church lives by its commission as a herald… Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself,” it’s always timely to beware of self-idolatry in the Church. Borrowing the ark-imagery, it seems to that the church is not just like Noah’s ark, sealed off from those perishing in the flood, but like a lifeboat which draws all the perishing into salvation.
Today is a great day to enjoy, then, a scandal that we are the future of creation and the world’s lifeboat institute!
At 7am this morning walking through the centre of Oxford, there were clearly rather a lot of people who were suffering, lost, broken, suffering from mental health issues – the homeless on our streets, a woman rocking by the bank, a man standing crying. A lot of people needing the spiritual RNLI. For all we are not, the church, we, are the hope of this broken and wounded world, we’re not the Messiah – that’s for sure – but the Real Presence as truly as in the tabernacle, we are the body of Christ, his people: here she comes, just a walkin’ down the street, singing!
In the nae of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
 Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story Of God (London: SCM Press, 1990) 146.
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) 385.
 Karl Rahner, The Church And The Sacraments (Exeter: Burns and Oates, 1986) 15.
 Ibid., 18.
 McGrath, 385.
 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 97.
 McGrath, 380.
 Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (London: SCM Press, 1966) 144.
 Barth, 146.