By Kathleen Henderson Staudt
What is the church for? In a 1938 lecture series on the BBC, collected in her book The Spiritual Life, the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill answered the question in a way that has challenged the church for the past century:
The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.
Underhill appropriately focuses on the church’s mission in and for the world; to her mostly Church of England audience, she is challenging the image of the Church that became comfortable during the long centuries of what Loren Mead has labeled the “Christendom” paradigm, when most people were nominal Christians, even churchgoers, and the mission of the Church was seen as being overseas, far away and directed toward people distinctly “other” than the people in the pews. Mission was done by the institution; for the people in the pews, church attendance was a regular social obligation, to be taken with more or less seriousness depending on one’s particular spiritual needs and dispositions: to be part of a church was to support “a comfortable religious club.”
But Underhill recognizes that the institutional model, the “comfortable religious club,” is not a true embodiment of what the Church is called to be. Rather, each of us has a part to play in the mysterious work of God in the world, the Spirit’s work to restore, reconcile and heal. Her work focuses on the spiritual practices of the individual as guaranteeing the health of the “cells” in the Body of Christ on earth. For her, ordinary Christians, each of us pursuing the work that has been given us, are the ones who carry out the saving work of the Church, “bringing the saving power of the eternal into time.” In this short paragraph she lays out a theology of the ministry of all God’s people – the laos (λαός) – in the world.
Underhill’s image of the Church in the world invites what I might call a “poetic” way of looking at the church, the people of God – seeing the Church as a kind of work of art that communicates something to the world. It might seem that our disputes in the Anglican community about whom we may ordain and who decides how we should read Scripture have little to do with the ministry of the people in and for the world, but actually, poetically, they are important. Because we are an ordered church, our disputes about who we are and how we serve the world have focused, for the past 50 years, on whom we ordain. This may be appropriate to some extent since the ordained leaders of the Church do function as “metonymies” for our corporate identity – they are the parts standing for a whole. So if we claim to be an inclusive community, living and proclaiming the gospel in and for the world around us, it makes sense poetically that our visible leaders should reflect the diversity of the world we live in and the world we serve.
If the world looks at us as a corporate body and sees inclusiveness in our leadership and our practice, then we are communicating something about the hospitality of God. If they see us finding ways to stay together in Christ while holding a diversity of views, that is a revolutionary witness for our deeply polarized times. On the other hand, if all that the world sees is fighting and schism and mutual recrimination, then we are losing track of our real identity and purpose.
I turn to Underhill’s description of the purpose of the church in my prayers for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at this time, remembering that we are part of something much bigger that we believe God is trying to do through us, the people of God, in the world. I take comfort, too, from a beloved hymn we sing pretty often these days, and appropriately so – not least because its title reminds us of who we are: “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”. I was particularly glad that it was part of the Commencement liturgy at Virginia Seminary last June:
Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up,”How long?”
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song. (Hymnal 525)
These words remind us that our tradition’s vision of the church as a “mystical body” is meant to give strength and energy to us as we try to live up to being the “Church visible -- the Communion of Saints “in the world to save the world, a tool of God for that purpose.” This vision does not deny that we have struggles and divisions. But both Underhill’s writing and the hymn call us back to awareness of our greater purpose and calling. It is a vision that sometimes seems improbable, but it is one that we are called to return to and refashion in our own generation, as faithfully as we can.
Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at poetproph.blogspot.com.