Robert D. Crouse, 1995

NOTE: This article is part of a conference report of the Atlantic Theological Conference (The Idea of the Church in Historical Development, ed. D.A. Petley), and available from St. Peter Publications.

The Church of Christ which was from the beginning is, and continueth unto the end: of which Church all parts have not always been equally sincere and sound.[1] For lack of diligent observing the difference, first between the Church of God mystical and visible, then between the visible sound and corrupted, sometimes more, sometimes less, the oversights are neither few nor light that have been committed.[2]
Thus, Richard Hooker, in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in controversy with Puritans on one side and Papists on the other, turned to a consideration of the nature of the church as a basis for understanding the principles which must inform its constitution, government and practice. In those Post-Reformation conflicts, the Anglican position especially demanded an ecclesiological justification, inasmuch as it could not stand upon the simplicities of either positivistic biblicism, as with the Puritans, or papal absolution, and therefore ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, was a central concern of Anglican theologians and apologists in the classical period, and they found the chief nutriment of their position, as Hooker had done, in the teachings of the Church Fathers.

Renewed impetus was given to Anglican ecclesiology in the 19th century, especially by the Tractarian movement, whose leaders sought to affirm the spiritual independence of the church as a divinely established institution, in the face of a national government perceived as increasingly apostate; and for those "Oxford Apostles" and their successors, as Bishop Rowell has shown in The Vision Glorious, the doctrine of the church continued to be a primary concern.[3] And still, a predilection for Patristic authorities, both Greek and Latin, characterised their efforts. Conceptions of the church as Mystical Body of Christ, as extension of the Incarnation, as supernatural and sacramental organism were the familiar coinage of Anglican doctrine.

Very rapidly, in recent decades, that once-familiar language of organism has become strange to us, and we are encouraged to think, instead, of the church as a community of inter-personal relationships, democratic, egalitarian and intimate, summed up in the phrase, "The People of God" - a phrase biblical, of course, in its origins, if not in its current meaning. Such a conception has commended itself to many, especially among our policy makers, but it is, in fact, only one among many competing ecclesiastical ideas.

Stephen Sykes, writing about The Integrity of Anglicanism in 1978, complained that Anglican concern with ecclesiology had gone into serious decline.[4] He was certainly right in suggesting that traditional ways of thinking about the doctrine of the church were no longer much in evidence among the theologians, but I think it is important to notice that what was happening was in fact a great proliferation of new ecclesiologies, more or less articulate and explicit, expressing themselves often in ways less theoretical than practical. For instance, if the parish priest pushed the altar out into the middle of the church, and removed the pews in favour of a circle of chairs, he was really promulgating the doctrine of the church as "Whole People of God".

For another instance, the remarkable proposals for a new Canadian Anglican Hymn Book decisively articulate a vision of the Church as harbinger of social justice, particularly from the standpoint of radical feminism. The instances could be multiplied. Behind every architectural or musical revision, behind every new programme, and every new survey, there lurks a new ecclesiological idea.

It is important to recognise, however, that current problems and confusions about ecclesiology are not peculiarly Anglican; they belong to modern Christendom pretty generally, and many of the Anglican problems have been borrowed in considerable measure from Roman Catholicism, where they appear even more strikingly. For the Church of Rome, from the 16th century on, the church was to be understood principally along political, institutional lines: "as visible and palpable as the community of the Roman people, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice", as Cardinal Bellarmine put it.[5] . That view of the church was echoed on the very eve of Vatican II, by Abbot B. C. Butler, who represented the church as a single, concrete, historical society, having "a constitution, a set of rules, a governing body, and a set of actual members who accept this constitution and these rules as binding on them". [6] It was precisely the sort of emphasis that Bishop Emile De Smedt, of Brugge, in a dramatic moment of the Second Vatican Council, would denounce as "clericalism, juridicism, and triumphalism”.[7]

Long before Vatican II, Roman Catholic theologians, giving renewed attention to biblical and patristic sources, had become unhappy about narrowly institutional definitions of the church, and sought a more theological understanding of it. Perhaps the best-known representative of that standpoint is Emile Mersch's Le corps mystique du Christ, published in two volumes, in Louvain, in 1933, which had vast influence in the Roman Church and beyond. There the church is conceived of as Mystical Body, Sacrament of Christ, extension of the Incarnation, in terms very familiar to Anglicans. That view received some official recognition in papal encyclicals, and in-Vatican Ii's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium. But, already at Vatican II, that approach was over-shadowed by the new conception of "the People of God" as a network of interpersonal relationships, fundamentally "democratic" in character. The tensions between these differing conceptions of the church, built upon very different theological foundations, and arising from very different philosophical and sociological presuppositions, underlie the Roman Church's current and increasing troubles in regard to liturgy, catechism, etc., recognised by the appointment of the papal commission, "Ecclesia Dei".

Meanwhile, ecclesiology moves on at a rapid pace. "Politically correct" Catholics, for instance, tend to find the concept of church as "People of God" objectionable, as being exclusivist, quasi-racist and self-serving. Others find the emphasis wrong, and would prefer to represent the church as herald of divine justice, or as servant of the oppressed and disadvantaged. In any case, gone are the days when the Roman Church could confidently define itself in institutional, juridical terms; and it is clear that Anglicans can hardly expect to find in Rome, or indeed, elsewhere in Christendom, any resolution of our ecclesiological confusions. We share the same dilemmas.


The late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, in a valuable and suggestive book on the problems of ecclesiology, called The Gospel and the Catholic Church, in very traditional Anglican fashion began his history of the doctrine of the church with a chapter on "The Church of the Fathers".

But the importance of the age of the Fathers [he said] must not be misunderstood. It is important, not as a golden age, nor as a model for the imitation of Christians (as the Tractarians somewhat extravagantly claimed), but as an age when the whole Gospel found expression in the life and Liturgy of the one Body, with a balanced use of all the Church's structure and with a depth and breadth and unity which contrast strikingly with every subsequent epoch.[8]
But can the Fathers really provide us with any useful guidance in this matter? Are any. of the real dilemmas of ecclesiology actually resolved in patristic studies? Is it not rather the fact that the enthusiastic revival of patristic studies in twentieth-century Europe underlies our present confusions?

The fact of the matter is that there are many - not just one patristic ecclesiologies. For St. Irenaeus, for instance, the church is primarily the magisterium, the authoritative witness to saving truth, in the face of gnostic error. For Tertullian (becoming a Montanist, and finally a Tertullianist), the church is the closely disciplined community governed immediately by the inspiration of the Spirit. For early Christian rigorists, in general, the church is the community of the perfect, while for the laxists, it is a means of healing imperfections. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the church is the redeemed empire, under the monarchy of the sacred emperor, while for the monks in the deserts of Egypt, the true church is to be found only in contemptus mundi, the rejection of the world. And so it goes: not just one, but a plethora of ecclesiologies.

How does one approach this plurality of doctrines? Should one simply pluck out one or two attractive ones, perhaps in the manner of a modern liturgiologist, plucking out a chunk of St. Hippolytus or St. Basil of Caesarea (inclusively translated, of course) as being especially suitable for twenty-first century Chicago or Toronto? One's choice will certainly depend upon some presuppositions - As Liddon reminded Gore (with reference to biblical criticism), "All criticism, I suppose, really proceeds on certain principles, preliminary assumptions for the critic to go upon. The question in all cases is, Whence do the preliminary assumptions come?[9] On what basis does one make one's choice? Or should one, rather, try to make sense of the history as a whole?

Adolf von Harnack, the great liberal Protestant historian of early Christianity, saw patristic ecclesiology as a direct line of development, involving increasing corruption of the original idea:

Originally the Church was the heavenly bride of Christ, the abiding-place of the Holy Spirit; and its Christian claims rested upon its possession of the Spirit, upon its faith in God, its hope and its well-ordered life. He who belongs to the Church is sure of blessedness.... Then the Church became the visible establishment of this confession of faith.... it is the legacy of the apostles, and its Christian character rests upon its possession of the true apostolic teaching [10] .... Only then was the Church idea radically and totally changed. The church includes the pure and the impure (like Noah's ark) is an indispensable salvation institute, so that no one will be blessed who remains without; it is also societas fidei, but not fidelium, rather it is a training-school and cultus institute for salvation. [11]
On the basis of a certain critical assumption, Harnack's account of patristic ecclesiology makes sense. Its assumption was that development was always from the simple to the complex, and generally from a primitive purity to later corruptions. From the standpoint of history, the chief difficulty about the account is that positions must be seen as succeeding one another which are in fact contemporaneous at every stage of the history in greater or lesser prominence. Indeed, all of those positions are already present in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, where the church is both visible institution and inner spiritual life, both the company of the faithful and a training-school for salvation, both the abiding-place of the Holy Spirit's inspiration and the possessor of the sure word of truth. The problem of ecclesiology is not the problem of choosing between those aspects; it is, rather, the problem of seeing them in complementary relation to one another.


That synthesis of complementary aspects was brought to maturity in Latin patristic theology in the fifth century, as J.N.D. Kelly observes, because the struggle against Donatism focussed attention on the problems of ecclesiology.[12] For more than a century, the Donatist schism divided the church in North Africa, with bitter discord and violence.

It was the first really ecclesiological heresy, and arose out of a suspicion (perhaps false) that one of the episcopal consecrators of Caecilian of Carthage in 311 had been a traditor (that is to say, one who handed over the Scriptures) in the Diocletianic persecution of 303. It was the Donatists' view that the consecration was therefore invalid, and, rather than accept Caecilian's ministrations, they established a separate church, which flourished for more than a century, and continued to exist until the Islamic conquest of North Africa. [13] Their fundamental argument was that the unworthiness of the minister would invalidate the sacrament, and although that position was condemned as early as 314, at the Council of Arles, and although they suffered various penalties at the hands of Constantine and his successors, they continued to flourish. Behind the particular point of contention, with regard to the validity of sacraments, was their conviction that the church must be understood to be a society which is de facto holy, "consisting exclusively of actually good men and women".[14]

St. Augustine, after his consecration as Bishop of Hippo, in 395/96, devoted continual attention for more than a decade to the problem of Donatism, in numerous sermons, letters, and other treatises having to do with the nature of the church and the sacraments, in which he articulated, much more fully than had ever been done before, the doctrine of the church; and if we wish to see patristic ecclesiology in a fully developed form, it is to St. Augustine that we must look: not only to the specifically anti-Donatist writings, but to other mature works in which the understanding worked out in the course of the controversy is fully presented.

With regard to the Donatist idea of the holiness of the church, St. Augustine draws a fundamental distinction between the present and the future church, not as two churches, but as two moments on one and the same church. [15] The pure church, the church "without spot or wrinkle", is not the present but the future church. Here on earth the church is holy, but not all its members are holy; it is the Body of Christ, but a mixed body, composed of good and wicked [16] ; it is a field in which the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest, visibly united, but spiritually distinct [17] ; a field in which the wicked must be tolerated, for the sake of the good [18] .

The church is indeed Christ's Mystical Body: unus homo caput et corpus, unus homo Christus et Ecclesia [19] , and as our bodies are animated by our souls, so is the church vivified by the Holy Spirit[20] . "Whatever the church suffers in the tribulations of this world, in temptations, in necessities, in distresses (for so it must be perfected, just as gold is purified by fire), Christ also suffers" [21] . Finally, for St. Augustine, the church is the transcendent society of the angels and the elect, essentially the City of God; but here and now it is that "same church which has mali and ficti in her midst, is also the Civitas Dei peregrinans whose citizens must again and again be corrected and reformed by the grace of God, if they are to persevere, if they are to remain a part of that Church, of that Civitas which is holy and eternal".[22]

St. Augustine's long and patient and genuinely charitable arguments failed to heal the schism, and with great reluctance, and in the face of really serious violence on the part of the Donatists, he agreed, at the Council of Carthage in 404, that the Emperor Honorius should be urged to revive the Theodosian laws against the heretics[23] . But if all the long arguments had not been successful in their intended purpose, they had at least moved St. Augustine to develop a doctrine of the church in which all the different and apparently contradictory elements of ecclesiology present in his predecessors, Greek and Latin, would find a coherent place. And if we speak of a patristic ecclesiology, I think it must be the doctrine of St. Augustine that we have chiefly in mind.


I presume, however, that here today we are not interested in the patristic doctrine of the church only in an academic way, but that we are also interested to see if that doctrine can offer guidance in our present confusions, and I want to conclude with some suggestions in that regard.

First of all, it seems to me vitally important to recall, with St. Augustine, that the church is not really of our making, but is in essence God's City, constituted in the society of the angels and the elect, holy and inviolable. It is the heavenly Jerusalem, which is above, and free, and is our mother. In that heavenly church our hopes are set, and towards that patria the pilgrim church here on earth makes its way through a wilderness of confusions and distresses, needing always illumination by God's word revealed, needing always correction and reformation by his grace.

The visible church, the church in pilgrimage here below, is indeed Christ's Body, but here and now it is, as St. Augustine puts it, corpus permixtum, marred by our sins and weaknesses and follies. And our Christian life must be lived in the tension between these two moments of the church: Jerusalem above and free; Jerusalem now in bondage with her children here below. This visible church is many things at once: it is historical institution, yet it must never be so narrowly institutional as to become mere human bureaucracy; it is human community, yet it must never be so focussed upon human community that it forgets its obedience to a divine word which is not the invention of its own thoughts, feelings and needs.

Perhaps the central problem in current ecclesiology is the tendency to reduce our conception of the church to the narrowness of just one ecclesiological idea, whether of the church as juridical institution, the church as community of the Spirit, the church as People of God, the church as herald of justice, the church as servant of the disadvantaged, and so on. One becomes weary of the cliches and slogans. The history of patristic ecclesiology should help us towards a wider view, and a more generous view, in which all those competing views, inevitably distorted in their isolation, have a proportionate place.

And perhaps, above all, it is important for us to remember always that the church visible is corpus permixtum, the church marred by sin, and longing for its perfection, the church within the shadow of the Cross, celebrating and manifesting the sacrifice of Christ. "You are on the altar, you are in the chalice", says St. Augustine[24] . The church visible must be the church suffering ever and again the pangs of death and rebirth in faith and righteousness. We long in our hearts for the rectification of the visible church, but, as the late Archbishop Ramsey remarked, "the unification of outward order can never move faster than the recovery of inward life"[25] "Meanwhile", the Archbishop concluded, and I conclude with him, "meanwhile, the broken church is closer to the needs of men than men can ever know, for it is the Body of Christ, who died and rose again. Its order, its worship, its history, its problems of unity and disunity mean the Passion of Jesus"[26]

1. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III, 1.10 (in J. Keble, ed., The Works of Richard Hooker, Oxford, 6 ed., 1861, Vol. 1, p. 346).

2. Ibid., III, vol. 1.9 (ed. Cit., p. 343).

3. G. Rowell, The Vision Glorious. Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism (Oxford, 1983), pp. 7-9, 249; cf. L.E. Elliott-Binns, The Development of English Theology in the Later Nineteenth Century (London, 1952), pp. 105-107.

4. S. Sykes, The Integrity of Anglicanism (London, 1978), ch. 6.

5. R. Bellarmine, De Controversiis, II, 3.2, as quoted by A. Dulles, Models of the Church (Garden City, 1974), p.14).

6. B.C. Butler, The Idea of the Church (Balitimore, 1962), p. 39; cf. Butler’s post-conciliar article “Institution versus Charismata”, in L.K. Shook, ed., Theology of Renewal, Vol. II (Montreal, 1968), pp. 42-54.

7. As quoted in Dulles, op.cit., p. 36.

8. M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (London, 1936), p. 140.

9. As quoted in Rowell, op.cit., pp. 221-222.

10. A. Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma, transl. E. Mitchell (Boston, 1957), p. 97.

11. Ibid., p. 107.

12. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London, 1968), p. 405.

13. The fullest account of the Donatist schism is found in P. Monceau, Histoire de l’Afrique chretien, vols. IV-VII (Paris, 1912-1923).

14. J.N.D. Kelly, op.cit., p. 410; cf. J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) Chicago & London, 1971), pp. 308-313.

15. Cf. A. Trape, S. Agostino, l’uomo, il pastore, il mistico (Fossano, 1976), pp. 246-47.

16. Cf. Augustine, De doct. Christ., 3.45: corpus permixtum.

17. Cf. Augustine, Ep. 105 ad Donatistas, 16; En. in ps., 138, 29.

18. Cf. Augustine, Ep. 93 ad Vincentium, 15.

19. ps. 18,2 ,10; cf. ps. 30, 2, 44; En. in ps. 54, 3.

20. Cf. Serm 267, 4; Serm 268, 2; ps. 32, 21; In Jo. Ev., 26, 13.

21. ps. 62, 2; ps. 52, 1; Ep. 140,18.

22. G. Ladner, The Idea of Reform, Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), p. 279.

23. Cf. G. Bardy, St. Augustin. L’homme et l’oevre. (Paris, 1946), ch. VIII.

24. Augustine, Serm. 229; cf. Serm. 272.

25. M. Ramsey, op.cit., p. 222.

26. Ibid., p. 224.


Paige Evelyn Davidson

I would first like to thank Fr. Mercer and the Conference Committee for asking me to participate in this Theological Conference It is an honour to stand before so many respected friends, brethren and fathers in Christ. Thank you, Fr. Crouse, for your erudite paper, and your continuing renewal of the mind of this community.

There is no reason in this Response for ine to summarize the argument of Fr. Crouse's paper, since it seems to me to be both clear and succinct-and, moreover, since this is the first time that I have been exposed to its final version.

I have only one question for Fr. Crouse, something which he has indeed answered in some form, but which I will briefly expahd upon, which is: how? How do we know what the Church in fact is? Do we have as many Churches as we have understandings of the Church-People of God, Soldiers of Christ, the Church of Donatus, etc. Fr. Crouse has urged us, following Augustine, in particular Confessions Bk. XII, to acknowledge that, while Christ's work on earth yet remains, charity must enable us to live within a multiplicity of positions. This is surely right and needful; but I ask you, Fr. Crouse, how, by what objective content of faith, do we among the many ecciesiologies judge a position to be Catholic? On what basis and by what standard do we define the Church to be The Church?

Fr. Crouse has, in fact, already given us the answer, when he says that the Church must "never be so focused on" the modes of "human community" that it "forget it's obedience to a (or better, the) divine word." It is only in a relation of obedience to the Word of God that the Church knows itself to be The Church. We surely cannot have a definition of the Church which is catholic if our definition proceeds from the nature or mission of a particular community, which definition is taken to be a comprehensive one-- this leads not to a charitable "harmony of Positions", but to a potentially endless number of churches of the Individual, without a common (a catholic) language or self-consciousness among them. A "harmony of positions't can only be intelligible to us if we see what makes each one catholic.

I am therefore proposing a twofold answer to my question as it arises out of Fr. Crouse's paper concerning how exactly we can begin to define the Church. First, we can indeed define the Church, in all charity and catholicity, because we do have an objective standard by which the Church is judged: the Divine Word, as revealed in Holy Scripture. It is only by its identification in the Word eternal that the Church can be held to be both universal (catholic), and particular as an historical moment in its working out. As the body has its mind, life, being and self-consciousness in its head, so the Church has its mind, foundation, end and whole vocation in and from the Word, which we know revealed in Holy Scripture-of which the Church is an exegesis and interpretation.

Second, assuming that the divine Word revealed is a self-sufficient and, more importantly, a saving objective (doctrinal) basis for an ecciesiological self-consciousness, how then do we go about establishing a definition of the Church on this basis? In a way, the practical and pastoral answer is simple: don't just stand there, read Scripture-and in it, receive Jesus, the engrafted word who is able to save our souls (cf. James 1.21).

But I would like to suggest, referring to the first point, that even the question of "how to understand the Church" points to a prior and more fundamental activity, one which is situated in the particular relation of the Church to Scripture which we find in Augustine and very much within the Anglican tradition.

The place of authority, for Anglicans (for example, the 16th c. Divines, the Tractarians), has always been the Holy Scriptures. I recently read a paper given at one of these Conferences in which the Christian faith was said to be constituted of several elements posited on the same ontological level: scripture, community and tradition. The first is static, the second dynamic, and the third, both. If scripture and community (the Church) are two things which complement and inter-define one another, there arises the need for a third element-let us say, tradition-to oversee" the relation of the former two in an authoritative way.

Perhaps-but this is not the case in the Anglican Church. We understand the Word revealed as logically and ontologically prior (to the Church): this, and not tradition, is our claim to catholicity. The "dynamic" character of the Church, moreover, is found not in tradition per se, but in an unmediated relation which the Church has to the Word of God through Scripture. I have previously stated that the Church knows itself in this Word; my point here is that it is the Church only insofar as it stands in this relation to Scripture. The "dynamism" lies in the character of the relation which the community has to its scripture. Just as, for Augustine, man is in the image of God only insofar as he approaches Him by likeness and perfection of activity-so also the Church is the veritable presence, reflection and Body of Christ on earth only insofar as it is an explication or an exegesis of that Word, which it possesses in Scripture unto salvation. I am not trying to conflate the Incarnation and the Bible-but rather trying to say, interpreting the first book of the De Doctrina Christiana, that the logic for a hermeneutic of Scripture is at once the same logic for a practical theology of the community (cf. De Trinitate, Bk. 8.viii). The Church is a substantial activity of exegesis of the divine logos, a working out of our salvation as known through Scripture, in time and space and history-apart from any such immediate yet dynamic relation to the Word, no definition which can be considered "catholic" is possible, and thus no real definition at all.

It is obvious, and not at all original, to observe that Scripture, for Anglicans, is the place both of truth and authority. My point concerns the fact that, when seeking a catholic, Anglican ecciesiology, we look in a particular way to how we possess these things, how we have the very self-conscious existence of the Church depending on a particular type of relation to the Word revealed.

How do we define the Church? On the basis of the objective content of faith, the "controlling principle", as found in the words and images of Holy Scripture.

What then is the Church? We can hardly presume to say in precise terms, except that it is only the Church insofar as, knowing itself in the activity of receiving/explicating the Word, it is the Word present in historical and temporal form on earth, as an exegesis, reflection, manifestation and preacher of that Word.

Only if we have an objective basis for an ecclesiological self-consciousness, can we, in charity, be satisfied with a multiplicity of positions, true and less true, and those as Catholic. Moreover, for the Church to know itself in its obedient and, I have suggested, "exegetical" relation to its eternal truth-being one with that Truth insofar as it rightly receives Him in knowledge, in the common mind of a spiritual community built on humility and charity-this provides for us a concrete basis of hope, until Christ has reconciled the whole world to Himself in His Church, and a basis upon which real charity can be the beginning and the end of the whole vocation of the Church, even through a seemingly endless discourse of intersubjective relations.

I thank you for your kind patience and, again. on behalf of all present, thank you Fr. Crouse.

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