The Church has moved from the periphery to the centre of theological study. Ernest Skublics sketches the reasons for this change and how it has come about that ecclesiology has become so central to ecumenical progress
Half a century ago, one would have looked in vain for the word Ecclesiology in a typical curriculum of theological studies. At best, under some heading like Apologetics or Fundamental Theology, the Church would have been considered as a credible messenger of revealed truth. Another place to consider the Church might have been under Practical or Pastoral Theology, as a dispenser of sacraments and other pastoral services. In other words, the Church was typically viewed as a delivery system.
To conclude that there was nothing more to theological thought about the Church would be simplistic, as, of course, the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has been an article of faith from the beginning, apparently more fundamental than the individual Sacraments, which the Creed does not even list among the ‘mysteries’ of the Faith. It would be more accurate to say that an awareness of the fundamental Mystery (= sacrament or reality) of the Church was taken so much for granted that a separate treatise was not thought necessary. The problem is that things taken for granted can easily sink below explicit consciousness.
A plurality in one
The fundamental reality now commonly referred to as ‘the Mystery of the Church,’ within which the entire economy of salvation is rooted and realized, only became the object of specific dogmatic study in the middle of the twentieth century, first as a primary treatise in Systematic Theology, and, eventually, as a vehicle to pull together and synthesize all of theology. Indeed, not only has Ecclesiology, the systematic study of the nature of the Church, become a central academic discipline, we have also witnessed a shift in emphasis in how we understand the Church.
Some of the older, delivery-system-type models tended to see the Church as an institution, sometimes quite mechanically or juridically conceived. The model shift referred to here has been a gradual retrieval of the most ancient understanding of the Church as a living organism, indeed the Body of Christ and a Communion, sharing the very life of the Trinity. This organism comes about not by human organization or law, but by the operation of the Holy
Spirit, through Word and Sacrament. We are incorporated into this divine organism, and thus divinized, sharing the life of the Trinity, replicating its structure – a plurality in one – being restored to the image and likeness in which we were created as persons-in-community.
Theology is a reflection, interpretation and articulation of this experience of becoming participants in the Mystery of Christ, the Mystery of the Church, rather than simply a study of texts – biblical or otherwise. Thus the Liturgy, especially of Baptism and the Eucharist, are primary sources, within which even Scripture is contextualized and understood. And quite
ecclesiology now appears as the synthesis of all theology
in contrast to the delivery-system model, where the Church ‘produces’ the Eucharist, we see the Church as the fruit, the product of’the Eucharist. So, this recovered ‘Communion Ecclesiology’ is sometimes also called ‘Eucharistic Ecclesiology.’
The retrieval of this ancient understanding of the Church has been both fruit and further inspiration of progressive ecumenical rapprochement. Its earliest harbingers were nineteenth century Russian thinkers such as Ivan Kireevsky and Alexey Khomiakov, who had initially been influenced by German Romantics, and then turned to the Church Fathers of the first centuries as their theological source and inspiration.
Route to understanding
In the twentieth century, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians made powerful advances in this recovery, both depending on each other and further digging into their common sources through the study of the early Fathers. Of a long list of Orthodox theologians, teamed up in the West with the likes of Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, the former Glasgow Professor, Metropolitan John Zizioulas is especially important.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, Communion Ecclesiology visibly becomes the official emphasis with the twin encyclicals Mediator Dei and Mystici Corporis of Pope Pius XII in mid-century, and much more obviously in Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium of Vatican II, with ecumenical implications spelled out in further documents of that Council and in all the ecumenical dialogues conducted since then, especially with Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.
As a result of these developments, Ecclesiology now appears not only as a principal treatise of Systematic Theology, seeing the Church as the extension of the Fundamental Sacrament of Christ, but, indeed, as the synthesis of all theology, since the whole enterprise of theology is rooted in our baptismal-eucharis-tic-trinitarian participation and communion: the Church – which experience theology reflects on and articulates.
A quick look at the Anglican scene will confirm that the language of Communion Ecclesiology can be traced all the way back to Hooker, and that it is most strongly present in current documents and rhetoric, both internal and ecumenical. It does not require any in-depth analysis, however, to see that there are two crucial problems with this current language. One of them is that it has borrowed the ecumenical terminology and theology of the one universal Communion of Communions, which is the Church of Christ, and applied it autonomously to the Anglican Communion, as if that were a sufficient realization of the Mystery in isolation. The other obvious fact is that this renewed, almost hysterical preoccupation with ‘communion within Anglicanism is a symptom of even that partial communion slipping away into the land of mythology.
There has been a debate whether there is a legitimately particular Anglican Ecclesiology. If indeed we profess the Catholic Faith, such a thing can only be the articulation of a provisional accommodation, spelling out the normativity of restored universal communion, and the commitment to its achievement as essential to orthodox catholic Christianity.
Be that as it may, Ecclesiology in our day has certainly moved into centre stage. Seeing the Church as the Sacrament of Salvation, it has become a foundational component of the theological enterprise. It is probably the most encouraging key to the resolution of our current impasse.