What (or who) shapes church and why? (Clare Watkins)

Clare WatkinsClare Watkins asks what (or who) shapes church and why.

Many of the disagreements within and between ecclesial communities of Christians are concerned in some way and another with the structure of church life. The question is one of shape. But in focussing on these matters we quickly forget a more fundamental set of questions about what (or who) shapes church and why. To ask about the shape of church is to enquire into some deep questions about what church is, and – most importantly – what (or who) it's for.

Pondering on the shape of the church, informed by my own Catholic theological tradition and the witness of fresh expressions communities with which I've worked, I find myself thinking about the following points:

The 'shape of the church' is always a problem

Right from the earliest days there has been a sense that there is more to 'the church' than meets the eye. This community of ordinary people is also 'the Body of Christ' (1 Corinthians 12); it is a group who knows its real home is 'in heaven' (Colossians 3.1-3). From St Paul through Augustine, Aquinas and the Reformation period right up to the present, the visible form that the church takes has always been in some kind of tension with the sense that it is 'more than this'. The visible ecclesial patterns of life reflect a deeper mystery – often rather imperfectly.

The shape of the church is contextually realised

This fundamental tension of the visible and invisible in ecclesiology is a theological reality of church. Whilst there is in church history stories of continuity and (sadly) fracture, there is also a sense in which, even within the most continuous organisation, these forms of life have reflected the cultural context. Both as counter-cultural witness, and as a reality of its time, the church always relates in a variety of ways to its context. In particular, the history of the church in mission teaches us the importance of changing and adapting shape in order to speak the Gospel more clearly in a given context.

The shape of the church is formed by its mission and vocation in Christ

At the same time, the shape of the church is always governed by its unique identity as 'the Body of Christ'. In relating to our cultural context, Christians not only adapt to their surroundings but also critique them when necessary. Not everything in our society is good and not everything bad. We discover the shape of Christ's church in our world by a careful and prayerful living in the heart of the world, whilst always embodying Christ's true presence there. The church is shaped by sociological forces; but is constantly in need of hearing and re-hearing its call to be something other than an organisation, a human community. We are shaped by mission, by vocation.

The shape of the church is best described in terms of its centre rather than its boundaries

Perhaps the most striking feature of work with fresh expressions initiatives is the way in which being the church in the places of 'non-church' – the places where people are – challenges the notions of what is or is not 'church'. These practices of mission lead us to realise that the notion of church being some kind of club, of which one is either a member or not, fails to do justice to the experiences of long journeys into faith and the discovery of the Gospel in the particular circumstances of people's lives. Church has a shape which is not so much delineated by its boundaries – who is in and who is out – but rather takes its form from its central reality the Trinity's love of all people and the outpouring of that love into all corners of human living. The church is a centred rather than bounded reality.

The shape of the church is Spirit led – it is a question of discernment

These reflections bring us to the heart of the matter. When we ask about the 'shape' of the church, we are in danger of working with an implicit model of church which sees it as an object, with definable edges. What we see embodied in fresh expressions practices however reminds us that the church, as the community responding to the Holy Spirit in the world, is not so simply objectified. Church in mission, church in the world, is more organic, more mixed up than this – as St Augustine clearly understood (City of God). This calls us more and more to learn discernment of church and discipleship, even within unlikely looking forms and places, rather than seeking after some kind of hard and fast definition of 'what church is' – or ought to look like.

The brevity of these thoughts fails to do justice to the questions and to the learning experience from which they spring. However I hope they can act as something of a stimulus to further reflection in maturing our thinking about what being church in, and for, the world today means for the Christian community as a whole.

The context of this Comment is the ARCS project in practical church mission and the book Talking About God in Practice, Theological Action Research and Practical Theology by Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, Catherine Duce, James Sweeney and Clare Watkins (SCM, 2011).