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

Monday, 8 October, 2012

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).

About the author: 

Clare Watkins is a Catholic theologian and writer. She teaches at the Westminster Seminary, Allen Hall, and is a research associate at Heythrop Institute for Religion and Society, Heythrop College, University of London.


The social cognition ('invisible noticeboard') of churches/traditions tends to differ very widely indeed in terms of the extent to which members 'are allocated' social capital ('brownie points') either from social normalcy (youth-, marital-, parental-status), or from spiritual normalcy (being devout). In rough terms, the former consist of co-believers, the latter of fellow-believers (ie in the spiritually-normative church you genuinely feel ('intersubjectively') in your heart that your co-believers are your brothers and sisters in Christ). Compare Acts 2.

The more socially normative churches like to claim they are more inclusive. In reality (ie if you go and look), instead of exporting church into society, such churches often seem more adept at importing local society's local attitudes (good or bad) into the church.

Such a broad-brush research-led model invites having rocks thrown at it in terms of this or that detail from this or that place. (Compare: you could no doubt find 100K French who drink only tea, and 100K British who drink only red wine.) But if you go to, say, in excess of 100 churches over a few decades this model will be seen to have strong explanatory power.

I have never attended a 'Normative' Church model. Noel's responce to the question reads like a theological module. I don't find the Kingdom of God expressed as 'intersubjectively' anywhere in the New Testament!

Anonymous, the jargon is used actually for clarity (there are ABCs you can take on board to follow all this). Intersubjectivity is at the heart of Acts 2 - them coming together in joy and sincerity of heart. Your gentle ridicule is a very common reaction from folk who partly don't understnd, and partly don't like the sound of it. It is actually very powerful for explaining universal issues across UK churches today. Churches tend to consist of either co-believers or ('intersubjectively active') fellow believers. If you can stop 'kicking against the pricks' here, Anonymous, it would genuinely change the rest of your life. If you open your mind and your heart to this you will find it is unanswerable.

I am not kicking against the pricks as your reply suggests. Just as you are free to express your feelings, and don't like a lay persons responce, then I am free to express mine!

I wholly agree with the spirit of all that is being said here. I think the world is yearning for a bit of holiness and too often it sees churches (of all denominations) preoccupied with being seen to be doing something which justifies their existence in a society which has become detached from its life source, which is the life of the Holy Spirit working and moving in each one of us and in all of us as a worshipping community. This is what makes Christians co-believers, even though we don't always realise that is what we are. There is a great thirst out there not only for meaning, but for plain joy - something greater and deeper than the self fulfillment of the individual, or the individual's happiness, or even collective religious euphoria. People are also looking for genuine community (what is partly at least meant by intersubjectivity), that deep belonging together in the life of the Trinity made possible by the ongoing abiding presence of Christ in our midst. The only way, I believe, that the Church is going to be able to offer the world this much needed life, and holiness, is by being deeply reconciled with one another. We begin with prayer and see where that leads us. There will be surprises. You might like to check out my books 'By One Spirit: Meaning and Transformation in the life of the Anglican Communion' and for a more general readership 'Finding God in Other Christians' @SPCKPublishing.

Lorraine, Thank you so much for this (and for the news re your writings) - very inspiring. Could I also apologise to Anonymous if s/he felt I was treading on his/her toes. I welcome all discussion from everybody - and indeed I'm a lay person myself, though an academic who did do my D.Phil. on the concept of order in a religious context in the sixteenth century, before looking at churches today for some decades, and have been trying to 'put it all together' in my early retirement. Can I cheekily give Anonymous a topically-relevant example of a (socially) normative church? About 30 years ago I was a member of St Michael's Paris, where Justin Welby - tipped as the next Archbishop of Canterbury - was also a member along with his wife at the time. (I went to the prayer meeting for them when their baby was tragically killed in a car driven by their nanny.) The very hardworking man who ran one of the ministeries of St Michael's complained to several of us that despite all his hard work, because he was unmarried he was not allowed to be a housegroup leader. This is a classic example of 'co-believerish' not 'fellow-believerish' social normalcy. The CofE was founded in a (pre-Newton) century in which science and philosophy were not fully separated, so that (incredibly now) the church, the state, and the family could be considered 'part of the fabric of the universe'. Hundreds of years later, this is ultimately why the poor single man at St Michael's was - **socially** normatively - not allowed to run a housegroup - only open to married couples. After decades of research, I tend to see the CofE as being - to adopt what Jesus says - like divorce: not what was clearly set up in Acts (fellow believerish), but divinely allowed for a (very long, but temporary) time during the long period when 'you had to have the same religion as your prince'. Now that this latter historico-cultural epoch is long passed, we clearly need to go back to the originally-intended situation in Acts 2. One could hope that some of these F.E. projects might help us all go down this avenue together.

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