Community verges on an obsession in our culture. The collapse of the Western metanarrative — the ‘grand story’ of civilisation and progress and reason — has catapulted into prominence a multitude of local stories, rooted in particular communities each bearing their own concrete traditions and ‘forms of life’.
And this has got people in some quarters of the Church quite excited….
The Roman Catholics are into it, obviously — they still lay claim to an unbroken communion and tradition stretching back to Jesus.
Likewise, the nebulous emerging church movement makes much of community — it’s underwrites both their taste for traditional liturgy, forms and architecture and their emphasis on worship as a bring-your-contribution-so-we-can-enrich-each-other ‘farmers market’ kind of thing.
In theological circles, too, ecclesiology is a boom industry. Which means community’s in the limelight there too.
First we developed social trinitarian models and remade God in the image of our communities. Then it was only a matter of time before we elevated the Church, talking of its participation in the life of God and crowning it as a de facto fourth member of the Trinity — christus prolongatus as suggested in the depiction of Mary in much Christian art and iconography.
Now, to be fair, this isn’t really a big danger for the Total Church guys.
Sure. They emphasise the relational heart of the gospel — and thus of the community it creates — since God’s achievement in Jesus draws us into fellowship with him and each other: the creation of the Church is the aim of the Atonement. Indeed, united to the Messiah and sealed by the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children and accorded the same rights as the Son. In this way we do in fact participate in the inner life of God.
But, as far as I can tell, Chester and Timmis don’t allow all this to blur the distinction between God and the Church. The Church is still — without a doubt — the creature of the Word. Christ rules us in his Spirit as his word dwells richly amongst us in our mutual teaching, exhorting and singing (Col. 3.16).
What I would love to see, however, is an attempt to ‘think together’ these themes — after all, the one in whose Sonship we share by adoption is the same Word who creates, sustains and rules over his Church in the Spirit and for the Father’s glory! While I’m not entirely sure what it would look like to do this successfully, I imagine we could do worse than take our cue from John Webster (Holiness, p 56):
The account I want to offer here of the relation between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Church’s holiness […] makes the miracle of election central to the Church’s existence and nature. Where the social trinitarian language of participation emphasizes the continuity, even coinherence, of divine and ecclesial action, the language of election draws attention to the way in which the Church has its being in the ever-fresh work of divine grace. The Church is what it is in the ceaseless gift of its being through the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit who accomplish the will of the Father in gathering a holy people to himself.