The Church in Acts and Beyond

These are unformed thoughts following the consulation today over the possibility of unifying Mission Areas (like CofE Deaneries) into large single parishes… 

Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit’ – Acts 5, set for today.

This Sunday in St. Mary’s, Mold we held our Annual Vestry Meeting, at which was discussed, amongst other things, the future pattern of ministry in the Diocese of St. Asaph. We were consulted on the possibility of converting Mission Areas into (effectively) very large parishes, with a priest leading a large team across as many as 15+ churches. I expressed my serious concerns about this move in the meeting, but thought it was interesting to bring all this to bear on ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). Fittingly, the reading for this Sunday included Acts 5.27-32, which I will use as the basis of my discussion.

The Acts of the Apostles is, I think, one of the least well understood books of the New Testament, it is quite long and appears to be a jumble of stories about the early days of the Church with little to unify its narrative. However, to begin to find “the message of Acts,” one must understand it as complimenting and extending the Gospel of St. Luke, clearly written by the same person, and thus its purpose is to testify to the lasting effects of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ, proclaims the Acts of the Apostles, is an event with real world consequences – the resurrection changes people’s lives and it changes the world. The Book of Acts reminds us of the transforming power of the resurrection, which continues to gain momentum in history in the life of the Church. The Church, as Acts understands it, is much more than an institution or social club – the Church, quite literally, is the power of Christ’s resurrection unleashed into the world. Acts presents the Church with a straightforward mission statement: to imbue the world with the divine life, known in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus.

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Pentecost: the sending of the Holy Spirit to give power to the Church.

Today’s reading from Acts 5 is making this exact point. Note how the  apostles are descried as continuing to do the kind of wonderful and miraculous things which Christ himself did. In other words, the Church continues the mission of Christ in the world – what he did, his disciples must do. Acting in Jesus’ name, a common theme in Acts, means acting like Jesus himself.

This Biblical vision of the Church, proclaimed in this reading at the Eucharist today, challenges the status quo which sadly seems to prevail amongst many, that the Church is merely an institution that is expected to provide faith based services to its members. In this false (but common) construal of the Church, being a Christian is reduced to being a passive recipient of services provided by the employees of a religious corporation. In this institutional pseudo-Church, no divine life is necessary and the power of the resurrection is effectively absent.

This is not the Church, in fact it is really an anti-church. The true Church, in communion with the apostles, is one where the disciples of Jesus are willing to take the great risks that come when you seek to continue the mission of the Crucified Christ – there is much danger, but also true joy, in seeking to accomplish in our own place and times the very things that Christ accomplished in first century Palestine.

The Christian faith professes that Christ really and truly died and that he is now really and truly alive. The resurrection is categorically not a metaphor or a symbol, it is not a feeling or an idea, it is a real, historic event – an event that changes history and gives us hope that, despite the awful mess that the world is often in, God is working his purpose out. God in Christ has the power to set things right and that despite the fear-filled shadow of death into which we must walk, he is a light that is cast into the dark. The power of Christ is revealed in his resurrection and the Church which springs from this great moment.

So, what does this have to do with the way the Church in Wales is structured in 2016? In short, everything.

The Church, if it is to be true to its history as it is shown to us in the Acts of the Apostles and beyond, must be a place where the power of Christ’s resurrection is experienced and given concrete expression. A place where the things Christ did are repeated: where God is worshipped; bread is broken; new life is experienced; and the world healed: the Church must be a place where the sick find peace, the sinner finds pardon, the marginalised finds home. If it cannot do this, it is not the Church of Christ.

My fear for a system in which a single priest is called to administer a vast number of parishes is that the life-giving power of Christ will not be known – we will be a Church where the Eucharist, the source and summit of the resurrection life, is not celebrated and churches are left fighting just to keep the roof on and have no time/energy to continue Christ’s work of ministry in the world. I believe that the existing model of a parish gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist, led and encouraged by their parish priest, has the potential not only to save the Church institution but also to transform the world.

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The ordination of Fr. Sam Erlandson to the priesthood by Bishop Gregory of St. Asaph

By having a stipendiary priest in every parish (even if that means multiple churches) is not about the parish priest doing everything and everyone else just receiving her ministry – it means that the parish priest can minister to the congregation, celebrating the Mass and preaching the Gospel, so that people are inspired to go out and minister to the world. The congregation, encouraged and equipped by the priest, can do the things our Lord did: visiting the sick, reading and studying the scriptures, praying for all people and working to build the Kingdom in our communities and the world. This is the ancient pattern of the Church: the Bishop, successor to the apostles, ordains and sends out priests to celebrate the sacraments, preach the gospel and encourage the diverse congregations of his/her diocese and these priests encourage others to go out and minister to the world around. This is the ecclesiology of Acts and remains the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages.

I fear that the alternative is a bland and admin-focussed order of priests, who are not called to equip or inspire but principally to make sure the multitude of churches in his care are able to get by another year. Where is the glorious power of the resurrection? Where is the bold and faithful proclamation of the Gospel? Who is the priest called to be in this context?

The Church does not need to be fearful of the future – we have the great hope of the resurrection – we are Christ’s body in the world and we must do the things we saw him do and obey no human authority. Our authority is Christ, who commands us to love and serve the world, announcing the forgiveness of sins and the coming of a new age.

The Lord is God; he has given us light
link the pilgrims with cords
right to the horns of the altar.
You are my God and I will thank you
you are my God and I will exalt you. – Psalm 148, set for today. 

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