This is the homily that one of our readers, Roger Williams, preached last Sunday. I hope that you find it beneficial as much as we did.
What is the Church? It’s a very human thing to come together in groups. The like-minded have only to recognize each other for it to happen. We are social beings and we know, almost instinctively, about the advantages of sharing such things as knowledge and practical know-how, of presenting a united front. It applies to the serious side of life: for example people band together for civic and political reasons, as a protection from exploitation, to defend their country. Less seriously, they come together in their in leisure pursuits (everything from angling societies to membership of vintage-car clubs, or the time-trial cycling fraternity many of us had to beware of as we came here this morning). The like-minded people come first, then the group.
This is how many see the Church. They think that, at the beginning, having become Christian believers it then seemed a good idea to come together in order to support each other, to worship together and that it would help to promote their new, and distinctly minority, religion. In short, the Church is seen as a kind of ‘union of believers’ where the Christians came first and the Church afterwards. This is quite wrong. The Church does not exist because individual Christians decided to come together, whether in the first century AD, or at any time since. We need to understand the true origin of the Church if we are to understand how to live as its members. We shall not have a clue if we think it is our Church, that humankind created it to make our earthly Christian life easier. This can lead all too readily to thinking that we are free to adapt it any way we wish.
In every age there is someone who can point out error and help to put us back on the right path, if we will listen. Today especially, and in company with many others, we recall and give thanks for one such:
, later Cardinal, John Henry Newman. With several contemporaries in during the 1830s and early 1840s he was concerned for people to rediscover the true origins and nature of the Oxford . Christian Church
‘And I hold in veneration,
For the love of him alone,
And her teachings as his own’.
‘Firmly I believe’ first appeared as part of a long poem by
Newman called ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. Without casting a sombre shadow over today’s proceedings it is important to note that the words we now know as the hymn are words that Newman gives in the poem to Gerontius as he is dying. They are his statement of faith and trust in God, ever present, ever loving. Gerontius expresses no faith in himself here – all that he might have thought important has been stripped away. (A little earlier he has spoken of, ‘a strange innermost abandonment’.) This is the man at the very depth of his being realizing and expressing in every line a total human dependence on God. That same dependence upon the divine underlines the words, ‘ as his creation’. This is saying that the Church is of divine origin. And it is something utterly different from any idea that the Church is the result of Christians deciding to band together and form a kind of mutual support association, or a ‘self-constituted interest-group’ (to quote the opinion of an interviewee on R4’s ‘Today’ programme last Thursday morning). For the Christian this is not a matter of opinion at all, because here, and elsewhere, Holy Church Newman recalls for us the divine nature and origin of the Church as reported in the New Testament.
As we read the New Testament Gospels we come find many references to the Church. In all of them the origin is divine, not human. In all
Christ is in control. For example, once the Apostle Peter had come to recognize Jesus for who he is, Jesus commends him for his faith, confers leadership of the Apostles upon him and says, ‘You are Peter and on this rock (i.e. on such a faith as yours) I will build my Church’ (Mt ), ‘my Church,’ he says. Should there be any doubt that the Church is a living entity, then we have only to recall further words of our Lord where he calls his followers branches of the vine of which he is the stem (Jn 15:1 ff). Or again, in his great prayer before his Passion he asks that all who follow him may be one with him (Jn 17). So there naturally follows, in the New Testament letters of S Paul, the equally awe-inspiring description of the Church as those called together by God to become the Body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head. It is in this awareness of being members of the Body of Christ that we come together to take part in the Church’s life, especially in the Eucharist, in worship generally, that we pray, that we study the Bible, and that we witness to our faith by the way we live our daily lives at work, among our families, friends, and neighbours.
There is more to the Church than what we see in the here-and-now. Shortly we shall be reminded that we worship with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. This includes those who have died and who are now in the nearer presence of God. Like friends on earth these, too, pray with us and for us.
The Church is both a visible human society in the ‘here-and-now’ and at the same time and into eternity a divine mystery. Here on earth we are a mixture of those in every possible stage of their Christian journey. In his baptism, in a few moments time,
Harry will be beginning his. Moreover, we show a vast array of characters and temperaments. We must allow for all these variations among us, rather than give way to impatience over them. As we grow spiritually these different individual characters and abilities are to find their fulfilment as they are brought into obedience to the divine will. The temptation to gratify self-will is always hanging around, of course. And it is our awareness of our human failings which make one little part of that verse in ‘Firmly I believe…’ appear problematic. What did Newman meant by ‘venerating’ the Church? Venerating is giving respect, not worshipping: worship is for God (see the last verse!). Since the line speaks of venerating ‘ ’ it is a matter of venerating the Church whenever and wherever it is, and has been, faithful in obedience to Holy Church Christ its head. There is no question of respecting any human element of sinfulness in the Church. Always the standard for the Church is faithfulness to Christ’s teaching in Scripture and faithfulness in the Church’s calling to witness to Christ as its head.
What is the Church? May we ever be mindful of the question and its answer. Amen.