Local Choice

An old friend wrote to me about how one decides on a local church community in which to share faith and practice in the light of ancient and present divisions in the church.

I suppose I’ve become something of a practical minimalist in my old age (68 tomorrow) in that while my ecclesiology remains firmly anchored in the concept of the bishop, surrounded by all Orders of the faithful, in communion with other bishops and faithful, in practical terms belonging to a local community of faithful people, where Word and Sacrament are “validly” observed in a sustainable community seems vital.

Orthodoxy isn’t primarily private. “I” don’t own it. It is one of the outward signs or symbols of the community of faith present visibly. Thus such a reality is marred where community exists but the minimal “signs” are not there or are formidably obscured, or where such a community lacks minimal viability in terms of stability and at least potential growth. I also have doubts about the problem surrounding the admittedly subjective area of whether a local community of faith (or collection of communities) exists to be in normal terms “the church” or on the other hand whether it exists to assert an almost exclusive emphasis on dissent or on a substantially unbalanced articulation of faith and practice.

The presence of an active and practiced “charity” would seem to me to be an essential demonstration of genuine piety. Charity includes the absence of judgmental attitudes although not of positive and evangelical criticism. Charity includes the practice of tactile love towards all whose lives are marred by poverty and disease as well as by sin and corporate and private failings.

This then boils down to a determination about whether there exists “close by” a place where the people of God assemble “viably” for common prayer and the sacraments and where the Word of God is heard. I would also stress here, as the later English Reformers stressed that we hear the Word primarily as the Scriptures are heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested and only secondarily in preaching. (One yearns for reliable preaching but that is not always the result of orthodox belief!!)

I would further argue that in communities claiming to be the church in which, in worship and community, the Triune God is liturgically offered those normal outward gifts which have “always” been transformed by the Spirit into means of grace, there exists potentially, using that word technically, all that a Christian needs personally and communally to practice the faith in daily life. I would therefore place much less stress on the personal ability or “reliability ” of the priest who may preside in such a community for the time being, while stressing the usual “marks” of the church being present in Liturgy and Formularies.

In this present moment of division and dissent, making decisions about participating in local communal faith and practice isn’t simple. Granted America has long been a place of religious pluralism, a marketplace of faith and thus those who are detached, one way or another from their original religious community have always been presented with choice. Nowadays that choice may also be between local communities attached to a single jurisdiction or “denomination”. Anglicans may once have made such a choice based on what we used to term Churchmanship, although that choice always weakened the essentially parochial component of the Anglican tradition even in the United States. Today, as you know, other perhaps more formidable considerations exist. I have tried to point to two of these above in comments about the absence of “minimal” signs or their fundamental obscurity on the one hand or on the other an unbalanced dissent or articulation of faith and practice.In the latter matter I’d mention an articulation of the Gospel divorced from a “Gospel” ecclesiology or one that seems to magnify institutional division as a means of restoring orthodoxy.

I would perhaps cautiously reiterate that the lack of “institutional” self-sacrificing love and a spirit of reconciling forgiveness at least weakens formidably protestations of orthodox faith and practice.

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