Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Lutheran Catholic and Ecclesiology

As I write a short piece on a unity that points not toward itself but breaks open to Christ in iconic fashion, I found this fine lecture by the current ABC on one of the theologians who has most influenced my thinking on Christ and Church, Michael Ramsey. Like Ramsey, Luther has played a vital theological influence in my own life especially through our Articles as well as through Maurice and Bonhoeffer.

I note this as vital in our current discussions about ecclesiologies and Covenants wherein I sense a tendency to do precisely that against which Luther, Maurice, and Ramsey warn, making our ecclesial ontology something separate and of its own self from rather than rooted in utter dependence upon Christ and the Holy Spirit and too often captured by an over-against-the-world way of thinking that threatens to cut off a sense of God's at-work-ness in the ordinary things of human life:

There is an obvious misunderstanding which Ramsey is well aware of and which he attempts to guard against. It is to think that because the model of a reasoned choice of a philosophy of life doesn't fit belonging in the Church, the Church as a visible structure is thereby given rights over the particular person in a way that denies individual freedom and enshrines unaccountable authority. When Ramsey writes about the mediaeval Church, this is the kind of misapprehension that seems to be most clearly in his sights. The mediaeval Church, he argues, failed in faithfulness to the gospel because it defined itself increasingly as a system of institutionalised order or control, comparable to the other systems around - or rather, in the early Middle Ages, providing such a system because no other power was able to. And because of this, the primitive notion of a community of unique solidarity defined by God's act was replaced by a society which guaranteed to 'broker' good relations with God: Ramsey has some tantalising but suggestive remarks about the way in which sacrificial language changed its register in the Middle Ages (pp.168-9), so as to obscure both divine initiative and corporate human response. Whatever he is supporting, there can be no doubt that he is criticising any institutional framework that suppresses human liberty by executive force.

But Christian commitment demands a transformation of how we understand that liberty. It cannot be imposed, but the ethos of the Catholic Church, in Ramsey's sense, nurtures and deepens another sort of freedom - freedom structured around the freedom of Christ to offer himself to the Father and to human beings, that freedom which Ramsey so often writes about in relation to the glory of Christ (there is a good brief critique of some modern theological accounts of freedom in GCW, pp.34-8, and a summary of what is to be learned from Christ's freedom in FFF, pp.11-14). A proper Catholic identity, he implies, is one in which the absorption of what Christ's freedom means is daily sustained by a climate of exposure to the full radical reality of Christ incarnate embracing the cross - in scripture and sacrament and contemplative prayer as well as the reality of that kind of service in the world that does not look for success or fashionable reputation but simply does what Christ does (see, for example, the comments on the 'servant Church' ideal in FCC, pp.55 ff.). And this is different from a supposed Catholic identity for which what matters is that the Church should be a plausible competitor in the struggle for ideological dominance, power over individuals or societies.

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