The Large and Mysterious Shape of Sacrificial Action

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This isn’t about going back into the deadlocked debates over whether Christ explicitly established one form of ministry to be valid for ever; even in the sixteenth century, Hooker was critical of those who claimed absolute certainty about this. But it is about getting away from a view of the Church that is very seductive and very damaging – and very popular. This is the view that the Church is essentially a lot of people who have something in common called Christian faith and get together to share it with each other and communicate it to other people ‘outside’. It looks a harmless enough view at first, but it is a good way from what the New Testament encourages us to think about the Church – which is that the Church is first of all a kind of space cleared by God through Jesus in which people may become what God made them to be (God’s sons and daughters), and that what we have to do about the Church is not first to organise it as a society but to inhabit it as a climate or a landscape. It is a place where we can see properly – God, God’s creation, ourselves. It is a place or dimension in the universe that is in some way growing towards being the universe itself in restored relation to God. It is a place we are invited to enter, the place occupied by Christ, who is himself the climate and atmosphere of a renewed universe. 

Forget this, and you’re stuck with a faith that depends heavily on what individuals decide and on what goes on inside your head. But if the Church really is larger and more mysterious than this, if the Church is Christ’s place, it is a reality shaped – not in the remote past, but daily, here and now – by Christ’s action. And that action is most deeply the unbroken movement of self-forgetful love towards the one he calls Abba, Father: all Jesus is on earth is an expression of this – his forgiving, his healing, his parables, his shared meals, his death and his resurrection. In eternity and in time, Christ makes himself a gift; and in the turbulence and violence of human history, that gift is a gift that makes peace between humanity and God. It is a sacrifice; not in the sense of a bribe to persuade a hostile deity to overlook our failings, but in the sense of something given up, handed over, so that a mutual relationship may be both affirmed and recreated.

Being in the Church is being in the middle of this sacrificial action, the act of Christ’s giving; it is being in the climate, the landscape, of priesthood. This is what is given to us as Christians, what we are rather incompetently trying to find words and structural forms for in our daily life as a human institution. The point is that the energy for this searching for words and forms is created by the fact of God’s gift, not by any attempt to make a human community run better; it is an energy devoted to what will show the inner and prior fact. And this is where we turn again to the New Testament. When Christ calls, he calls, we are told, into a community with diverse roles and tasks, not into a mass of individuals vaguely looking for things to do; and one of those roles, from the beginning, is that of apostle. The apostle is given the task of witness, above all; the apostle has to point in word and action to the basic facts of the action of Christ, to witness to time spent in the company of Jesus, before and after his resurrection (Acts 1.21-22, 4.13). The apostle is the one to whom responsibility is given for connecting this or that context, this or that community, with the fact of Jesus – and so of connecting communities with each other also.

Thus when Christ calls human beings into the community where the new creation begins, he calls some, from the very beginning, to be simply witnesses of that community’s character. Initially, they are those whose words connect the hearers with Christ; they make Christ contemporary with all who hear the good news. And as the immediate personal link fades with the passage of time, the Church makes it clear that the task of witnessing to the contemporaneity of Christ is still essential to the Church’s integrity in a twofold way – by the recognition of a fixed canon of Scripture as God’s gift in the Spirit to the Church, a gift that is an act of divine speaking as it is read and received in the community; and by the recognition of apostolic ministry as a continuing element in the Church’s constitution. The personal focus of worship and proclamation in the community is one who has publicly and demonstrably received, by a network and sequence of specific relationships, the word and power of the first witnesses.

Rowan Williams, “The Christian Priest Today

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