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'Being church': manipulating language to change meaning

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 Contents - Mar 1990AD2000 March 1990 - Buy a copy now
Close encounter with feminist theology - Dr Frank Mobbs
'Being church': manipulating language to change meaning - Fr Peter J. Elliott
New Zealand: tensions between Rome and the Bishops - John Kennedy OBE
Parish assemblies - pluralism or brainwashing? - Michael Gilchrist

It is atrocious English and irritating to hear or read: "That's not my way of being church" or "Her vision of church is interesting" or "Being church today in Australia is a challenge."

When presented like this, is "church" a noun or an adjective, or has it taken an unsteady trip into the land of verbs or adverbs? One is tempted to curse the jargon, but it is better to calm down and try to discover what people who play with the word are trying to say and why their mistake is more regrettable than poor grammar.

In whatever tongue we use, "church" describes the called and assembled ones, the baptised believers who are the Body of Christ, the priestly people of God gathered in unity around the Successor of St Peter. They are not "church". They are the Church on earth. They are a visible identifiable society.

Significant jargon

However, when you remove the definite article from "church" in a modern context, you move away from this understanding of the Church. You are using significant jargon. It has similar nuances to insisting always on "Eucharist" instead of "Mass" or teaching eight-year-olds to explain dramatically that they are making their "first reconciliation." We are being sent messages. But the message in manipulating "church" is much more significant.

Once you take away the definite article from "church", you cease to define the Body of Christ as a visible, organised society. "Church" becomes a process or an experience, a phenomenon which may be whatever you want it to be. When you cease to define anything by the definite or indefinite article you also adopt a kind of pop existentialism, for example, "We are family" or "I am woman". A universal reality is absorbed by a particular person or group. That person or group is saying, in effect, "We matter more than that big concept!" The net result is a narrow vision of the Church, sincere, no doubt, but limited. It may well be an attempt to express the joy and vitality of the community life of the Church, which we all value and which must develop and grow. But it fails to convey the true mystery of the Church set out by Vatican II.

Inexhaustible mystery

The Council's teaching on the Church in Lumen Gentium reveals that the word "Church" does not have only one meaning. The Church is an inexhaustible mystery, with many inspired metaphors, parables and symbols to describe it. The traditional and always timely distinctions between the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant also humble us with the sobering thought that, from our limited point of view, most members of the Church are dead. The mystery of the Church transcends time and space. But here on earth, the Body of Christ is the Universal Church which subsists in the Catholic Church.

The one Church of Jesus Christ takes a different form as a local Church. This raises another timely question: is the local Church the "Australian Church"?

Those who speak about "being church in Australia" seem prone to slide into the term "Australian Church". Used casually, a national description of part of the Catholic Church may be harmless. But once people start to use "The Australian Church" in the same way that some Americans constantly speak of "The American Church", then we are looking at something which happens to rest on mere supposition. It is also not a truthful description of the Church.

Catholic tradition has never been comfortable with defining part of the Church in terms of a nation. The very concept of "nation" has an interesting and complex history. The Church which transcends time and space cannot be tied down or limited in terms of such a changing concept. Nationalism centred around the power of monarchy inspired the French tendency called "Gallicanism". A national French Church would be independent from the Papacy whereas for Catholics the Papacy is essential for the unity of the Church, the divinely appointed centre of her earthly existence.

Signs of a new kind of Gallicanism, without monarchs, are evident in some nations today. Therefore, Catholics would do well to note how modern Anglicans have distanced themselves from religious nationalism by ceasing to use the designation "Church of England". All Christians have had problems with religion and nationalism. But the concept of a National Church raises more problems than ever for Catholics.

This is not to deny that in practice there are many national factors in the Universal Church. National Episcopal Conferences play an important role in the post-conciliar Church. The Catholic Church has useful national structures in many countries. In each country the Church always reflects the local culture. This happens gradually, and is rightly encouraged as "inculturation". But a culture is often distinct from the limits of a nation. Within some nations many cultures happily co-exist, for example in Australia.

The closest form of the Church linked to the concept of a nation would be found in some of the Eastern Rites, for example the Maronite Rite has a specific identity with the nation of Lebanon. But strictly speaking and thinking with the mind of the Church, let us avoid talking or writing about "The Australian Church". As "a Church", it does not exist.

How then are we to describe the Church in its Australian form? Temptations towards gum-leaf Gallicanism can be avoided by speaking of "The Catholic Church in Australia", which happens to include the Roman Rite majority and the Maronite, Melchite, Ukrainian and Russian Rites. This means that the universal reality of "The Church" is present in Australia in many ways, but that it is always the Church, the Catholic Church united around the successor of St Peter.

Where then is the local Church if you cannot define it in terms of a nation?

Local Church

From the earliest apostolic times the local Church has centred around a successor of the apostles, the bishop. So we may properly speak of the Church of Rome, the Church of Sydney or the Church of Port Pirie.

The diocese is the local Church. It is a Church and it is the complete form of the Church in a particular place when it is in communion with the Church of Rome, "mother and mistress" of all the Churches. It is healthy and good to recognise the diocese as the local Church and so to develop a strong sense of unity, identity and shared life. But what about the parish? Some have tried to talk about "the church of Bungawallop", but that is exaggerating the ecclesial status of the parish, perhaps setting a congregation up against the diocese.

The Church is made present in the Eucharistic community of a parish, but as the extension of the community gathered around the bishop. The parish priest represents the bishop in the parish unit of the local Church, which is the diocese.

Domestic church

What then is the smallest unit within the Church? Each of us is a "member" of the Body of Christ. An individual can represent the Church in some isolated area, but a community of persons is needed to be the Church, "two or three" gathered together in the name of Christ. Therefore the basic community of the society of God's People is the same as the basic unit in all human societies - the family.

The first structure of the Church which we experience is the family, the "domestic church" or mini-church in the home. We have a long way to go in developing a stronger awareness of the Church in the home as the basic community of life and love within the communion of the baptised.

Speaking naturally about the family as a church develops this awareness. God forms the domestic church through the sacramental covenant of marriage, which signifies his nuptial union with the Church, his beloved bride.

Therefore, we should use feminine pronouns to describe the Church. She is that glorious Jerusalem above who is our mother (Galatians 4:26, Revelation 21 and 22). In the great mystery in Ephesians 5:32, St Paul presents her as the bride of Christ, cherished and purified because she is one flesh with Him, His own Body on earth.

The feminine mystery of the Church also reminds us that while we should speak clearly of the Church, our words will never exhaust this mystery. The Church is the sacrament of our communion with Christ, in the Spirit, to give glory and praise to the Father.

Fr Peter Elliott is an Australian-born priest from the Archdiocese of Melbourne who completed his doctoral studies in Rome, summa cum laude. He is presently Secretary to Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family in the Vatican.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 3 No 2 (March 1990), p. 6

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