On the radical openness of the church – and why the need for a deeper level of commitment

“RA Markus points out in his classic study Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine that in Augustine’s view ‘what prevented the Christian from being at home in his world was not that he had an alternative home in the Church, but his faith in the transformation of the world through Christ’s victory over sin and death and his hope in the final sharing of this victory in his kingdom.’

The church then is not a counter-polis, but a people with a counter-hope. This makes the church radically open; the Christian’s sense of identity and difference from the world does not depend on erecting impenetrable boundaries between church and world.” 

(Peter Leithart http://www.leithart.com/2011/08/30/radical-augustine/)

Leithart’s epiphany regarding the radical openness of the church is understandable given that he stands within the reformed tradition with its strong confessional emphasis. If you believe this and this and this and that, and sign up for it… you’re in. If you don’t you’re out. Leithart is pointing to something quite new for that tradition – the church’s radical openness.

Anglicans on the other hand, even in the midst of our global debate around “inclusivity”, may ask of Leithart, “where’s the beef?” For most of us it is enough that when we gather to worship we humble ourselves before God, receive the ministry of the word, affirm the ancient creeds, pray (for others as well as for ourselves), and gather around the Lord’s table for bread and wine.

We’re not too fussy about which tradition those who gather round the table are from though we still insist (well mostly we do) that they are baptised.  We’re even prepared to meddle with the Nicene Creed if that will encourage a few Orthodox to come by. We are not signatories to a set of beliefs. We are members of one another in Christ and our worship services re-enact each week what this means – well, at least that’s the idea.

True to say that mostly we go with the idea that everyone is “in” – that church is “radically open”, as Leithart would say. Probably this is partly because we’re pragmatists and anti-intellectual (so if it works and we can compromise and get along, then fine), partly because we’re slackers (making commitments to things takes effort), partly because we don’t like conflict (“in” people means “out” people and this smacks of judgement), and partly because Anglicans – well, least Kiwi ones – have an aversion to exclusion and elitism and the enthusiasms that tend to go with these in matters of religion. It’s no coincidence that Sam Hunt’s ‘Beware the man‘, remains one of our most popular poems:

Beware the man
Beware the man who tries to fit you out
In his idea of a hat
Dictating the colour and the shape of it.
He takes your head and carefully measures it
Says ‘Of course black’s out’.
He sees himself in the big black hat.
So you may be a member of the act
He makes for you your special coloured hat.
Beware! He’s fitting you for more than that.

Over all, then, it probably has as much to do with our “new world psyche” as theology in which our suspicion of any religion being more than a nominal commitment finds its roots.

Whatever, it’s there just the same. Talk of “the new monasticism” or signing of covenants makes us nervous. This is true of covenants to do with our world wide Anglican Communion. It’s definitely true at a parish level.

“Why do we need this Covenanters – this call to commitment? Isn’t baptism enough? Isn’t that about dying to self and rising to Christ? Isn’t this idea of deep fellowship and radical discipleship meant to be what the church is?

Well, yes. But it isn’t – I mean, the church isn’t “like that”. As +Brian Carrell has noted (Issues Facing The Anglican Church in Aotearoa NZ Today), (1) the rise of voluntary mission societies from the late 1700s came from the same impulse as the emergence of the Anglo-Catholic renewal movement in the late 1800s. Both these movements had their roots in the hopes and desires of monastics before them: in a time of confusion and laxity, to strengthen the church by calling it back to being itself.

The vision is of the church here is of a mixed band disciples, gathered together around their master, (2) intent on learning what it means to bear witness to God’s reign upon the earth. Our church urgently needs to develop a core such as this, not to return Anglicanism to its glory days, but to salt it, to permeate it, and so help it to become what it is called to be – a witness to the nations. (3)

Ultimately, then, Covenanters, as with the church itself, is not “for itself”, but rather “for the nations”.  An increasingly radical post-Christian context makes the intentional development of an even more radical discipleship as a force for renewal an imperative. Not all of us can live in monasteries, nor “intentional (read “residential”) communities”. But we do need to be intentional in rediscovering what it means to follow Jesus in a way that renews not just our church but the whole of God’s creation. And we need to re-discover how to do this together where we are.


1.  +Brian’s paper, though written over a decade ago now, remains well worth a read. Follow the link above.
2.  Matthew 5-7
3  Micah 4Revelation 7:9-10

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