BY ELIZABETH McKENZIE
It was a well-prepared sermon. Beginning with a short exegesis on the text of John’s gospel, it seamlessly connected the three scripture readings of the day and then suggested how the message of the gospel could be applied to everyday life.
The packed congregation in the cathedral in the provincial city (several families were presenting infants for baptism, a sure fire strategy to increase the numbers in the pews!) listened closely, indicating by its attentiveness to the preacher and sundry nods of approval, its approbation of the general gist of the sermon.
In an obvious endeavor to end the sermon with a flourish, the preacher pointed out that there was perhaps a much greater significance to the story above and beyond what it might mean for the lives of the individuals in the pews. This miracle story was also a sign of the relationship between Christ and His Church, which he announced, somewhat triumphantly, was ‘the Bride of Christ’.
Was it my imagination or did a collective shiver run up the spine of the congregation? Did the riot of colour emanating from the magnificent, stained glass windows, dim for a moment? Did a chill breeze sweep into the wondrous fretwork of the high vaulted ceiling?
Or was it just my own overwrought imagination conjuring up these things?
Whether or not it was a collective tremor or just me, it underlined how fraught the idea of ‘church’ is in our society at the moment. It can no longer be taken for granted that the institution of ‘The Church’ demands respect, never mind obedience or even loyalty. It is under siege from without and within.
Yet, here we were, the people of God, in a packed cathedral, reverently observing the age old sacramental rites and rituals of Eucharist and Baptism, hearing the proclamation of God’s promise in the ancient scriptures, listening to the interpretation of the Word.
The vast majority were involved in some ministry as spouses or parents or special ministers or even volunteers, encouraged and recharged by these time worn activities to leave this building as pilgrims and harbingers of the Good News to a society which more than ever, sorely needs the certainties of our faith.
In 1978, a book by Jesuit Avery Dulles SJ, Models of Church, was published. In it he postulated that there was more than one model of ‘Church’. In fact he identified five models of ‘Church’ and added a sixth category in a revised version published in 1987. All the models of Church are interlinked and interdependent – none could survive without reliance on each of the others.
His models are evident in every Catholic Church on any day of the week but particularly on Sunday. The People of God gather (Community) to hear the Word of God (Herald), to participate in the Eucharist - and/or Baptism/Confirmation/ Matrimony/Penance - (Sacramental), to renew their commitments to each other (Servant) and to the future life of the church (Pilgrim) under the guidance of the (hopefully holy and wise) hierarchy (Institution).
They all meld together. Not one component can be omitted. It is a travesty to suggest (as the media is so fond of doing) that ‘The Church’ is a large building inhabited by Bishops and priests whose sole pursuit is power and control and who don’t answer to any other authority. It is simply not true.
The Church as ‘Bride of Christ’ is not one of the models of Church promulgated by Avery Dullas SJ in his groundbreaking book.
Perhaps it is just as well as the historical imagery of ‘Bride’, as pure and unsullied, is hardly appropriate given the current travails of the Church.
But while in no way ignoring the enormous damage inflicted by predatory behavior and failure to tackle and acknowledge it, it is also a mistake to limit the definition of ‘Church’ by the ubiquitous sinfulness of its members, however damaging that sinfulness has been.
We, sinners and saints alike, are all charged to build the Kingdom of God in our lives and communities, a kingdom of grace and the healing power of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth McKenzie is a Melbourne writer.
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