The church as unstable community

SuspendedA little note about being Protestant: One deeply Protestant conviction is that in this world there exists nothing wholly reliable, nothing immune from absolute vulnerability. And indeed the most vulnerable of part of it is the church –­ that community ever in diaspora, that community that has been thrust into ‘an unprecedented history’, a ‘continuous risky adventure with always hazardous improvisations’ (Johannes Hoekendijk).

To be an apostolic community is to experience a profound letting go, an unmastering, a dispossession. It is to experience oneself as the unstable bearer of a live question – ‘the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses … The Church’s … task is to preserve this questioning’ – to receive and to discover forms and practices of life and language that will ‘keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (Mike Higton).

It was this kind of letting go that informed Vincent Donovan’s conviction, in his work among the Masai people in Tanzania. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, understood the significance of not fixing the form of the church in advance, of not predetermining what the Christian community should look like. He had that deeply gospel-informed instinct that the missio Dei involves a quest for the emergence of the Word’s community in whatever forms and whatever shapes such might take. He understood that ‘because a missionary comes from another already existing church, that is the image of church [they] will have in mind, and if [their] job is to establish a church, that is the church [they] will establish’. But ‘the missionary’s job’, as Donovan put it, ‘is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he [or she] preaches Christ’, a ‘church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church [the missionary] had in mind’. (Little wonder he was not Rome’s best friend.) The missionary church must preach Christ, not the church. And the response – and the shape of that response – will be up to those who hear the message. They will have to do their own work, offer their own faithful responses to the Word they hear. The Word must have his own freedom to create or not to create whatever forms of community he chooses. And what he chooses might look entirely unfamiliar to all who have passed by his way before.

I am reminded here of Paul Tillich’s observation that ‘what makes Protestantism Protestant is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms’. One implication of this is that pilgrim communities stay awake to the truth that their strength lies in the knowledge that they are, in principle, weak and fragile and homeless. To be Christian community is to be, as Ben Myers once put it, continuously suspended over the abyss of nonbeing, upheld solely by the voice of one before whom we stand utterly exposed, and who continually calls us into new being. It is a community, therefore, that always puts safety last. It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

Rather than understanding its vocation as the extension or propagation of its own modes of being, the church’s vocation in and relation to the world is to be determined solely by its relation to the transposing and boundary-crossing Christ, the Word of its being. It is a community that ‘strives to show, to embody, the way in which the incalculable variety of human concerns can be “at home” in and with the confession of faith in Jesus. It does not seek to impose a uniform Christian culture or a preconceived Christian solution; it aims only to keep open and expanding the frontiers of the community as gift’ (Rowan Williams).

We are talking about a community that can never be completely at home and rooted anywhere in this world, a diaspora community constantly set out on a journey, opening itself up to the future; not any future, mind you, but the future of Jesus Christ. At every step of the way, it needs the forgiveness of its sins and the encouragement of the Spirit. In difficult circumstances, it will be a community that seeks, while sighing deeply, to do its task as well as it can in the expectation of the appearance of its Lord. Precisely so does it offer its witness in the world.

The fundamentally unstable nature of the community is an insight that is shared, it seems to me, by one of the early church’s greatest theologians – Mary. Mary reminds us of the pilgrim nature of being truly human – that one undertakes the life of faith, and indeed theology, with a sense of the agony of vocation, and with profound risk. Mary also understood that the smell of divine transcendence is not only born in unexpected encounters but that it is also ‘born in the guts’, literally. In Mary, we learn that the transcendent is imminent, closer to us than is our own breath and yet more foreign to us than our imaginations dare allow. Mary understood that the life of faith is undertaken by those who feel that they are being ‘pulled into God’s history’ and who have been ‘twisted by the shock of God’s visit’. And she understood that it is a life pursued in community with others, conscious that ‘the burden of vocation is too heavy to carry alone’. Mary also reminds us that faith ‘does not just give answers. It also asks questions’. And it ‘must learn to say “I don’t know”. It must learn to hear God saying that [God] owns the time’ (Valdir Steuernagel). She reminds us that faith’s vocations are undertaken not only in the wake of certain achievements but also in the confession of their own limits and uncertainties. The community gathered around her Son is a community whose life is marked by gut-wrenching ambiguity, a community that ever lives between Holy Friday’s experience of god-abandonment in death and the mystery of an empty sepulchre. It is a community that lives – literally lives, literally comes alive – in the experience of its own unstable dying, an experience in which the invisible Christ ­­– he for whom Holy Saturday is familiar territory ­­– stands among us, carrying us, and indeed the world, more deeply into God’s own movement of love and life.


  1. Reading this just now was balm to my soul today – thank you Jason…we had a rather tense AGM this morning…sadly more about who we are than who God is.


  2. @ Bruce – ‘Unstable even when it fights against its own instability’. Indeed, and thank God for that! We could pray for less wounds, however. ‘Lord, save us in the times of trial …’

    @ Bruce & Janet – I didn’t consciously make any connection with AGMs, events that would make much more sense were they marked by the consumption of bread and a big glass of pinot (and anything else that might assist accountants – and especially that miserable host of would-be accountants – that they are first and foremost brothers and sisters among brothers and sisters, a whole merry host of dysfunctional sinners). ‘Lord have mercy …’


  3. @ Bruce: In a forthcoming essay I’ve written on reformed understandings of semper reformanda, I cite the Dutch missiologist Hendrik Kraemer who attested that ‘Strictly speaking, one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it. The Church’, he continued, ‘ought always to be aware of its condition of crisis on account of the abiding tension between its essential nature and its empirical condition’. It’s a good statement. Would that more shared his convictions here.


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