St Andrew’s Croydon

Sunday 14th August 2005

Two Sermons on the Nature of the Church

No. 2: I Believe in a… Catholic and Apostolic Church

Last Sunday we considered why it could be misleading to think of the Church in terms of this or that particular building – St Andrew’s and St Michael’s in Croydon, or St Stephen’s and St Mary’s in Lewisham for example.

Misleading, because the actual buildings are the least important thing about those churches. What matters far more, and what is much closer to the meaning of the word ‘Church’ in the Creed are the people who meet together in them week by week and day by day. Those people are ‘the Church of God in this place’ in a far more permanent sense than the buildings in which they happen to meet.

We went on to see how the Church, in its one-ness and holiness is trying to become more like a piece of string or a length of knitting wool. Each of these, you remember, gets its strength from the individual strands which make them up having been firstly ‘carded’ – that is, all made to face the same way – and then spun together into a single strand whose strength derives from the communion which each of the individual strands has with the others.

* * * * *

This morning we shall consider what those two other words in the Creed, Catholic and Apostolic mean when they refer to the Church of God on earth. Remember how we saw that the Church on earth often falls very far short of both the One-ness and the Holiness which it is intended by God to be striving for? Well, don’t be surprised to find that in the matter of being Catholic and Apostolic, the Church on earth doesn’t manage her affairs any better. But lest you should think that this is a modern problem, let me suggest you read the letters of St Paul, written to the various churches which he set up round the Mediterranean on his three or more missionary journeys and you will gather from them that disunity is a fault-line running right the way through the history of the Church from Day One at Pentecost.

If you think this strange, just consider any other human organization with which you are familiar: your family, your neighbours, the firm you work with, the school you attend or teach in, the Borough of Croydon where you live, or the United Kingdom of which you are a citizen. Can you really lay hand on heart and say that every one of these institutions is absolutely perfect 24 hours a day seven days a week? Or if you have never experienced any of their imperfections, let me warn you that one day you are going to be in for a nasty shock! Admirable they may be, perfect not.

Why aren’t they perfect? Well, the root of the problem is the fact that they are made up of human beings, and human beings, by their very nature, fall short of the glory of God – sin in other words. And the way in which we are created means that our wrongdoing is never a private matter. Whenever we do what is wrong it inevitably has repercussions on everyone else.

When suicide bombers kill themselves, for instance, the damage isn’t limited to them. It affects hundreds and thousands of other people, most particularly the people whom they kill, their families, and the institutions and workplaces where they exercise their skills. Just as damaging, but in a different way of course, is the husband or wife who has an affair, a child who shoplifts or plays truant from school, or a grandparent who expects everyone else to consider only them.

The word catholic means almost precisely the opposite of this. Literally it means universal, all-embracing, united in purpose. Let me quote from the Appeal to all Christian People made by the Bishops at the 1920 Lambeth conference. They said:

‘We believe that it is God’s purpose to manifest this fellowship, so far as this world is concerned, in an outward, visible, and united society, holding one faith, having its own recognized officers using God-given means of grace, and inspiring all its members to the world-wide service of the Kingdom of God. This is what we mean by the Catholic Church.’

We shall come back in a moment to those words ‘having its own recognized officers using God-given means of grace’ when we come to the word ‘Apostolic’ because we believe that having Apostles was, from the very beginning, a key-feature of the Church as Jesus intended it to be. They are the recognized officers using God-given means of grace whose task it is to inspir[e] all its members to the world-wide service of the Kingdom of God. But for the moment let us concentrate on the word ‘Catholic’ with its triple meaning of Universal, all-embracing and united in purpose.

For something to be universal it must be available to everyone. A public road is, by definition, universal. Everyone may cross or walk along it. A public library may be used by anyone, whether they live in that district or not. The police are a public service, both in the sense that anyone may have access to them, and the police, in turn, have certain powers over, and responsibilities for everyone. A Norwegian on holiday in England is just as entitled to ask a policeman to help him find his way home as you or I would be if we visited Oslo.

On the matter of churches being ‘universal and available to everyone’, there are always some churchgoers who don’t understand this. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ is one reason. People will naturally choose a church where there are at least a few other people like themselves; and it’s equally ‘natural’ that the people in every church will reflect its neighbourhood. Churchgoers in a relatively poor neighbourhood will be different from those in a relatively affluent one; churches in the countryside won’t be just like those in the heart of a big city. Such differences can be good and creative – but only providing both Churches recognize each other’s catholicity, and not run away with the idea that other kinds of church are somehow less real than their own.

They had this problem in St James’s time. This is what he writes to one particular church which reckoned that there was no place for poor or ill-educated people within its walls. He says:

Never show snobbery. For instance, two visitors may enter your place of worship, one a well-dressed man with gold rings, and the other a poor man in shabby clothes. Suppose you pay special attention to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Please take this seat’, while to the poor man you say, ‘You can stand; or you may sit here on the floor by my footstool, do you not see that you are inconsistent and judge by false standards?. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?

There’s another reason why churches can, and should, differ from each other. Think back to the library. Many public libraries are general, but some specialise in one kind of book, medical, historical, artistic, or religious for instance. Likewise there are some churches which, under God’s guidance, have specialised in one sort of ministry – liturgy, healing, prayer, bible study or teaching for example. The problem arises when a church which has made a speciality of, say, music, thinks that every other church ought to be like them. They have forgotten that every church is designed to be part of a Catholic whole. Like a glass prism, splitting up God’s multi-coloured grace into its components, every church should shed whichever colour light God has been developing in them over the years. They should complement rather than despise each other’s ministerial gifts.

Ministerial gifts leads on to Apostolicity.. We believe in a Church which is meant to be Apostolic.

Jesus took particular care about who should be the leaders of his church. He chose twelve men whom he called ‘apostles’, (that means ‘messenger-men’) to lead his Church forwards and upwards after his Ascension.

Leadership is one of the building blocks of civilization. As humans we’ve got where we are now, not because we’re born with an understanding of how things work, or fail to work, in human relationships, but by learning wisdom from others. Parents, teachers, priests, lecturers and rulers each have the job of passing on what they themselves have learnt in their turn. In other words there is what one might call a follow-on effect, or ‘succession’, between one generation and another. Of the Church St Peter says ‘you are built upon the foundation of Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief keystone’.

In God’s Church this succession takes on a particularly important form, which is called The Apostolic Succession. Every single priest and bishop was ordained by a bishop, who in turn gained his orders from someone else, and so on, right back to the time of the Apostles. So it’s at least possible that both Fr Sylvia and I might trace our orders back to St Andrew himself. For those who like arithmetic, the chances are one in twelve that his orders and mine derive from the same apostle; and one in 144 that the apostle was Saint Andrew!

Now, either that matters or it doesn’t. Protestant churches have gradually abandoned this succession. However, the vast majority of Christians, Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) have carefully safeguarded this succession in the belief that it shows that the faith which we practise today is one and the same which the first followers of Jesus believed in – ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’. There’s no doubt where Fr Sylvia and I stand on the matter. We believe firmly in a church which is recognizably Apostolic in its orders.

So there we have it: God’s Church is meant to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Nothing less than this will do if we are to be built up together into a Holy Temple, the Body of Christ on this earth.Ho

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