Each issue, Sub-Dean Manoj Mathew Zacharia of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, answers questions of a theological or spiritual nature submitted from readers. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration for an answer in a future issue.
In “Growth in Spirit” (The Sycamore, Summer 2015), Dean Gail Greenwell wrote that one must be “in community” to be a Christian. Does that mean one must attend a worship service on a regular basis? Or can one be a Christian and live a life of integrity, committed to service and love of others, yet rarely attend a service of worship? What is the value and purpose of worship? —Marjorie Fox
One way to answer your question is to reflect on “who is a Christian?” Paul’s epistle to the Romans (10:9) offers a confessional definition of Christianity that is centered on proclamation and individual belief in the Resurrection. From this perspective, the requirements of Christian faith center on the individual practice of proclamation and belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The proto-church, known as The Way in the Book of Acts, offers that the most radical statement of Christian faith is the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”
Christian theology has always grappled with the notion of what constitutes Christian identity. One important stream of thought inspired by Vatican II and the World Council of Churches movement is that Christian identity is not historically fixed but evolving. Theologians who engage in reflecting about Christian identity continuously underscore the importance of context and its implications for understanding Christianity.
In Foundations of Christian Faith: Introductions to the Idea of Christianity, theologian Karl Rahner has gone to the extent of labeling those who are not self-ascribed Christians but engage in the work of love, justice, and mercy as “Anonymous Christians.” While Rahner’s label has the implicit problem of having an “identity” thrust upon people who may not want to be called “Christian,” I feel that Rahner points out that “Christian community” is more diverse and incorporates much more than what traditionalists understand such identity to be. From this discussion of Christian identity, I personally glean that Christian practice has both an individual and communal dimension.
The context of proclamation of Jesus as Lord, and the implications of living a life centered on the lordship of Jesus, is community. There are many ways to understand community. There are those who verbally proclaim that Jesus is Lord. Then there are those who live out the implications of Jesus’ lordship by centering their moral and ethical priorities on the core teachings of Jesus to move beyond one’s self and love God and neighbor rather than engaging in overt verbal proclamation of such lordship. (Some in this camp would even shudder calling themselves Christian, but live out the implications of love, justice, and mercy at what Rahner would call an “anonymous” level.) There are also communities that delicately balance the oral proclamation of Jesus as Lord through worship and engage in the implications of acknowledging Jesus as Lord through acts of love, justice, and mercy.
Here is where your specific question about regular church attendance as a Christian identity marker becomes germane. In the strictest sense, the answer to your question about whether one must attend a worship service on a regular basis to be a Christian is “no.” However, worship provides us with the opportunity “to unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments” (Book of Common Prayer, 857).
Worship is the means through which we are formed as Christians. While we can pray individually, there is the danger of solipsism if we pray by ourselves. At the individual level, one can be faithful in individual reading of scriptures and forms of piety. However, as I mention above, as a disciple of Christ, the Christian is commissioned to not only love God but also to love one’s neighbor. Loving our neighbor moves us from an individual relationship with God towards an outward expression of engaging with others. It is in community that we move beyond ourselves and live out the implications of community. Communities centered on faith are practical places where we can live out the “economy” of Christianity by experiencing God’s grace through the sacraments: Listen to God’s word proclaimed and made relevant through the power of the Holy Spirit in the sermon; reconcile when offering each other peace as a sign of passing on the reconciliation we received from God; and provide mutual support and comfort.
Generous Love: The Truth of the Gospel and the Call to Dialogue is a report from the Anglican Communion Network for Interfaith Concerns. In it, we find that our spirituality as Anglicans “maintains that the heart of our life as a Christian community is a meal for those who know themselves to be strangers and pilgrims upon earth.” If community provides us with “identity” and support for our journey, the questions becomes why wouldn’t we want to be part of the communal experience of worship?
At the Anglican Primates Meeting held at Lambeth Palace earlier this year, the Anglican Communion sanctioned The Episcopal Church for its position on same-sex marriage. Why is it important that we as The Episcopal Church remain in the Anglican Communion? ––John Dickert
In response, I would like to reframe your question to ask why the Anglican Communion is important for The Episcopal Church. My reply to you, as well as my passion about the Anglican Communion, revolves around issues regarding identity, understanding the nature of relationships, and being part of a larger vision of the Kingdom of God that lives out the mission of Jesus’ radical vision of wholeness and justice through collaboration.
The Anglican Communion is central to the identity of The Episcopal Church. Historically, it is the yearning to fulfill the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 “that (we) may all be one.” In addition, at the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in 1886 and 1888, we are called not “… to absorb other Communions, but rather (to co-operate) with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote charity which is the chief of Christian graces” (Book of Common Prayer, 876). Such a “visible manifestation of Christ to the world” sets the stage for the basis of the Anglican Communion.
The Nature of Relationships
To be in “Communion” is essentially about being in a deeply embedded relationship that understands the centrality of the deposit of faith as expressed through the Word and the sacraments. Being in relationship is fundamentally about being faithful to our relationship in Jesus Christ and to our devotion against division and strife. To be in relationship means not to totally absorb or be a carbon copy of the other, but to allow space for mutual dependence and growth. It is to engage in holistic conversation for conversion.
While acknowledging that relationships have their natural ebbs and flows, salvation history is centered on the restoration of relationship between God and creation. If the Church is truly to be the sign and symbol of the Kingdom of God, then we must be in relationship with each other. Genuine relationships are never intended to be hierarchical, but allow room for commonality of mission and the ability to express such a mission in deeply contextual (and sometimes extremely different) ways.
Anglican theology is very much shaped by “Incarnation.” Taken broadly, incarnation implies that there is a contextual nature of theology from which we engage scripture and tradition. Thus, the way we engage scripture is shaped by our context. As contexts are different, the manner in which we engage scripture will be different. However, the bridge that connects the deeply and potentially fractured readings of scripture is tradition. The breadth of tradition offers us a foundation through which we engage with each other substantively rather than through emotive responses.
Collaboration: Multilateralism versus Unilateralism
Being in the Anglican Communion is a way to collaborate within the family of churches to work for justice, peace, and the integrity of the entire creation, as called forth by the World Council of Churches in its 1983 Vancouver Assembly. As a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, we live out our Baptismal Covenant by working in collaboration with the entirety of the Anglican Communion on environmental matters, economic justice, refugee displacement, and other such serious concerns that affect us all.