And what is 'church'? Looking beyond institutional forms

June 18, 2002

I am frequently asked about "the state of the church." People who ask this question usually want to know about the health of the institution. While important, our institutional forms and patterns have but one purpose: to reveal Christ. As such the Church is a sacrament, revealing Christ as truly present in the challenges and complexities of our lives and the world in which we live.

When I was newly ordained, and wanting to do great things for God, I was brought up short by a wise older priest who warned me that once my fervor was spent I, like many others, would be exposed to the danger of becoming an institutional functionary. I took this warning very much to heart. While shaped and formed by that portion of the household of faith we call our Episcopal Church, I have always tried to maintain a critical spirit directed not only at the institution, but at myself as well.

Such is the divine irony that now I find myself the chief overseer of the very institution toward which I have maintained a critical stance over the years. Perhaps the fact that I have been called to become the Presiding Bishop - and in some sense therefore the sign and symbol of the institution - makes it even more important that the church-as-institution has never become an idol for me. My expectations of its capacity to reveal the gospel in all its glory are tempered by a sober realism born of 64 years of baptismal priesthood and 40 years of ordained ministry. I know the household of faith is made up of limited and sinful people, myself included.

Having said this, I also believe that the Church (with a capital C) in the biblical sense transcends notions of church-as-institution. The Church, understood biblically, is organic. It is always growing to maturity, always being conformed to the image of Christ through a continual process of repentance. It is never static because it is the risen and living body of Christ. Therefore, it is always discovering its true identity through the continual sharing of the sufferings of Christ in order to know the power of the resurrection. The fundamental dynamic of dying and rising, losing and finding is integral to its life.

I remember once talking to a deeply committed lay person who was having a painful reaction to a change in the life of his parish. With trembling voice he exclaimed, "I love the Episcopal Church!" My immediate reaction was one of discomfort. How dangerous, I thought. Did he love the institution? Or, through it, did he love the Risen Christ, the Lord of the Church, who constantly surprises us and unsettles us as we are drawn more and more into Christ's own work of reconciling all things in himself to God?

It is instructive to remember that many of the great saints, because of their profound and intimate companionship with Christ, sat loose to some of the institutional realities that for the majority of their contemporaries constituted the church. In fact they were often mistrusted and vilified because they were seen as threatening to prevailing views of ecclesial life. Their interior freedom and capacity to attend to the authentic motions of the Spirit saved them from perceiving the church as a sacred idol and kept them always able to see it as the risen body of Christ.

Saints and heroes of the faith, understanding human frailty, have always had the sober view of the capacities of the institution. Roman Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once observed that we are crucified by the church. What this shocking comment suggests to me is that within the life of the institution at any moment in its ongoing history the paschal pattern of dying and rising will find us out. The church does not so much serve to take care of us as it does to unite us to Christ and to oblige us to allow the pattern of Christ's own faithfulness - which took him to the cross and through it into the new reality of resurrection - to become our own. The church can be the fiery furnace in which we are purified and discover, as Paul tells us, that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Insofar as the church-as-institution reveals and mediates the presence of Christ in its members, in its proclamation and preaching, in its sacramental actions, and in its self-giving for the sake of the world, it is worthy of our deepest respect and affection. At the same time, we must remember that the church is always being reformed and conformed to the image of the Risen One. We as living stones are being built up into a spiritual house not of our own design but according to God's boundless imagination.

So, let us rejoice that we are more than an institution. Let us live the life that is ours in Christ with courage, hope and joy. Let us live in expectation that God will accomplish great things through us, not least of which is the healing of our world.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA