Archive for October 10th, 2007

The Church as Failure

October 10, 2007


I do not always like conversations about the Church. It invariably becomes problematic. The Orthodox sound unbelievably hauty in our description of the Church, others are driven to defensive positions, and on it goes.

When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian).

Having offered a quick but depressing overview of the Church (which I could expand in any number of directions), let me be quick to say that there is something for us to understand other than how badly we’ve done with what Christ has given us. I believe the “failure” of the Church is itself a revelation: the failure of the Church is the result of man’s efforts to do what he cannot do. The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.

In earlier postings on the “ecclesiology of the Cross” I have argued that the Church can only be the Church if it embraces the emptiness and self-offering of the Cross. I stated there and believe that the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church presumes this inherent weakness and that whenever we resist the self-offering of the Cross, Orthodoxy gets messier and messier.

I would extend this to the entire Christian world (since the Cross certainly extends that far). I believe the claims of the Orthodox faith. But having said that, I also believe that there are many faithful Christians who are not Orthodox but whose Churches have in no way escaped the failure that has encompassed us all.

This is not an argument that says, “We’re all messed up, do the best you can,” though sometimes that is a temptation. But it is a call to look at failure for what it is and not be afraid to call it by its name. There will be failure in all Christian lives whenever we seek to live apart from Grace.

Promised definition: Grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. Only His life dwelling in us and doing in us what we cannot do will save us. That’s the simple truth, and the right reading of Grace in the Scriptures.

If we use the Church as a Bible (St. Paul called us “his epistle written in the heart”) then we have to say the message is garbled and in need of correction. I am the last person to call for Reformation of the Church (we’ve had too much already). It’s not reformation that the Church needs. It’s the reformation of Christians that is sorely lacking.

My own life, as I examine it daily, is wracked with failure. Anyone who makes confession in any frequent fashion will have to agree with me and say that their own life is no better. But the Gospel to us and to the Church is that God has come to redeem our failure. It is not the Reformation that needs justification, it’s our justifications that need reformation.

Nearly 10 years ago I entered the Orthodox Church after having been an Episcopal priest for 17 years. I had invested my life in what was a failure and an increasingly worse failure. I did not become Orthodox in order to escape failure – but in order to heal the failure that was me and to share in Christ’s healing of the whole human failure. I did not then think that Orthodoxy had somehow escaped the failure that had overtaken us all – but rather that it still taught the fullness of the medicine of immortality – Christ’s own remedy for the failure that has infected our race, and that its sacraments and way of life were indeed that medicine. I still believe that and moreso. But when we say that the Church is a hospital, we are confessing that Christ is the Great Physician and that all the rest of us are patients (priests included).

I do not confess the failure of the Church with sadness, but with frankness, because unless I confess this fact, I will delude myself into some sort of religious madness and begin to think myself a physician instead of a patient. It’s a dangerous thing to put the patients in charge of the asylum.

Thus, as one madman to another, I invite you into the honest conversation of our failure. I believe I have seen the cure, but I don’t think I’m cured.