I believe in the … Holy Catholic Church.
The Nicene Creed says, “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” To say “I believe in the Church” is acceptable to many of us. To say we believe in only One church, is also admissible. But to say, “I believe in the “catholic church” is a bird of a very different colour.
In our culture the word “catholic” has picked up connotations that causes many of us difficulties. It has come to be the abbreviation for “The Roman Catholic Church”. For this reason there are some on the Protestant side of the Church who want to drop this word altogether! Some versions of the creed have substituted the phrase “the Holy Christian Church” to avoid using the word “catholic”. There have been appeals made at councils of the church to change the word, so we don’t have to keep on explaining the word to ourselves every time we read the creed.
But it is a marvelous word, rich with history and meaning. Simply because one part of Christendom has taken it as their label does not mean the rest of us cannot use it. Some other churches call themselves “The Church of God” but so are we all! Some churches call themselves the “Church of Christ” but so are we all. Others call themselves the United Church and hopefully so are we all. And we are all catholic.
I am often accused of being a “Closet Catholic”. Those who say that are wrong. I am a catholic. There is nothing “closeted” about it. I am a Methodist catholic. (Watch the noun and the adjective!) Some of my Charismatic friends are Pentecostal catholics. Some are Baptist or Presbyterian catholics. All denominations, whether they acknowledge it easily or not, are branches of that great Church of God. I am a catholic.
So what does this ancient word mean? It comes from two Greek words “Kata” = “concerning” and “Olus” = the whole. It is a word that refers to the entirety of Christianity, the whole Church, and not any one of its parts. The word catholic means that God’s church is universal, as wide as the world and as broad as the universe, as deep as human history and as high as the heavens. This word is used to include all parts of the church militant and the church triumphant.
1. No restrictions
This has several implications. The first one is that the church of the Lord Jesus is never to be restrictive.
The word “catholic” means that God’s church is open to all persons regardless of colour, regardless of culture, regardless of race, age, language, education, gender, or background.
This was the reason for the fierce debate led by St. Paul when he insists that Gentiles may be included in the church as well as Jews. (Galatians 3:28)
It is why St. Luke, when he writes his Gospel and the Book of Acts, wants to let us know early that Samaritans can be part of the Church, as well as Jews, and that Prostitutes, publicans, and prodigals can be part of the church as well as those who are among the refined. It may also be why Luke makes the case for women as leaders of the church, as well as men. It may also be the reason Luke tells us of Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian Eunuch, two Africans of colour, who early followed Christ.
The word “catholic” also means that the church is not nationalistic. It is not a church for Israel alone, or Canadians alone, or Americans alone. That is one of the reasons that I find myself very uncomfortable with Churches who have a place of prominence in their sanctuaries for the national flag. In church we offer allegiance only to God and His Kingdom, and not any other. When a church wears a label such as “The State Church” such as The Church of England, or the Orthodox Church of Russia, or the Roman Catholic Church of Spain, and persecutes other church groups, it is failing to be catholic and has become sectarian and serves as an arm of the state. The church is a global community, and not a nationalistic one.
The word “catholic” also means that the church is larger than any one theological position. It means that God’s church has enormous variety of histories, perspectives, opinions, attitudes, and convictions. And all of them are part of the whole. One of the reasons for the great creeds was that there were some groups claiming to be Christians and yet who were jettisoning crucial truths about the faith. So the creeds were given as an outline of the few essentials, but they said not a word about secondary issues. There is not a word in those creeds for or against baptizing babies, speaking in tongues, the ordination of women, the meaning of communion, the style of worship, the inspiration of scripture, details about eschatology (end times), or the devil or the roles of angels. These are issues where the church can be of varying minds, and still be part of that great catholic church.
But the word catholic has another implication for today’s church. There is a trend within North American Christianity these days that disturbs some of us. There are some churches that are targeting the “Baby Boomers” or “Generation X” or “Post-modernists.” If the church programs its life to appeal to any one of these generations, it will attract many of this group. Targeting works! But its signals are unmistakable. “So who cares if the seniors don’t like it? They are a dying breed. The church is for the future. We don’t spend much time with children either. Get the parents and the kids will tag along.” Sounds efficient! But it has a false note too. It says some people are more valued by our church than others. It creates the church on too narrow a foundation. It causes parts of the church to insult or ignore other parts of the church. It tends to disconnect families where grandparents, parents and youth find themselves not worshipping God together, but worshipping God apart. This often exaggerates the divisions within the family.
Neither is the church to be a homogeneous unit with everyone being middle class yuppies, or everyone with an Anglo-Saxon name. Ah no! The church is to be a kaleidoscope of colours, and languages, and interests. The doors are closed to no one. Our arms are open to all. The Church catholic is a church that embraces all persons in all their variety.
2. The Larger Church
But the word catholic has another implication. It means that my local church is not the whole church, or the most important part of God’s Church. We are not a law unto ourselves. We belong to something much bigger than ourselves.
There are some congregations who bill themselves as “Independent Churches”. They say to me “We too are part of the One Great Church, but we do not want anything to do with any other congregation. We want to run our own affairs.” They belong in name only. They do not belong “in practice”. Their connection to the rest of the body finds very little demonstration. That is sad!
But most of our churches find themselves connected hip and thigh to the rest of Christendom. For that reason every local congregation is part of a district, which is part of a denomination, which is part of the wider family of Christian Churches. It is why we gather together in Conferences and Camp Meetings. We are a connectional church, glad to share life with the rest of the great church catholic.
The word catholic also says God’s church is wider than local interests, and for that reason the welfare of the whole of Christendom is to be our concern. That is why we support the church in places of famine, earthquakes, war and poverty. The World is our parish so we send out missionaries to the ends of our world. Charity may begin at home, but heaven help the congregation when charity stays only in the home.
3. The Mission of the church
The word “catholic or Universal” also has another meaning. We believe in a universal atonement. By that we mean that Jesus died for all persons without exception. The offer of salvation is to be made to all persons, and as long as there are those who are outside the Kingdom of God, our task is unfinished. We are to go to all the world and to every person and offer them Christ. There is to be no resting because we are “in”. We must be global in our passion and compassion. We are to be universal in our mission.
The church is out to convert the entire universe to God and Christ. We take seriously the dream that “righteousness would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” We work and pray that “all the kingdoms of this world would become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.” That too is what it means to be catholic in our Christianity.
4. Open & Closed Communion
There is another issue about being truly catholic. In some congregations and denominations of Christendom they have what is called “closed Communion.” This means that if you do not belong to their congregation or denomination, you cannot take communion in that place.
I confess that I have found that disturbing. There have been many times when I have been visiting the other parts of God’s family, when I have been asked not to partake because I do not belong. I feel a deep sadness of heart, because I do belong to the whole church, because I belong to God. And when I am dis-membered by any part of God’s family, I feel the walls that divide us made even higher.
My denomination at its very beginning declared its communion services “open”. Open to all who follow God. Open to anyone who professes to be a Christian?
And some of us want to go one step further, as John Wesley did and create a communion table “Open” even to anyone who desires to become a Christian. John Wesley knew that communion could be a converting sacrament as well as a confirming and cleansing sacrament. Communion could serve as a means of grace for even the non-Christian. It may well be the reason the communion rail serves as a place for an altar call.
And so, on any Sunday morning, when we take Communion, we should do so with the awareness that millions upon millions of people will eat from the Lord’s Table that very same day, and will participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As we eat and drink, we do so in company with an immense multitude of God’s people. We share in communion with God’s larger community.
So what does it mean to be part of the catholic church? It means that God’s church is wider than our own walls. We believe in One Church. And we’re not it. We believe in One Holy Catholic Church. And we are not it. But we are a part of that great church, and so are those who worship God differently that we do.
The front doors and the side doors of every one of our churches, should be an entrance not only into the building, not only into “our” church, but into that Great catholic Church that God in Christ is building in our time.