The Appearance of the Ecclesial Body

Graham Ward’s name has long been inextricably associated with Radical Orthodoxy, and Radical Orthodoxy has generally been associated with fairly politicized concepts of the Church, having an affinity in this regard with Hauerwas and his school.  The church-as-polis concept, critics will point out, can have the tendency to cast too much weight on the institutional form of the Church, implying that as institution, the Church takes a political form to rival that of the State.  Certainly, given the fact that so many of the Radical Orthodox were Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or crypto-Catholic, it is not surprising to find this tendency in their ecclesiology, and critics have found reason to suspect that all the fancy new post-Vatican II language is only a thin veneer concealing what is at root an arrogant, legalist, and rigid neo-papalist political theology.  Or else, if this is not what is behind the veneer, the critic suzpects that in fact nothing is behind the veneer except an idealistic reification of some perfect community, transcending space and time, and yet somehow concrete enough to constitute a political presence.

The Church, the Protestant will want to contend, can only be a polis by a vague analogy, for whereas a fixed institutional form is of the essence of a political body, it is not for the Church.  The Church is the communio fidelium, a congregation of believers which has a political presence only in the dynamic action of Christian people through whom Christ takes form in the world and challenges the injustice of the powers that be.  The Protestant critic, then, will be excited to find a rich, dynamic, congregation-centered ecclesiology articulated at the heart of Graham Ward’s recent The Politics of Discipleship, simultaneously effusive about the potentiality of the Church and yet honest about its fragile actuality.  I can’t help but quote in full this striking passage from the key chapter, “The City and the Struggle for Its Soul” (italics are mine):

“The church, then, as a body of Christians, is constantly active; it is a network of actors reaching into many different parts of city and rural life.  It is not only this collection of hymn-singing people, listening to the exposition of the Word and receiving that Word in the sacrament, but also a multidimensional, multigendered activity living continually beyond its means, transcending by grace all its physical, cultural, and historical limitations, bieng in relation, productive of relation, being in communion, productive of communion across both space and time.  The church is this body of action, this body in action that is both temporal and eternal, material and spiritual.  There is no body without this activity, for it is the body of Christ only in and through this continuous operation.  This great extensive Catholic body is not in the world or entirely of the world, but it is engaged in creating the world anew, reassembling the social.  A case could be made that the study of the church should not be called ecclesiology because this word suggests that there is an objective entity out there.  When we think about ecclesiology in this way, we reiterate the child’s mistake of thinking that the cathedral, the basilica, the minster is the church.  The object of studying the church is, rather, ecclesiality, in the same way the study of society is always the study of sociality.   Indeed, ecclesiality is only another form of sociality.  Neither the church nor society is there as such, as some uniform and foundational stuff.  The church is only what this body of Christians do.  Even the church as an institution is not there as such, as an object to be observed.  The institution is ‘made to appear’ through a series of social acts by various institutional agents: architects, stonemasons, carpenters, glassmakers, weavers of cloth, bankers, and bishops.  No one encounters the church as an institution.  We encounter this space, this use of land, this person or that, this artifact or that, this order of service or that, all caught up in a circulation of social activity, a circulation that is perpetually in motion and therefore perpetually subject to change.  The church—like the social, as the social—is achieved in the interactions of various agents (including objects such as a Communion wafer, a prayer book, and a parish newsletter).”  

This, I would submit, is already a pretty good start, but Ward goes on to sound even more like a good Protestant, emphasizing the disjunction between the church’s invisible identity and visible form, the relativization of the clergy, as ecclesiality is constituted by the actions of all believers, and the fundamental vulnerability of the visible Church: 

“This renders any notion of the church complex in several senses.  First, its boundaries are porous not simply because it is irreducible to insitutional frameworks but because there is only one panopticon position from which a judgment can be made concerning who is inside or outside this church, who is or is not acting in and as Christ in any particular situation.  And this panopticon position belongs to God alone.  Second, the church is characterized by being excessive with respect to both place and the evaluation of any act that occurs in that place. . . . Third, it is vulnerable because so much of what it does cannot be controlled by the church as an institution.  The gospel being preached in practices of piety cannot be patrolled—though it can be informed—by a catechism, by preaching, exposition, or admonition from those with spiritual authority and spiritual oversight.  The radical submission to Christ—not Protestant individualism . . . but submission to Christ in communion with other Christians living sacramentally governed lives, experiencing through suffering the disciplining of their desires by Christ—is exercised so far beyond the precincts of the parish and the priesthood that it is open wide to making mistakes, making compromises, being blemished.  This is the risk the church runs in being the church, but then, that is the risk of faith.  Even the church cannot save itself, and the operations of grace are not limited to the ecclesia.  Its vulnerability means that forever there will be need for confession, correction, repentance, and reconciliation.  This is what the kenotic life of being the church and what political discipleship entail.” 

How then does this porous, dynamic, non- or supra-institutional church become political?

“Only as the ecclesial body, so conceived, engages in civic sociality does it negotiate power relations and the flow of objects that maintain and create the circulations of the social.  It cannot prevent such an engagement, for it is itself a sociality.  It is only in this engagement that the transcendent values of the body of Christ—love, justice, beauty, reconciliation, worship, forgiveness, and so forth—are produced and promulgated.  In acting as the ecclesial body, it works to undo, forestall, and correct other activities not conducive to the transcendent values: injustices, inequalities, alienations, prostitutions, hatreds, envyings, idolatries, dominations, and so forth.”


Perhaps Luther and Radical Orthodoxy have found a meeting-point after all. . . .

2 thoughts on “The Appearance of the Ecclesial Body

  1. Kent Will

    Interesting quotations. How does this line up with something like Leithart's "Against Christianity"? I thought Protestants believed the sacraments functioned as the public rituals and visible (if not absolute) boundaries of the body. Of course sacraments don't equate to "buildings and bureaucracy" which seems to be Ward's definition of institutionality. But if the sacraments do have those effects on the body, surely the Church does have some kind of objectivity to it?This quote made me wonder a little: "There is no body without this activity, for it is the body of Christ only in and through this continuous operation." (Sounds kinda like an aurora borealis.) If the activity defines the body, then does the body wax and wane with our fervor? And what level of activity is necessary to constitute it as the body? I still prefer to think that Christ's body has objective reality in Christ, and is more or less visible on earth as it is more or less faithfully lived out, but the faithful living does not itself constitute the body.Or did I get the wrong tack here?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for asking, Kent. I haven't replied sooner not because it was a bad question but because this is a very good question, and I wanted to find time to answer it properly. I haven't yet, so I'll put out pieces of an answer, and hopefully have time to fill in the rest later (or perhaps Peter E. would like to come in and give more of an answer . . .).You are right to observe the tension with the sort of thing Leithart is doing in Against Christianity; of course, what Leithart is doing there is not classically Protestant, as I think he himself would be happy to admit. (That needn't mean, of course, that it is anti-Protestant.) Calvin and even more so Luther simply would not have spoken of the church in the kind of terms Leithart does in that book, and given their context, they woulda been nervous about a great deal of it. Now, where I'm at right now is, having once adopted Against Christianity as my creed, I now have come to see more clearly and sympathetically the classical Protestant perspective; but I haven't returned to Against Christianity in a long time to see exactly where I might differ from it now. Now, the sacraments do mark out the objective site of "ecclesiality," and they do also mark out, by and large, the boundaries of the visible Church, which is thus sacramentally, not juridically defined. However, the Reformers were more comfortable speaking of the Church as a creature of the word, rather than as a creature of the sacraments, because this made it more perfectly clear that the Church lives ec-centrically–her center of identity, her being, lies outside herself in Christ. The sacraments do give a certain objectivity to the Church, but not as something static with its own integrity; the Eucharist is repeated over and over week by week because the Church must always receive her life and identity anew from Christ. Eh . . . I hope this is making some kind of sense, but I know that is all rather vague.As far as your second paragraph–yes, I think you are right to flag this. Certainly here at least Ward is at danger of giving an overly anthropocentric account of the Church. And if this is so, then it goes against what I just said in the paragraph above and against Luther and Calvin. By all means, let's put the focus on the concrete action of the whole body of believers, instead of on the "Church" as some vague ideal or some reified clerical institution, but the focus must be on Christ acting through the whole body of believers, Christ making himself present and thereby enabling us to be his Body in the world. If the Church is constituted by our action, rather than Christ's, then we are in big trouble. I have no doubt that if you put this question to Graham Ward, he would immediately make all the necessary qualifications. However, if you suspected that his theology as a whole has too much of an anthropocentric and sociological character, you would certainly not be alone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s