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Christian community — what is it?

28 November 2007

I came across a blog post today that struck me as a strange inversion of what I have thought about Christian community.

I took an hour out of my time this afternoon and reread a large section of Thomas Merton’s outstanding spiritual biography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I was looking for a single sentence, and I finally found it.Merton is attending mass for the first time. He’s not yet a Christian or a Catholic. As he comes into the church, he comments that the people gathered for worship were there to pray and there was no sense that they were aware of one another. This, he says, is different from Protestant churches where it seems that everyone is conscious of being in a crowd and has half an eye on the other people present.

I wanted to find that sentence because, as far as I know, it’s the single instance that I recall of even a moderate criticism of Protestantism in Merton’s writings.

This was not the main topic of the post, which was about proselytism of Christians by other Christians, but what struck me as strange about it was that both Merton and the author of the post seemed to regard Western individualism as a good and praiseworthy thing, and any manifestation of Christian community (kinonia, fellowship) as a bad thing.

It was opposite to what I expected. I would have expected Protestants to be criticised for their lack of community, and Catholics praised for the communal action of the liturgy.

But then I cast my mind back to the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (and Anglo-Catholicism) of my youth. And Protestantism. I attended Protestant services where the central feature of the building was the pulpit, and read in magazines that this architecture was deliberate, to create a kind of one-to-one relationship between speaker and each individual member of the audience. And it was an audience, not a congregation.

And in “Catholic” churches, whether Roman or Anglo, people fiddled with rosaries and said private devotions while the service was going on, and some people encouraged it, though some liturgical reformers said that that obscured the corporate nature of liturgy.

When I was banned I was prohibited from attending any “social gathering”, that is to say, any gathering at which the persons present also have social intercourse with one another. This became a much discussed legal point. Were banned people allowed to attend church services?

The matter was resolved, to some extent, in a court case, in which someone was charged with breaking his banning order, and the question turned on the definition of a “gathering”. The person charged was aquitted, because the court ruled that the people he was with had some together with a common intention, but not a common purpose. A gathering needed a common purpose.

In that sense, a bus queue is not a gathering. People have come to the bus stop with a common intention, to catch the bus. But they do not have a common purpose. People going to see a movie have a common intention, to see the film, but they do not have a common purpose.

And it appeared that in the eyes of the law a church service was like a bus queue or a film show. The people who came together were an audience, not a congregation, and so a church service was not a gathering within the meaning of the Act.

Now with all due respect to Thomas Merton and Internet Monk, that may be good law, but it is bad theology.

My first real encounter with Orthodoxy was on a course on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students at the World Council of Churches study centre in Bossey, Switzerland, followed by participation in the Holy Week and Pascha services at St Sergius Institute in Paris. And what struck me about it was precisely the opposite of what struck Merton in the Roman Catholic Church.

At the Paschal (Easter) service the priest came out and stood in the middle of the church and held the cross. The deacon kissed him and the cross, then stood next to him with the ikon of the resurrection, and every member of the congregation kissed the priest, the cross, the deacon and the ikon and each other, and this went on for about 40 minutes until everyone had kissed everyone else. I have described this in more detail and what it meant to me in my other blog at Notes from underground: The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism.

It made a profound impression on me as a visible expression of Christian community, and it was followed by the reading of the Paschal homily of St John Chrysostom, which said it all.

A few years later Anglicans and Roman Catholics introduced “the kiss of peace” into their ordinary Sunday services, but it wasn’t quite the same. At first I thought it was a step in the right direction. It was moving away from individualism and expressing more of the church as the body of Christ, as a community. But as time passed, it seemed to be more shallow. It was more of a touchy-feely togetherness at a purely human level. The difference between that and the Orthodox Paschal kiss was that the latter began with kissing the cross and the ikon of the resurrection and the book of the gospels. It was not just fellowship with one another, it was fellowship with one another in Christ.

Since then I have been at many Paschal services in different Orthodox Churches, and have found that Orthodox in the diaspora have also been affected by Western individualism. In many parishes people greet only their friends and relatives, in haste, and dash off to feed on gut soup without waiting to hear the words of St John Chrysostom, or to receive the Holy Communion that is the seal of our fellowship in Christ. Only a few have matched the joy and wonder of that initial encounter with the fair and radiant festival at St Sergius in Paris.

So I’m not writing this to proselytise, or to criticise Protestants and Roman Catholics and say Orthodox are better. Orthodox are often just as guilty of losing the sense of Christian community. But I do find it strange to read that the lack of a sense of Christian community is a praiseworthy thing.

Christian community is neither individual, nor collectivist, but communitarian, as Roman Catholics like Dorothy Day have pointed out. And the loss of it is something to be mourned, not praised.

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