Presented by Archbihop Drexel Gomex on behalf of the Province of West Indies.
I. Holiness in Truth and Life: the Early Church and the Church’s mark of Holiness
The holiness of the Church has been a matter of confession from the earliest days of the Christian community. Already in the early 3rd century, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition contains in its (more ancient) baptismal creed the question, “do you believe in the holy Spirit and the holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” The context of the Tradition describes “holiness” primarily in terms of purity of life, and the “holy church” would seem to refer substantively to a community that is characterized by a membership living in a manner conformable to Christian teaching. Certainly, such a view of the Church’s membership as based on “pure” manners – bolstered by a sense of sin as a “contagion” within the membership – fed the vision of someone like Cyprian and others of his era that sought unity on the basis of common sanctity. And the notion of sanctity itself, as was earlier examined in great detail by e.g. Origen, was firmly rooted in and consistent with the Old Testament understanding of holiness as reality and form of life “separated” for God in dedication and character.
By the time the phrase was formalized in the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed of the 4th century – the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” – ecclesial holiness connoted a belief in the Christian Church as both teaching the truth of the Gospel with integrity and living it fully within the lives of her leaders through the communal discipline they extended. The doctrinal struggles of the era had delineated true confession as something bound to a holy life. The “holy fathers” of the synod were so characterized because of both their teaching and their suffering for the truth in purity. (Hence, the “apostolicity” of the Church – a life that followed the apostles’ in word and deed—was deeply implicated in her holiness.)
But this unity of holiness – truth and life together – became separated in later emphases and definitions. Already Rufinus, in his famous commentary on the Apostles’ Creed (c. 400), speaks of the Church’s holiness almost exclusively in terms of her “true” confession of the Son’s divinity, and of a proper Trinitarian outlook. The Church who teaches the truth about Jesus – that names Him properly as “Lord” – is the “holy” Church and can be distinguished by this proper naming.“Holiness” of life, on the other hand, came to be a mark associated with individual Christians, rather than with the institution’s formal shape as a whole. And by the Middle Ages, fed by the identification of the Holy Spirit as Caritas (love) itself, holiness became a kind of particular possession, exhibited apart from the Church’s common life as a whole. It was often associated with the exhibition of specific “gifts” and “fruit” of the Spirit (enumerated in e.g. 1 Corinthians 12 and Galatians 5); while the “holiness” of the Church, on the other hand, became lodged in the structures of her order – increasingly the Pope, but also bishops and synods— that were able properly to guard the forms and discipline of the faith.
II. Reformation Distinctions and Contrasts
“Holiness”, according to the creedal list, still stood as a standard mark of the Church during the 16h-century divisions, and was accorded importance as such among both RC’s and Protestants. But the original unity of “truth and life” was never regained until recently, and vying Christian groups tended to play off of the various singular referents to the “holy” that had evolved in the previous centuries: teaching, behavior, structures of order, individual sanctity. In particular we find that Protestants identified the holiness of the Church in terms of the person of Jesus rightly believed in and confessed by Christians, while the Catholics saw the Church’s holiness in terms of the structures of the Church attested to by the witness of particular “saints”. All this represented a kind of pulling apart of the holiness of Jesus from the holiness of those people who follow Jesus.
During the Reformation and immediately afterwards (cf. the Controversies of Francis de Sales), Roman Catholic apologists claimed the Roman Church as “holy” primarily in terms of her institutional integrity, a separation from which (by e.g. Protestants) left one “outside” the Church’s salvific (and hence sanctifying) power. The holiness of the Roman Church was, in turn, “proven” by the presence within her membership of “saints” gifted with the witness of miracles (healings, levitations, etc..), which Protestants could not themselves perform. The Counter-Reformation saw a rush in canonizations. In brief, the holiness of the Church – so Roman Catholics argued – was exhibited in her miracles, which themselves demonstrated the spirit-filled and spirit-led character of her institutions (Pope and bishops).
Protestants, by contrast, saw the Church’s “holiness” as bound to the reality of Christ’s justification of the sinner, which is apprehended by faith alone. Christ “justifies the ungodly”, and hence the only substantive holiness at work in the Church’s life is Christ’s own, not that of the individual believer. “The Church is holy because Christ its Head is holy” (the 17th c. Lutheran J. Gerhard). To be sure, the believing Christian is truly “sanctified” by faith in Christ (“the Holy Ghost sanctifies believers by applying to them, through faith, Christ’s holiness, working inner renewal and holiness in their hearts”), but Protestants differed on how visible would be the character of Christ’s righteousness as it was appropriated within the sinner’s life. Reformed Protestants, for instance, linked the Church’s holiness to the (invisible) “election” of her true members, which granted a kind of future assurance of final sanctification. While on earth, however, the actual evidence of the Church’s holiness lay in right doctrine and in the proper administration of the Sacraments. This need not be expressed in a wooden way, however; as Karl Barth points out I his commentary on the creedal mark of holiness, living “under the Word” is a constantly dynamic and ever-changing way of life, even if it is often spoken of in terms of “doctrine”. Other Protestants, in any case, came to lay greater stress upon the experience of the “heart’s renewal” through Christ and his Spirit, and holiness became tied to forms of devotion, piety, and interior sensibility now commonly found in some Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.
Anglicanism fell somewhere to side of these contrasting emphases, because of its Augustinian commitments as a national church which was bound to include all Christians within the realm as part of “the Church” (see Pearson’s treatment of this in his famous exposition on the Creed). What Augustine saw as the reality of the Church on earth as a “mixed body” of the elect and reprobate together, whose distinguishing was often impossible in practice, Anglicans took up as a kind of vehicle for holiness of life. The “holy” Church was the one that provided the gathered people (good and bad) with the formative means for sanctification and that did so through the maintenance of lived unity and even uniformity of devotion. Not only was right doctrine and the proper administration of the sacraments critical to marking the Church as holy, as other Protestants claimed; but submitting to the order of the church’s common life— in prayer, worship, discipline, and study – became the hallmarks of ecclesial sanctity. Holiness was a “way” of living “together”, and Anglicans rightly became the Christian tradition for whom “communion” was viewed as the embodiment of holiness and in which “common prayer” according to common forms was viewed as embodying the “one mind” and “heart” commended by the Apostle (e.g. in Philippians 2:2).
Recent Roman Catholic teaching – e.g. the Universal Catechism – has attempted to bring together again the various aspects of ecclesial holiness that marked developing Christian traditions through the Reformation – the institutional, the individual, the doctrinal. But this reintegration has been difficult, especially in the face of the Church’s manifold and manifest failures in all these areas especially in the 20th century; and a coherent understanding of the Church’s holiness remains one of the great challenges to all Christian traditions in our day. How would one attempt to outline such an understanding, especially given the ways in which standard claims for the Church’s holiness have been so undercut by the evidently “unholy” divisions, disagreements, and debased living among so many Christian churches over the past century?
III. Scriptural Understandings of the Holy Church
The New Testament itself provides such an understanding. It upholds what became the Protestant view of the Church’s holiness as deriving essentially from Christ’s own; but it also sees this “derivative” holiness as taking an embodied shape in the life of individual Christians through their participation in Christ’s own form of life; and finally, this participated life is given contours precisely within the corporate Church, in its internal relations and through its witness to the world.
The call to holiness as a call to participation in God’s life stands as the initial ground of the Old Testament’s discussion of holiness. In Exodus, for instance, the very first command that flows from the mouth of God at Sinai, the preface to the whole giving of the Law, and the outline of Israel’s future is expressed in terms of “holiness”: “you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5f.).
This promise of holiness is absolutely fundamental to the entire Scriptural understanding of Israel’s very purpose. “You will be holy as I am holy”, God says in Leviticus (19:2). It is a command paraphrased by Jesus himself (cf. Matthew 5:48) in terms of “perfection” in the Sermon on the Mount. And the exhortation to holiness by God speaks to a special vocation – this is what one is called to, this is one’s divine purpose and destiny.
But to what end? If what is “holy “ is “separate”, it is separated for something, not primarily from something: it is separated, of course “for God”. God alone is holy (cf. Rev. 15:4; Exod. 15:11): and therefore any holiness we might have can only derive from our being with God. This is one aspect of the entire thrust of the New Testament: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”, Paul asks at one point (1 Cor. 6:19), stating the critical Christian claim that in Christ, the very “holiness” of God “dwells in you” through the Spirit (cf. Romans 8:9-11). “If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). God makes us his home. Holiness, in other words, has to do with closeness, with intimacy, with the indwelling of God Himself within us, that actually forms and shapes our life into a particular being with particular ways of life.
The indwelling of God in our lives, our bodies, our beings, actually constitutes holiness, because through it – if we receive it, if we receive it with open arms and welcoming hearts – we “become like” the One who has “set his tent” among us (John 1:14). St. Paul addresses his congregation, in a remarkable passage, “my little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed within you!” (Galatians 4:19). That is his prayer, his hope, his vocation as a minister to others: that “Christ be formed” within them. This is the “rich” and “glorious mystery”, he writes elsewhere: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
And to be a “holy people”, then, is to come to resemble Christ Jesus, who would dwell within us. In Exodus the reason that the call to holiness comes as a preface to the giving of the Law by Moses is because, in fact, the Law “looks like God” when it is actually lived. That is why the Law was given – to form the people of Israel into the image of their Creator. And Christ came to fulfill the Law’s purpose in this regard (John 1:14; cf. Romans 10:4) – Himself taking the shape of the Law and becoming the empowering infuser of the Law’s reflecting form of God.
Jesus himself is proclaimed by the earliest Church as “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14; cf. 4:27, 30). This is Peter’s confession: “You are the holy one of God” (John 6:69). And he alone is affirmed by Paul as “our righteousness and sanctification” (1 Cor. 1:30). Paul later describes this in terms of Christ’s own offering of the Church as itself “holy and blameless” before God (Col. 1:22). This is not something that is given only as a promise for the future however (a move made by later Protestants especially, in part as a way of dealing the Church’s evident shortcomings) – i.e. “holiness” is not primarily an “eschatological” mark of the Church; rather, it is a calling that is embraced even now, through the baptismal adherence of the Christian to his or her confessional vow to discipleship. Hence, St. Peter takes up the Old Testament notion of Israel as God’s special people characterized by holiness (cf. Exodus 19:6; Lev. 19:2), and applies it to the church, as a temple of “living stones” “built into a holy priesthood”, herself offering “spiritual sacrifices through Christ”, and established by God as “a holy people” (1 Peter 2:4-9).
In all this, however, the holiness of the Church is given as she is somehow bound to and lives as “the body of Christ” (cf. Col. 1:18, 21ff.). This is the obvious way the New Testament resolves the contrast of “Christ alone is holy” and “Christ’s people are holy”. Peter clearly links the holiness of the people of Christ to the following of Christ’s own form of life (1 Pet. 2:21) which is given somehow in partaking of the same sufferings as Christ did in his “flesh” (4:1-4). It is only on this basis that the various particular forms of “holy living” – including various moral demands – are to be seen as themselves participating in the holiness of Christ; for all of them add up to a kind of “suffering” for righteousness’ sake in the midst of a hostile world. Paul, of course, makes much of this “body participation” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15ff.; 2 Cor. 4:7ff.; Gal. 6:17; Phil. 3:10 etc.).
It is in this context, as well, that the “new creation” that marks the Christian’s baptismal life “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17) takes on the particular contours of behavioral detail. Joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian lives not only the “new nature” of Christ, with all of its aspects of radical holiness, but this new nature takes its form in particular in terms of relational virtues (cf. Col. 3:3:1-17). Purity of life in honesty, forgiveness, humility, love and even sexual self-control and marital fidelity represents the “way of Christ” with one another as persons living in the form of Christ towards one another (cf. also Eph. 5:21ff.). (This is why the current debate over sexual holiness cannot be seen as somehow marginal to the life of the Church’s communion.)
For, of course, it is the life of the Body as the Church corporately made up of mutually serving and subjected individuals, that is, above all things empowered by the Spirit of holiness itself (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12), who is the great animator of the Church. The “life of the Holy Spirit”, in this light, pulls together moral rectitude, ecclesial discipline, and purity of mind in the very act of being joined with Christ in his “unblemished self-offering” to God, which stands as the epitome of holiness itself (Heb. 9:14). The Church is holy, that is, as she lives the life of the “martyr” of Christ Jesus (Rev. 20:4-6), not suffering merely in pain, but in the confession of the true faith in the “word of God”, witnessed to as a “body” of living members whose lives towards and with one another expose Jesus to the world’s view.
The notion of the “martyr” – the Christian “witness” unto death – did, in fact, come to articulate the early Church’s sense of holiness in its fullness. And it rests solidly on New Testament affirmation: Acts 22:20; Rev. 2:13; 6:9; 17:6; 20:4, where beheadings, slayings, and dyings “for testimony” to Jesus and “for the word”, in the present day, were seen as unveiling in the end a true holiness to be established for all eternity. In this sense, the “eschatological” and promised holiness of the Church is founded on the historical acts of discipleship in the present, and cannot be separated from the temporal sufferings of Christians as they live faithfully within the Church as the Body of Christ, and within the world as someone before whom they offer witness to Jesus.
IV. The Martyr Church as the Holy Church in Mission
In an era of divided churches, and often competing confessional details, the reality of the holy martyr has been seen and celebrated as the great demonstration that the Church is truly “one” and hence not an abstract fiction. It was John Paul II himself who, in his great Encyclical on Christian unity – Ut Unum Sint – asserted that the fact and experience of martyrdom overlept the separations of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox through the evident witness of the Holy Spirit: “Despite the tragedy of our divisions, these brothers and sisters have preserved an attachment to Christ and to the Father so radical and absolute as to lead even to the shedding of blood… the communion between our communities, even if still incomplete, is truly and solidly grounded in the full communion of saints… a proof of the transcendent power of the Spirit” (par. 83-85). To be “in Christ” to such a degree of historical conformance as death for Jesus’ sake is to unveil the true and real character of the Church of Jesus, otherwise overlaid and eclipsed by human sin; it is, literally, to allow the Church to let Jesus “shine” through her, to thereby “witness” to His holiness above all things.
The fact is, that in the 20th century, as the Church has been beset by increasing division and often brutal contradiction of Jesus’ as Lord (from the Balkans to Central Africa to the United States), she has multiplied her martyrs, more than in any century previous. To this degree, she has remained holy. (See the fine overviews by Paul Marshall [Their Blood Cries Out, 1997] and Robert Royal [The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, 2000]) Yet few of these acts of witness were prepared for, certainly not sought after, and most are unknown; they were gifts truly given of the Spirit in unexpected grace. Yet the Church of the next century cannot afford simply to presume upon such divine generosity. It is in the steps of this holiness that the Church is called, far more explicitly and deliberately, to step out into the future if she is to let what is “hidden be uncovered” as her Lord promises. The Church’s holiness is her mission to witness to Christ even into the form of his life and death, so that “the power of Christ may rest” upon her (2 Cor. 12:9) and “life may be at work in” those she loves and serves, the world itself (4:12). How shall we describe this mission and the features of the Martyr Church in her holiness?
The Martyr Church is characterized at based as a Body, not existing to accomplish her own ends, but given over “for” something else. The “for-ness” of the Church is critical to grasp in an era when so much, religion included, stands as instruments for the self-service of individuals in search of worldly aggrandizement. The holiness of the Church, in particular, will always spring from the Church’s life “for” something else: for Jesus, for his word, for his people, for his world. This will necessarily embrace an array of doctrinal, moral, and political commitments on the part of the Church – one’s that can be enumerated according the Scriptures’ own teaching, or often inferred from it in the context of particular circumstances. But always this breadth of commitment will be undergirded by the reality of Jesus as the living One whose life and the shape of whose life is to be taken on as one’s own, assumed as a “new nature”: “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24); “put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and… forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you… and above all these, put on love” (Col. 3:12ff.).
V. Missionary aspects of the Martyr Church
It is not possible to systematize the form of this “new life” as Christ’s assumed body; but there are central elements that the Holy Church as the Martyr Church must always pray for, strive after, be judged by, and humbly receive. They represent essential aspects of the Church very mission. Some of these aspects are ones that Anglicanism has received as a gift; some are ones that she must seek to have planted in her midst and to grow in.
– martyrdom has always been bound, not to an innate sense of triumph, but to the repentant heart that knows only the triumph of forgiveness in one’s own life. This stands as the basic ground of accountability for the Church and the spring for holiness itself. Paul saw himself as the “foremost of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), and it was this ever-present sense of self that allowed him to receive the grace of Christ. The early Church, furthermore, placed as a test of the true martyr not only his or her death for the Christian faith, but the accompanying forgiveness of his or her persecutors, in the manner both of Jesus and the first martyr Stephen (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). This placing of oneself in the same position of needed repentance and forgiveness as one’s enemies still stands as an essential mark of holiness. Only a penitent Church can give true witness to Jesus. This is especially true in an era when the sins and corruption of the churches is both blatant and well grasped by the world at large.
– martyrdom has always embodied the farthest extent of human reliance upon the power and grace of God, letting go of life itself for the receipt of God’s pure sustenance even in death. Paul’s “counting as loss all things” “for the sake of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” as his “Lord” (Phil. 3:8) is precisely what allows him to hope for the “sharing of [Christ’s] sufferings” (3:10). This represents the means by which God’s power is unveiled before the world: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 13:9). Only the “weak” Church, dependent in all worldly aspects upon the grace of God, can demonstrate the “power” of holiness before the world’s eyes.
– martyrdom has therefore always been embraced in the utmost freedom of the spirit: one gives one’s life away willingly, as an embodiment of the supreme liberty by which the follower of Jesus has been set loose from the slavery of sin, subjection to the things of the world, chained to concerns for the self. If “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), it is nonetheless a freedom from the self and for others: “for you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Gal. 5:13). The service and subjection of love is sovereignly free; but it finds its term always in “giving away” one’s own life. This, indeed, is the very power of holiness at work; for it represents the Holy Spirit “blowing where it will” and leaving in its wake the fruits of the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:22f.), “against which there is no law”. Only a Church that is free to give all away – her status, her power, her goods – can willingly make the journey of holiness through the world’s barren places.
– martyrdom’s freedom, however, has always been most clearly expressed in the unconstrained proclamation of the word of God. Paul writes from his prison cell, “remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel, the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered” (2 Tim. 2:8ff.). God’s word speeds forth from the mouth of the Church as the Gospel “preached”; and though this may bring with it the wrath and violence of the world, it is the very power of the word preached that loosens the bonds of all who are held captive and yearn for the redeeming grace of God (Luke 4:18ff.). The New Testament’s description of martyrdom has this element consistently exposed: the “witnesses” to Jesus die “for the word of God” (cf. Rev. 6:9; 20:4-6). Only a Church that will preach the Gospel always and in all places is in a position from which the sanctifying power of the Spirit can be unleashed into the spaces of an uncomprehending yet thirsting world.
– martyrdom’s “preaching” is not automatic. Although Jesus calls his followers not to be anxious as to their words of witness, whose actual form will be molded by the Holy Spirit’s action (cf. Mat. 10:19f.), the holy Church must be ever “readied” to articulate the Gospel of Christ. “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). The Martyr Church’s holiness, in other words, is given through training, study, and thus “preparation”. Paul’s own public witness was nurtured through a long period – over a decade—of formation and probably prayer (cf. Gal. 1:17-2:1), during which time he carefully studied the Scriptures in the light of Christ, and grew in his dependence upon the Lord. Only a Church that takes care to learn, to pray, to teach, and to form her own members, with all the resources of her own gifts, can expect her children to meet the test as God will give it through their encounter with the world’s hard opposition.
– martyrdom’s striving preparation is always geared towards shaping the Christian according to the form of the Word, who is Christ. This represents the content of the Gospel and of the way the Gospel is learned and shared. Immersion in the Word can, of course, take many forms. But it is given primarily in the common worship of Christ’s people and in the shape of their common life and relations. Paul speaks of the “indwelling of the Word” through teaching, praying, and singing (Col 3:16); he also describes the shape of the worshiping community in terms of the social ordering of mutually-subjected members of the Body, including marital and family relations (cf. Eph. 5:15ff.). Anglicans especially have understood how essential is the calling to worship “in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2, a phrase regularly applied to common prayer) and how family life itself is a “vocation to holiness” (Lambeth 1958, Res. 113). Worship and common life that is filled with the words and shapes of Scripture themselves become the strongest vehicle for the preparation of the Church. And only a Church that can maintain the Scripturally-infused character of its worship and common life can expect to be formed in the way that is readied for God’s holy demands and privileges. It is in this context (rather than in terms of an ethical code divorced from the details of Scriptural “conformance” to Christ) that the clear and wide range of moral concerns in “forms of life” – material, sexual, relational – come to bear for the Church. The Church zealously seeks a life of radical holiness by living with and as Christ to farthest extent.
– martyrdom’s “for-ness” – for Jesus, for his Word, for his people, and for the world – must lead the Church ever more deeply into a life lived as bound to others. “Greater love has no one that this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), says Jesus to his disciples, something that Paul then extends to the whole world of sinful creatures: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). What is often called the “communion” of the Church – or the “Church as communion” – is really the expression of the Church’s holiness as the Body of Christ that is “sent out” in order to be “given away” for the world. It is a gift that is formed and lived first within the Body – a giving away for one another, for one’s “friends” (and cf. Rom. 15:1ff; and, of course, Phil. 2:1-11). But it is finally fulfilled in the conformance of the Church’s life to the Father’s own gift of love for the world (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” – John 3:14). The world hears the Gospel most clearly as the Church “loves” “to the end” (cf. John 15:35; 17:21). Jesus is sent “for” the world. And only a Church that is “for” each other and “for the world” too can itself be “sent” on her holy mission to proclaim a word that saves. In this regard, the ordering of the church’s life in communion is both essential and finally a gift to be used for the salvation of the world. Communion is mission, because it embodies the holiness of God’s own work.
VI. The Anglican Church as a Holy Church in Mission
As the Anglican Church ponders its missionary calling in the 21st century, she is rightly asked to consider her vocation to holiness, given as both promise and gift. From her earliest inception, Anglicanism has understood herself to be, as a “church” among churches, something provisional. Her Articles of Religion enshrine this self-understanding by anathematizing anyone who thinks that he or she is “saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth” (Article 18), rather than solely by “the Name of Jesus Christ”. The specifically Anglican church, therefore, exists only for sake of something else.
This should rightly be viewed as a charter for her freedom to give herself away, to be martyred, to demonstrate the holiness of Christ Jesus as He sustains, uses, and redeems her and her people in the service of His own greater mission of self-giving. This has already happened with great effect in many parts of the world. But there is always the danger, especially in places of great conversionary success or increased wealth, that the church becomes settled, self-justifying and self-protecting. This inevitably leads to the loss of her sanctity. The Church is Holy as she walks with Jesus – He the Head, she the Body—the path of His own redeeming work, given in the Scriptures and exhibited in the history of His Cross and Resurrection.