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Talk: Being Church - One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Thursday 7th March 2013
Lent Talk

Lent Talks 2013 - 3 – One Holy Catholic and Apostolic – set apart for mission  (common life in relation to the world)

We believe in...

This evening we are thinking about what it means for the church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It is a statement of belief (in the Nicene Creed), but also a way of life and a calling – with a purpose to share in God’s mission.

In Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going” a cyclist stops to enter an empty church.  He makes a gesture of awkward reverence as he removes his cycle clips. He contemplates the building, not knowing the names or meanings of what he sees, and considers what the future of the building, of ritual and belief will be. He considers its role at times of separation in marriage, birth and death.  The speaker ponders that:

... though I’ve no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie around.


Our church buildings are open as sacred spaces for silent contemplation; these serious houses here on earth hold our stories – of births, marriages and deaths; they are full of names of loved ones, brick-givers, past vicars, the great the good and the forgotten. They also hold and embody the Christian story – and its connection to a particular place over the course of time. 

The Report “Spiritual Capital” reflects on how the present and future of English Cathedrals lies in their ability to enable and sustain a range of connections – between tourist and pilgrim; between people and the traditions from which modern life cuts them off; between the diverse organisations and communities that share the same social and physical space and infrastructure yet never meet; and between a people who may be less Christian than their parents but are no less spiritual, and the God who made, sustain, loves and hopes for them to join Him at His table [p. 62]. 

That’s not a bad expression of the mission of our parish churches – especially at a time of austerity, we are able to offer stability and connections for those of all faiths and none, reflecting hope of the Kingdom in working with our local communities.  In part this weaving together narratives – not just as a way of embodying the past, but also as a way of fostering relationships and telling new stories – shaping the future.

In this sense, buildings are both places to pause in – places that testify to God.  They are places which we are called to interpret (in this place enabling people to go away with a sense of substance to the “wow” factor); they are resources for our mission, our worship, our learning, our dialogue, our knowing of one another and of God. 

But for us – the people of God, who worship and learn together – the church is not just a place where our compulsions meet.  There is an irony in Larkin’s poem: the Church goer is one who doesn’t go. Yet too often we too reduce the idea of being the church to “going to” something.  As we’ve discussed over the last couple of weeks – we are a people who abide in God and who are sent out into the world.   We are a people who know God in worship; who in his name and in the power of his Spirit, seek to cultivate certain virtues, or ways of being, in our common life.  Paul, as we noted last week, related his advice and guidance on this to the particular challenges, frustrations, gifts and potential of individual communities – being hospitable and generous, bearing burdens and encouraging one another; living in harmony and welcoming others.

When we gather for worship Sunday by Sunday, we declare that the church is something we believe in.  What might that mean?  What does it say about our understanding of the Church and its purposes?  The fact that this statement lies within our confession of faith says something important about God – about one another – and about our mission in the world.

Before considering what it means to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, I want to pause for a moment and ponder a little longer the sense of believing in the Church.  Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had what gets called an earworm – when a tune gets into your head and nothing seems to shift it. For me it was Kylie Minogoe’s “I believe in you”.  Random, yes; but not an unhelpful way into thinking about what it means to say we believe in the church – it’s a relational statement of trust.

Rowan Williams takes us back to the original Greek of the Nicene Creed - literally we believe the Church – and he makes the point that we don’t believe in the Church in the same sense that we believe in God.  In “Tokens of trust” he writes that the church isn’t another reality on the same level as the Father, the Son and the Spirit. But it is a community we can trust [p. 105].  We are to trust the church because of the sort of community it is: called to abide in God, called to a life of love, service and peace.  It can only be that sort of community because of the orientation of its life to God – shaped in word and sacrament – and because of its engagement in with the world – walking as pilgrim people, sharing in God’s mission.   Next week we will explore what it means to be members of Christ’s Body in terms of the gifts that we share.  This is a challenge call to unity and diversity.


So: a church called to be one. It’s an unavoidable biblical imperative.  The unity of the church is important to Jesus: may they all be one, he prays, as we are one. “One-ness” is also important to Paul – there is one body, one Spirit... one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Yet our experience of Church often feels very far removed from ideal.  If we look at the history of the church, we see a narrative of denominational splits – over doctrine, practice, cultural and polity (how the life of the church is organised).  We could spend several sessions looking at these issues in detail – MacCulloch’s “History of Christianity”, available on dvd as well as in print, offers  a comprehensive and accessible overview. 

If we look at our personal experience of church life, perhaps we glimpse something of the fragmentation, diversity, defensiveness – or even confidence – of one party over another.  We might wrestle with unity and diversity in relation to synod.  However, it’s interesting that within that debate, the one thing that wasn’t directly challenged was a statement edging into doctrinal heresy over the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity. 

To some extent, diversity has always been there.  In Acts we hear of different groups within the Church - Hellenists/Hebrews (6:1, 15:1-21).  In Paul’s letters, we read of a variety of tensions, debates about conduct, worship and material support.  We also read of a concern for the church’s presence within a particular geographical context (and across cultural differences) in regions (Gal. 1:15), cities (1 Cor. 1:2) and localities (Rom 16:5).  Added to this, historical and biblical conception of difference, we can add both cultural difference (the challenges of being a world-wide communion) and also personal preference (the erosion of a sense of attending the parish church, to a more consumerist choice – of attending the church that we like).

So firstly, what did Jesus actually pray for? And secondly, how do we live in the light of such a reality?  In John 17 (20-23) Jesus prays as follows:  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. Our one-ness is for the sake of those who respond to our testimony and witness.  The way we live – in our common life – serves the purpose of witness and mission.

He continues: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

We are to abide “in” God.  Our “oneness” is rooted in the life of God – in the love we receive.  But this abiding and oneness is a gift of God; something mysterious, something that is not a human construct.  It is something invisible; but also something made manifest in our witness and in our conduct towards one another. From God’s perspective, there is only one church – the company of our brothers and sisters in faith. 

Oneness isn’t a “thing”.  It is a quality of life and fellowship in Christ – it means loving as he loved; it is being agents of reconciliation (because we live as forgiven and forgiving); it is a unity of purpose – that the world may know the one sent by God.

This is a challenge to live out.  The life of the one universal Church is expressed in different ways. For example, mission-shaped church – a mixed economy; diversity of Anglicanism – 19th Century difference, yet commitment to one God; to a common purpose; and to a shared faith.  We see the working out of this within the Anglican Communion – reliant on means of building up trust and understanding (prayer, fellowship, scripture, Indaba in the Anglican Communion ‘a gathering for purposeful discussion’ which is mission focused).  The journey of ecumenism over the course of the 20th Century is an inspiration – and the work continues.  We celebrate and learn from one another; we bear the pain of that which still separates us in sacramental expression of our unity; but we continue to ask the questions and explore language and purpose together (the questions are about texts which reflect ecclesiological understandings of denominations; forming a basis for growth in unity; closer relationships in life and mission and further discussion/changes). This also has practical out workings – mission partnerships, local ecumenical engagement; many of which take place within this diocese.

What exactly do we mean by visible unity?  We are in a sense caught in between times – now and not yet – we long for the day when God will be all in all, when the fullness of his new creation will be revealed. Before then we are to live in respect and trust; common witness; delight in diversity; we bear the pain of not being in full sacramental unity; but rejoice in common baptism.  There have been shifts in ecumenical thinking – that although it does involve specialist theologians and those committed to formal processes it also spills out into the ordinary. Many clergy are trained in an ecumenical context (residentially and non-residentially) and my own thinking about the nature of the church has been as much shaped by my Methodist, URC, Quaker and Roman Catholic friends as Anglicans – indeed it was a great delight to take part in such a panel at SST.   Dialogue, relationship and common purpose are vital.  Our experience of diversity and ecumenism: challenge of how to handle substantial differences – witness to the world (Romans 15).

This is what Archbishop Justin calls us to. He spoke at General Synod about disagreeing in amity rather than enmity.  At a recent “Faith in Conflict” conference he said:  when we call on God he “calls us to his side as heralds of reconciliation”[K Barth]. There is a challenge to active co-operation with the life of God in our lives now. We live and we serve. He describes it as the crooked straight path – as we like the Samaritan go out of our way to respond in hospitality.

There are echoes here with what Paul says about unity, writing from his prison cell he calls the Ephesians (indeed he begs them) to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  4:1-6

Humility, gentleness, love, making effort – in the Spirit – are marks of hospitality.  They are also marks which bring us back to the quality of holiness that we considered last week.


Last week we touched on what holiness might be: that is it isn’t about perfection or cultivating an air of superiority. Instead it is about abiding in God in such a way that our lives can be reformed – indeed transformed.  This happens over a life time of worshipping and learning together – being refined in the face of divine holiness. 

When Paul writes to the early Christian communities he addresses them as saints. He writes to God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints; to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi; to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. We know from the practical advice and theological wisdom which he imparts in the letters, that he is not passing judgement on a group of people who lead stunningly good lives.  Holiness – sanctification, being numbered amongst God’s saints – is relational. 

We are “in Christ”; we are adopted children; we are in the words of Jesus’ prayer, friends.  In worship we share together as holy people in abiding in God, in communion with each other; we confront our failures and by God’s grace move forward together, step by step.  In Rowan’s words this ‘sharing between holy people’ isn’t some kind of club for the spiritually gifted; it’s simply the relationship that holds together those who recognize and express their adoption by God. And so this sharing becomes tangible and visible when Christians are together just breathing the air of Christ, making real in words and actions who they are in relation to Jesus [p. 112].

We are formed by our worship; we are formed by our attentiveness to Scripture; we are formed by our engagement with one another.  To be a holy people is to be distinctive in the quality of this abiding, listening and engaging – as all of life (the very complexity of our spread-out-ness) is drawn back towards God.  We live our lives in the intensity of his love and light. Worship cultivates holiness (and one-ness); we might describe it as the source of our energy, not just in terms of how we live, but in terms of an active moral compass.   We need these moments of shared experience, of communion, when we are told who we are; who we are meant to be.

Our priorities and lifestyle should reflect the Kingdom of God (including how we handle difference);   in our worship: we are offered a vision of that Kingdom our calling (inside and outside the church).

Holiness flows from attraction to God in worship, as we respond to his call, as we experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work. It motivates us to move into the world.  Holiness is enacted in the world in our provisional, incremental attempts to enact justice, pursue the good, embody hospitality and be agents of reconciliation.  We do this energized and shaped by the love of God: it is the fact that this light and glory are in earthen vessels that reminds us that this is divine activity within us, as Paul reminds the Corinthians.    But disciplines of holiness also alert us to the signs of the Kingdom in our midst (e.g. RAs, Working Together Group – celebrating Hampton).


The church is utterly dependent on God’s call. Within the church, we haven’t found a satisfactory level of agreement amongst ourselves; but we recognise a shared invitation.  Our unity is expressed in diverse ways – without being reduced to a sense of “anything goes”, but by being mindful of our common “measures”.  We have to learn to see how the being one in Christ is reflected in different ways – identifying a family resemblance.  If holiness is about relationship to God, then our sense of catholicity opens up a rich and generous appreciation of our diversity.

To think of and trust in a Church that is Catholic expands our vision.  There is a universality about the Church.  We are not members of a private members club existing for a generation in one particular locale.  We are members of a community that transcends space and time – all who are “in Christ”.  This means that we pray with and for our brothers and sisters across the world – who witness in the midst of very different cultures, who face persecution, who are on the margins or in positions of influence.  It means that we are inspired, challenged and shaped by the witness and example of our brothers and sisters of different traditions; who bring different insights to us and who might be inspired by our own attempts to be faithful to the Gospel. 

The church is more than a global community – given the rapid transformations in the realms of technology and networks of finance, tourism and business, that is no longer a distinctive claim, if it ever was.  The Church transcends time too.  We are part of a mixed company with those who have gone before us in the faith – those we have known and loved, those whose influence we recognise in prayer and witness, and those who are nameless to us, but known by God.   Yet, we know there are thin moments, when we glimpse such a reality – when we praise God with Saints, angels and the whole company of heaven; when we know our loved ones pray with and for us – not out of superstition but in love and trust “in Christ”.

As the writer of Hebrews expresses it: we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  Or, if we take the verse in its entirety - since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. That one word “since” is actually tremendously important.  It opens a sense of dynamism and encouragement.  We run the race that is set before us – walking in the world as disciples, worshipping as members of the body of Christ – not just with our hearts and minds set on the example of Christ, but also with a great company behind and with and before us.  We can let go of our sins and burdens because in Christ was a new creation; we can run the race, because others have run and will run with us.  It’s almost like some glorious marathon of God’s acts in salvation history.

Catholicity is concerned with wholeness – to be faithful to the richness of tradition (bringing out things old and new) and also seeking to relate to the complexity of human experience.  The Spirit, according to Jesus’ promise, will lead us into all truth – that Spirit equips us to space the truth in such a way that the gospel might be proclaimed afresh in each generation. It is a process of discernment – which demands patience and both flexibility and adaption.  Welker describes this as “hot” and “cold” memory; Begbie uses the model of musical improvisation.   We can learn from previous generations/other parts of the world.  There is a sense of family resemblance and of common purpose.  The spiritual and theological traditions of those who have gone before us enrich our lives. We might think of the Benedictine balance of work and prayer, the Franciscan commitment to creation; the sense of assurance expressed in different generations and in different language by Wesley and Mother Julian. All these expressions of faith are rooted in the same love of God revealed in the Gospel.

All Christians are equally important regardless of background and context; all are part of same family. Often we fail to treat one another with mutual affection and respect (James 2:14). There’s the tendency to think ourselves as “better” or “right”.  Yet we are called to be partners in mission.


When we considered what it was to be the people of God, we reflecting on the call to abide and to be sent – and to bear fruit.  This is the essence of what it is to be apostolic. It isn’t just a matter of looking backwards – through a chain of relationships and connections – to what lies behind us; but a recognition that we are moving forward – in our own time towards God’s future.  We are here because someone – or in reality many people – took the time to invite us, to respond to our questions, to show compassion to us... in short, to show us Jesus.  Who said to us “come and see?”  Our challenge is to look forward; to share in that mission; to go where people are; to invite them into relationship.

That sense of invitation is there throughout the Gospels as Jesus was invited, or invited himself, to spend time with Mary and Martha, with Zaccheaus, with tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees and centurions.  But that invitation is also a sending out – he sent the disciples out in pairs into the towns and villages to declare that the Kingdom had drawn near (where there was healing, forgiveness and restoration of relationship; where voices were heard from the margins.  It is after the resurrection that the mission of God continues in the sending out of men and women in the name of Christ in the power of the Spirit.  We are sent by name; we are sent with a message. Mary Magdalene is called by name in the midst of grief and confusion; she is told not to cling on to her Lord but to go to his brothers and declare that she had seen him.  They too are sent – in peace, to receive the Spirit and to forgive. The particularity of how we are sent, what our lives of witness and service look like, will be different.  Peter was called to feed and tend the flock; the beloved disciple was called to witness in word and sign.

The Church is being the Church when being sent out in love and service in God’s world. It doesn’t have a mission; it is missionary in its very nature.  That is to proclaim Gospel afresh in each generation.  We aren’t a cosy club but a movement.  We gather in worship – abiding, being refined; we are sent out in mission – loving, serving witnessing. 

Common Life & Common Mission

Sometimes it feels as if we are having to invest masses of time and energy just keeping the institution on the road – maintaining buildings, populating rotas, generating funds.  In actual fact we spend far more time than we can quantify on our core purpose – worship (that intensive abiding in God; that time spent being attentive to who we are and who we’re called to be) and mission (our engagement with the world beyond the church doors, in explicit and implicit ways.

It is not that the Church has a mission – but rather that the God of mission has a Church worshipping, serving and witnessing in the world.  God’s mission is that the whole of creation reaches its intended destiny; that human beings know life in all its fullness. We are stewards and apostles of the good news of the gospel: a gospel of God with us in life and death, offering us the hope of resurrection and transformation. Jesus spoke of his mission in terms of the Kingdom – our calling is to be attentive to God’s love and purposes, and to participate (through the dynamic energy of the Spirit) in drawing human society into the fullness of that Kingdom.

If we think about the nature of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, we might think of our “one-ness” as our essential being “in Christ”.  Within that circle we have overlapping marks of who we are.  The call to be holy is about our relationship to God in worship; our catholicity calls to mind the diversity of the body, our fellowship with one another; our apostolic nature reminds us that we are sent – that we are called to relate to the world in a way that is transformative. 

All these marks of the church are manifest in some pretty sketchy or fleeting ways – whether we look at our history or our lived reality.  Our trust in the church isn’t because of what it is as an institution, with all the fragility and tensions of that, nor even as a human society, with all the gifts and joys and challenges of that.  It is because of our relationship to Jesus.  At the heart of who we are, and all that we strive to do, is the person of Jesus Christ.

Rowan: one of the simplest definitions of Church is to say that it is meant to be the place where Jesus is visibly active in the world; and once we have said that, we can turn it around and say that where Jesus is visibly active, something like the Church must be going on.

Mission – looking outside of those boundaries – radical forgiveness, extraordinary courageous hope.

Mission is now at the top of PCC agendas – with a regular round of mission action planning.   It is part of this Cathedral’s language too – with an interim strategic plan to help us meet our objectives.  It should be something that excites us and inspires us – giving us the encouragement and confidence to exercise our calling in the power of the Spirit. It isn’t a new thing.  Mission-shaped church might be one of the most widely read CofE reports, but thinking about mission is part of our DNA.  Charles Gore – one of those who shaped Anglican theology in the 19th century, in particular by rooting a generous liberalism in the doctrine of the incarnation – wrote about the mission of the church in these terms: “as my Father hath sent me, even so I sent you”. This is, in its ultimate terms, the mission of the church. It is the carrying out, in its full scope, of the mission of the Christ... God has given us a revelation of himself in his incarnate son; and this revelation or discloser of God in Christ is expressed in the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king.

The prophet discloses God to man; the priest reconciles man to God; the king makes a moral claim upon us. Gore recognises the imperfections of the Church’s visible structures – human arrogance and impatience fractures our unity; our catholicity impaired by our inability to look beyond our context; and our holiness, or sanctity, is affected by the shortcomings of our human nature. However, he writes this structure which has been given to us, in and through to work for God.  The Church’s mission is to be prophetic, to be an agent of reconciliation and to cultivate moral disciplines or virtues.  Those things we are called to embody (fortitude, patience, love). 

Each generation formulates this anew and Gore himself cites the examples of marriage, commerce, wealth and the role of women as examples of this flourishing engagement and transformation – for the sake of the common good; that is the kingdom of God. We face the same challenges as Gore – how do we celebrate faithful relationships, how does our economic life serve all in society, how do we seek equality regardless of age, gender and background?

The Church is indeed a serious house on serious earth;  it is a place where our compulsions and hopes mingle and are transformed in worship.  The church is a community to grow wise in. But the Church is also a people who take the world seriously; a people who stand as prophets, priests and kings – witnessing, reconciling and cultivating virtues. It is one, holy, catholic and apostolic: and exists for no other purpose, says Gore, than to minister to the spiritual union of man with God.  Or to put it in the words of Benedict XVI  “God's love calls us to move beyond the limited and the ephemeral, it gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all,”

Our mission is to draw all human life back into relationship with the God who made, sustain, loves and hopes form to join Him at His table. To conclude with another quotation from Archbishop Justin:  if the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation it is not merely hindering its mission and evangelism, appalling as such hindrance is, but it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls. We must be reconciled reconcilers. When that happens we are unbelievably attractive, distinctively prophetic, not because we all agree, but because we disagree with passion in love, and set the bar high for the world around. And then reach out and help people over the bar.