Karl Rahner once cautioned that we should never assume that everyone alive at the same time belongs to the same generation. Nowhere is this more true than in church circles today where we have multiple ecclesiologies operating inside the same churches. In Roman Catholicism, for instance, since Vatican II, we have two-and-a-half distinct generations, all trying to share the same pews. Not an easy task. It makes for tension and this is the case inside all the churches.
That tension, while painful, isn’t necessarily unhealthy. When Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” he isn’t describing celestial geography, but a heart, God’s, whose compassion and scope is the antithesis of any small sectarian group or any group of like-minded people huddling around some fiery ideology. The challenge for the churches is to mirror this embrace, namely, to build a house with a large entrance and with rooms enough to accommodate persons of every persuasion.
But that’s not easy. Invariably, for every kind of reason, we start narrowing the door and closing off the number of rooms. What’s required to avoid this, I believe, is a more deliberate effort to set our ecclesial gauges properly. What’s meant by this?
Sometimes I picture the church like a huge airplane, complete with a large instrument-panel, gauges of every kind, which indicate the state of things and which someone has to carefully set and monitor so as to have a smooth and safe flight. What does the instrument-panel in the church look like? What are our ecclesial gauges?
To have a healthy ecclesiology, we need to monitor the tension between a series of polarities which perennially compete with each other and which need, precisely, a certain deliberate and delicate regulating. What are these polarities that are in tension with each other?
Among others, I mention these:
*the tension between the liberal and the conservative.
*the tension between the theological and the devotional.
*the tension between the liturgical and the pastoral.
*the tension between Word and Eucharist.
*the tension between social justice and private morality.
*the tension between prophecy and diocesan structures.
*the tension between program and compassion.
*the tension between missionary and maintenance.
*the tension between enthusiasm and stability.
*the tension between ecumenism and denominational commitment.
*the tension between Christianity and other religions.
*the tension between community and individual charism.
*the tension between aesthetics and simplicity of life.
Each of these might be conceived of as a separate gauge, icon, on the ecclesial instrument-panel and, inside each gauge, each of the two poles represents something to be guarded. Our task is to try to deliberately set those gauges by pinpointing where, ideally, as an ecclesial community, we want to be on the continuum between the various ecclesial poles (using critical principles rather than ideology, private temperament, or private desire as our guiding needle).
Hence, for example: In the tension between liberal and conservative, how much, like the wise scribe idealized by Jesus, are we willing to give place to the old as well as the new? In the tension between the theological and the devotional, where do we want to place the guiding- needle so as to have a healthy balance between head and heart? In the tension between the liturgical and the pastoral, how much do we want to push ideal liturgical principle as a corrective to sloppy worship and how much do we want the real needs of our congregations to mitigate a potentially sterile ideal? What, for instance, is the place of a eulogy at a funeral, given the balance do we want between the liturgical ideal and the needs of a grieving family?
What’s the proper balance between concern for the issues of justice in the world and concern for private integrity of soul? How much is the church about justice and how much is it about soul-building? How programmatic or compassionate do we want to be? Where is the proper balance between being overly-rigid and overly-loose? Which is the greater risk, to be irresponsible with sacraments and grace or to unhealthily cut off access to God? Do we want to sacrifice aesthetics for simplicity of life by building cheap, ugly churches, or do we sacrifice simplicity of life for good taste? Where’s the proper balance between being loving and loyal to your own denomination and recognizing valid baptism and God’s grace as present in other Christians? The list goes on.
Jung once said that whatever energies we don’t consciously access and direct will unconsciously direct themselves. That’s true here too in terms of these ecclesial energies. To the extent that we do not – prayerfully, communally, and according to sound principle – deliberately set where we want to be on the continuum between these various energies, other things (ideology, self-interest, personal temperament, ego, charismatic personality, whim, the need to be right, the flavour of the moment) will set them for us, though not always in ways that will build a church that reflects God’s compassion, embrace, and beauty.