The political character of the church

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Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series

Chapter Five: The Church

O’Donovan next turns to the political character of the church. He begins by arguing that this is not to be equated with structural order. Catholicity is prior to order so we should not equate ministerial order with political identity. So ‘informal Christian phenomena are found all around the margins of the structured church, and to deplore the untidiness of these is simply to betray an ignorance of what that rock is upon which the church is founded.’ (170)

Instead, the Spirit unites us to the authority of Christ so that we recapitulate the Christ-event. So the political identity of the church corresponds to the moment of the Christ events (171):

moments of Christ-event political character of church
advent gathering community
passion suffering community
restoration glad community
exaltation speaking community

Our order is a sacramental order. The sacraments ‘knit together’ the church (quoting Augustine and Cranmer) – making the church a visible society. (173) So to each moment of the Christ-event and the corresponding character it gives to the church, O’Donovan identifies a sacramental action:

moments of Christ-event political character of church sacramental action
advent gathering community baptism
passion suffering community Lord’s Supper
restoration glad community keeping the Lord’s day
exaltation speaking community the laying on of hands

1. Gathering community

The church is a missionary church. It is not ‘gathered’ as that implies the coming of the kingdom is complete. Gathering also presupposes a clear core which is the apostolic confession of Christ. Baptism is the sign that makes the gathering community. Each new believer sets aside existing collective identities to be replaced with a new collective identity.

2. Suffering community

We suffer pressure, trials and martyrdom. Our suffering (like Christ’s) is vicarious: it is for others. We suffer to hold our the suffering of Christ to the world. The Eucharist is the sign that makes the suffering community.

3. Glad community

Gladness is a moral attitude, a disposition appropriate to the goodness of creation, now recovered and renewed in the resurrection. This creates a moral life. Though O’Donovan does use the language of social responsibility, in effect this is what the glad community is doing.

When we care for our neighbour’s welfare, it is because we are delighted by our neighbour: by the sheer facticity of this other human that God has made; by the fact that God has given, and vindicated, a determination of our neighbour to health, rationality and relationship. When we make artefacts and machines to exploit the forces of nature, it is because we delight in nature, both in its raw givenness and in its possibilities for co-operation, and we are glad that God has restored it to fulfil his purposes for it. At the heart of making and doing there lies discernment of what the world is and is meant for. Activity is responsive; otherwise it becomes tyrannous and destructive. (183)

Keeping the Lord’s day is the sign that makes the glad community: celebrating the completeness of creation and its recreation through the resurrection of Christ.

4. Speaking community

This involves speaking the words of God to the world and speaking the word of God to God in prophecy and prayer, exercising the authority of the kingdom in speech. ‘Prophecy is the archetypal charism, the paradigm of all the others.’ (188) The laying of the hands is the sign that makes the speaking community = the formal prayer for the gifts of Christ to be manifest in the service and discipleship of particular members. (Later used in confirmation, ordination and the anointing of the sick.)