The Church and the World:
The old (1662) bidding to the intercession at Holy Communion invited prayer “for the whole state of Christ’s church militant here in earth”. (The 1928 omits “militant here in earth”). The bidding in the new liturgies is often “for the church and the world”. In those few words lurks a significant difference of perspective.
At one level, to pray “for the church and the world” signals that the scope of the church’s loving concern extends beyond itself, as of course it should. No church should be a self-absorbed “holy huddle”. In doing so, however, it leaves the relation of the church and the world undefined; it sets the world alongside the church as if it were an alternative focus of concern, even an alternative instrument of God’s saving purpose. In Scripture, “the world” is indeed an alternative society to the church; but its rival and enemy; it is the human community organized on the assumption that God does not exist, or that his existence can be ignored; and it is a spiritual principle and power opposed to God. That is why the Scripture is full of warnings like this: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15); “be not conformed to this world”. (Romans 12:2); and “Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). Sometimes, of course, the term “world” is used neutrally, to signify the universality of created beings, or man’s earthly home; but when scripture speaks of the world in positive terms, it is as the forum of God’s saving purpose in the mission of Christ and his Church, and as the object of his redemption action: “God so loved the world” (John 3:16); “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
The negative and positive senses of the world in Scripture are flip sides of one coin. The world in its rebellion against God must be defeated (John 16:33 “I have overcome the world”), for only then can it repent and return to God as its Lord; only then can it be redeemed. This is the mission of the Spirit and of the Church “militant here in earth”: “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). So prayer “for the church and the world” is potentially misleading; it hints at a church too much at home in the world, eager to please the world more than to please God; more attentive to the world and its wisdom than the wisdom of God.
In contrast to this ambiguous focus, the old bidding for the church “militant here in earth” is admirably clear: the church is engaged in a rescue mission in enemy-occupied territory, a world alienated from God and under control of powers hostile to God. It does not entail militancy against other human beings: “We war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Ephesians 6:12). Its battles are won not by coercion or violence but by patient suffering; its mission not one of subjugation but of witness and service. If the church is militant it is because we are engaged in the liberation of the world from the spiritual powers that hold it in thrall: ”Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
Nor is it sectarian, oriented towards an exclusive and self-righteous holy huddle. The Prayer for the Church is shaped by St. Paul’s instruction to Timothy, that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; … for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). That’s language that is unpacked in the Prayer Book as prayer “for all sorts and conditions of men” – all human beings without distinction of ethnicity, race, skin color, gender, sexuality, nationality, economic or social status, culture or religion. Which is to say that the Church defined by the Gospel is not an inward-looking community, concerned only with itself; it is indeed outward-looking, engaged in mission in the world, and gathering all into Catholic unity defined by the Gospel, not by the world’s priorities and outlook. So in the prayer for the Church we pray for our mission in the world, and for all the circumstances in which that mission is carried out, all the opportunities it presents for bold witness and humble loving service; always having this end in view, that by such efforts the world in rebellion against God might return in faith and obedience to its Maker and Redeemer.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, May 16, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.