The Coming Crisis?

It is in times of crisis that the true character of individuals and communities is most accurately revealed and to be able to say that a person has acted with ‘grace under pressure’ is high praise.  It seems as if a time of crisis and heavy pressure is approaching.  Will the church respond with grace (I use ‘church’ throughout to refer to the entire Christian community, not only the Anglican Church of Canada)?

The crisis is the approaching plague or, in current parlance, pandemic influenza.  There is consensus among health care professionals and others that the question of the pandemic is not if, but when, and that the pandemic will be international in scope.  We have become accustomed to thinking of plagues as a thing of the past: the leprosy of the Bible, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, and the influenza of 1917-1918.  Toronto residents remember SARS a few years back.  SARS targeted one group, those somehow linked to hospitals—caregivers, patients, visitors– but we are told the coming pandemic will be much more widely spread and that up to forty per cent of the population may be sick or in isolation at one time.  If this happens distribution of food, transportation, schools and, of course, health care will be severely disrupted.  Perhaps these fears are exaggerated, but perhaps they are not–governments, hospitals, industries and businesses are taking them seriously and already preparing for a crisis.  The University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics has issued a report, STAND ON GUARD FOR THEE. Ethical Considerations in preparedness planning for pandemic influenza (University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, Pandemic Influenza Working Group, November 2005).  Should the church also be preparing and, if so, in what should those preparations consist?

Human Communities

Negative answers to the question ‘How should the church prepare?’ come most easily.  As church we will not discover vaccines, decide treatment priorities, or enforce isolation, although as members of other communities these roles will fall to some of us.  Nor will the positive responses of individual Christians—caring for the sick and helping those shut in (two that quickly spring to mind)–differ from those of non-Christians.  Christians, thank God, have no monopoly on unselfish behaviour.  There will be people of many religions and of no religion who will devote themselves to the welfare of others and the relief of suffering in all its forms and they will act from different motives.

It is essential in a time of social crisis that each person think in terms of the common good, that is, of community. The basic difference between Christians and others will lie, I suggest, not in our actions but in the special character of our community, the church. All human persons belong to many, often overlapping, communities extending from that of our common humanity through specific membership in families, neighbourhoods, professions, nations and beyond.  The character, that is, the foundation, bond and identity of each community lie in what that group shares, in its commonalities.  The commonality of the Christian community is first and foremost the liturgy, but inspiring that liturgy and foundational to Christianity is the specifically Christian knowledge of the triune God.  From the opening grace, through the creed and the prayer of consecration to the final blessing we pray in the name of the Trinity.

To say that Christians form a particular community is not in any way to advocate isolationism or sectarianism, nor does stressing the importance of community deny the value of the individual person.  But as human persons we are moulded and at least partly defined by our relationships and by the communities to which we belong.  Our membership in the church does not remove us from those other communities and in no way should prompt us to form an inward looking sect.  The proper stance of the church is to face outward and its actions must reflect this stance.  This outward looking reflects our basic threefold communal identity—reflecting the triune God, Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier–as part of creation, as the body of Christ, and as those living in the Spirit as inheritors of the apostle (Acts 2:1-4).  The first we share with all creation, the second is specifically Christian, but the extent of the third—those living in and by the Spirit–remains unknown to us.  Although the Spirit is associated in a special way with Pentecost, Christians recognize its presence in the Old Testament from Genesis on, notably in creation (Gen. 1:2) and in the inspiration of the prophets (Isa. 61:1).

The Community of Creation

That our creaturely status is denied by some does not make it in any way less real.  It is the recognition of this commonality (however named) which prompts acts of justice and compassion beyond narrower borders, whether those borders be familial, national or religious. The idea of a creating God (who is variously described) is found in many, if not all, religions, and it is the first teaching of the Jewish-Christian scriptures.  In the first creation account (Gen. 1: 1-2a) God is portrayed as overcoming chaos (‘the waters’, vv.1-2) and establishing a world order.  This theme is developed in several places in the Old Testament, notably in Psalm 74: 12-17.  The Genesis account is not and was not intended to be scientific or historical (even by the standards of science or history several centuries before Christ).  It is rather a theological hymn of praise to the greatness of God who creates by the divine word alone (the repeated ‘and God said’).  The Jews’ refinement of their understanding of God is told in their scriptures but this creating God does not change and endures throughout the Old and New Testament writings.  Christian writers inherited this theology of creation but the New Testament speaks also of a new creation, the ‘new heaven and new earth’ when ‘every tear shall be wiped away’ (Rev. 21:1-4) and ‘[T]he creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:20).  In the New Testament Christ, as Word and Wisdom of God, is seen as the agent of creation (‘[A]ll things were made through him’ [Jn 1:3]; ‘[F]or in him all things were created in heaven and on earth’ [Col. 1:16]).

Of paramount importance in the Genesis account is the recurring ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Gen. 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).  The created world is not something from which a Christian can rightly distance him- or herself (although that tendency has cropped up all too often in Christian history).  Because of that goodness we, who are part of creation and its stewards, have an obligation to preserve and cherish it.  It is our most inclusive community.

The Body of Christ

It is Christian belief that the post-resurrection Christ is with the church in a way that the historical Christ was not.  Indeed, the church itself came into being only after the resurrection, at Pentecost with the gift of the Spirit.  .  From the beginning the group (which soon came to be called ‘Christian’) saw itself not just as a voluntary society of individuals but as an organic unity.  The New Testament and later tradition stressed this corporate understanding of the church and, although given other names (e.g., the new Israel, the bride of Christ, the Temple of Christ, people of God, pilgrims) none has endured more steadfastly than ‘the body of Christ’.

The term occurs first in the New Testament letters (Col. 1.24, Eph. 4:16).  Chapter twelve of 1 Corinthians lays out the teaching explicitly.  After explaining that the diversity of gifts to be found in the community are given by the Spirit for the common good (vv. 4-7), Paul continues, “For just as the body is one has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (vv. 12-13).  Ephesians repeats the theme: Christ is the head “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together…makes bodily growth and builds itself up in love” (4:16).  It is this understanding of the church as one body, however spread out in time and space, that prompts many theologians (e.g., Augustine of Hippo) to identify schism (not heresy) as the worst ecclesial evil.

The unity of the church is stressed not as a defensive, self-preservative feature but as a necessary strength in its mission (ecumenism sprang in large part from the perception of missionaries of the self-defeating message of different Christianities).  The church as the body of Christ looks outward as Christ, who came to proclaim not himself but the Kingdom did.  It is the church’s understanding of itself as Christ’s body that prompts it to minister to the sick and the afflicted and to preach the gospel.

The Community of the Spirit

In the Old Testament the Spirit (or breath) of God is spoken of in the first creation story as overcoming chaos, (Gen. 1:2b, Ps. 33:6), as the source of life (Ps. 104:29), as inspiring individuals, especially the prophets, and as a gift to all Israel (Isa. 32:15Ezek. 11:19).  The Old Testament promises were understood to be fulfilled in the New where the gifts of salvation are attributed to the Spirit.  Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35), Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and sustained there (Lk 4:1ff) and the church is constituted by the Spirit.  This institutional gift of the Spirit came at Pentecost (‘the birthday of the church’), and from beginning days the Spirit was seen prompting every activity of the church, whether prophecy, service or the public confession of Christ that often lead to martyrdom.

Paul’s theology of the Spirit in the church grew from the experiences of these earliest Christians.  It is the Spirit which animates the body of Christ and pours the love of God into our hearts (Rom. 5.5).  All the gifts of grace are associated with the Spirit, and Paul describes the Spirit itself as inhabiting the church and individual Christians.  The gifts of the Spirit, knowledge and love of God and witness in all its forms, illuminate and even constitute the life of the church. Second Thessalonians attributes sanctification generally to the Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13).  The fourth gospel promises that the Spirit will remain with the church (Jn 14: 16, 25).

Given in a special way at baptism and manifested in the church, life in the Spirit unites Christians of every age and every place, but the action of the Spirit is not restricted to any group and it would be presumption to say so.  Like the wind, ‘The Spirit blows where it wills…but [we] do not know where it comes from or where it goes, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (Jn 3: 8).  The Spirit cannot be tied down in time or place or any other way; the community of the Spirit transcends the church.

The Image of God

The triune God acts as one, but Christian tradition has assigned (‘appropriated’) certain functions to each of the Three: creation and providence to the Father, salvation to the Son, and sanctification to the Spirit.  Beyond those appropriations and the communities based on them, our human community can be seen as imaging the Trinity itself.  While the fullest description of the institution of humankind and human relations is given in the second creation account (Gen. 2: 2b-25) the brief statement in the first that we, male and female, are created in God’s image (Gen. 1: 27) is of tremendous theological significance.  The meaning of this passage has, of course, been debated throughout the church’s history.  Perhaps most commonly the interpretation has been that it is the human intellect and will which is the divine image.  More recently, the so-called ‘social Trinity’ has led to seeing the communal nature of human persons as the image.  The two interpretations are not really different.  It is our intellects and wills, our minds and hearts, which enable us to relate to God and to others, to live in community.  This communitarian living, to repeat, itself images God.

It is Christian belief that God is a triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The triunity of God—the Trinity—is a mystery and cannot be explained in any rational way.  That God is triune enriches our thinking about God (not our ‘understanding’, God cannot be understood).  The Christian God is not a monolith.  We know from the Bible and Christian tradition that the names and adjectives which have been and are applied to God are endless.  God’s meaning cannot be exhausted by any one name or adjective or by all possible names and adjectives.  The church has chosen to bring the infinite names and attributes under a threefold umbrella—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier.  It would be out of place here to give the ins and outs of the disputes that engulfed the church in the fourth century and caused a split at least as serious as that of the Protestant Reformation.  It ended officially (by the Council of Constantinople in 381) in the teaching that the Three share one being (Christians are not tritheists) but differ in their relation to each other.  Those relationships form a community of love and knowledge and it is the relationships by which we name them.  The Father (with whom we associate creation) could not be father without a son, nor the Son (whom we call Saviour) son without the Father.  The Spirit of holiness is not free floating but is the Spirit of Father and Son.

Christian tradition has chosen to label the Three as ‘persons’.  It was on the whole a bad decision (Augustine of Hippo and many others, including Bishop George Snell, have said so) because when we use it we cannot but think of human persons and attribute the characteristics of human personhood to God.  ‘Person’ does, however, make it easier to think of the Trinity as relational in a community of knowledge and love (the theological opinion widely held in the past and today) and so see the divine image in humankind the same way.  It is our knowledge of this image that tells us we are created to live in a community of love and knowledge.  And it is this Trinity-based communal life that will enable and strengthen us in times of crisis.

Joanne McWilliam,

Christ Church, Deer Park, Toronto.


Described here are three concentric and expanding bases of community: the church, the Holy Spirit, and creation.

Do you agree with the demarcations?  If not, can you suggest others?
Do agree that the communities overlap?  If not, what would you exclude?
Which of the bases do you think theologically most important?  Why?
If you had to make a choice, where would your first responsibility lie in a pandemic?