This is a new ecclesiology unit at Pilgrim Theological College. I'll be co-teaching it with John Flett in first semester. It adopts a new approach to the scholarly discussion and exploration of the church.
This is the formal description of the unit's content:
This unit explores the roots of the Christian community in the messianic ministry of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit. It highlights the diverse embodiments of the church found in the New Testament and presents them as evidence of the ferment and de facto experimentation which characterised the formation and self-understandings of early Christianity. The ecclesiologies built around the classic marks of the church will be surveyed, but this survey will demonstrate that such ecclesiologies often obscure the experimentation which properly belongs to reflections on the Christian community. The Reformation's disruption of the Western church, the modern missionary and ecumenical movements, the emergence of the 'global church,' and ecclesiastical scandals and corruption all provide the background to the contemporary recognition of ecclesiological ferment and recent discussions about the polycentricity of Christianity. This ferment will be framed Christologically and pneumatologically in ways that provide theological foundations for experimental reflection on the church's mission, structures, and sacramental practices. The unit will include some focus on the relevance of these issues to the vocation of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Why the framing ideas of experiment and polycentricity?
The notion of the church as an experiment is a theme that runs through Mike Higton's recent book, The Life of Christian Doctrine (T&T Clark, 2020). He writes this at one point:
With all its division, and in all its diversity the Christian church is being beckoned by the Spirit into the discovery of God’s abundant gift in Jesus Christ. Its life is a collection of experiments in which the abundant love of God is explored and embodied (p.203).
To think of the church's diverse life as a "collection of experiments" in the exploration and embodiment of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ provides a new language and conceptuality to study the church.
The notion of a polycentric church is taken from the discipline of 'World Christianity' (arguably a better term than 'global church') where it is used to resist received ideas of Christianity being controlled from established institutional, geographical and cultural centres. As John Flett suggests in his book Apostolicity (IVP, 2016), this shift is a long-delayed recognition of what happened at the Jerusalem Council:
Theorists of world Christianity...affirm that God works in and through history and that the Holy Spirit structures the church [anew]. These theological axioms guided the decision of the Jerusalem Council and stimulated the non-territorial pluriformity and polycentricity basic to the Christian faith (p.285).
This does not mean that the church has no norms. It means, instead, that the church's norm lies outside of itself. As Flett also says:
Apostolicity means that the church does not possess its own identity. The church finds this identity in the history of Jesus Christ. This is the possibility of historical continuity, for it is the continuity of the resurrected Jesus Christ and his abundance through which every history is redeemed. Because it is the history of Jesus Christ, it takes the form of participation in his being sent to and for the world and thus the integration of multiple histories into his and only so by the testimony of the Spirit (p.328).
Within this framework, therefore, students who study this unit won't merely be introduced to official ecclesiologies or be presented with a "how to" ecclesiology. Rather, they will be invited to develop an imagination to foster their own contribution to, and leadership in, experimenting with the church. The first step in developing this imagination is to see that it is not possible to think about the church without first thinking about the "history of Jesus Christ" and the "testimony of the Spirit." There can be no ecclesiology without Christology and pneumatology. Learning to think about the church in this theological triangle will be the challenge and opportunity of this unit.
Lectures will be on Thursday mornings at Pilgrim. It is mutli-coded, being available for credit in Christian Thought (CT), Missiology (DM), and Mission and Ministry (DA). You can enrol in either the face-to-face or online synchonous cohorts. The unit can also be audited.
Check out the official unit descriptions, course content, reading lists and assessments at these links:
- Undergraduate Face-to-Face: CT; DA; DM;
- Undergradute online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;
- Post-graduate Face-to-Face: CT; DA; DM;
- Post-graduate online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;
For enrolment information contact Pilgrim's registrar at firstname.lastname@example.org
(I've written here about the other unit I'm teaching this semester: Christianty's Big Ideas.)