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This article was published in the Summer 1998 issue of The Journal.

Personal and corporate: the relationship

AIF in England was very grateful to the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Bishop Alastair Haggart (who died on 11 January 1998), for consenting to be one of its Presidents. As a President and also as chair of the steering committee of the Inter-Church Process Not Strangers but Pilgrims, he wrote the Preface to Mary Bard’s book about interchurch families, Whom God Hath Joined (1987). Earlier he had made a great contribution by his presence at the International Meeting of Interchurch Families held at Dunblane, Scotland, in May 1984. In the Summer 1984 issue of the AIF newsletter we printed an address which he gave at Dunblane. It has lost none of its relevance, and we share it here, slightly shortened, with a wider audience.

The relationship between the ‘personal’ and the ‘corporate’ in the living of our faith is a relationship we are constantly encountering, sometimes in a fruitful and mutually nourishing balance, sometimes with an element of conflict. For example, in Ephesians 5: 25, we read: “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.” There you have the affirmation of the corporate. But elsewhere St Paul says: “Christ loved me and gave himself for me”. There you have affirmation of the personal. And, of course, in mature Christian life both are necessary. Or again, in our liturgies, the baptismal creed has always been ‘I believe’, whereas the eucharistic creed has always been ‘we believe’, a corporate emphasis recovered in the new liturgies.

It is also in our church disciplines. The Church of Scotland invites to communion ‘all who love the Lord Jesus Christ’. There you have the personal emphasis. My own church emphasises the ecclesial, corporate aspect. ‘Communicant members of other Trinitarian churches, in good standing, are welcome to share in the eucharist in an Episcopal church, in accordance with the disciplines of their own churches, as they themselves respond in their own conscience to these disciplines.’ 

I suppose our own personal psychology enters into it. For some, ‘personal’ is all; ‘corporate’ is of little account. There may be a strong hostility towards the corporate: we say of some Protestants, “They have no ecclesiology at all.” De Quincy, who is buried in the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s at the West End of Edinburgh, declared that he was prepared to acknowledge Christ, “as long as he does not come with his leprous bride, the church”. But, of course, the church is not the leprous bride: With his own blood he bought her, And for her life he died.

On the other hand, the corporate can easily swallow up the personal; there can be powerful devotion to the church, with little devotion to our Lord. One of our hymns, “Firmly I believe and truly”, written by Cardinal Newman in The Dream of Gerontius, moves dangerously in this direction. There can be a kind of “divinising” of the Church.

And I hold in veneration
For the love of him alone,
Holy Church as his creation
And her teachings as his own.

And this in a Church of Scotland hymn book!

Some modern liturgies have lost this balance between corporate and personal, and especially in the eucharist. When I kneel to receive the sacrament, I don’t want to hear a theological statement about the sacramental species: “The Body of Christ”; “The Blood of Christ”. I want to hear an affirmation of relationship: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, given for thee … for thee … and for thee.” Here in the eucharist, at the heart of the most corporate act of the church, we have the affirmation of the “personal”.

Personal and corporate: living the tension

Often we share our experiences, not so much of the affirmation of the personal in the context of the corporate, but of the denial, frustration or putting aside of the personal by the corporate. Sometimes the corporate, the organisational, institutional church can appear insensitive to the needs of the personal, or, in our case, of the couple and the family. We can easily become disillusioned by the church, and especially by the leadership in the church, and that is why I have chosen the gospel which you have just heard, the story of Judas betraying our Lord. When Ronnie Knox became a Roman Catholic in the bad old days when what were called “converts” were baptised, he met an Anglican friend after his baptism who said, “’Morning, Ronnie. You’re looking very pleased with yourself today.” And Ronnie said, “Why shouldn’t I? I’ve just become a member of the true church.” “Oh,” said his friend, “and what does it feel like to be a member of the true church?” “Well,” said Ronnie, “now I know, beyond a peradventure, that I am a member of the same church as Judas Iscariot.” 

There is a profound and for me, throughout the whole of my ministry, a sustaining truth in that insight. It is easy to think of the church as the church of the saints and the martyrs, ‘all glorious within’. But the reality is not always like that. I am a member of the same church as Judas Iscariot; but Judas Iscariot is not always out there, in someone else; sometimes he is within myself. I also am among those who betray. No one really knows Judas’s motives in betraying Christ; there is no good reason to believe they were base. The thirty pieces of silver are almost irrelevant to the Judas story; he had a better reason than mere gain. 

So often the church corporately, as an institution, behaves in ways that are repressive for the person, or the couple, or the family, out of the best of intentions. We must be prepared as an Association of Interchurch Families to live in this tension between personal and corporate. It does not mean that we simply accept everything the church says, meekly and uncritically, taking her teachings, in all things, as his own. But it does mean that we are never disillusioned. We are members of the same church as Judas Iscariot. 

We always keep working at the relationship between the personal and the corporate. It has improved enormously; it has enormous potential for further improvement; but if the improvement is going to take place, it is going to take place because we, in the Association of Interchurch Families, stay with the problem, suffer the pain and the frustration; never expecting too much; never being satisfied with too little. 

“Christ loved me and gave himself for me.” 
“Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.”

Bishop Alastair Haggart Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church (d. 1998)

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