Each and every week in congregations up and down the land worshipers proclaim their belief in the ‘one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’
We don’t of course claim that we are the exclusive Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, just a tiny part of something much larger than ourselves.
As individuals we become part of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church through the sacrament of baptism; through grace. No other dues, levies, fees or subscriptions are required (and that is why it so important that the Church never charges for baptism).
It is through grace, and grace alone, that we become ‘very members in the body incarnate’, that is to say the Church. In our established church everyone who resides in the country has the right to the rite of baptism. ‘Membership’ is therefore open to all, without qualification. We must never forget this.
‘Membership’ of the Church is contingent only on grace. Of course ‘members’ may over the course of their lifetime be variously more or less active in their membership. But inactivity should not imply non membership. Should it?
One final thought on ‘church membership’: our membership of the church is also communal in its nature and this nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Eucharist, where we take our communion.
Membership in its secular use is very different, and the Church must resist all temptations to align secular and theological usage. Membership of organisations in the secular sense is always transactional, usually individualistic and characteristically, economic.
Let me illustrate with a few brief examples:
When I played rugby and later golf (badly and then only for a few years) I had to pay an annual membership, or subscription, fee. In return for my sub I was entitled to certain, prescribed, rights. The right to play, or at least to offer myself for selection, the right to use the club house and bar facilities, the right to entertain guests and the right to attend and vote at the Annual General Meeting.
My, now very small, shareholding in Northampton Saints PLC gives me the opportunity of receiving an annual dividend (no chance in reality!) and the right to vote on the club’s officers and the remuneration of the executives at the annual general meeting.
My membership of the AA guarantees me road side attendance and other services in return for an annual fee.
My membership of the National Trust allows me to visit properties owned and managed by the trust in return for the payment of my annual fee.
My membership of the Co Operative provides me with points to be taken off future expenditure based on my historic and current expenditure. This is the same model used by most ‘loyalty’ based schemes.
What should by now be obvious is that my membership of secular organisations is contingent on me paying the cost of membership. By contrast church ‘membership’ isn’t paid by those who use, or even benefit, from the Church. Our collective ‘membership’ was paid by Him, and Him alone.
I am beginning to think that the notion of membership should be treated cautiously by those who profess belief in the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;’ a theological proposition, which is then immediately followed up with the declaration of belief in ‘one baptism for the remission of sins.’
Could it be that the authors of the Nicene Creed defined for future generations of Christians both the meaning of ‘membership’ and the means through which membership rites (baptism) are conferred? It’s food for thought.
Baptism in the Church of England does confer one ‘temporal right;’ the right to be placed on an electoral roll, to become an elector. But again I think we need to be careful to avoid conflating electors with members, for as we have seen the notion of membership implies access to privileges in return for a fee.
‘Electors,’ unlike members, are not required to pay their own fees. In the Christian sense electors fees were paid by Jesus and are conferred through the sacrament of baptism. (In the secular sense current electors fees were paid by those who in previous eras campaigned, often at great personal cost, for the widening of the franchise.)
Being a Church of England elector is an important fiduciary role, for it is the electors who approve the Reports and Accounts at the Annual Parochial Church Council Meeting (a catchy title don’t you think?) and, who elect the officers of the local parish church.
Electors have a local and fiduciary duty, nothing more, nothing less, and their ability to perform this duty is contingent solely on the grace received in baptism.
Electors have no special status, rites or privileges over and above the ordinary baptised member of the church, even allowing for the supererogatory level of interest and commitment they assume, and the church should not be led, manged or even directed, solely or predominantly, in the interests of its electors.
In the language of corporate governance to do so would be to fall prey to a ‘moral hazard,’ due to the mistaken belief that the nature of the corporation should be defined, and therefore directed,in the exclusive interests of its ‘insiders.’
The Church of England is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, membership of which is made manifest only through baptism. Any claims to enhanced membership status based on regular attendance, financial contributions, or participation in the fiduciary and governance functions of the church should be treated with the utmost caution, less we start to think of ourselves as a private members club, which we are surely not.