By Lawrence Crumb

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” We say these words every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed. I’ve recently explored these “notes of the church” with my parish in our newsletter, and offer it here as an example of catechesis in action. Let’s begin with unity.

Our catechism asks, “Why is the Church described as one?” It then answers: “The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ” (BCP, p. 854). The image of the Church as a body, with Christ as the head, comes from St. Paul (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Eph. 4:15). It indicates that the unity of the Church, however obscured by institutional divisions, is given by Christ, who uses a different image of organic unity by saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).

The manner in which this underlying unity exists has been expressed in many ways, such as “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). The words are echoed in the popular hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” which describes “her charter of salvation” as “one Lord, one faith, one birth.” It then describes other manifestations of this unity: “one holy Name she blesses, partakes one holy food, and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued” (Hymn 525).


This means the Church is united through its common worship of the one God; its sharing in the sacraments of baptism (“one birth”) and Holy Communion (“one holy food”); and its shared “look[ing] for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). The hymn concludes with an affirmation of the Church’s “union with God, the Three in One” and the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven (“mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won”).

The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part, has made many contributions to the movement for the visible and organic unity of the church: the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the 1920 Lambeth Conference’s “Appeal to All Christian People,” participation in the Consultation on Church Union and Churches Uniting in Christ, the Porvoo Communion of northern European Anglican and Lutheran churches, and the Episcopal Church’s intercommunion agreements with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Moravian Church of North America. The emphasis today is on intercommunion more than organic union, since it preserves the distinctive heritage of each group. When we gather at the altar, we are united, not only with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” but also, in spirit at least, with “all those who do confess [God’s] holy Name” (BCP, p. 329).

On the matter of holiness, the catechism explains, “The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work” (BCP, p. 854). The image of the Church as a temple, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, comes from the ancient concept that a temple is a place where God dwells in a special way, where an encounter with him is dependable.

Such an encounter is evident at Pentecost, and was experienced by the Christian community gathered together, not just by isolated individuals. Thus, the infant church can be seen as a temple made up of its members, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in it, consecrating its members, and guiding them to do God’s work.

The first work was to proclaim Christ, dead, buried and risen. This apostolic preaching is recorded in the Book of Acts (2:14). In addition to the inspiration of the apostles in their preaching, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in many ways: a canon of Scripture, defining which books are to be included; an ordered ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons; a eucharistic liturgy supplemented by daily and occasional offices; and a developed doctrine, including the early creeds and councils.

The First Epistle of Peter gives expression to the idea of the Church as a spiritual temple: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5) One of most ancient hymns identifies the church with the heavenly Jerusalem as both Bride of Christ and living temple:

Blessed city, heavenly Salem, vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded in the height of heaven above,
and, with angel hosts encircled, as a bride dost earthward move.
(Hymn 520)

Beyond unity and sanctity, the Church is also marked by catholicity. As the catechism explains, “The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time” (BCP, p. 854). This is a good starting point, but doesn’t go very far. In a country with a long tradition of anti-Catholic feeling, Episcopalians often explain the word as “just meaning universal.” But few things are “just” the simplest definition.

The Church Universal is more than the sum of its parts, and its existence does not derive from adding together “all those who do confess [God’s] holy Name.” (BCP, p. 329) The Church’s catholicity, like its other notes, was there from the beginning because of its foundation in Christ and inspiration by the Holy Spirit. As it extends its life organically, following Christ’s metaphor, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5), it realizes this catholicity.

By extension, catholic also has the meaning of orthodox. The Catholic faith is the faith of the Church universal, as distinguished from local heresies.

It is the faith defined by the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries and explained by the universally recognized early theologians, known as the fathers of the church. We still look to them for their explanations of the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since the Great Schism of 1054, we tend to speak of the Eastern church as Orthodox and the Western as Catholic, but the terms would be accurate if interchanged (catholicity is orthodox and orthodoxy is catholic).

In ecumenical conversations, it is common to speak of catholic faith and order, the latter referring to a basic polity practiced worldwide, with local variations, before these divisions, and still followed by most Christians since. This includes an ordered ministry, normally including bishops in the historic succession; liturgical worship, including the holy Eucharist; and the administration of the sacraments, at least baptism and Holy Communion.

Throughout Anglican history, catholic has been used freely to indicate what the Church of England and its extensions have preserved from the heritage of the classic period of the first five centuries, before significant divisions. All editions of the Book of Common Prayer have preserved it in credal descriptions of the Church, and a canon of 1571 required preaching to be “agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine.”

Archbishop Laud’s prayer “for thy holy Catholic Church,” written in the 17th century, is in our prayer book (p. 816), as it was in the 1928 version. A prayer that “we may be gathered unto our fathers … in the communion of the Catholic Church” has been in all editions of the American prayer book, previously in the Visitation of the Sick and now in the Burial of the Dead (pp. 489, 504). The large number of Roman Catholic immigrants into England and the United States in the 19th century caused the word to be limited to that church in popular speech, obscuring its traditional reference to a broader tradition. As Anglicans, we can cherish our Catholic heritage without passing judgment on those who prefer different expressions of the Christian faith.

Finally, the church is apostolic, and the catechism adds,“because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people” (BCP, p. 854). This echoes the question asked as part of the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” (BCP, p. 304). It is based on the biblical statement that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The Church’s apostolic succession is more than just a succession of bishops, but also involves a continuity of apostolic doctrine. This is something that had to be emphasized already in the first century, as St. Paul warns the congregations he started not to heed a different doctrine taught by interlopers who came after him. Second Peter and Jude are especially strong on this point. The Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England in 1570 describe the visible Church as “a congregation … in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered.”

The linking of teaching and fellowship is a reminder that apostolic Christianity is more than simply believing correct doctrine. You can’t be Christian alone. The Christian religion is not the sum total of isolated believers, but a fellowship of believers who come together to express and celebrate their common faith. The earliest Christians stayed together in Jerusalem, meeting for seven weeks until the promised Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost, giving strength to make their fellowship permanent and to carry out the mission of proclaiming Christ to all nations.

Apostle means someone who is sent, implying a mission. The apostles had been given their mission in what is known as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). As we continue the apostles’ fellowship by breaking bread in the Holy Eucharist, one of our eucharistic prefaces reminds us that we do so “through the great shepherd of [God’s] flock, Jesus Christ our Lord: who after his resurrection sent forth his apostles to preach the Gospel and to teach all nations; and promised to be with them always, even to the end of the ages” (BCP, p. 381).

May we dwell ever deeper in our unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity, entrusting ourselves, our Church, and our futures to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all these marks find their fulfillment.

The Rev. Lawrence Crumb is a longtime TLC contributor and vicar of St. Andrew’s, Cottage Grove, OR.

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6 months ago

“The emphasis today is on intercommunion more than organic union, since it preserves the distinctive heritage of each group.” The distinction is understandable logically. Yet at just this level what comes through is ‘distinctive heritages.’ That is of course a fact on the ground, with a bloody history behind it. St Bartholomew Day massacres, etc. The question therefore is, why are distinctive heritages to be preserved? Is it just that today the same degree of violence and intolerance has been forgotten and if so, how did that come about, and why is this better than the organic unity that came… Read more »

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