by Michael Tapp, priest in The Christian Community
Published by The Christian Community in Aberdeen, 8 Spademill Road, Aberdeen AB15 4XW
The Christian Community holds no opinion, the author is responsible for the content of this article
Most churches that have come into being in the past few hundred years have done so because a particular individual has had a revelation which he regarded as a divine charge to begin some kind of work. Others have arisen following disagreements about dogma or ideas, or as with Luther, as a combination of protest against authority and compelling inner experience.
The Christian Community did not come into existence for any of these reasons. There is no Foxe, Wesley or Joseph Smith, who out of his experience sought to lead the Church or part of it along a particular path. Its foundation was the work of a group of people. None of them claimed to have any special gifts. But they all felt the growing irrelevance of orthodox church life in meeting the cataclysmic events on the stage of world history and in understanding the increasing complexities of man's inner experience. With hindsight it is not difficult to see that the First World War marked a fundamental turning point in human experience. Many came out of it looking for a new future. The war to end all wars had come to an end and surely one could look to a future that would do justice to a true ideal of the human being. It was as easy to be cynical then as it isnow. But life cannot be built on cynicism. It can only be built on a continuing and determined effort to place life in its right dimension. It was the search for this dimension which led this group of people to Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
Steiner's uniqueness as a teacher of spiritual knowledge lay in his relationship to Christianity. Whereas previous forms of spiritual knowledge, including many stillexisting today, came mainly from the East, Steiner's teaching placed the incarnation of Christ in the centre of human evolution. In this sense Steiner was an orthodox Christian, teaching that the future of man cannot be separated from the work of Christ. But the language and much of the content of his teaching were not cast in any mould recognizable from the past. Nor could they be, since what he had to say could not be contained within the existing modes of thinking. The twentieth century has seen theologians struggling to overcome the straitjacket imposed on the church by its earlier thinkers who belong not only to a completely different outer world but also to a quite different soul configuration. Steiner spoke to the twentieth century and to man's future.
So it was to him that the small group turned. He responded to their request forhelp and enlightenment and he showed them how the life of the church could be renewed. The Christian Community was founded in 1922 as an independent church with 45 men and women priests (here complete equality is practised). Although the foundation took place in Switzerland, the main sphere of the work in the beginning was Germany. Work started in Britain in 1929.
Steiner took full responsibility for his share in the foundation of The Christian Community, but made it quite clear that the actual task of the church did not lie within his province. As he constituted the church it had nothing to do with his person. He could be and was approached for advice and he always gave it readily. Through him a new approach to sacramental life was given, indeed he mediated a new form of all seven sacraments and gave much else besides, and those who work in The Christian Community will naturally turn to his work for inspiration and guidance. This does not imply a dogmatic authority; Steiner himself would have been the last to claim this. One can, of course, question the validity of his teaching and of the sacraments he mediated, but to do this would imply having a sufficient knowledge of the sphere out of which he worked. As this is usually lacking, the only real criterion is one's own experience of the rituals themselves. Many people have been impressed, many puzzled, but hardly anyone has ventured to suggest that they are unworthy or unreal. As with all religious matters, the ultimate test lies within oneself.
The work of the church has traditionally been divided into three spheres. The first of these is the holding of services. The Christian Community performs the seven sacraments which it regards as full sacraments in that a divine gift is associated with each of them. These are:
1. Baptism. The Christian Community baptises on behalf of the whole church.The service is a gift to the child and no claim is laid on him or her through the godparents. Their charge is to watch generally over the child's spiritual welfare. The grace of Baptism confers a power on the human being to dedicate his physical life on earth to the purpose for which he has entered this life. That purpose will be a spiritual one and will involve him in the fundamental Christian activity of raising and transforming the nature of this world, whether it be part of himself or part of the world.
2. Confirmation. At about fourteen childhood is succeeded by youth when human beins begin to take over their own life. Christ is shown to be the guide who stands beside all the individual's efforts to find his or her own way. The gateway to adultlife means the beginning of an independent relationship to Christ through communion.
3. The Act of Consecration of Man. This new and unfamiliar name for a communion service in fact describes the significance of such a service. Though Communion we receive the resurrecting power of Christ which consecrates human nature. Christ's life on earth was a total consecration, culminating in His death and resurrection. Through this deed, the power of consecration which leads to resurrectionwas brought into the world. It is activated anew through the sacrament of Communion. In form the service follows the traditional sequence of Gospel, Offering, Transubstantiation and Communion. It is, however, not a reworking of a traditional model, but a recreation out of its original source. It is a service which speaks to the inner participation of the congregation and may therefore take a while to revealitself to those who come to it for the first time.
4. Sacramental Consultation. The object of counselling must be to offer comfort to those in need and to bring renewed strength for life's burdens to be faced and borne. In Sacramental Consultation, the priest listens to the one who seeks this comfort in such a way that he or she can find the insight to see his or her life from a higher perspective.
5. Anointing. This act brings help and inner healing to one facing a serious crisis in illness and prepares them to start on the next stage of life's journey.
6. Ordination. This confers the grace and authority to celebrate the sacraments.
7. Marriage. This is a blessing given to man and a woman who have decided to share their lives together. The service is primarily concerned with the quality of this decision as a fact in the destiny of two people and their relationship with the whole human community.
In addition to these sacraments there is a service for children aged six to thirteen, a form of evening service and a funeral service.
The second task of the church is to help people to understand life and inparticular their own lives. In this, the view of man put forward by Steiner is of great significance and this is what is specific to the approach of The Christian Community to personal problems. Every problem in life is seen as related to the overall destiny of the individual. In the long run only the individual himself can find the answers to his questions, and any advice can only be directed towards this end.
The third task of the church is to bring an understanding of the Christian message. Although the sacraments provide the real centre of the church's life, it is nevertheless vital to increase our understanding of Christianity and of its relationship to life. Above all, we must penetrate the message of the Gospel anew. Particularly today, when contemporary culture makes it hard to understand the spiritual aspect of reality, it is imperative to find a new spiritual approach to methods of study, which would include an understanding not only of Christian truths in the narrower sense, but also of the nature of the whole universe and of man's place in it. As The Christian Community practices a complete freedom of teaching there cannot be an official theology, nor articles of belief. Whatever is taught or written is a personal view.
These three spheres of work are quite sufficient to occupy a full-time ministry (in this country of about twenty-five, in all about three hundred). It is felt that work should concentrate on what is specific to The Christian Community, its form of sacraments and it approach to the problems confronting Christianity. There is, however, a certain amount of participation in some forms of social work, notably with handicapped adults.
The Christian Community is not a proselytizing church in the sense that it would maintain that people who do not belong to it will not be found among the blessed. Every religion and every church has its point and insofar as The Christian Community has a missionary task, it is to find those who have not found a spiritual home. It wishes to make itself felt only so that as many people as possible can experience what it offers and decide for themselves whether it is for them or not. This view in no way diminishes the conviction of those in The Christian Community that the world needs the particular kind of grace that comes through its sacraments, and that without it the world would be spiritually poorer place.
The Christian Community has an administrative hierarchy but only one degree of ordination. Individual priests are entirely free and subscribe to no doctrines. They can only be deprived office if they deliberately undermine the sacraments. The hierarchy has no authority over the members of the church. The international headquartersare in Stuttgart, Germany. There are three levels of office-holders called in German (satisfactory equivalents in English have yet to be found): Lenker, Oberlenker and Erzoberlenker (lenken = to guide). The latter is the head of The Christian Community. He or she is neither elected nor appointed, but names his or her successor to the priests only the day after his or her installation. The Erzoberlenker does not normally take decisions alone. This only happens when the whole body of Lenkers and Oberlenkers fails to reach any agreement. In practice this is a rare occurrence.Though major policy decisions are made by the office-holders, they are preceded by discussions among the priests concerned or among all the priests meeting in synod. The laity is also becoming increasingly involved in such discussions. At all levels decisionsare sought by mutual agreement and never by voting.
Each local centre is left free to pursue its own life. It is virtually independent and is responsible for its financial commitments. Properties in Britain are normally owned by the central Christian Community Trust but are administered locally. Where a centre cannot manage financially it can receive help from the Trust. Responsibility locally is borne by the members together with the priest. There is no set pattern in this and the actual arrangements will vary from place to place, although it is an ideal that the congregations are run jointly by priests and laity.
In financial matters, the ideal followed by the Community is that it should be able to live solely on donated contributions. In some circumstances this is not always possible and a certain amount of income is derived from letting accommodation in its properties. But properties are only owned if they are used directly for the life of the Community, either to house chapels, to provide accommodation for the priest or for anyother direct use or activity. Other forms of investment are kept to a minimum. There is no laid down level of giving that members have to subscribe to. Like other charitable bodies, The Christian Community derives much of its income from covenanted subscriptions. It is able to meet its expanding commitments and provide the priests with a modest living.
How does The Christian Community stand with regard to other churches and towards the question of Christian unity? In the practice and life of the Community the question of unity or disunity does not arise, for as a church it exercises no jurisdiction over its members and they are quite free to communicate in other churches if they so wish. Conversely, its communion is open to all. Membership of the church is separated from Baptism and Confirmation which are not regarded as essential preliminaries for the adult either for taking communion or for membership. Nor is the lattera prerequisite for taking communion, but can only be entered into as a commitment following adequate experience in the life of the Community which of course includes sharing in the sacrament. As The Christian Community practices freedom in teaching and belief, a permanent adherence to it can only be based on an acceptance ofits sacraments. This is a matter of individual experience. There is no wish to merge with other churches, for then different forms of experience would be confused. There is no reason why there should not be different churches, provided that they all tolerate one another and that claims are not made which imply an exclusive right on the part of one church to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Christian Community does not demand that all Christians should have its particular form of religious experience. It exists so that those that want and need this experience can have access to it. It applies this criterion to other churches and acknowledges their existence, not for their dogmatic claims, but for what they provide for their own members. Each church should practise its own form of life, acknowledging other forms, co-existing peacefully with them and co-operating with them as and when appropriate. The age of the individual in which we now live demands not a standardized unity or a general form of belief but rather a great diversity of life itself and the possibilities which each individual has within it.
We are often asked, 'what is the difference between your church and other churches?' There can be no really satisfactory answer to this except in the experience of the questioner. The first recorded words of Christ to his future disciples were 'Come and see'. One can of course discuss all manner of differences, but this is normally only fruitful on the basis of experience and not without it. It will be clear from what has been said that those who 'come and see' will be welcomed, but they will also be left free to work out for themselves whether they wish to pursue this particular experience further or not.