The Basic Ecclesial Community

The notion of the Basic Ecclesial Community is usually associated with Jesuits in South America and “progressive” Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, I have been doing a little research to discover the ideas behind it. Could it be an alternative form of community life and ministry in liturgical churches with more classical forms of liturgy? In a certain way, continuing Anglican churches are spontaneous groups of lay folk who find a priest to celebrate the Eucharist, or who otherwise pray the Office and spend time together.

This quote struck me:

It is not a matter of getting people to church, but how to be authentically church to them. To be church is not to do the religious thing but to listen, to struggle with people.

Be authentically church to them? This obviously means different things to me, or to many of us who read this blog, or to progressive left-wing ideologues. For me, the first thing about the Church is as a “framework” of the liturgy, the point by which the faithful may experience supernatural realities, the things of God. We arrive at a time when most people can no longer relate to parishes or the churches in the places where they live – because they no longer live this ideal, or because the liturgy is designed on a fallacious human basis.

To the left-wing ideologue, the basic community is a way to escape from the clutches of conservative ecclesiastical authority structures. It becomes a small-scale political movement, comparing the official Church with the politicians and businessmen who took their land away from them and exploited them in their poverty. With the current economic situation in the west, the same raison d’être could be evoked – but this is not a Church but politics. Can a basic community exist for the purpose of being the Church, for the purpose of that liturgical and mystical experience and constructing the community on that basis?

Early on in this blog’s life, I explored the independent sacramental movement and the idea of independent “goliard” clergy breaking with the stereotypes of micro “official” churches with their potemkim structures of plywood and cardboard. Even the modest notion of the independent church seems not to have any staying power, and stability. Even the blogs stop after a year or two, as they have nothing more to say and writer’s block sets in. We are made to think of the severed branch lying on the ground all dried up, whilst the tree it came from is in full leaf. That being said, it does a lot of good to tone down the clericalism and define one’s priestly vocation in other terms.

If some people want to establish such a community – we call them missions and house groups in our Church (ACC), there is no escaping the need for the Church’s mission. We are sent. We don’t appoint ourselves. I see this as the most constant reason why self-styled episcopates just don’t work. If they do work, it is because there is some strand of a mission from Christ through the historic Church. The process of growth is very slow, but has to be based on trust and confidence, and above all the fact of being a church, not a political party or some social concern.

What about the constitution of a group that is not made up of fully committed members of a given institutional Church? What is it came together on a different basis, like, for example, interest in the Sarum liturgy? Surely the priest, belonging to an institutional Church and accountable to his Bishop, is also called to serve where he finds himself. Nearly everyone to whom I give Communion is not an Anglican Catholic, but what I call a generic Catholic. They have been baptised and catechised, mostly in the Roman Catholic Church, and became more or less alienated – and certainly are no longer convinced of “true church” claims. There are many such people in France, but who usually would not become stable members of another ecclesial community. They come and go, curious, in search of a spiritual way, but too burned out to make a commitment. Such people come in many shapes and forms, some highly intellectual and interested in liturgical questions but spiritually wounded. We have to reach out, not to get them into church, but to remind them that the Church still exists and is learning lessons from its institutional sins.

Institutional Churches usually treat the burned-out as rubbish to be got rid of – materialists, “cultural” Catholics, cafeteria Catholics, you name it. Very often, these people are the poor of spirit, whether they struggle financially or are comfortable. Most of these people have turned over the page, and any spiritual life they might still have is secret, over which no one else has any control. What if the Church were no longer interested in control, or even “helping”, but in simply asking people to help in the community’s prayer and liturgy, and experience the beauty of holiness? If people can believe that such an idea is being expressed sincerely and there are “no tricks”, then this might be a way towards the new Church – or rather the Church without the debilitating baggage.

Looking at some of the ideas from South America, they seem to be remarkably familiar.

Their structure is based on re-creating isolated, self-reliant, missionary-oriented communities that characterised the early Church, with minimum authority.

They are directed by lay people, which can be a good thing, or the group of lay men and women can become like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm, like Robespierre and Stalin. All good ideas can backfire. The idea is based on subdividing mega-parishes, which is obviously not a concern in Continuing Anglicanism. Here in France, the parishes are grouped together and the old parishes are turned into “basic communities” – dead ones with no vision, ability to show the world any real spirituality or ability to do any more than establish one’s petty base of control. That is the downside of the idea. Ideas have to be accompanied by vision and capable personalities.

The conservative Catholic is going to call this model of community life “congregationalism”, and we have already been called that for not folding up in 2011 or 2012 and enrolling in our local Ordinariate. Name-calling is part of the blackmail and control-freakery of the apologists. Congregationalism can simply be a means of getting rid of conservative authority and imposing liberal agendas like homosexuality and feminism. The community has to include the authority of the Bishop and the adaptability of priests prepared to lay down their own control-freakery of clerical to work with the laity.

The Basic Ecclesial Community should not be a mechanism of destroying parishes and the priestly vocation, for for supplementing them in the way of specialised chaplaincies. In some circumstances, the idea is stimulating, when the purpose of such communities is being church and not furthering some half-baked ideology. In other circumstances, it is the death of parishes and the rotting of our churches, as we observe in rural France.

Getting people back to church through aggressive marketing or being a silent witness in the desert? Perhaps neither. If being church is not to do the religious thing but to listen, to struggle with people, then it would not be a church at all. Church is all about religion, all the acts of communion between man and God. Otherwise why bother? Go into politics or become a social worker, and concentrate on what those domains of life do, but don’t call it a church. At the same time, there is an element of truth. We are as weak as the outside world, with the sick, elderly and doubting, with those who struggle to earn a living in a world that wants to make honest work impossible.

Perhaps the basic community has its place in a world where the Church has collapsed, where everything is closed down or moribund, taken over by “basic community” ideology and imposed by Orwellian pigs. Something has to distinguish the idea and make it specifically Christian, and liturgical.

I would greatly appreciate input on this subject, especially from those with any experience in this bewildering world.

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6 Responses to The Basic Ecclesial Community

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, the attraction to subsidiarity, to local or basic communities, to smallness, however described, reflects, I think, the hunger we can all feel for tangible connection and love, and respect. These things tend to disappear in large corporate societies, like the great Churches (i.e. empires). The “Church” that subsists in people of good will within those empires is precisely what often people need to see and feel: and it is seen and felt in – yes, liturgy that manages to both reveal the transcendent and touch the human heart – as well as palpable compassion and understanding and, where guidance or correction is needed, is done in justice and gentleness and mercy, all. It is as if we crave the soil, getting close in, to the ground, to our senses, to the person near us, to our lover or friend, close to where we can feel their skin and their breath and hear their voice or their silence without straining. One of the paradoxes of Christian power is that time and time again, it makes most positive impact when it is not beating its own drum or trying to intimidate, but steadily trying to empower or liberate or simply heal and support. That is why those at the sharp end of social suffering (e.g. Salvos, SVdP etc) still enjoy the kind of respect the ‘look-at-me’ titled professionals have severely lost. It is not religious piety and works that are not to be valued, but the preoccupation with the ecclesiasticism that stifles and eventually suffocates them. Go on a retreat to a monastery, or spend time in a soup kitchen, or make a visit to the church when it is quiet – or all three – or give time to a group so small that you know their names and how they think and feel in themselves and can have meaningful relationship with. This is what the empire-builders miss. For them, it’s “bums-on-seats”; full coffers; numbers in attendance; everyone agreeing dumbly or viciously. We thirst for the real, the immediately sensible, not the abstract and verbose. We need to not feel like cogs. That’s what motivates a lot of the devolution. It is not just about or only about “left-wing ideologues” – (it might be equally described as the desperation to free oneself from the right-wing ideologues) – but about the sense that we have to be free in many senses, not least, free to know someone whom we can love or enjoy time and life and experience with, and have space to think, and to feel in a way we feel true to ourselves.

    Many of the reform movements in the history of the church are all manifestations of this desire to be clean and unencumbered and free to love. Benedict’s monasticism was one such reform, the Cistercians another, the Jesuits yet another. What happened to a lot of them? The history of mankind is also a history of how we all sell out, and get encumbered again. That is why I believe the true power of Christianity lies in the elusiveness of the siren call of the Gospel of Jesus, which teases us to try afresh daily, yearly, and is not a thing preserved in ecclesiastical or doctrinal formaldehyde. “O God, you are my God, for you my soul is thirsting; my body pines for you like a dry weary land without water, so I gaze on you in your sanctuary, to see your strength and your glory.” (Ps 62).

  2. Stephen K says:

    Church is all about religion, all the acts of communion between man and God.

    This is partly true I think. Church is all about religion sounds mostly right. But I don’t think it’s true to say either that Church is all about all the acts of communion between man and God, or that religion is equivalent to all the acts of communion between man and God. The three things, Church, religion and all acts of communion between man and God are not, in my view, identical. They overlap perhaps, but not every part of Church is about acts of communion between man and God, and not all acts of communion between man and God are encompassed by religion.

  3. Stephen K says:

    The conservative Catholic is going to call this model of community life “congregationalism”.

    This is eminently true (that the typically conservative Catholic – Roman or other – would call it congregationalism) but misguided since I like to think that a truly comprehensive catholicism would entail congregationalist elements alongside hierarchical ones. One more example where capital ‘C’ catholicism inevitably reduces to a species of Romanism. We really have to be careful whether we mean to say ‘Catholic’ or ‘catholic’ or ‘Roman’ (or ‘Anglo’) or watch our step that we do not become accomplices to the reduction.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This makes me think, among other things, of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III.i.14, and the discussion there of “the visible Church”, “distinct Societies, every of which is termed a Church within itself”, and “the name of the Church” as “given unto Christian assemblies”. He appears approvingly to translate “Ubi tres, Ecclesia est, licet Laici” as “Where but three are, and they of the laity also (saith Tertullian), yet there is a Church”, but glosses “that is to say, a Christian assembly. But a Church, as now we are to understand it, is a Society”.

    Would it be fair to say, you ponder the place in, or relation to, such ‘Churches of Christian – especially “generic Catholic” – assembly’ of priests of ‘a Church which is a Society’, and so under “the authority of the Bishop”?

    Also among the other things that this makes me think of, is Richard Baxter’s attention to, and ideas about, Ignatian episcopacy, where the ‘parson’ of the local Church, almost however small, will probably be, not a priest, but a bishop.

    This, in turn, makes me think of missionary priests being made missionary bishops – St. Boniface, for example.

    A proliferation of little ‘frontline’ missionary bishops, orthodox and working closely with their metropolitan(s), would have its own peculiar dangers, of course: might it have, even in our time of rapid communication and rapid transport, its distinctive virtues, as well?

  5. raitchi2 says:

    Perhaps there’s still a way to save the large Church structure. In the States, many of the mega-churches are really collections of smaller 10-15 member units. Being in a ‘small group’ is almost as important as attending Sunday praise and worship services. This is great because it allows for people to make concrete relationships with others and still feel like a member of larger assembly.

    I don’t think we can directly copy this model for catholic/orthodox Christianity. We need some clergy to be our public prayers (even the offices have official blessings for clergy to give). What we need is to increase the numbers of priests among us to be such that a group of 10-15 could have a priest (of course we couldn’t still insist on celibacy and 7 years of seminary to get the numbers of priests to allow this). We need to break the connection between sacramental ministry and full-time salaried ministry and move to a largely volunteer ministry (like permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church). A catholic model of small group would be 10-15 lay members who perhaps even just go to a priest’s house for certain services (a mass/ divive office) and make their personal connections in this group. However, this small group would still attend a larger parish gathering (perhaps not every Sunday but at least once a month).

  6. This is such a poignant article. I hope it is ok that I referenced it on my blog at: Thank you for the thought provoking writing!

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