I don't see the need for agonised soul-searching about the question "Who is in the Church?" when there is a very clear, simple New Testament answer. The Church is the communion of the baptised, and those preparing for baptism, and includes both the living and those whose bodies sleep, awaiting resurrection. Baptism is the birth by water and the Spirit, the birth "from above" where we are born in Christ as subjects of the Age to Come. Therefore, all the questions about what the Church should be, about communion and authority and unity, apply to all this group. The notion of Churches - in the denominational sense - should I think be firmly and systematically purged from our thought and action. There is a difference between a religious order - where a group of Christians undertake to bind themselves by certain principles, ideals and discipline - and a denominational notion, which is on a vague boundary between the notion of universal Church and a religious order. The voluntary rules of a religious order are not binding upon all Christians, even if all Christians could do with a good dose of their spirit (such as the influence of the Franciscan movement in the thirteenth century). On the other hand, adherents of a denomination have a vague idea that being under this discipline and this authority are a Christian thing, but no very clearly defined idea of how things stand with those in other groups, or perhaps an all too clearly defined idea that no-one else is a proper Christian.
Now against all theories that would try to deal with such denominational differences with a "branch theory" (originally developed in the Oxford Movement) where different denominations are simply branches of the stock of New Testament Christianity, there is the unfortunate insistence of Jesus on the unity of the Church. One cannot really find in the New Testament a notion of spiritual unity that isn't also a unity of Apostolic authority. The practical discipline of excommunication, for example, gives the lie to the notion that unity of the administrative kind is totally irrelevant, because unity is just a matter of spiritual unity and all the petty differences of doctrine and praxis are secondary etc. This Platonising spiritual idea of unity isn't derived from the New Testament where people are quite clearly expelled by the Apostles. (And would it make a lot of sense if they could join the New Independent Church of Corinth in the next street?) It is the Apostolic nature of unity that I want to discuss.
Reformed readers of the classic texts about St Peter such as the granting of the keys of the kingdom of heaven by Christ, or Jesus' injunction to "feed my sheep" are somewhat shocked to find Catholics disingenuously "cooking the books" in their interpretation of these texts. Faced by the argument that these texts refer to the papacy, they can only shake their heads. I think that the obvious gulf between the two sides should alert us to the fact that there is something more than mere willful self-delusion among Catholic interpreters of these texts. It is not as simple as it looks, which (from the Protestant side) could be stated something like this: you have this papal institution to defend at all costs - which, even if Peter was ever the overseer of the Roman Church, is in its details at a thousand removes from the kind of role he had - and then you expect us to accept as proof-texts a few personal remarks that Jesus made to Peter as if he was instituting the papacy, by splicing this together with a few references to the permanent presence of Holy Spirit guaranteeing truth to the Church in John's gospel. It is either naive, or even worse self-deluding, and intellectually dishonest.
Protestants are right, of course, in that these are not "proof-texts", because they don't - in the historical critical notion of the word - prove. But there is a sense in which they witness, rather than prove, and run with the grain of a certain way of thinking about what kind of thing the Church is. There are a couple of biblical texts that will illuminate this, and I am not sure people pay them too much attention normally, because of a current, very Platonic and un-corporeal notion of the Church's reality.
The first is that after Christ's resurrection and before His ascension, the disciples ask Him if He is going to restore the kingdom to Israel at this time; and Jesus answers simply that it isn't up to them to know these things. They are to get on with the work of teaching and baptising all nations. Interestingly, this train of thought is also in evidence in the passage before the crucifixion when the disciples bicker about who is going to sit beside Jesus' throne in His kingdom. But isn't Jesus' reply rather odd, and isn't the disciples asking the question rather odd, unless they are in error about a very definite doctrine that Jesus had taught, and which he doesn't trouble to correct? viz., that they will sit with Him on thrones, ruling over the twelves tribes of Israel. A lot of sermonising has been done about how terribly carnal the disciples notion of Jesus' teachings were, about how they still, after all this time with Jesus telling them that His kingdom was not of this world etc. were hankering after an earthly rule. I find this line of thought utterly unconvincing, because it isn't what Jesus said to the disciples in reply. He answers them by saying: the rule in the kingdom of heaven is of another kind than the rule here, so don't go lording it over people; and the time will come for you to rule the world through Israel, but right now teach and baptise. What is implied in Jesus words, as a corollary of this is firstly, you will sit with me on thrones, and your place of rule will be assured, although your rule itself will be exercised in service; and secondly, there is coming a day when this kingdom, its order and rule, will be manifest to all, even though it isn't manifest now.
Thus, in understanding the Apostolic role and order, we are back again at the theology underlying the anagogical interpretation: the kingdom of God may be spiritual, established by the Way of the Cross, and its full manifestation future, but it is nonetheless a matter of flesh and blood. The book of Revelation gives yet another vision of this reality. The Apostles themselves are the twelve foundation-stones of the City coming down from God; and it is to the City that all the nations come, to be healed by the twelve fruits growing by the river flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.
One can therefore look back over the history of the Church and decry the blatant abuses of worldly power in the medieval papacy, and be rightly horrified at the spectacle of warrior bishops in the legend of Roland and Oliver. But there is a more subtle error being played out here than mere power-seeking, and until one feels it to be at least as natural an error as an over-spiritualising notion of the Church's authority, then I am not sure that one has got the point. A lack of sympathy with St Thomas à Becket betrays a lack of sympathy with the Apostles, and probably with whatever our Lord said to them also. And it is within this context that I am not so sure that the granting of the keys to Peter can be interpreted as a merely symbolic and spiritual instruction to him by Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is something that the disciples envisage with a door, and inside that door they sit on thrones in the Age to Come, and our Lord said nothing to disabuse them of the notion. The Israel of God - the City, the Bride, the Church - is ruled over by our Lord and the Apostles, not by the rulers of the world, although we are called also to submit to kings as ministers of God's justice.
Thus, if I could try to summarise my contention so far, the words of our Lord lead us to believe that the Apostles are indeed the rulers of Christ's kingdom, and their rule is at present exercised in the service of the people of God, in teaching, baptising and making disciples of all nations. The full manifestation of their authority, however, will be a very corporeal share in the regal might of the Lamb whom they followed to martyrdom, and whom we see exalted in His meekness in the book of Revelation.
The continuation of the Apostolic office in the Church is not so much something to be proven historically as something that follows from the very nature of the Church itself. I tried in the post about liturgy Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi to depict a notion of unity centred around the liturgy, where the Eucharistic liturgy is the apex of unity in the body of Christ, and the highest expression of Scripture and Tradition. The role of the Apostolic office in unity can be seen as yet another face of this jewel. The Apostles are the teachers of Tradition, which found in the liturgy of the Word and Sacrament; the Apostles are the witnesses by whom the New Testament is written, and which interprets the Old; and the Apostles are spiritually present in the Eucharist of Christ's offering. In addition to this, the Eucharist is celebrated where the Church assembles with the one who received the gift of the Apostolic office by the laying on of hands, as the Apostles' vicar in ruling, teaching the Word and instructing the Church how to conform to the likeness of Christ in their deeds. (There is a kind of parallel here, for just as the Eucharist is the sacramental but real and personal presence of Christ, so the bishop sits on the cathedra as the sacramental and real Apostolic authority.)
The bishop - or the one who stands in for him, his vicar - together with those gathered together around the altar form the whole body of Christ when the Eucharist is celebrated. All heaven and earth redeemed is present in its Creator at that moment, for the primary reality is the ascended Lord who stands among them and gives Himself to them. Therefore the celebration of the Eucharist is quite simply the completion of the Church, which is why denominationalism is such a profound error. The Eucharist is the answer to the question of unity, and it is here also that the Apostolic unity manifests itself (and forms part of the Eucharistic prayer at the offering of the gifts). And it is speaking from this place that I would argue for the necessity of at least this minimum notion of Apostolic unity.
Several thoughts occur to me in regard to this.
(1) There is a real difficulty for groups of baptised Christians, members of the Church, who do not have a Eucharist, and who do not have an Apostolic office. I don't doubt that there are de facto elements of Apostolicity in their teaching, in the service of the clergy for the people, and a spiritual offering to Christ in their rite of Holy Communion. I don't want to introduce a criticism of a denominational stance, I stress, but a noting of something that, according to the theology I have espoused here, is missing from the concrete reality of a group of baptised Christians meeting for worship. But I believe that they are included, however, as members of the Church Catholic born into Christ in the Eucharist wherever and whenever it is celebrated in Apostolic unity. I think one can and should offer up the Eucharistic prayer of unity for all such Christians.
(2) Perhaps a re-evaluation of the exercise of the Apostolic teaching and ruling office in the context of unity through the Eucharist would set a different order of priorities. I remember a book by Avery Cardinal Dulles which I read about five years ago, on the history of the papal office, and the definitions of Vatican I, and which raised questions about the application of the famous infallibility formula. From memory, what he wrote about the tradition and its development lead to the idea that the normative way by which the Pope defines doctrine is in union with the successors of the Apostles, according to the sensus fidelium, with the proviso that the Petrine authority is not granted by these conditions being met, but by the gift of Christ Himself. Which is more or less to say that when a doctrine is Apostolic and in keeping with Tradition and is believed by the whole Church, the successor of St Peter is always right when he proclaims it. Very well, but that does not leave us farther forward in deciding which bits of various pronouncements are to be considered to fall within these criteria, especially prior to 1869. That is why I wonder if one thought the whole issue through in the light of the divine liturgy, whether a new appreciation of priorities might arise. For myself, I consider the encyclical Humanae Vitae as an important example of Apostolic teaching that is binding upon all Christians and which illustrates vividly the guidance of the Holy Spirit (and which will become a greater source of light the more the world sinks into unnatural and Manichean insanity). And there is a definite relation of its teaching about human life and procreation to the central Christian mystery, something particularly evident in the Eucharistic theology of St Paul where he speaks of marriage and the mystical union. Questions of the exercise of authority might also be judged in the same light. I don't have the historical competence to do this, or the time to go looking for pertinent examples just at the moment.
(3) How the specifically Petrine office (and how it relates to the Apostolic office more generally) is carried out is of course a different matter, but firstly as regards the vestments etc. one doesn't have to either like or loathe the historical development of the external trappings of the office to get on with the business of being a Christian in union with the Apostles and their teaching. For me the matter crystallises out pretty clearly into two separate issues. The first is the papal abuses of power, entanglement in struggles for worldly advancement, etc. which unfortunately gives colour to the second issue, authority in teaching and administration, because the administration was badly done and the doctrine poorly expressed by people who were serving mammon. (For various reasons I regard the current Vatican State arrangement, part of the first question of the relation of papacy and power, as a Bad Thing.) I don't think that disentangling the two is any more difficult than, say, interpreting the Penteteuch. So, yes, very difficult indeed, never mind doing anything about it. But then God sometimes takes matters into His own hands.
I hope to tie up a few loose ends in a concluding post to this Confessional Program series.