Paul’s analogy of the body has its limits

By Marshall Scott

Some years ago I read an interesting science fiction story in a “classics” collection. I can’t find either the title or the author, but the point has remained with me. In the story human researchers have found in space a planet that is a vast insect colony, something like a termite colony on an planetary scale. Like a large termite colony, within the primary species there is a queen, and there are various categories of worker according to function. There are also other species, living in and off of the primary species. All seems to the human researcher to be going well, and the lead researcher is considering how humans might make use of this new species, especially its apparent capacity to breed members with new abilities to meet new situations without a planning intelligence.

As one might expect, things took a very different turn. The queen took control of the body of a researcher to communicate to the lead researcher (in a process that also didn’t turn out well for the person so used). The queen made it clear that the capacity of the hive included the capacity for intelligence “when needed.” She also made clear that she was quite aware of human history and human capacity. She noted that her species had adapted and survived for millions of years (not unlike similar species on Earth), while the human species was perhaps 100,000 years old, and on the brink of self-destruction. She added that “intelligence is not necessarily an evolutionary advantage.”

What brought that to mind was this comment made by Bishop Graham Kings in his interview with the BBC: “I was worried when Martyn [Minns] spoke about reducing the Communion to a network. Networks are very different from an organic Communion.” We’ve heard that phrase, “an organic Communion,” often enough in our Anglican controversies. I found myself curious where it came from.

While I found a number of more recent citations, perhaps the most salient is Christifideles Laici, an Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, issued December 30, 1988. In that work, John Paul wrote,

“Ecclesial communion is more precisely likened to an “organic” communion, analogous to that of a living and functioning body. In fact, at one and the same time it is characterized by a diversity and a complementarity of vocations and states in life, of ministries, of charisms and responsibilities. Because of this diversity and complementarity every member of the lay faithful is seen in relation to the whole body and offers a totally unique contribution on behalf of the whole body. “(Italics in the original)

He goes on to cite Paul in I Corinthians 12, and to discuss the theology of the Body. And, of course, Paul’s metaphor of the Church as Body is central to our understanding of communion, and the specific expression of the Anglican Communion. Paul does not use the phrase, “an organic communion,” but his image of the Body is organic by any meaningful definition.

I find myself wondering, though, whether we don’t to some extent mislead ourselves by the specificity of Paul’s image. His image is, well, all too human. When we think of his image of the Church as Body, we think of a human body – just as Paul did, as shown by his description of the inseparability of a hand or a foot.

The thing is, we have come to understand many other kinds of bodies, and many other images that “a body,” an “organic union,” might take. There are other ways that creatures are organized that are very different from ours. Is there something we miss if our image of “an organic communion” is too anthropomorphic?

It seems to me that all too often when we think about “an organic communion” and conflate it with Paul’s image of the Body, we forget that in Paul’s image Christ is the head of the body. Oh, when we think of the image of the Body itself, we don’t make that mistake. It’s just when we want to use that image to help us imagine “an organic communion.” My evidence for this is that in all our arguments about “a communion,” organic or otherwise, an ongoing theme is about who gets to be the head. Think of all our arguments about “the primacy of Peter;” or about “establishment,” whether now in England or a thousand years ago in Constantinople. And, if we’re fighting over “headship” in our “organic communion,” what becomes of our commitment to the headship of Christ in the Body? What if a “having a head” other than Christ isn’t “an evolutionary advantage” for “an organic communion?”

We do have other images we might imagine for “an organic communion.” We might, for example, think about the vine and the branches. It speaks to us of growth that is rooted in Christ, but that can lead in a variety of directions. It speaks to us of fruitfulness, and can connect in our reflections to the blood of Christ, which we receive in the Eucharist and in which we are cleansed from sin.

We might consider the lilies of the field. In that sense, we might think of the field itself, the ecclesial “ecosystem,” if you will, as “an organic communion.” In the field it is precisely variety that speaks of health and wholeness. “Not even Solomon in all his glory” was as beautiful, but it is the sum of them, and no one alone, that expresses the glory of the Kingdom.

We might consider a garden – indeed, we might consider “the Garden,” the image of creation. In the Garden there were “trees of every kind,” including the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Every animal was there, brought to be named. Remarkably, as in our current arguments about “headship” in “an organic communion,” it was precisely ambition that led to the fall.

If we want to best parallel “an organic communion” that steps away from claiming “headship” for ourselves, perhaps the image we want is that of a flock. It is made up of a variety of sheep, and even of both sheep and goats, at least until the last judgment. It is an image in which it is clear who are the sheep, and who – singular – is the shepherd.

This is certainly part of current conversation on the nature and future of the Church (the Body of Christ, and not specifically the Episcopal Church) these days. In 2006 Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. The image of the “starfish organization” is of one that is gathered around ideas and purpose, and not structures; and of one that is resilient, capable of recovering and even growing when it seems divided, scattered, even ruptured. Do a quick search, and you’ll find that many have written on how this might apply to the Church, and how reimagining the Church as a “starfish organization” might be meaningful for our future. Now, it doesn’t hurt for this imagining that a starfish is an “organic communion” without a head, but it’s also important to note that in Brafman and Beckstrom’s metaphor “headship,” leadership, takes on a different form and role.

Any of these images, whether Biblical or cultural, might offer some insight, and certainly any of them will have limitations. Still, I think these various images, from garden to flock to starfish, offer us opportunities, opportunities to think about the various forms “an organic communion” might take. We are indebted to Paul for his image of the Church as the Body of Christ. However, I think we may well go astray when we imagine that “an organic communion” must have the same form and characteristics of the Body of Christ. Even Paul’s metaphor has its limits, and we run up against one of them time and again. Time and again we seek to structure “communion” in our own image, and to imagine that one (or some) of us should be the head on behalf of, and all too frequently instead of, Christ. I have to wonder how we might see the Church differently if we imagine it as absolutely organic, rooted in Christ, let by Christ, and growing into the light of Christ, but with no “head” for our ambition to seek.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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