Terrible As An Army

by Christine Dearden.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending an Anglican church regularly since I moved to Ottawa. One of the parts of the liturgy that I find very meaningful is when, every week, the congregation stands together to affirm our common faith. We do this through reciting the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
One line that sometimes throws people, of course, is “the holy catholic Church”. And so they ask: Aren’t we Protestants? Why then are we affirming the Catholic church so particularly?

The answer lies in the difference between writing the word in question as “Catholic” or “catholic”. Capitals matter! The word “catholic” means “universal” and refers to the unity of the entire body of Christ — encompassing Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox, Messianic Jews, and all of the various shades of Christianity falling under those umbrella terms. When we affirm our belief in the catholic Church on Sunday morning, we are affirming our belief in a Church that is unified in Christ, timeless, whole, and not limited to any particular denomination, place, race, time, or culture.

It reminds me of a passage in C. S. Lewis’s 1941 classic, The Screwtape Letters. This epistolatory novel contains advice from a Sr. to a Jr. Demon (“tempter”) on the best ways to manage his assigned human (“the patient”). Shortly after the man’s conversion to Christianity, Screwtape writes the following:

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a I brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

This is the catholic church in which we believe and in which we have a part: spread through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. What a glorious thing to which to belong! One day we shall see it that way for ourselves. In the mean time, we remind ourselves and each other: I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. I believe in the Holy Spirit. And I believe in the holy catholic Church.

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