For those who have a sense of the liturgy, the use of the terms ‘gathered’ and ‘scattered’ in connection with the Church should have immediate resonance. This is because, at the very heart of what the Church celebrates each and every Sunday, is the gathering and scattering of the community of the People of God, who gather together to be nourished through Word and Sacrament and are then scattered into the world in order to continue the great mission that is the reason for the Church’s existence. At the very heart of this gathering and scattering is a recognition that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the Church’s power flows” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 10). This concept of participation in the community at prayer as the source and the summit of the Church’s life enables and demands the constant gathering of the Church, the People of God, into one place and then the scattering of that same Church, the same People of God, into the world.
There can be a tendency at times, however, for the terms ‘gathered’ and ‘scattered’ to be used in an entirely different, and I would argue false, way to refer to those Christians who are part of the worshipping community (“the Church gathered”) over and against those Christians who are not part of the worshipping community (“the Church scattered”). The implication is that those who are part of “the Church gathered” are called and challenged to engage with “the Church scattered” – and, ultimately, to bring them back to be part of “the Church gathered”. This kind of language is often used to refer to efforts to bring people back to worship, such efforts, and the assumptions that underpin them, are entirely misguided. The use of such language, and the underlying assumptions, are unhelpful and betray a lack of ecclesiological understanding, and a lack of understanding of the mission of the Church.
To be clear, there is only one Church, not the two that the misuse of “the Church gathered” and “the Church scattered” implies, and this one Church both gathers and scatters on a weekly basis. It is fundamental to the identity of the Church that it does so. There may be some members of the Church who are more readily engaged with this worshipping incarnation of the Church compared to others who, by choice or for other reasons, are less so, but there remains one Church. Entry into this one Church is through the gift of baptism not through being part of the worshipping incarnation of the Church, so that whether one is a regular Sunday worshipper, an occasional Sunday worshipper, or completely disengaged from Sunday worship, one maintains membership of the Church that gathers and scatters on a weekly basis. It is, and always will be, the ideal that all members of the Church gather together each and every Sunday in preparation for being scattered into the world.
It is there, in the world, that the whole of the Church, the whole People of God, are called to be about the great mission that has been entrusted to it. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, NRSV). That’s it. That’s the whole mission handed to us by Jesus. And it is a task, a mission, that has been handed to the whole Church, not just those who are mistakenly described as “the Church gathered”. It is not an easy task, nor was it ever promised to be, and it requires the whole Church to be engaged in it, including those who are mistakenly described as “the Church scattered”.
And because the mission is such a monumental task, the whole Church could do many things better including encouraging those at the periphery of the Church to re-engage and join their brothers and sisters in fulfilling the command given them by Jesus. The Church has at times operated in ways that push people away from the centre towards the margins and, having done this, gone on to pass judgement on those who have been marginalised by the Church’s actions. Such behaviour is scandalous, and it must be confronted, acknowledged and repented of in order that the mission of the Church is able to flourish in the world.
The fundamental task of those who gather for worship on Sunday is to continue to draw strength from what they celebrate there, from their participation in the liturgical life of the Church. Only then can those same people move outside the church building to continuing being the Church scattered into the world. If, as a result of the way those regular Sunday worshippers go about their task out in the world, they are able to draw other Christians from the peripheries to join them in worshipping on Sunday, to being nourished by Word and Sacrament and so prepared to be sent out into the world, then so much the better. But the mission of the Church is to be found out there, out in the world, not inside the cozy setting of a church building.