After considering the nature of authentic love and of the love of God, W.H. Vanstone goes on to consider “the response of being” to God’s love. He sees three ways in which “particular things or beings” within creation can respond to the love that creates and upholds them.
First, the response of nature. This is simply “that a thing should be that which it was to be”: the sense that created things should “come right” rather than “come wrong”. Vanstone quotes Blake’s line:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
The robin may not be suffering in its cage, but the very fact of its being caged seems an affront to its “robin-ness”. The same applies to environmental destruction and exploitation more widely.
The second level of response is the response of freedom. This is that “a ‘thing’ should accept that which it was to be”. We tend to identify this level, rightly or wrongly, with the human race, and our perceived freedom to choose whether we “come right” or “come wrong” (though I’d query how “free” we really are to choose the former).
The third level of response identified by Vanstone is the response of recognition. While authentic love does not demand recognition, it “cannot complete the fullness of its work” where it goes unrecognised:
Perhaps we may say that love needs, though it does not seek, recognition: that it needs, for the completion of its work and for the good of the other, a recognition which it will by no means demand or compel.
In the case of God’s love, “the response of recognition celebrates the love of God”; it creates an “enclave of reality” within which “recognition or the absence of recognition determines the triumph or the tragedy of love”. In other words: the Church. Vanstone writes:
The Church occupies the enclave of recognition within the area of freedom: it is all within the area of freedom which would not be if the love of God were not recognised.
This definition makes the Church “much wider than any recognised ecclesiastical structure”, but that does not mean Vanstone is advocating a free-wheeling, “anything goes” approach which rejects those structures. The Church “is, or consists of, creative activity”, and creative activity demands form. Hence:
The Church, however broadly defined, is never pure spontaneity and never free from the discipline of form. Old forms may be abandoned and new forms sought, but so long as the Church is responsive creativity it can never pass beyond the demands of form.
As he writes in the following chapter, in one of the most powerful passages of the book (one which chimes with my own desire to prefer the concrete over the abstract):
The Church is not “the cause which the Church serves” or “the spirit in which the Church lives”: the Church is the service of that cause and the actualisation of that spirit in words spoken, in bodies in a certain place or posture, in feet walking up a certain hill: in stone placed upon stone to build a Church, in wood carved in the fashion of a Cross: in music composed or practised, played or sung: in the doing of certain things upon a particular day and the giving up of certain things during a particular season: in the fashioning, and the maintaining, out of time and care and labour, of the beauty of it: in the gathering and training of others so that they may contribute to and continue and enlarge the offering: in the struggle of brain and pen to find expression and interpretation for the love of God: in the event of worship which celebrates the love of God: in hands stretched out for the receiving of Bread and in lips raised for the touch of Wine.
Here, at this level of concrete actuality is the response of recognition to the love of God: here is the work of art, the offering of love, which is the Church.
Again, from a Lutheran perspective I would want to emphasise more explicitly what I am sure Vanstone would also affirm: the Church as not only human response to God’s love, but as the place where God’s self-revelation in love finds its fulness in word and sacrament – where God, not us, takes the initiative.
Even so, however, that concept of the Church as a place of recognition of God’s love, as a work of art offered in loving response to that love, is one that I hope will will stay with me from Vanstone’s powerful little book.