An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Notes of the Church

The Nicene Creed describes the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (see BCP, pp. 358-359). These four characteristics are the notes, or marks, of the church. The church is to be “notable” or distinguishable by its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. The Prayer Book Catechism discusses the meaning of the notes of the church (see BCP, p. 854). The church is described as one because it is one body, under one head, Jesus Christ. The church is described as holy because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrating the members of the church and guiding them to do God’s work. The church is described as catholic because it proclaims the whole Christian faith to all people until the end of time. The church is described as apostolic because it continues the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, and because it is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.

Catholicity has also been understood in terms of the “Vincentian Canon” of Vincent of Lérins (d. before 450), who understood catholicity in terms of what has been believed everywhere, always, by all. In this regard, catholicity is understood in terms of universality, antiquity, and consent. Many Protestants have not considered the apostolic succession of bishops, passed on with ordination by laying on of hands, to be a necessary condition for catholicity and apostolicity. Many Lutherans have understood apostolicity in terms of continuity with the witness of the apostles to the gospel, rather than a succession of bishops. Other churches, including the Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Lutheran churches, have upheld the necessity of an apostolic succession of bishops ordained with the laying on of hands (see the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral 1886, 1888, BCP, pp. 876-878).

During the sixteenth century, the notes of the church were used polemically by Roman Catholic theologians who claimed their church to be the “true” church. The notes of the church were also appealed to by the Tractarians to uphold the catholicity of the Church of England. In more recent times, the notes of the church have been understood to be both the present characteristics and the future goal of the church. In the present, the church’s unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are not yet fulfilled or perfect. But the notes of the church are already present and visible in an imperfect way. The notes of the church may become increasingly visible as the church grows in faithfulness to Christ, and manifests the authentic Christian faith more completely. The fulfillment and perfection of the notes of the church may be hoped for in terms of the eschatological coming of the kingdom of God.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.