Stumbling in Holiness

Sin and Sanctity in the Church

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Brian P. Flanagan
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Holiness, both as an attribute of the faithful and as a description of God, seems everywhere to be in retreat. Christians across communions wrestle with a variety of ministerial moral failures, power inequities, and abusive legacies, and lay Christians continue to struggle with what holiness means amidst moral diversity and internal divisions. In recent years, the appellation of the church (in this case, the Roman Catholic church) as “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” has been the subject of debate and renewed inquiry, particularly in light of well-publicized papal apologies and inquiries into clerical abuse. It is here that Brian P. Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church enters the discussion, retrieving a robust notion of holiness, not as opposed to moral failing, but that attribute of the church which helps us to make sense of our moral failings. 

Rather than beginning with dogmatic definitions of the holiness of God, Flanagan begins with a liturgical reflection on how holiness is embodied and gestured at in the Mass. According to Flanagan, the moral rectitude of the congregation is not what establishes the church as holy, but rather “grace precedes this particular assembly” (17), such that holiness is that in which we partake, as we partake of the word of God in worship. In the context of worship, confession and pardon, repentance and forgiveness are known by the worshiper not as their achievements but as the gracious gifts from God. The church participates in God’s holiness, Flanagan writes, “not by denying its own creaturely limitations or sinful woundedness,” (22) but by participating in the invitation of God in worship. 

This reframing of holiness—as gift rather than achievement—offers a different dimension of holiness from the popular conception of God as distantly other. For Flanagan, if creaturely holiness is rooted in a relation to God, and if God—the wholly Other One—is present to sinners, then God’s holiness remains a gift which is unconditioned by the sinfulness of humans. In chapter 2, Flanagan continues to unpack the significance of this presence of God with respect to our moral lives and social structures. This holiness of God, present within the world, is one which draws its recipients to their final end, and as such is an eschatological holiness, known in part but not in full. As the people of God enter into relationship with God, the sin of both our moral lives and social structures becomes clearer as we make that journey. It is this eschatological dimension which enables Christians to claim that, on the one hand, God’s holiness is present, yet on the other hand, there will always be areas which remain unholy, both now and in the future.

Put differently, present judgments by Christians will, in time, be rendered insufficient, not as a result of historical progressivism, but by the very nature of God’s holiness. We cannot see fully now what might be later seen as a lack of holiness. The church’s sins (Chapters 3 and 4) are therefore best understood through the presence of its saints, for saints display what the gift of God’s holiness looks like, gifts which we, in time, might be able to understand. Flanagan is quite clear that Christians must tell the truth about their past (106), for without doing so, holiness is impeded in the present, and we misunderstand the very nature of holiness as an eschatological gift. It would be easier to simply attribute holiness to the eschatological church (and only sin to the present), or conversely, to attribute perfection to the present church and brush away present sins. But, Flanagan insists, neither are sufficient to understanding the church’s holiness. Instead of writing another book which reads the structural and moral failures of the Church as a denial of the Church’s holiness, Flanagan helpfully takes a more modest position: that holiness is a gift and an approach. It is not a fully realized possession, and certainly is not a claim which renders the Church immune from repentance or critique. Rather, holiness is a gift which corresponds to the nature of the God who has promised fidelity to the Church, and draws that Church toward its final character. 

Flanagan’s book is clearly written and engages with copious sources for scholars seeking guidance on how to conceive of the Church as a holy and yet sinful body. Stumbling in Holiness is most helpful to scholars—rather than students or laity—looking for guidance on these questions. But this does not negate its importance. By rooting reflection on the church’s holiness in the lived experience of liturgy and repentance, Flanagan provides a different angle from the dogmatic reflections on holiness, one which makes sense of theology as a lived venture. For most Christians, holiness is a work in progress, a work which Flanagan reminds us is always foregrounded by the faithfulness of God, who gives and grounds that holiness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian P. Flanagan is Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the co-editor of Liturgy + Power, the 2016 annual volume of the College Theology Society, and the author of Communion, Diversity, and Salvation: The Contribution of Jean-Marie Tillard to Systematic Ecclesiology. He has also written articles on ecclesiology, ecumenism, and liturgical theology.



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