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It is very clear, therefore, etymologically that our word “church” refers to a building. However it is the same word which is used in English to translate from the New Testament, the Greek word ecclesia which provides for romance languages their word for “church” – chiesa in Italian and eglise in French, with traces elsewhere as in Egilsay the church island of Orkney where Magnus was put to death – a martyr’s shrine.
It is in the 16th chapter of St Matthew’s gospel that we find a record of Our Lord’s querying the apostles as to whom people say he is, following it up with the direct question to them: “And who do you say I am?”
Jesus in his response promises that his church will be built on Peter, whose faith he commends as coming “not from flesh and blood but from my Father in Heaven” adding, “I say to you: you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” The very verb to build suggests a building, but the word in Greek means an assembly, a gathering of people, in our context a community of faith which is Peter’s.
When we use the word “church” therefore, we can mean either “an assembly” or the building which gives it cover.
There is of course a figure of speech in which we associate a place with the activity which goes on there and so in common parlance, when we speak of Westminster or Whitehall we mean the Government, as now we do with Holyrood for the devolved government of Scotland, or the City Chambers for the local authority.
So the word “church” refers first to the people whom Jesus identified as sharing the faith of Peter and gathered under his Apostolic authority, described by Jesus as binding and loosing in his name – the so-called power of the keys: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.”