Friday, August 6, 2010

Unity in the gospel: actually organization, practise, and doctrine matter

Picking up on a some comments made to my previous post, I suggest that unity in the gospel in line with Jesus' prayer in John 17 requires organizational unity, commonality in practice, as well as in doctrine. That we settle for less in most ecumenical discussions is understandable: our allegiances are so strong. But should we settle for less when Jesus himself did not? Should we accept the flawed understandings, to say nothing of unredeemed behaviour in the church which has both led to and sustained our divisions? If we do, it is not credible that we can claim to be living worthily of the gospel or walking in the way of Christ. 'There is one body ...'!

As noted below, it is true that substantial unity between Christians can be shared across denominations (e.g. evangelicals working together in common mission) and within a denomination in which orthodoxy and heterodoxy (e.g. Arianism) mingle. I am all for finding and working with as substantial unity between Christians as can reasonably be found; and I myself have enjoyed hugely and profited immensely from shared unity across denominations, and within my own theologically diverse Anglican church.

But I am not naive about limits to such unity. Evangelicals, for example, working together evangelistically often have to negotiate tricky issues around what happens to converts when 'converts' includes baptised-as-infants persons coming to 'adult faith': evangelical Baptists and evangelical Anglicans take different views on whether or not such conversions should be followed up with baptism! Within Anglican churches Arians and non-Arians mostly get on fine ... until, say, liturgical revision comes up and Arian proposals to sideline the creeds, or to rewrite them  get short shrift from a church which remembers it is constitutionally orthodox and not Arian!

Or, to take another example, relating to organization of churches, a lot of very fruitful church ministry and mission takes place ecumenically across denominations, including formal joint or co-operative churches (typically in Aotearoa New Zealand, in some combination of two or more of Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches). Excellent. But push on further in deepening that unity ... we find, again and again, that Anglican commitment to episcopacy through an ordained-for-the-rest-of-their-lives individual is a point of division from churches which understand oversight differently (e.g., as I have had it explained to me, the Presbyterian concept of the presbytery as a shared, conciliar episcopacy).

I appreciate, as I have tried to note in posts below, that doctrinal agreement via a 'lists' approach is unlikely to enhance unity. But that does not mean that doctrinal agreement is not important for Christian unity. Regaining unity among churches currently divided by baptism, eucharist, and the ordering of ministry necessarily involves doctrinal agreement. If it is not about agreeing to 'lists' then I suggest it is about refinding together what Christ intended for his church in respect of baptism, eucharist and ordering of ministry.

I readily appreciate that Jesus looking upon his church rejoices at all expressions of unity between Christians. I do not believe that the Spirit of Jesus working in us is satisfied with the present situation. I am raising through these posts the question whether even the most ecumenically minded among us is willing to settle for an understanding of unity which falls short of Jesus' own understanding as expressed in John 17 and reinforced through the epistles. 'There is one body ...'.


Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,
I'm wondering if you or others can give us some case studies on organizational unity between churches? Are there any common threads that characterise the successful and unsuccessful attempts? My modern church history is pretty poor, so the only ones that spring to mind for me are the Church of North India, Church of South India, Church of Pakistan and the Uniting Church of Australia. I can't judge the Indian or Pakistani cases, but the UCA has been a disaster. It took a theological approach of "lowest common denominator" between its 3 constituent members (Congregationalists, Methodists, and some Presbyterians) and despite a faithful remnant is sliding into oblivion.
Andrew Reid

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrew,
Just because something has not worked well so far does not mean we should not attempt it (having learnt the lessons of past mistakes)!

In NZ we have some instances of 'co-operative ventures' in ministry which have worked very well (and, yes, some which have not). My understanding of the united churches in Pakistan and India is that they are working very well in parts, but with some worrying situations in other parts.

Arguably the major churches in China, i.e. the official state-approved church, and the house church movement, represent unified church organizations which have a past in Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and other churches in China.