Thursday, April 25, 2013

Unity and unity

I admit I am a somewhat naïve person in respect of Christian unity. I think there should be more of it. I think we should strive harder to achieve it in this world since even a bit of achievement here would be both a witness to Christ now and make life easier for Christians in the new heaven and earth.

One of my starting points is Jesus’ own prayer, ut unim sint. But another starting point for my naive motivation is the simple truth that in the life to come there will be one and only one church. No denominational sections will exist in heaven. But then neither will there be popes, bishops, moderators, superintendents, synods, assemblies or councils!

Here at ADU I am especially concerned that we do not fracture further whatever unity we currently enjoy, with a special eye on my own church, ACANZP, but also a keen eye on the Anglican Communion. But reflecting on these situations, and building on some pertinent points made in comments here in recent days, I recognise that there are varying aspects to either maintaining unity or building unity out of previous difference or even pretending unity exists or moves are being made towards unity when this is not actually so. We could perhaps say that some forms of Christian unity are worth more than other forms!

Compromise for unity

One line from ARCIC in recent years has been that unity between Anglicans and Romans would involve recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. As I recall the relevant document, the language used was as agreeable to Anglicans as could be reasonably hoped but the bottom line was recognition of that specific primacy. Here then, were it ever to happen, would be a compromise, a position not entirely satisfactory to one side of the joining together for the sake of the joining together. Given that a whole lot of other things would be satisfactory (e.g. creedal agreement, continuation of bishops), such a compromise could be worthwhile making. (For simplicities sake here I am not listing many other compromises which would also have to be made!)

By contrast, we could think about potential unity between Anglicans and (non-episcopal) Methodists which always seems to get stuck on the matter of episcopacy because, one way or another, one side would make a compromise which so far as it seems is not able to be made in a manner worthwhile to the one making the compromise. (In particular, from the Anglican side of things, to give up the episcopacy would be to also give up all thought of unity with Rome).

Lowest common denominator unity

This was mentioned in a comment the other day. The specific example advanced was the Uniting Church of Australia. I make no comment about that as I do not know anything much about the history of that joining together. But what can be said here is that to a degree much Anglican unity works in this way: we are united by what we agree on and … that appears to be not much. In respect of the Covenant, for example, a renewal of Communion unity is offered via a high common denominator (i.e. agreement on each and every detail of the Covenant). But the outcome on current prognosis is rejection of the Covenant which de facto is a settling for Anglican unity on as few essentials as possible.

In my own church it is highly arguable that we agree on very little (we ought to have bishops,we have  a constitution which provides for significant cultural delineation in our practical arrangements, and we have a prayer book and lectionary perfectly suited to ‘the Church of Or.’) 

Even more cynically, it is sometimes voiced in our church that we are only held together as three tikanga because we have the St John’s College Trust Board treasure chest of funds for which access has to come through a church united under one General Synod. 

(I myself would wish to be less cynical than that and say that our unity is a binding together of many friends and families in one small set of islands in which we recognise needs for inter-dependency, and the discussions over money keep us talking together and getting to know one another’s situations more deeply than ever before.)

Paper unity

It is also observable in our ecclesiastical arrangements that some proclamations of unity are scarcely worth the writing on the paper that underlines them. A few years ago to a bit of hoopla and what have you, there was proclamation of a covenant between NZ Methodists and NZ Anglicans. I can detect not one whit of difference that has been made by that Covenant. Methodists do not have bishops and we have not abolished them. Friendly relations with Methodists were ever friendly before the Covenant and just as friendly afterwards. I imagine that if the Methodists asked for financial assistance from us they would receive no more or less favourable hearing than before there was a covenant.
Although we will never have a Covenant for the Communion I think it a reasonable thought that if we did have, it would (as time went by) prove to be the harbinger of nothing more than paper unity.

Real unity among Christians is measured by deeds and not by words.


Jethro said...

Maybe a good model for unity is Fresh Expressions in the UK. Methodists and the CoE (and others) have come together and pooled resources for the purpose of mission. I am not sure if there should be unity for any other reason but for the facilitation of mission, because if it isn't God's agenda that we are focused on are we still the church?

Rosemary Behan said...

You sound a bit down Peter, but God is in charge and all is well.

With regard to your last sentence, [Real unity among Christians is measured by deeds and not by words.] That is true, and I often substitute the word 'love' in place of 'unity.' But I would add that it is 'faith' that unites us. I may be disappointed that you don't support me in our differences, Peter, but I'm well aware of the truth of Paul when he said, "KEEP the unity....." We already have that unity Peter, because of our 'faith' and how .. whatever our disagreements, we share that faith.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rosemary and Jethro
Yes, I am a bit down re the state of the church in institutional perspective.

But I am not 'down' at all about our unity in mission (various local and global examples, indeed) and in faith which, thankfully, as you say, Rosemary, does transcend many differences.

Bryden Black said...

Your ruminations on unity require bolstering Peter!

1. As I pointed out on another thread, all four marks/notes of the Church coinhere. We may not speak of unity apart from holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.

2. Crucially, these marks are both “gift and promise”. The Windsor Report makes this clear (§ 46); it also calls them “commands”. (Strictly, of the “communion” of the AC: mutatis mutandis therefore re the creedal marks). This is repeated in that bold Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity called “In One Body Through the Cross” (2003), § 3. For a review of this, see:

ARCIC’s report, “The Gift of Authority”, therefore gets this aspect absolutely correct; and yet ...

3. Extending the picture slightly, all gifts require to be unwrapped - i.e. the command follows/is prompted by the gift and promise. Here of course Christians down through the centuries have acted differently - both in good conscience, and with malice, and with plain indifference! Our Reformation heritage has bequeathed a trichotomous assessment of what this means: the Invisible Mystical Body of Christ; the Visible Body; those actual organizations here and there. Curiously of course, this very first entity has itself a history, as de Lubac has shown, namely, how it originally throughout the first millennium referred to the sacramental elements of the Eucharist, and necessarily tied together Eucharist-and-Church-and-unity. Only in the 12th C did this begin to disintegrate, with “mystical body” now shifting its referent to the ecclesial body of Christ. I.e. some Protestants ignore this entire dynamic to their peril; i.e. again, the coinherence of the four marks of the Church are suitably rich and complex! The Princeton Proposal speaks of the New Delhi WCC Assembly’s Statement (1961) as its springboard. I suggest Peter we could/should do likewise. Unity apart from the sheer incarnational reality of visibility is ... gnostic.

4. Apropos our own dilemmas therefore. As I’ve said repeatedly, our differences are not merely of “gender and sexuality”. Failure to see this consigns us to failure generally and an ongoing irreconcilability. Not that I can see anything approaching unanimity any time soon on how steps 1-3 above might be realized in these Islands. The Princeton Proposal (one more time) accentuates as well the consumer mentality of our contemporary culture, which acts as a corrosive acid, as does our rabid individualism. Both undermine any real search for Christian community, while “choice” reigns supreme. Unless and until any view and practice of “negative freedom” - with its accent on freedom from constraints - is suitably curbed by “positive” freedom’s teleology - which of course is also a theological point!! - we are on a hiding to nowhere ... your ruminations and mine notwithstanding!

Pax et gaudium, Jethro and Rosemary!

Peter Carrell said...

These things are not simple, Bryden!

For instance, we rightly hesitate to be the church (or smorgasboard of churches) of 'choice'; and yet I would be most loathe to see the Anglican church merge into a situation (the most obvious one being unity with Rome) in which 'protest' was not possible when it was emerging that the church was in error.

It is interesting to reflect on how the Protestant Reformation (a) broke then known unity in the Western church; (b) contributed to the eventual development of capitalist consumerism; (c) rescued the church at large from certain errors (and goodness what more in subsequent centuries if they had not been confronted: and (d) now needs to find within itself some means and manner of reunifying God's church.

Bryden Black said...

Er, Peter; I’m not sure we may lay all the blame on the Prot Ref re (a). For starters, there was an extensive plurality already to late medieval theology and praxis. Luther was initially asking a genuine series of questions of his colleagues in the first instance re his Theses. Then we can rightly judge the Roman reaction(s) to the plethora of Prot manifestations to be also part of the problem, to be partially causative of the very disunity. Viz only the call for some degree of repentance at the start of Trent - which was hastily quashed!

Re (d): I’m convinced the way you express it here is an impossibility. It is not within the Prot Ref itself to find the means and manner of reunification. Given the Church universal has the problem, the Church universal needs to look to its Lord for His singular solution, and the steps towards that solution. ‘Cure’ follows ‘diagnosis’ ...

Peter Carrell said...

Agreed, Bryden.
But we Prots need to do what we can and take responsibility for our many schismatic ills and reversal thereof.

A bit of help from the Lord would be much appreciated :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

In thinking about Christian unity in a divided church, I have been wondering about what unity meant for the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2. It seems that tolerance in church life can sometimes get a church offside with the risen Christ!

Perhaps what seems like a split in church life is in reality one section refusing to let go of what it has in Christ and a refusal to walk away from Christ in the name of tolerance and compromise.


Anonymous said...

Is institutional unity desirable, let alone possible? I'm not convinced it is.

There seems to be an assumption that the causes, issues and responses of the Reformation are no longer relevant. I disagree. Rome still teaches Mariolatry, prayers to the dead, indulgences, works righteousness, and extra-Biblical revelations.

Thus I would reject any form of institutional unity for those reasons.

For me Reformed theology is a faithful reading of Scripture. I would not want to lose the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Standards for some kind of vague creedal affirmation that is so lose itjust encourages theological anarchy. This has been the weakness of Anglicanism, it's lack of a comprehensive confessional core. Not a model I would wish on the rest of the Church.

Institutional unity is neither desirable nor possible. Southern Baptists are not going to give up their distinctiveness to join a coalition of Rome and mainline liberals.

The existence of independent confessional denominations was about the only thing that saved Christianity in the West. If it were not for the plethora of conservative and evangelical denominations Liberalism would have spread much further.

Did Jesus' prayer for unity mean institutional unity? I'm not convinced.

Anonymous said...

Agreed Malcolm. Sometimes a church split is the work of the Lord and a necessary defense of the Gospel

Bryden Black said...

A question: if the unity of the Church is necessarily a visible thing, and if one decries institutional unity, then what?

Peter Carrell said...

I concur, Bryden.

Much as the "invisible" unity of the saints (the primary faith we share, the fellowship we have in Christ even if (say) we do not have eucharistic fellowship together) is important, what the world sees as disunity (i.e. denominations) is a visible sign of what is not so which should be so.

Anonymous said...

Why is the unity of the Church a necessarily visible thing?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Shawn
Because our unity is part of our witness and our witness is not invisible.

Because where there is agreement about Christian truth there is, through church history, and observable tendency towards visible unity.

Because it would seem irrational to outsiders if we acclaimed our unity yet denied it was visible.

Bryden Black said...

To answer your question Shawn in a brief phrase: incarnational reality.