Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Unity of the Church, part I

Catholic Christians understand the Unity of the Body of Christ to be a primary concern for all Christians. I have written before that I believe many folks to be "inappropriately scandalized" by the fact of Christian division. If you are a baptized person, it should bother you. Lots. At least enough to do something about it.

For evangelical protestants, the unity of the Church looks like people getting along and sharing prayers and ministry. This is as true and important, as far as it goes. I think many evangelicals would also say that doctrinal unity - specific assent to particular theological points - is an important aspect of unity (perhaps the most important) and is a prerequisite to shared mission in many cases and perhaps a prerequisite to sharing a life of prayer and friendship.

Catholic Christianity is concerned with doctrine, mission, and getting along, but for us, it looks very different - it looks like questions of church order. Of course sacramental validity fits in there as well. For evangelicals, the thing we understand as church order often seems arbitrary, but I'll try to explain.

While it may seem to many that the ancient church consisted of a "mixed economy" of alternative and competing Christianties (much like today's Protestant milieu), from the very beginning churches were differentiated by geography, not by their particular version of the Faith. The "local church" was the assembly of all Christians in a particular place, not a small "congregation" grouped by preference or affinity. Within the first several decades after Christ's Ascension, an order that historians call the "monarchical episcopate" had emerged - instead of the local church in each city being ruled by a college (or council) of presbyters, there emerged one overseer, or bishop, from that college. He was understood to present Christ as shepherd to the Church, and became a focus for unity of the wider Church. It also quickly became important that these bishops have the right relational pedigree; in an age where teachers of alternative Christianities kept cropping up and claiming special revelation or access to secret teaching that had been passed down from Jesus through some shadowy characters in a fashion that was impossible to confirm, it was important to know that a bishop had been discipled (apprenticed or formed in the Christian faith) by someone who was known to be a close associate of the Apostles. The bishop's power and prerogative to ordain was considered to be derivative of the authority Jesus invested in the Apostles, and when priests acted in Christ's name to preside at the Eucharist and to grant absolution of sin, they were understood to derive their authority from their bishop. It was also understood that these bishops and therefore their priests would have been formed according to the Rule of Faith, which later became known as the official creeds of the Christian Church - I mean specifically the so-called Apostles' Creed.

When a community could claim that pedigree, one knew that the community in question professed and practiced the true Christian faith, and that this was a community that Jesus transformed by his ongoing action through the sacraments.

So when we consider the question of Christian unity, we believe it to have several expressions:

1. Is this a community of Christians that derives from apostolic continuity, or did it spring up from someone else's peculiar Bible reading, or particular version of Christianity? Unity in the Church requires continuity with apostolic Christianity.

2. Do the bishops of particular communities recognize one another as teachers of the apostolic faith, who have been consecrated in the apostolic succession?

3. Does the community profess and teach the Bible according to the Creeds?

After answering these joint questions of doctrine, church order and sacramental validity, then we concern ourselves with what it means to get along well with one another, and to recognize one anothers ministries as Christian communities, and start agreeing together about what it means to be Christian people.


+ Alan said...

These are definitely things to concern ourselves with in thinking about the Church. I think what I was saying, in part, in my post last week was that although the Catholic Church does hold a great deal of the ancient Faith in it's boundaries - they do not exclusively belong to the Church of Rome. Rome may well have acted as a pretty decent steward of much Truth and Order over the years, but it is not perfect (I am saying this) and owing to the broken nature of mankind who makes up the Church, we have seen degradation as well as proper maintenance going on through the Church's history.

So, we have an interesting thing going on at this point in history. The brokenness of man has lead to the brokenness of the Church Herself. All these broken parts are still, nonetheless, parts of that broken Body of Christ. Are some expressions of the Church more broken than others? Perhaps. Some have forgotten more. Maybe the DNA strands are a bit more fragmented in some arenas than in others. Sure, and...

Well, and I'm not sure. I'm not sure that we can look at the Church, It's Order, doctrine, etc. as scientists look at genes. Not that we don't try, mind you. Are these things important? Yes, I think they are, but I think we have to realize how far we are able to go in trying to reconfigure the Church's "proper" DNA structure. I don't believe it's a very tight proposition.

To begin with, the Church itself is a stop-gap measure. It has been constructed of twisted, sin-riddled, broken people (us), and even though It is protected in certain ways the the Holy Spirit, we still screw things up to one degree or another, just not totally. The Church in all Her glory is not, as I said a little while back, the entire point of God's big Plan. It's a means to get there. Even if we get a bunch of things "right," I don't think we can hope to it all down to a sort of scientific certainty.

So (again), while there may be an idealistic longing for everything to be all wrapped up tightly, for us all to be under one roof, one Bishop, all recognize the same Sacraments in the same way, etc. - I'm not sure we should expend tons of energy trying to weave all that back together. Not that we should just leave well enough alone, but I'm just not sure what exactly we can do. It's never been quite ideal from the get-go.

Some may be, in the mean time, called to one expression or another (understanding, of course, that said expression is not terribly crippling in some inherent way). God certainly knows what we each can handle - how much tension we can live with and in - what we will each be able to do - in a certain ecclesiastical place. And if His Holy Spirit is working in and through ALL of us, in all these places, then He IS. He's working to transform us and the world around us, not just to get us into another place.

It's all a bit complicated and, as I said, unscientific. That's about the best I can do with it today. Peace.

Peter said...

I think Bishop Ken would like what you typed:

"I die in the holy catholic and apostolic faith, professed by the whole church before the division of East and West." Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 17th Century.

Your Reverend Father in Christ

benrey said...

good word and thanks for the shout out. as for the u2charist...if your serious it could provide a good post because I am not a fan. but matters of inculturation are key to continuing a missional church. but we will see....

Kyle said...

No, Ben. I was not serious. The "U2charist" comes straight out of a pit in hell. The very idea is horrible.

Kyle said...

Seriously. A "U2charist" is the kind of bawdy humor Father Matthews would use to make sherry spew from my nose. Harrumph!

benrey said...

ok...now your in. my friend and i made fun of that comment for hours. we had no idea if you were serious.

Unknown said...

Hi Kyle, you should really join the conversation over at http://anglimergent.ning.com if you haven't already (it's kind of like Facebook for those who self-identify as Anglican. Extremely Angli-nerdy.) 400 of us are having some interesting conversation there around church unity issues such as those which you discuss in this post, etc., and I'm always intrigued by your mildly academic, pseudo-traditionalist perspective...