Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Unity of the Church, part II

Seriously folks, read this and come back at me - I know this is muddled, so help me out.

We discussed in a previous post how catholic Christians understand the unity of Christ's Church in terms of church order and doctrine. I now intend to expand that to cover mission and sacraments, but first let's consider why it's even needful to have the conversation. Catholic Christians by definition have a particular vision for the unity of the Church: in every place, there is a "local church," understood as the diocese. This is the whole Christian community in a particular geographic area with one pastor, the bishop, with subpastors (his priests) holding the charge of particular congregations/parishes. This community as a whole is understood to believe, practice and teach the Catholic faith as found in the Bible, the Creeds, and the Councils, to celebrate the Sacraments (chiefly baptism and Eucharist) and to engage in mission and Christian formation. We seek to become like Christ, and to invite others to be part of God's plan for saving the world.

Here's the awkward question: what shall be our view of other religions, like Methodism?

But seriously: remember that I started the discussion by insisting that everyone should be scandalized by Christian division, because it is a scandal. Everyone should be scandalized by any instance of people who take the name of Christ treating other people in unloving or destructive ways. It should go without saying (but I shall say it) that inter-denominational fighting and punditry is something I have no time for whatsoever, as it hinders both my transformation and yours. You will not hear me sitting around talking about "those awful benighted ______s, who are scarely Christians at all." Not. Interesting.

(Now exposing the deep poverty of certain dessicated practices, like the care and cultivation of praise bands, is another matter all together. People need to hear that.)

Keep in mind, then, that I share the concerns of the folks whose opinions I'm about to criticize. Many well meaning Christians conflate Christian charity and fraternal love with the rationalization of division by saying something like the following: "We all have different ways of worshipping and serving God, so it's okay if I go the Baptist church and you go to the Lutheran church, and they go to the Methodist church, as long as we all love Jesus and preach the gospel." This is a charitible stance, and the intent is worthy of respect. However, it is an unintentionally dishonest statement. Even if we imagine that there is some form of "the gospel" that we can understand both outside of and within our own culture and language, all of these separated Christians who want to affirm each other in their separation are actually testifying by their own choices that all of those groups understand the story of the Gospel and its demands for discipleship in radically different ways, and that these ways are radically different enough to be Church divding.

The unity of Christ's church has never been predicated upon warm feelings, but rather unity in teaching the faith and living according to the Christian story. If I really agreed so wholeheartedly with my separated breathern that we teach and live what is essentially the same Christian religion, why we do we consider our Christian communities to be different churches?

To live in separated churches, we have to have a particular reason to do so that we consider more important than the basic blanket demand for Christian unity that we find in John's depiction of Jesus? In the above example, the particular reason is ... personal preference. Does anybody really think it comes down to that?

So let us ask together: what are the important church-dividing issues? What are the ways that our different communities have of teaching and living the Gospel that justify our separation? If we can find no justification, what shall we do to end the separation?


Rob Rhodes said...


Both the last post and this one are probably THE most important issue for the Church today (certainly in America where our divisions just serve to encourage our participation in the consumerist worldview) and yet it seems to have the LEAST sense of urgency for some reason.

I don't have time to respond well enough here, but (at least for now) a few thoughts/questions...

At one time Anglo-Catholics thought of themselves as recovering something essentially true for the Church. Today we settle for being tolerated as one more "style." Why?

I think that John Zizoulas (Orthodox theologian), in Being as Communion, goes so far as to ask the question: if there are multiple Eucharists being celebrated in the same area (loosely defined), are any of them valid? Isn't this division itself an anti-sign? (I don't have the book in front of me and will be out of town this weekend, but I can try to find the reference.)

In a situation like that of ECUSA and ELCA, who are in full communion, what does it mean to continue to have two bishops (one ECUSA and one ELCA)?

What ARE the important Church dividing issues? This question is an especially important one for Anglicans since the Anglican Communion is trying to decide whether to divide (and even you and I are in two different camps at the moment).

It seems to me that, at least historically, the ROOT dividing issue is authority--Church, councils, scripture, experience, reason, tradition, some combination of some or all of these, etc. Everything else comes from that.

Hopefully more later.

Good--no GREAT questions!

Father Rhodes

Peter said...

If I remember my reading of the Venerable Richard Hooker, his approach to the question was not to de-Church communities that did not have the signs of the Church you mention in your post. He was writing just as the dust of the Reformation was settling. Churches like the Reformed in Switzerland and the Lutherans in Germany certainly lacked some of the marks of the Catholic Church, but it was the need for reformation that forced them to move forward without those marks. To Hooker, they were authentic parts of the body of Christ, but imperfectly formed. In other words, for example, he would not de-Church them because they did not have the historic episcopate, BUT, he would have argued that they need to get busy restoring it. Unfortunately they did not get busy. (Except Swedish Lutherans).

I write all that to say, Hooker's approach might be helpful in forging a way to accept less than Catholic Churches as part of the Body of Christ while still insisting that Anglicanism gets the marks right and is fully Catholic. IOW -- a to be charitable and still have convictions.

+ simonas said...

The issue goes back to East-West, Catholic-Anglican, which Anglican, etc. divisions. However, one needs to take off the rose colored glasses to see the Dominican-Franciscan, Armenian, and other theological differences even within the Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. Don't you think? I wonder how they can be reconciled. Pardon my ignorance, if anything.

Anonymous said...

When any two gather, two questions inevitably arise:

1. Who is in charge here?

2. Who says it is you?

Everything else seems like commentary.