Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dismissing the Call to Unity

Over at Anglican Down Under, Peter Carrell has discovered that suggesting we need to work harder at unity within the Anglican Communion elicits objections and opposition from some "progressive" Anglicans. In a posting entitled "The end is near but what will emerge is unknown," Peter writes:

... I am deeply troubled that I cannot raise the question of Anglican unity here without response that 'unity' is 'imposition of unity' or 'institutional unity' and we do not want that. To say we are 'Anglican' yet have no shared enthusiasm across the 'Communion' for Anglican 'unity' is, frankly, a travesty in respect of New Testament teaching on the church as the body of Christ. To raise barriers to progress to unity by, say, invoking the spectre of an unholy trinity of an Anglican version of papacy, curia, and magisterium is a failure to engage with the challenge of being one Anglican Communion. To continue to assert national sovereignty of member churches of the Communion is to work with half a loaf of ecclesiology: the other half is true interdependence in the body of Christ. To claim that there is only one church of Christ (true) and then offer nothing more than 'prayer' to progress the unity of the visible expressions in our world of that one church is - I think, but I think St Paul would agree - a loss of nerve, vision, and will. My question is this: can we expect a Communion of churches to remain intact when it is both generally divided and even divided on what it means to be united? With no shared vision of our future together why would we expect to remain a Communion?

Here I am proposing that the present Anglican Communion, visibly falling apart, will continue to do so unless it finds the will to do otherwise.

In light of "progressive" dismissals of the New Testament's (and our Lord's) call to unity, I am struck by what other Christians have said about it. C. S. Lewis, for instance, wrote: "Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards reunion." Speaking before 200,000 people at a Mass in India, the late Pope John Paul II said: “The past and present divisions [among Christians] are a scandal to non-Christians, a glaring contradiction of the will of Christ, [and] a serious obstacle to the church’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel.” And William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who lived in the late-19th Century, put it even more succinctly when he wrote in his book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity that “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work.”

To be fair, it's not just folks on the left side of the Anglican spectrum who can take all the blame. Many conservative Anglicans have made more than their fair share of contributions to the "devil's work" of disunity and division over the past several years as well. And if we're honest, perhaps each and every one of us has done the same in thought, word, or deed at one time or another. Left, Right, Center, you name it - manifestations of the politicization of the Church are alive and well.

It's also true that not everyone on the "progressive" side of things outright rejects the call to unity. But sometimes the lack of an outright rejection can still entail a dismissal. For instance, some respond by saying that, in the midst of our disagreements, we can be and in many cases are united - in communion - by virtue of common mission. Unity or communion in practice takes precedence over unity or communion in belief and order. But that assumes that across our disagreements we agree on what "mission" really is (and prior to that, what the Church itself is and what her purpose is). And it also assumes that our disagreements on matters of belief and order aren't really all that important anyway. What matters is that, together, we do things like feed the hungry, etc.

Philip Turner, in his recent essay "Unity, Order and Dissent: On How to Dissent Within a Communion of Churches," makes a relevant point here:

... communion [for many within the Episcopal Church] is defined largely in moral rather than theological terms. This position follows naturally enough from the reduced role of common belief just set forth. No one wishes to underestimate the importance of shared ministry in service to the poor, but it is hard to see, when push comes to shove, why communion as TEC defines it is communion in Christ Jesus. In the end, Jesus is no more than a good example of a moral ideal than he is a savior apart from whom we can neither know nor serve God as God wills.

Pitting the gift of unity against working for unity is a false dichotomy. Salvation is a gift from God. And yet, as the apostle Paul exhorts us, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Unity is also a gift from God. But as with salvation, so too with unity: just as we are called to "work out" what it means to be saved, we are called to "work out" what it means to be one, not just in practice (mission), but also in terms of substantive belief and how the Church is ordered. To say that all we have to do is just pray for greater unity rather than do hard, sacrificial work for unity could be the wide and easy road that leads to destruction. And if that's true, how should dismissing the call to unity with scorn and/or charges of imperialism be characterized?


Reformation said...

Although no scholar on St. Augustine, yet, according to one writer read tonight, there were about 80-100 versions of apostasy, heresy, schism or varied versions thereof such during Augustine's regency in Carthage. "That" is worth researching, to wit, these multifarious "versions." May attempt to track this down. We surely have some bizarre versions alive and afoot in our times too.

plsdeacon said...

I truly believe that the true problem within the Anglican Communion is not one of sexual expression nor of morality. i don't even believe that it is a problem of authority.
It is a malformed ecclesiology. Validimir Losky said that if the Church is the Body of Christ, it is subject to the same christological heresies as the person of Christ.
Too many people do not recognize the fully human and fully divine nature of the Church. They try to divide it into "this" is of divine nature or "that" is of human nature - essentially Nestorianism. Or they claim that the Church is a purly human institution (adoptionism) or that is is a purely divine one (docetism).

Our ecclesiology flows from our christology. If our ecclesiology is malformed, then we should look at the underlying Christology.

Following Pelikin, Christology flows from sotierology and I would say that solierology flows from anthropology.

To refuse to work towards unity and to ask what I need to surrender (or, better yet, empty myself of) to acheive unity in the Body of Christ is to either see the Church as a purly human insitution (adoptionistic) or to see the Church as only truly existing in the heavenly realm and to have no real connection to the Church on earth.

Phil Snyder

Peter Carrell said...

Amen to your post!

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting comment, Reformation. We do, indeed, have some "bizarre" offshoots and deviations from Christian faith thriving very well in our time.

Phil, I think you're right to argue that the problems within Anglicanism run deeper than the divisive issues we struggle with. Those issues are symptoms of deeper theological problems. Some of those problems may be unique to the Episcopal Church and elsewhere within Anglicanism. But quite a bit of it may be a reflection of trends surfacing in an increasingly post-Christian culture (summarized by the Barna Group in "Six Megathemes Emerge from Barna Group Research in 2010"). Perhaps more than we realize, we tend to mirror the social and cultural context in which we find ourselves.

And thanks, Peter, for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate your blog.