Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A False Notion of the Unity of the Church

One of the threads in the discussions of the World Wide Anglican Communion over the past several years has focused on the priority of unity within the Body of Christ. In good part, I believe, that discussion has been fueled by the difficulty many are having with one of the central virtues of Anglicanism, comprehensiveness, which allows for differing viewpoints to co-exist within the same congregation, diocese, province and Communion. Against that sense of dis-ease, I note the following about our necessary unity:

First, it is most often that we find or discover our unity with one another in mission or in jointly resisting evil in the world. Councils and committees are important, but they rarely have the power of seeking justice and exercising compassion together in the world. The unity of the church, expressed in public documents comes in a poor second to the unity of the church in resisting evil or promoting the Kingdom of God.

In response to seek to replace comprehensiveness with uniformity, often referring to “the scandal of our divisions,” I fail to see how a wondrous array of perspectives and commitments being lived out through different denominations is scandalous. We are all united in the Risen Body of Christ -- what could be closer What I would consider as scandalous is what the Roman Catholics do and infer -- that is, saying that they are the authentic church of Jesus Christ while others represent different shades and expressions of inauthenticity and untruth.

This is what will be scandalous: It will be scandalous when the Quakers are not allowed or honored to be the very best Quakers they can be -- and the same for the Mennonites, the Baptists, Episcopalians and Orthodox. No one denomination, national or international church can represent the others. While there are strains of the Mennonites in certain enclaves of Roman Catholics, that witness will always be an aberration. In the same way, the discipline of the Assembly of God cannot be integrated within the Orthodox tradition without compromising what is special and unique there. Why compress everything into a shadow of its former self in the name of unity? Talk about your scandal!

The problem is not with our differing denominations -- it is with our lack of humility, charity and ability to see the fullness of Jesus Christ in ways we, ourselves, do not embody. I remember the words of a long dead bishop in the United Methodist Church, “Thank God we are not all United Methodists!” When Episcopalians can say that with convictions, we will be a much stronger and more faithful expression of the institutional life of Jesus Christ.

Bishop Richard Shimpfky preached an excellent sermon a few years ago about the diversity within the Trinity which co-exists with the unity. For Jesus to pray that the church may be one, even as he and the Father are one, does not presuppose a lack of diversity or difference. Diversity and difference are built in to the life of the Trinity.

Consider, too, the life of Jesus. Where in his band of disciples can one discern anything like "unity" within the followers of Jesus? Where could you ever discover such a thing -- even in the early church with its diversity of experience and beliefs? If you want to dispel the myth of “the faith once delivered to the saints” as having anything at all to do with a unified set of beliefs or ways of thinking about divine love, atonement, Baptism or any other core beliefs in the early centuries of the Christian church, read David Rhoads’ “The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels” (Fortress Press).

In the dialogue about unity in the church it is always fair to ask: Is there a way to the unity you are holding up that can come about by means other than strict enforcing of boundaries around theological and ethical formulations and concerns? I believe that the unity God provides the church is the unity which allows and encourages a variety of faithful responses through our varied faith in God.

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