Thoughts on Christian Unity

January 18-25 is traditionally (since 1908) the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The 18th is the Feast of The Confession of St. Peter (see Matt. 16) and the 25th is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (see Acts 9) and so the week of prayer for Christian unity is bracketed by these two feasts which, I am told, is supposed to have symbolic value.

Christian Unity has been on my mind a great deal in the last week, especially as I read Pope John Paul II (the Great)' s extremely important and thoughtful encyclical: Ut Unum Sint (from John 17:11 in the Vulgate), and again re-read the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which the World Methodist Council endorsed last year.

Christian unity has always been intuitively important for me, most likely because of the dizzying array of churches I have personally been involved with, and has become even more important intellectually in recent years. First there is the issue of credibility - we claim to have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" yet we are divided and often enough suspicious of one another. We claim to have been reconciled to God and to be his ambassadors entrusted with a ministry of reconcilliation, yet we are not reconciled to one another. We claim to all be citizens living in right relationship to our one king (against whom we formerly were in rebellion), yet we do not have good relations with one another. We claim to be sharing in the very life of the one God through union with the one Christ, yet we do not even share communion with one another as one body. Our dis-unity is a scandal to the credibility of the gospel that we preach, as has been many times pointed out.

My other primary reason has to do with interpretative authority. I have come to believe that the Bible in a very real sense belongs to the Spirit-led Church as a whole - through the ages and across cultures - not to any individual. The Church as a whole took individual books and letters and put them together as one canonical Bible and the Church as a whole is therefore the legitimate interpreter of Scripture - indeed deciding on the canon was itself an interpretative act by the whole Church. Since the fragmentation of the one holy and catholic Church, beginning in 1054 or even earlier, into the various churches, the Church as a whole has no longer been able to gather a truly ecumenical council to speak decisively on any issue, as it could before. Now just as the conensus of the Early Fathers is discernable before the fragmentation of the Church, so also there is a discernable consensus of faithful Christian teaching through the ages down to this very day - so that in a sense the Church still exercises this interpretative authority - but not as decisively as would be possible in a fully United Church.

Is reunion possible? "With God all things are possible" - yet recent events have left us feeling a bit ambivalent. Clearly the recent papal visit to the Patriarch of Constantinople and of the churches of the East, is a powerful indicator of what the Spirit is doing - something that would have been unthinkable in previous centuries. Yet at the same time there are discouraging things going on as well - even as we Methodists are conducting full-communion talks with the Anglicans, the Anglican Communion itself seems on the edge of schism because of the defiant and un-orthodoxy activities of the Western churches.

A recent "Methodist News" article with the hopeful title "Pan-Methodist Commission Continues the Journey of Becoming One" might better have been titled "Black Methodist Churches say "no" to full unity with UMC" despite our sharing the same doctrine, polity, history, and liturgy. Rightly or wrongly, distrust runs deep.

There are a number of stumbling blocks still to be overcome: what should unity look like in practice? What role with the pope and the other major bishops and patriarchs play? And then there are the irreconcilable differences that now exist over questions of polity, doctrine, and ministry - how far must we come toward uniformity on these issues to have unity, since it is unlikely we will ever be of one mind?

Yet, in the light of all that has happened in the last hundred years, and upon reflecting on Ut Unum Sint, I remain hopeful for the future. A friend of mine suggested that after the first millenium of an undivided church, and the second millenium of a fragmenting church, the third millenium of Christianity that we have now begun will be one of reconciliation and reunion. And I am hopeful that he is right.

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Blogger Exist~Dissolve said...

Good post--

I am glad to see that you are placing the meaning and authority of the Scriptures within the life and tradition of the church universal. One of the main problems I have with my Protestantism is that too often the concept of "sola Scriptura" simply because a tool for each atomized denomination (and church within them, for that matter) of establishing and perpetuating a very particular and exclusivist interpretation that fits whatever particular paradigm of thought which the leadership wishes to establish. Clearly, within such a context, a move towards ecumenism is not only nearly inconceivable, but also butts up against the hegemonies that these particular interpretive traditions have created.

As you, I pray that ecumenism will be realized. However, I truly think that it will take a major crisis within the life of the universal church (perhaps a widespread persecution) to draw the fragments back together.

6:11 AM, January 25, 2007  

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