“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” ~ Jesus (John 17:20-23)
Yesterday I wrote about the Church, about how it’s messed up, but we’re called to be a part of it anyway. My goal is not to exhaust the list of things that can, truly or falsely, give the Church a bad reputation, but there is one more such item that I want to discuss today, and that is in fact the subject and purpose of my current stage of education.
One of the largest, and (to my mind) most legitimate criticisms of the Church is how divided it is with itself. Christians fight with each other – yet another aspect of our sinfulness that we haven’t managed to shake in our already/not-yet state. Yesterday I talked about how Christians hurt each other, and the nature of Christian institutions. Church schisms are when broken relationships between Christians become part of the very fabric of the Christian institution called the Church.
Jesus, in the prayer quoted above, directly links Christian unity with Christian witness. How will the world know that the Jesus we represent is truly sent from God? Because they can see that we are one. And I don’t mean one in some monolithic structural sense, but one as the Trinity is one with itself. Intimidated? You should be. The relationship between the three persons of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is beyond our comprehension, but one thing we know about it is that they each glorify the other. In our one God are three persons bound by love (Augustine even says that the Holy Spirit is the love that binds the Father and Son).
When the opposite of that happens, the world is just confused. Our message is one of reconciliation: Jesus is the Son of God who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be reconciled to God, and through Him, to each other. What do we expect the world to think when we remain unreconciled with each other, as the claimants to the ultimate message of reconciliation?
This semester, myself and two other students have been immersing ourselves in literature on the topic of church unity, called “ecumenism” in fancy parlance. The topic is enormous, as massive amounts of work and the lives of many faithful Christians have been spent writing theology, organizing conferences, facilitating discussions, and documenting communication in the long task of unifying the church. So rather than come up with some sort of coherent argument for church unity (if you think it’s important, you don’t need one; and if you don’t think it’s important, a conversation would be much better than a blog post), I thought you might enjoy a few bullet points that describe the most interesting things we’ve learned.
- First, a lot of work has been done already, particularly over the past century. I mean, a TON. So much that it’s called the “ecumenical movement.” Although there are still some serious theological disagreements, tons of discussions between major denominations has led many to the conclusion that we agree on way more than we disagree, and in many areas that we thought we disagreed, we don’t really.
- You might not know it, but this work has deeply affected the every day worship of many traditional churches. Take, for example, the Catholic mass, which (in the version I grew up with) is full of prayers for unity.
- This does not mean that the goal of the ecumenical movement is to find a lowest common denominator of theology, then put the rest in the closet. Instead, the movement hopes that the things that are truly distinctive about different groups of Christians will be treasures from which the whole church can draw. The Episcopal bishop Charles Brent, credited with founding the ecumenical movement, said that unity between people with no strong convictions is meaningless and cheap. Instead, a desire for unity ought to come out of deep Christian conviction, and the charity to do the hard work of learning from each other.
- However, unifying the church will require sacrifice. Lesslie Newbigin, largely responsible for the unification of denominations in the region of South India, said that everyone will have to die to themselves in some way to come together, will have to give up something they hold dear.
- The reason that the word “ecumenism” has a dirty sound to many is that it has often been confused with the word “interfaith,” and associated with compromise. While dialogues between Christians and other religions are important and beneficial for all sorts of reasons, when they replace the task of Christian ecumenism, the gospel is compromised. True ecumenism asks no one to compromise their convictions, but seeks to bring them to the table with Christian charity and openness to the Holy Spirit.
One of the major reasons Jared and I became Anglican is that it seemed like an excellent place from which to work for the unity of the church. In many ways, Anglicanism straddles the fence. Its classic self-definition is “the Reformed Catholic church,” trying to walk the “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism, with a growing affection for Eastern Orthodoxy. Most of the doctrinal arguments which divide the church run right down the middle of Anglicanism, which has more or less managed to stay unified despite that fact. Also, Anglicanism has plenty to be embarrassed about, so it would be difficult for our pride to get in the way of being willing to talk with other.
It is my humble opinion that true unity of the Church has to start happening at the local, grassroots level. Theologians and denominational higher-ups have been having these talks for decades, but most of us people in the pews don’t even know such discussions are going on, and perhaps even think we are obligated by our faith to antagonize the MethoPresBaptAnglipalians across the street. And it’s our ground-level squabbles that actively hamper the ministry in our communities.
So if the Lord is moving you, start praying about it. Pray about what you can do, in your church and community, to work for the unity of the church. One of my new ecumenical heroes, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, says it best: “If we thoughtfully, specifically, and continuously prayed for the church’s unity, each party would find itself praying for specific changes in its own life.” (Unbaptized God, p. 8.)
For further reading: There is a wealth of excellent books on ecumenism, but one book that has been deeply convicting and formative for many is Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Household of God. A very short and readable book that summarizes the current status of the ecumenical movement is the outcome of the Princeton Project, a three-year study by theologians across the board, called In One Body Through the Cross (edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson).