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Christian Unity

Week Prayer Christian UnityIn the Southern Hemisphere this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Christians cannot even get united enough to have a single agreed week when they pray for Christian unity! The Northern Hemisphere has a different week.

The Western experiment in confessional Christianity has obviously failed. For every belief there are people in favour and people against: postmillennialists versus premillennialists; for and against infant baptism; for and against predestination; single versus double predestination; and so on and so on and so on. Every believer is his or her own pope. Make your particular confessional list of beliefs; tick and cross your boxes – each alternative increasing by two or more options of divisions the estimated 41,000 ever-increasing number of denominations. Furthermore each time two groups, such as A and B, join together, generally the result is more denominations, not less: the uniting A&B, continuing A, and continuing B.

Unity, of course, appears on some confessional lists and not on others. Explicitly or implicitly. Ranked higher or lower than say truth or justice. “How dare you break the unity for which Christ prayed!” (or stronger).

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6 Responses to Christian Unity

  1. “The Western experiment in confessional Christianity has obviously failed.” What results were you expecting that leads you to this conclusion?

    I think it gets ever more interesting. Unity does not mean uniformity. What’s wrong with 41,000 denominations? To me, the crucial question is how they treat each other, not how many of them there are. We serve a God who makes different looking leaves on the same tree. There seem to be 41,000 different kinds of dog, & this does not seem to be considered problematic.

    • I am totally on the same page as you, Angie, when it comes to your last two sentences.

      I struggle with the rest of what you say .

      Confessional groups do not, it seems to me, have quite the same crucial question as you do. Those who, just to give one example, subscribe to double predestination in their confession do not, in my experience, look at Arminians and Universalists as other, equally-correct expressions of the same multi-faceted mystery we call “God”.

      Easter Season blessings.

  2. The diversity we see around us is where several hundred thousand years of church history has brought us. I can’t help feeling that there might be some divine purpose in this diversity that we can’t see. There is so much we can learn from each other, each denomination has different strengths and weaknesses. I agree with Angie – unity is about how we treat each other, even those we disagree with.

  3. At my college we just had a two-day conference called “Through Each Other’s Eyes: Anglican/Orthodox Mutual Fascination”. (I was invited to give a lecture on Eastern influences on the BCP.)

    I’ve never been much involved in ecumenical activity. But I quite enjoyed this conference. At events like this, you are likely to hear Christians from another denomination praising your tradition (often noticing qualities that are invisible to you at the coal face) while offering honest critiques of their own tradition. One (lay) Orthodox theologian outed himself as a long-term supporter of women’s ordination, and he suggested that this issue, as a subset of the wider question of “the place of women in Orthodoxy”, has been simmering among Orthodox faithful for decades while the hierarchs have kept their heads in the sand. (I think Fr. John Behr’s recent work on Christian anthropology marks a healthy fresh start in that department.) That speaker suggested that the Orthodox insistence on doctrinal agreement as the non-negotiable foundation of unity was becoming more and more unrealistic, and that it was worth their while having a look at the “Baptismal Ecclesiology” that Anglicans have begun to embrace. (As an Anglican, I wanted to warn him that our baptismal grass might not be as green as he thinks, but I appreciated the sentiment!)

    A young Orthodox speaker expressed his opinion that Anglicans and Orthodox were very close to each other theologically precisely because they had both largely avoided the confessional, systematic approach to Christian belief that you’ve mentioned as a failure, Bosco. I must confess that I have sometimes been very frustrated by the Anglican aversion to system. The Catholic Catechism is a very tempting resource, because it’s so easy to look up “the answer”. But there is a lot to be said for a continual return to first principles, guided by trustworthy signposts, as we grapple with new questions, instead of trying to triangulate our position within a rigid constellation of precedents and definitions.

    A helpful paper was given by a Canadian Anglican, John Gibaut, who is director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He talked about the importance of the “Forum” method of ecumenical engagement, which apparently was first tried in the Canadian Council of Churches and is now used by the WCC itself. For much of its history, the CCC based its voting and negotiations on the relative size of the denominations represented, and also on the financial contribution that each denomination made to the CCC. It was therefore hard to see any statements or decisions as representative of the breadth of Christian opinion. In the 1990s, they moved to a “forum” method. Whenever a question is being discussed, each represented Church is asked to submit a clear, forceful statement of that Church’s position on the question and the reasons for the position. And each member Church has an equal voice in crafting an agreed statement. This had the happy result of bringing the Roman Catholic Church into full membership — the first time that’s happened, apparently, in a national council of churches — since there was a guarantee that its voice would not be subsumed into a milquetoast compromise statement.

    The whole time, I was thinking of a passage in C. S. Lewis’s Letters to an American Lady (pp. 11-12, dated Nov. 10, 1952), where he reacts to her revelation that she has become a Roman Catholic:

    “I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion. I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes. I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity: how much more one has in common with a *real* Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalising occidentalised specimen of the same categories. Let us by all means pray for one another: it is perhaps the only form of ‘work for re-union’ which never does anything but good.”

    Closer to each other, because closer to the beating hearts of our own traditions, and therefore closer to Christ, in whom alone we can be One.

  4. It has taken until this year for some strange reason for me to become fully aware of the diverse traditions regarding The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity you allude to Bosco! In my naivety I fancied the week in January, from 18th to 25th, with its respective Feasts at the beginning and conclusion, was ‘it’. It took the service last Tuesday in St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, Manchester St, led by RC Bp Barry with Anglican Bp Victoria preaching (with a great text from Kierkegaard I might add: “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”), for my ignorance to be properly dispelled. Bp Barry explained to me over supper how the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the RCC were the real runners of that version we in the Southern Hemisphere subscribe to. Northerners still go with the earlier version in January, where the impetus remains “to pray for that unity for which Christ prayed” in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17 – which is how I’ll respond to your other two commentators here.

    The Christian Faith is resolutely an Incarnational Reality. That is to say, any due unity should be reflective of that essential trait. So that again, recourse to such things as the “mystical body of Christ” and “invisible, spiritual unity” are cop-outs. So that finally, when the Founder Himself prays for unity and the Creeds spell it out as “one holy catholic and apostolic” Church, we’d expect a bit more than fellow-well-met-jollity or conviviality among the like-minded! To be sure, that’s when the fun starts! For how to institutionalize this said unity is the crux. Welcome to the world where redemption and communion of the human race under the One Lordship of Jesus have begun but have yet to be fully realized …

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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