Thursday 19 November 2009

What kind of Unity? and of Church?

Rowan Williams’ lecture in Rome marks an interesting reframing of ecumenical futures. There is, of course, the conventional RC model. The Church achieves the Unity for which Jesus prayed when every Christian in the world submits to it as a Divinely sanctioned Imperium. Or try the Protestant version. Structural and organisational convergence will somehow produce a complex multiplanar hybrid. Everyone trades in their old but coherent structural and accountability models to the shining new one. Unity remains a future goal, and we all have to make it happen.

Those two notions have their finer points. The retro-RC one has the virtue of coherence and vertical accountabioity lines, allbeit a coherence that many of its own followers ignore. It does actually exist. The Liberal Protestant one respects the value of every strand and models mutuality, consent and fellowship but, here comes the twist, it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, like its Roman colleague, it has a tendency to homogenise everything into what it wants them to be, rather than taking the trouble to understand the particularities which make up any Church. Surely these amount to more than simply a ghastly mistake on God’s part.

What the last thirty years has revealed, however, is that a simple binary unity based on Imperium or Liberal democracy raise questions as well as answering them. The great ecclesiologists of Vatican II have established a great deal of common ground theologically, but considerable divergence organisationally and politically. At which point, enter Cardinal Kasper with a model I think is fundamental to what we are trying to do in England today. In a vitally important address delivered in St Albans in 2002, Cardinal Kasper suggested we accept the old Structural/bureaucratic ecumenical quest had gone as far as it could in its own terms, and it was time for fresh thinking. He suggested what he called Receptive Ecumenism. This means that everyone lays gently on one side the dream of Homogenised unity, and concentrates on seeing how they can be a gift to the whole company of Christ’s faithful people. Equally tellingly, we try to develop attitudes and practice in receiving the others as gift not threat. Do that for a bit, and see where it gets us. So out go big merger schemes based on fudge, and quests for imperial hegemony. In come processes of Appreciative Inquiry and clarity.

How is Rowan sharpening up these questions? He’s asking what the great degree of theological convergence revealed by the work of the past thirty years amounts to. He’s diagnosing two principles inherent in the life of the baptized — a Conciliar horizontal plane, and an ordained vertical line of accountability. He’s asking how these integrate in the actual lives Churches and Christians live, as well as the notional sructures within which they find themselves. Catholic is both a macro-concept, but also an inherent dimension of local, micro Christian life. Playing one off against the other is foolish, wherever you’re coming from.

Catholic Unity isn’t something humans create by obiterating others. God created it on Good Friday, and it’s inherent in the Unity of Christ. Is Christ divided? When Jesus prayed for Unity, did God say “no?” or did God decide that the effectiveness of the whole enterprise depends on ecclesiastical politics come right? Or did he say yes, create a spiritual unity by the death and resurrection of Jesus, clothe Jesus’ followers in it by baptism, and ask them to make sense of Unity, not as a goal on the distant horizon to be achieved by diplomacy or conquest, but a resource to be realised in an emergent way by faithfulness in a multiplanar reality we call “communion.” The submission required is necessary but mutual, not one-way. The obedience is primarily to God in Scripture, mediated through the whole life of all the baptised...

Representation of baptism in early Christian art.Image via Wikipedia

All I have been attempting to say here is that the ecumenical glass is genuinely half-full – and then to ask about the character of the unfinished business between us. For many of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question we want to put, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain. And if it isn’t, can we all allow ourselves to be challenged to address the outstanding issues with the same methodological assumptions and the same overall spiritual and sacramental vision that has brought us thus far?

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Ann said...

Love the baptism picture- it is our true unity - all the rest is words IMO

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Ann. Sometimes people think people who believe in a non-Imperium Unity do so out of a weak doctrine of Church. Actually, we do so out of a strong theology of baptism. If you believe baptism actually works (!) it just won't do to suggest God is bringing all these people into the kingdom but they aren't there because of what quaintly used to be called "invincible ignorance"... or failure to submit to the institution.

lizw said...

I liked the suggestion made by an RC Franciscan who preached at our (C of E) church on Christian Unity Sunday that we should replace Christian Unity Week with Christian Diversity Week. We've come to see diversity in other areas of life as a blessing - so it should be in this one. Which is to say that I think I agree with your third option.

Jonathan West said...

It would seem to me that there is a great and common weakness in both approaches that you describe. The Protestant and Imperium approaches cannot both simultaneously be right (though they can both be wrong.) The problem is quite simply that there is no means of discerning on the basis of evidence which one (if either) is correct.

This means that any Christian can take either approach (or for that matter any one of a plethora of variations on either theme) safe and secure in the knowledge that he or she cannot and will not be decisively contradicted by any later emergence of facts.

In such circumstances, normally one of two possibilities occurs.

The first possibility is that people differ and go their own ways, each believing that they have divine sanction for their particular approach. The extent to which the church has fissured into innumerable different denominations, all with varying degrees of mutually conflicting theological and organisational principles, is evidence enough of how common this approach is.

The second possibility is that the strong impose their beliefs upon the weak, who tag along for safety and security. It is notable that the Roman Catholic church, the largest Christian denomination in the world, has a significantly authoritarian structure, and has been successful in maintaining itself as united as it is by stamping on dissent within its ranks.

So the question I have is how is the Christian church as a whole going to get out of this fix? By what means and on the basis of what evidence is it going to become possible to discern the correct approach (if any) to church unity?

Brad Evans said...

This still leaves you with the central religious problem; how do you know what to do? You, the catholics and the orthodox are all saying that the other guys are wrong-listen to us. Why should we believe you on climate change/debt forgiveness/abortion/same sex marriage when you can't even get the basic structure of your own organization corrrect after nearly 2000 years?
I'm sorry, but the chief reason many people leave religions is that your ideas on what to do aren't any better than mine alone. Plus I don't have to waste time on Sunday morning singing songs, give away any money to strangers or watch grown men swan around in satin robes and blow smoke.

Anonymous said...

from Adrian C
Thank you Bishop Alan.
Love the idea of leaving aside the idea of homogenised unity and concentrating on how we can be a gift to the whole of the body of Christ's faithful believers.
It reminded me, on a very simple level, of a summer lunchtime in a Hertfordshire pub garden where a meeting of the local 'ministers together' group was taking place. I was curate at the anglican place.
The conversation somehow turned to differences. 'I wish I had the size of congregation you have' someone said to the Roman Catholic Priest - who said, yes, but he wished his flock were as committed as the Baptists - whose minister said he wished they'd sing like the Methodists - whose minister said he wished he had as many young families as the community church - whose minister turned to me as the Anglican there and said she wished she had the access I did to schools and community groups and wider families through baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Suddenly it seemed that TOGETHER we had the kind of church we prayed for.

Ecgbert said...

And then there's Orthodoxy, with no Pope you can blame yet not Protestant.

J. Michael Povey said...

Bishop Alan you are cool! You cut through the cr-p.

As for me ( google "Povey Prattle" for my blog) , I am convinced that witness to the Kingdom (Mission) trumps upholding the Institution (Church)


J. Michael Povey

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for a particularly illuminating thread. I love the idea of Christian Diversity week.

Either God has got things massively wrong, or else it is, in some way, his will that the Christian Church should manifest through thousands of pluriform expressions — an approach manifest also, if I may say so, in the Creator's mode of creation. Why bother with all those thousands of species of beetle, when one, or one dozen, surely would do.

I think both approaches I outlined are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny of the others. The Christian Church gets out of this fix, by growing up, out of the mechanistic post-Enlightenment fix got ourselves into, having a bit of faith, and believing in the Holy Spirit for a change. That's rather similar to what Jesus told us to do in the first place (wait for the Spirit of Truth to lead you nto the full truth).

I loved the ref. to the Orthodox. One of my favourite Patriarchs of Constantinople (or "New Rome") was Cyril Lucaris (1572-1638) who managed to combine the role with being a high Calvinist!

Jonathan West said...

Either God has got things massively wrong, or else it is, in some way, his will that the Christian Church should manifest through thousands of pluriform expressions

If you think that, then anything and everything that happens can be taken to be the will of God, no matter what was your previous understanding of God's will. As a result, there is no evidence that can possibly be found (even in principle) which could be used to answer the question of God's existence, either for or against.

Therefore the question of God's existence philosophically takes on the status of an unfalsifiable proposition, just the same as the Five Minute Hypothesis.

The Christian Church gets out of this fix, by growing up, out of the mechanistic post-Enlightenment fix got ourselves into, having a bit of faith, and believing in the Holy Spirit for a change.

It seems to me that it is this kind of thinking over two thousand years that has got the Christian church into this kind of fix in the first place. Warnings are given against false prophets, but no means is offered for discerning between them and true prophets. As a result, you have the fission between the denominations as different people, genuinely believing that they have divine sanction for their way of doing things, split off from those who disagree with them.

So, to take the topical example, either women can act as priests or they can't. I don't see how the answer can be both yes and no at the same time, and both be the will of God.

Ecgbert said...

What's interesting and germane (or Tito, or LaToya, or God rest his soul Michael) here is Loukaris' errors didn't turn even a faction of the Orthodox communion Protestant, let alone the whole thing. No Vatican or even a Lambeth (Anglican = invited to Lambeth whether you are Dr Jensen or Dr Schori) yet it's Catholic; it doesn't buy the Protestant version of church union.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

It seems to me, Jonathan, that Logical Positivism does indeed make a complete pig's ear of reality. Yet another reason I'm not to be a Logical Positivist. Convenitonal theology since Aquinas didn't depend on defining God as an object who "exists."

In fact all sorts of things can be true at once, but in different ways. Not all of them, all the time in the same way, but various of them, some of the time, in their own way.

Jonathan West said...

I can do metaphor as well as the next man. I recognise for instance that Gollum is a magnificently evocative description of the depths of depravity that humans can fall into, and as such is true in a psychological sense. But in order to recognise this, I don't need to believe that Gollum ever existed except in Tolkein's imagination, and I do not think that archaeologists someday are going to stumble across the ruins of Rivendell or Minas Tirith.

If you are going to reduce your concepts of God to these kinds of literary representations of psychological truths, then in practice you become as much of an atheist as Richard Dawkins. This kind of metaphorical truth is not what he challenges, and quite frankly it also is not at the foundation of the claims of the Christian faith. Scripture makes very real physical claims concerning incarnation, miracles, resurrection and the answering of prayers.

By the way, throwing "logical positivism" around as a term of abuse is beneath you. I know that many Christians fondly imagine that it is a term no longer in widespread use because it has been discredited. But the truth is rather more mundane - it has fallen into disuse (except in the way you use it) largely because it has been absorbed into a wider philosophical system of thought encompassing the whole of the scientific method.

Ian Chisnall said...

If we assume that the unity for which Jesus prayed is first and foremost relationship based (in the Godhead the deeper aspects really are outside our ability to recreate) then issues such as structure and doctrine are secondary. The success of the last 30 years is that the discussions on structure and doctrine have strengthened our confidence for our relationships to go even deeper. We are of course some long way off the place where we are as commited to one another as Jesus appeared to have in mind but even the current discussions with Rome show that we are in a stronger place than we were.

What is vital is that we don't assume that these conversations are the main game. Part of the main game is the extent to which Rowan can challenge the Imperial approach fashioned in Rome and still remain in good relationship with it. However the real main game is the extent to which we can together (as opposed to in competition) feed the hungry, preach the good news and welcome the stranger.

I too love Christian Diversity week. After 100 years of praying for a week for a unity from a position which was unforseen in 1909 we should now accept that we all (I hope) pray for unity 52 weeks, but perhaps one week a year to actually celebrate our distinctives together.

Anonymous said...

From WombatPPC

Having read all of the comments and the artical Id say your chaps are making it far to complex.

And saying Gods got it wrong is just Devils talk, just like JOB was being tricked into.

You have Free Will, to do what ever you chose to do. God does not say keep on doing the same old Rituals. Dressing up in outragouse costumes, and washing peoples feet, or wafting a ball of smoking ash about.

Come on Guys (and Gals) Figure it out.

Imagine a man who sets out to build a house, and lays the first stone, Then he's called off to some other duty, and leaves the Plans and finish in the care of his trusted builders.
And after his short peroiod away comes back to find that his detached home, has some how become a Bungalow with a basment forever filling with stentch. And the builders Franticly Bailing it out and wondering WHY, Whats gone wrong, and who's to blame. !!

If only they had learned to follow the Plans Laid out in the first Place.

weus said...

Church unity and world peace will come when we UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER. Jesus has been asking the Church for more than 2 decades to have ONE EASTER DATE.

“I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor 1:10 RSV)

“Every Easter season I must drink of the cup of your division since this cup is forced on Me... the more time passes for them to unite the dates of Easter, the more severe their sentence this generation will receive.” (May 31, 1994 TLIG)


Dialogues, rationalism and intellectualism will not bring about unity. Unity begins not with a signed treaty, but in the heart. All is possible with God and prayer is our contact with Him. Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to truly repent, for the fruit of repentance is humility and love. "It is not just through words that unity among brothers will come, but through the action of the Holy Spirit" (Sep 30, 1993 TLIG).

We need to allow the Holy Spirit to invade our minds and hearts so that He is able to direct us towards complete unity and peace. Until we UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER, we hinder the Holy Spirit's action to come upon us in full force to give us the next step to take. We must UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER first.

Let us pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to inflame our hearts with obedience and love to UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER.

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