Spiritual Formation For Kingdom Action

MARTYROLOGY AND ECCLESIOLOGY: A Perspective on Christian Unity by John Gardner

A Perspective on Christian Unity by John Gardner

(John participated in our “Catholics and Evangelicals Together” seminar and was kind enough to forward on his excellent piece on those themes.  BH)

In Ut Unum Sint, Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II invited responses to his vision for the task of Christian unity.  My remarks are intended to be in the same friendly spirit in which he wrote, but very much from a lay perspective (“bottom up,” taking a high view of the role of the laity) rather than that of formal theological reflection (“top down,” such as with the various commission and dialogues with other Christian bodies). Cardinal Newman wrote of the laity that “The Church would look foolish without them,” and I simply hope that I will not look foolish in speaking of theology.   On the other hand, George Weigel noted that Ut Utnum Sint “challenged those who had grown comfortable in the grooves of post-conciliar ecumenical dialogue,” so perhaps a lay-oriented response is appropriate.

My views are particularly informed by my own Anglicanism and by the time I’ve spent in the developing world, and seeing the interaction, joys, and struggles of Christians there, and particularly the sad reality of the persecuted church.  We should all agree that the promise of Matthew 5:11 is as true for a Protestant minister starving in a North Korean labor camp or a Christian being beaten in Burma as it is for the Catholics martyred in the Mexican or Soviet revolutions.  Should, then, our martyrology inform our ecclesiology?  As the Second Vatican Council stated, “It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood.  For God is always wonderful in his works and worthy of admiration.”  John Paul echoed this in writing that “A vast new field has thus opened up for the whole ecumenical experience, which at the same time is the great challenge of our time. Is not the twentieth century a time of great witness, which extends ‘even to the shedding of blood’? And does not this witness also involve the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities which take their name from Christ, Crucified and Risen?  Such a joint witness of holiness, as fidelity to the one Lord, has an ecumenical potential extraordinarily rich in grace.”

Yet what can it mean in practice when the different groups that constitute the full Body of Christ work together and suffer together?  If they are the Body of Christ – and and it seems to me that to deny this is to deny that other Christians claiming the Name of Jesus are in fact Christians – then what implications are there for the existence of invisible unity (which to me implies very much a Protestant understanding of Christian essentials, as I will discuss below) and for work towards visible unity?

From all this, I do take the classic Protestant position:  that there are essentials of the faith which must be preserved and which form the basis of our unity in Christ that already exists, and that there are non-essentials (a classic Protestant example:  predestination vs. free will).  From our side,  that particular dispute is “not a salvation issue,” as one of the priests at my church said in discussing Ephesians 2.  For the non-essentials, we should take St. Augustine’s advice and rely on charity rather than prescription.  Going back to the reality of persecution, it seems strange, for instance, to deny the Eucharist to someone who has suffered for the Name of Christ because that person or his church does not hold precisely the same doctrine of the Real Presence as the Roman Catholic Church.  Indeed, I wonder whether the example of Luke 22, where Christ gave the Eucharist to disciples who immediately embarked on a discussion of who was the greatest and who all fled Jesus in His hour of need, shows that perhaps it will only be through greater Eucharistic unity that we can achieve unity in other areas of theological disagreement, rather than the reverse.

After 500 years, can we say, with Romans 8:28, that God has been able to use even our divisions to advance his Kingdom?  What does it mean for the concept of “church” when the Protestant churches have evangelized millions of people who confess an orthodox Christian faith – and live it out daily in their lives?  More broadly, I wonder in this regard whether the increasing growth of the church in the developing world will permit the broader church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, independent) to see the concept of unity in a new light.  Freed from a great deal of cultural baggage from the European heritage, what new reality could God be working out in our days, and what can all of us in the West learn from the Church in the Global South, just as the nature of the church (though not of course its beliefs) changed as the church moved from Judea to the eastern Roman Empire to the West?  As John Paul wrote, “certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized” by other Christian bodies.  And again, what implications could this have for visible unity – or at least far closer relations than exist now?

So the answer to the question of “what does it mean to be in the Church” is that all of us who follow Jesus are already in the church.   As John Paul wrote,

in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression separated brethren tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion — linked to the baptismal character — which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of  ‘other Christians’, ‘others who have received Baptism’, and ‘Christians of other Communities’ . . . . This . . . is indicative of a significant change in attitudes. There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ.

So:  Must there be visible unity?  Ideally, yes, but strictly, ‘no,’ in the sense of formal, visible unity around a particular set of doctrines such as the entire corpus of Roman Catholic doctrine, but at the same time yes – yes in the sense that a form of communion already exists and I believe is growing, particularly in the developing world.  To say that it must be preserved is essentially the same as to say that the essentials of the Faith must be preserved.  The invisible unity should become more manifest, and more “visible” as has happened within Protestantism in the last 50 years, even without formal union.  Of course Protestants should regret the division among Christians (and here Anglicans may have a special role to play in helping to overcome that division) – but we all have a duty to see in each other the Body of Christ.

The cooperation which John Paul praises in Ut Unum Sint between Christians of all types should be extended – I would argue radically extended – and I believe that this cooperation itself will enable a far deeper unity of spirit among Christians and a better witness to the world of visible unity, even if that visible unity is not confined to one church alone but is rather contained in diverse vessels.  Perhaps one can even dare to hope that through this type of cooperation new theological insights will be revealed to us that will make the disputes of the past seem less urgent.

Of course, the right interpretation of Ut Unum Sint is for Catholics alone to determine.  Suffice to say that I take hope from the words of William Henn, a Capuchin-Franciscan friar at the Gregorian University in Rome.  He wrote:

 neither the Council nor the pope has asked other Christians to ‘return’ to the Catholic Church. The reason for this seems to lie in the realization that it would not be adequate to think of other Christians as having ‘left the church.’ Indeed, to identify the church of Christ exclusively with the Roman Catholic Church is the view that has turned out to be inadequate. ‘The one church of Christ is effectively present’ in other Christian communities and the decisive proof of this, if any were needed, are the saints and martyrs who have been formed in these communions and who have given their noble testimony before the whole world.”

At all events, one can conclude with the words of Pope John XXIII, canonized a Saint earlier this year along with John Paul II:  “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”  John Paul II similarly wrote that “If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them.”   Let us seize on that reality in all aspects of our faith and Christian life and be open to the work God is doing in the world today among all who claim the Name of Jesus.  Then our actual unity will become more visible in fact.


John S. Gardner is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.  He is a member of The Falls Church Anglican.  You may reach him at johngard@aol.com 


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