September 5, 2006

The Church and the Churches

A colleague made a comment earlier today that got me thinking — as his comments often do. He referred to his longing for the visible union and reconciliation of the church. Needless to say, such longing for church unity forms part and parcel of many of our efforts and our hopes; and certainly the very least we hope for is an end to conflict, and vigorous cooperation in the works of mercy.

But what got me thinking were the unspoken questions behind the assumed goodness of an institutionally united church: What if the evolution of the church in its different branches is not contrary to God?s will and design, but a living out of an organic coming-to-be that is beyond our present understanding? What if the imperial model for the church — a single entity with a single hierarchy — is an accidental inclusion from the days of its birth rather than an essential element to be preserved into its maturity? And so this sends me back to the Scriptures to look more closely at the imagery of diversity and organic development that form so rich a part of the Pauline vision of the church. And what I find there is an image of a body in which not all the parts are the same, but in which different parts serve different functions. Even when split by factions, the splitting and the factions have their purpose: to aid in discernment, and to come to the truth.

I by no means suggest that Paul was a Hegelian: but as one schooled in the rhetoric of his time, he knew that the purpose of debate and division was to lead to a better understanding — to come to one mind through the analysis that takes things apart and sets them in opposition. Lately Archbishop Rowan Williams has been quoted as saying that only the united church can truly discern the truth: but isn?t it also the case (as the Articles affirm!) that a united body can be very much mistaken, and that to discern the truth (as yet to be revealed) some division and debate must inform us?

So I return once again to my favorite image for the united church: not united in a single institutional hierarchy, but in each of its divided elements united

by a common turning
to One Lord,
through One Faith,
in One Baptism,
for One Mission
— with each of the various evolved traditions bringing its gift to the party, its skills and insights to the well-being of the whole. What treasures old and new might we then all enjoy together: the mystical insight and deep tradition of the Eastern Orthodox, the fine thinking of Augustine and Thomas — but of Teilhard too, the fervor and biblical regard of the Reformers, the wit and wisdom of the Anglicans: all in one banquet of spiritual delights with room and to spare at the table for the new arrivals who will find this new church a place of peace and not of conflict.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

very well said. Unity does not mean uniformity.

J.C. Fisher said...

Indeed, Fr. Tobias, this was indeed the vision of the latter "Ecumenical Spring" (late 80s/early 90s) which formed *my* erstwhile vocation as an ecumenist: a "Communion of Communions" ("Eucharistic Fellowship", or koinonia), NOT a least common-denominator mush (much less "conformity" to some imagined perfection in Rome *or* Constantinople! :-0)

...but all that, has seemingly been sacrificed on the altar of Affirming-Gayness-Excludes-Com/munion. Pity. :-(

Marshall said...

Tobias:

I can certainly agree. This is an interesting parallel to my thoughts on what "members in one body" might mean, posted at http://episcopalhospitalchaplain.blogspot.com/2006/06/varieties-of-gifts.html (where you were kind enough to comment).

With j.c. I also look toward a "communion of communions." (Yeah, I'm old enough to have celebrated COCU as originally conceived; and to recognize why it didn't work as originally conceived.) This makes a lot more sense in seeing the Gospel preached beyond the limits of "historic episcopate;" and so in recognizing the whole Body of Christ, and not just those parts that speak like and/or to us.