Some things I believe about the nature of the church
The "body" of the church consists of its various members. Each member remains individual, and each local church remains as a "member" with its own identity even as it shares in the unity of the whole, as "the church in that place" wherever two or three are gathered together. In an analogy I've made before: just as each loaf of eucharistic bread remains identifiable as an individual loaf and yet each such loaf represents and makes present the whole body of Christ, whether that loaf is in Geneva or Dubuque. Moreover, the bread of communion is most emphatically divided: it is in the breaking of the bread that Christ is made known. And yet, it remains the One bread. This is modeled in the church (in a positive sense) by the existence of the church in Philadelphia, the church in Pergamum, the church in Denver, and so on. They are divided from each other in the sense of their local particular identity, and yet remain one in the spiritual reality that binds them together: which is the One Lord, through the One Faith and the One Baptism; but to each is given some special gift. It is out of the "oneness" that the "eachness" grows; one Spirit empowering a multitude of ministrations. The unity of the church is a spiritual reality that gives rise to the many physical ministries embodied in each instance.
Now, in latter days, (though within the lives of the apostles!) these local divisions were also exacerbated by inner divisions over doctrines: circumcision, gentile inclusion, meat offered to idols. Those on all sides of these debates no doubt still considered themselves to the the "true" Christians; but as history is written by the "winners" (or the survivors, at least), we tend to see the main Pauline strand we inherit as "the" church. Of course, that apostolic and post-apostolic church continued to fragment -- and it is these divisions which are, I admit, problematical, and they are divisions which I believe it is in our utmost interest to seek to mend. In seeking to mend them we do well to focus on the cause of the divisions: sometimes purely political or social, often doctrinal. And often the differences over doctrine in one age come to appear trivial in a later one: but at the time were celebrated causes of division.
But I believe that the ecumenical venture is meaningful because I believe in the underlying unity of the church that cannot be destroyed. Think of it, getting away from sacrament language for a moment, as the situation in a family. The siblings are siblings by a physical descent; yet they can disagree, fight, and not see each other over this or that disagreement. But that doesn't alter the fact that they are still siblings: the underlying real genetic relationship cannot be dissolved (what I call first-order unity), and the superficial divisions (which are second-order) are capable of healing precisely because of the underlying unity. But unity is not identity. All members of the family are equally part of the family while remaining individually themselves.
Which gets us back to Paul's language of the body: I repeat the image I've advanced before, and which Paul enunciates, that unlike the eucharistic bread (which is always and everywhere "bread" though even then each loaf is "itself") the various members of the church have organic identities even though they all participate in the same body. But the body thrives precisely because each organ plays its part and contributes to the whole --- eye, foot, hand. As Paul will say, the body wouldn't function if it were all eye, or all hand. This model of local churches working cooperatively with other local churches in mutual recognition is the model of the early church. And the head of that body is Christ, not an earthly representative (sorry, your holiness; and you too Henry -- you' re both wrong).
The problems arise with the anathemas and schisms, the declarations "we're the church and you aren't" (and these have been going on for a long time) -- usually based on a doctrinal difference of opinion. This is why I see "doctrine" as the problem and the obstacle to unity. And ultimately I think anything other than agreement on a subset of all doctrines is unlikely if not impossible. And I'm not entirely convinced that uniformity on all doctrinal matters is desirable even if it is obtainable. A monolithic doctrine on all matters — without distinction between the essential and the indifferent — would be incapable of correction, and would presume infallibility.
So much as I would like to hope it, I do not see a future in which all Christians share an identical doctrine on all matters. I seriously doubt this has ever been true, otherwise Paul wouldn't be trying to correct or expound "his" gospel over against "some other gospel" and Priscilla and Aquila wouldn't have needed to "instruct" Apollos.
So fixing on a completely unified doctrine on all things will likely never work. So I turn to Huntington's model of agreement on a core of doctrines, and the model proposed in the collect for Richard Hooker: comprehension rather than compromise. Comprehension holds diverse positions (and sometimes contradictory positions, as in the Elizabethan settlement on eucharistic doctrine) together, in an agreement to coexist without trying to convert the other. The focus isn't on the doctrine, but upon the brother or sister in Christ — who they are, not what they believe or do.
This, as I see it, is the question before the Anglican Communion today. Do we seek a uniformity on an issue about which there is actual division of opinion (either by surrender on the part of some, or their excision or departure from the body -- in which one "side" essentially triumphs over the other but all are diminished) or do we allow each other to coexist in a larger mutual_ submission in which neither "side" forces its way upon the other? If this is "liberalism" then I would suggest it is the only means by which a unified church can be maintained -- through the comprehension of divers views, promontories on the continent, organs of a body, members of a family. The only other option, it seems to me, is the image of islands existing in the splendid isolation of doctrinal purity, perhaps with the odd bridge here or there, and the occasional ferry. The Spirit of love gives life, but the Letter kills: the spirit unites; and doctrine divides, if we let it.
Tobias Haller BSG