How Do we Find Unity When we Disagree About So Much?

I’ve just come back from the Archdeaconry conference where as usual we had a representative from the Old Catholics, with whom the Anglican Church is in full communion. Some of our members mentioned Bishop David’s letter for St. Willibrord’s Day and objected to the sentence that ran ‘As one family we are called to witness together and to work together. Our sacramental communion which we treasure must be made visible in the way we live as one, together proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and seeking to advance the kingdom of God.’ Their point was that some national bodies of the Old Catholic Churches have permitted the blessings of same sex unions and that for them, this was a ‘deal breaker’. By this they meant that the doctrinal difference over this issue was so great, that they could not really consider themselves ‘in full communion’ with a Church that did this. Another objection, which is echoed by the discomfort some feel over the Episcopal Church’s consecration of Gay Bishops in the US, is that if we are in full communion, how come they did not consult with us before making this decision.

So I am intrigued by the question of ‘what is the basis of unity’ that we share when we have such big differences doctrinally. Do we need to believe the same things on certain matters in order to be in communion?

My first response to this is to ask ‘What kind of a thing is the Gospel’. If the Gospel is a set of doctrines to be believed, then we are at liberty to decide (somehow) over what doctrines we should agree and that those who cannot sign up to them are not part of ‘us’. This was Cardinal Newman’s position. He came to the Roman Catholic Faith because he could see that there was a lot of development in doctrine that he did not like, but a lot that he thought was a natural outworking of the Gospel. He asked: Who is to decide? He came to the conclusion that the Pope is really the only competent authority, as representing the whole Church, to make these decisions about doctrine. We must accept him as a competent authority.

My point is that the Gospel itself is not in the first instance a set of doctrines but a liturgy. I am encouraged by some words of Archbishop William Temples’ Gifford lectures, when he says in lecture XV “Intellectual acceptance of even correct doctrine is not by itself vital religion; orthodoxy is not identical with the fear or love of God. …it is only a label, to designate a living thing.” The Gospel of Christ is shown forth and participated in as we participate in the Eucharist. The aim of the game is not ‘belief that’ about Christ but participation in Christ. The words of the Eucharist have been honed by long use, and are sufficiently broad to allow for a lot of different ideas about Jesus to be expressed, and a lot of ethical positions to be held, within their meaning. So apart from the doctrine that ‘So long as a person is able to in good conscience participate in the Eucharist, then how they behave is a secondary matter’, doctrine should take second place to love. Doctrine is not unimportant, as I will say later, but it is secondary. Augustine had it in a pithier way when he said ‘Love God, and do what you will.’

Queen Elizabeth 1 whose engineering of a rapprochement in England’s religious controversies also said, in true Anglican fashion, ‘I do not want to make windows into men’s souls … there is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles’; she asked for outward uniformity. About the meaning of the real presence in the Eucharist she is also attributed with making up this poem.
“Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the Word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.”

This ambiguity about doctrine means that there can be a lot of room for regional or national differences. There are many African bishops, for example, who are trying to show forth the Gospel in countries where Muslim pressure is very strong. For them to adopt the same views about Homosexuality or Women Priests and Bishops, as does the Church in the US, is to make preaching the gospel even harder in such lands.  But at the same time, culturally speaking, the rest of the Church soft pedals some parts of the the African Church’s attitude to Polygamy, even though the Bible says that everyone needs just one wife. Do those who express disquiet over the views of the Old Catholic Church, say the same thing about their brothers and sisters in Africa about polygamy, with whom they might agree on many other things?

On the way home my conversation partner in these matters asked me “Well, are there any moral areas that you think are essential to being Christian, if there is so much that is flexible?’ I thought for a minute and said these thingsFirst: Repentance. Everyone who is a Christian needs to know how to really repent. This leads to number two. They need to know how to be transformed too. Romans 12:12 says ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by he renewing of your minds, so that you might know the will of God’ So all Christians need some sense of their ‘alternativeness’. Third: All Christians need to show mutuality in self giving love, which echoes the mutuality of the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Failure of mutuality is a description of sin. This means that treating human beings who are ends in themselves, in the image of God as ends for our purposes is a way of making ‘things’ out of them is sinful. Tis goes for economic relations in the workplace as much as it does for human relations in marriage and in society etc. This is why we are so careful with children because we cannot by definition have mutual relations with them. We are responsible for them. So to insert our own needs into such an unequal relationship is sinful. The same applies to councillors and everyone who has a position of acting ‘for’ or ‘on behalf of’ someone.

The other thing that I think is important about mutuality is that we show mutual accountability. Once we prise the answer to the question ‘Who is a true Christian’ from the answer ‘The one who believes the right doctrine’ then we are bound in love to give an account to one another of how we see ourselves living out the Gospel. This involves self critique, as well as self justification. When National Churches act as if there is no other Church then we have a right to say ‘You should have consulted us and given us an account about what you are doing.’

So there you go. Pull a thread and a whole ball of string comes unravelled. I hope this has shed some light on the subject for you.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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