Monday, April 26, 2010
Which Way Forward?
Over the past month or so, I have tried to express theologically why the movement toward full, visible unity is imperative for the Christian, and particularly for the Protestant. We cannot claim to worship a God who embraces the physical and remain satisfied with the spiritual. We cannot expect the world to believe in God's reconciliation if we are content to remain unreconciled to our sisters and brothers.
In spite of common blood and name, the Church is like a feuding family that is unwilling to forgive or forget, paralyzed by its past and unable to embrace a future together.
Now, I was a history major, so I'll be the first to say that the past matters. Some of the Church's divisions were born out of good reasons, perhaps even necessity. Most Catholics today will concede that Luther raised some valid grievances - points that were later addressed in the Council of Trent - but that the Church would have done well to keep him within the fold instead of forcing him out. My own tradition, though originally a renewal movement, was institutionalized when English bishops vindictively refused to ordain and send priests to American Methodists hungry for the sacraments. Today, many Anglicans and Methodists recognize this split as regrettable and steps have been taken - most strikingly in India - to restore their broken unity.
For those of us who "share in one Spirit," might we trust that God's grace is greater than our brokenness and imagine the original reasons for our schism (whether valid or invalid) being swallowed up by love and reconciliation in the present? Might we envision a reunited family, the past forgotten and a common identity embraced?
OK, you might be thinking, but what would this family reunion look like? What is the way forward?
First of all, it requires everyone to come to the table for conversation - even the uncle that you hate. The first step toward unity is the ability to listen in humility, to hear what someone else is saying. This, of course, doesn't mean you will necessarily agree with them, but there can be no possibility of reconciliation if the differing parties don't even know each other.
This is the great achievement of 20th century ecumenism - somehow, they were able to bring Christians from all stripes into the same room where they could get to know each other. In this room, many stereotypes and semantics were ironed out. Not all Catholics think they can save themselves! Not all Protestants think good works don't matter! Particular differences were clarified - but it became much harder to dismiss entire traditions when you looked in someone's eyes and saw the spirit of Jesus there.
In the wake of these conversations, three main strategies for unity have emerged among Christians:
1) Lowest Common Denominator - what are the things we hold in common? This "core" becomes the basis for unity and all other differences are either thrown out completely or judged to be non-essentials. This has been the approach adopted by "uniting" church movements among Protestants in Canada, Australia, India, and some other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
2) Assimilation - one church is right (or the closest to right) and the rest are wrong or misguided (at least in regard to the things that keep them separate). All of the "wrong churches" must conform to the beliefs of the "right church", thus restoring unity. This has been the approach adopted by most Catholics, Orthodox, and various fundamentalist Protestant groups.
3) Non-denominational - local assemblies of believers are united by their common faith. This group agrees with #1 that there is a "core" that all Christians hold in common, but rejects the need for a single overarching structure in favor of a federation of local, independent churches. This approach is rapidly gaining prominence among young, postmodern Protestants in the United States.
In the next three weeks, I'll address each one of these options in more detail. Obviously, none of these models has yet led to full, visible unity among the churches, which is why I'll then offer my own vision for what a Christian family reunion might look like in the future.
The way forward seems uncertain. How might you imagine a reunited Christian family?