Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Historic Sermon and the Quest for Christian Unity

Barton Stone, a founder of the tradition I call home, spoke of Christian Unity as our "polar star."  Thomas Campbell wrote that division among Christians was a "horrid evil."  To Campbell the "Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians."  Despite this heritage, even this tradition has been fraught with division. 

The church has always existed between a concern for unity and the reality of division.  A gentler way of putting it would be to say that pluralism has been our common experience.  But, unfortunately, this pluralistic experience hasn't always been gentle.  Christians have been known to turn on each other with exceeding violence.  At the same time, there have been, on a regular basis, voices of reason calling for unity.  One of those voices was Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States [predecessor to the Presbyterian Church (USA)], who was invited to deliver a sermon in Grace Cathedral in 1960.  In that famous sermon Blake called Presbyterians (at least the Northern Branch), Methodists, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ, to come together as one church.  From that sermon a movement/organization came into existence -- the Council on Church Union (COCU).  Later on other church bodies would join with those named by Blake, including the Disciples and the three African American Methodist bodies.

Keith Watkins, who is writing the history of COCU, has made excerpts of this sermon available at his blog.  I would like to invite you to check out this offering, to see what was being espoused.   It is interesting to note that Blake sought to bring together Reformed and Catholic impulses together.  He recognized the value of a common liturgy, but knew that such a thing could not be imposed.  He also recognized that if a united church was to emerge it would have to allow for theological diversity.  What he thought could be the foundation would be common recognition of ministry, suggesting that the churches embrace the principle of apostolic succession. 

What is interesting is that fifty years later we still haven't figured out how to handle apostolic succession.  My tradition, which now has a General Minister and Regional Ministers, who function in ways as bishops, struggles with the idea that these leaders have an episcopal role, and would likely find the principle of apostolic succession foreign.

COCU finally gave way to another movement, Churches Uniting in Christ (CUiC) about a decade ago.  It never fulfilled its promise, and yet it did raise the standard of unity.  Perhaps in our post-modern era, such a thing as a united church isn't necessary.  But, maybe we would benefit from heeding the call of those who came before us and raised the standard of unity.  

Keith has yet to find a copy that can be produced in full, but the excerpts are a useful introduction.  (http://keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/a-sermon-to-transform-the-american-church/)

3 comments:

John said...

This is what I think about unity in the church. My perception is that the Church is necessarily pluralistic rather than homogenous just as people and their cultures are plural. Uniformity in either belief or practice is an absurd ideal and it is counter to the work of the Holy Spirit.

While I believe that God is singular, God is not limited to a single manifestation or expression. God seeks relationship with humans, and by this I don't think that God relates with humanity as a single entity but with humans as individuals.

As humans we manifest ourselves differently to different people depending on the circumstances of our relatioships, as well as depending on our circumstances and theirs. So I think God manifests differently to different people and God does so in ways that take into account peoples' different cultures, histories and circumstances. Those differing manifestations have kindled different understandings about the nature of God and different forms of practice in response to those different understandings. And I think God would have it no other way.

What then of the notion of unity within Christianity or even within denominations, or even within different faith communities? A polestar, not a destination. A guide and a reminder, not a straightjacket, nor a weapon. For me the concept of unity acts as a guide calling us forward toward a relationship of family and kinship as children of the same god; we may have twins and we may have older and/or younger siblings, but we are all brothers and sisters, and while we have different ways of relating to God, we are still relating to the same God.

To insist on uniformity is to deny our brothers and sisters the right to their own relationship with God and to interfere with the Work of the Holy Spirit as it seeks to speak to each of us in a language, dialect and idiom which makes sense to us in our own circumstances.

To insist on such uniformity is really nothing more than an attempt to exert power and control not only over our brothers and sisters but over God - saying in essence: 'god will be who I will god to be and I will not allow any to disagree with me.' But when God spoke to Moses God said something very different, saying "I will be whom I will be." God refused self-definition and forbade the Jews from attempting to depict God in any comprehensive way. Even the name God claims speaks more to multiple possibilities rather than specific certainties. God refused to allow the Jews to define who God was and I believe that is something which God wills for all humanity - God will be whom God will be.

So I think the Christian aim should not be unity as in uniformity, but unity as in universality - we are all children of the same God, and we are all loved by that God as only a parent can love a child. We are all brothers and sisters in the same family and we are bound together by blood, and for Christians we have been gifted with the special nuance of being bound together by the blood of the Incarnation who died to show us the way. By grace may we one day all gather in peace and harmony in the presence of the one God.

John

keithwatkinshistorian said...

John, I'm with you in rejecting the idea that we all must think, feel, and act in exactly the same way. So would virtually all people who through the generations have advocated the uniting of the fractured body of Christ. Some of the strongest advocates of the process that began with Blake's sermon also spoke of continuing diversity within the united church they envisioned.

To equate unity and uniformity is similar to equating variety (as in gifts) with chaos. Some ways of practicing unity might lead to uniformity and some modes of practicing variety could lead to chaos. In neither case, however, is the equation necessary. In most instances the equation is highly unlikely.

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I intend to post several research briefs and other blogs on COCU and will look forward to further conversation with you.

John said...

Keith,

Thanks for your kind words. I will follow this conversation up on your blog.

John