+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Did you know that there are—at least according to the World Christian Encyclopedia—38,000 distinct Christian denominations in the world. It’s a staggering number, but having previously served in a part of the country where there seem to be a thousand different baptist denominations alone, I’m not surprised. This sad division of the body of Christ seems to have been caused by various differences. Some are theological- for example, disagreements about whether or not Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Others are about church polity- whether bishops ought to be in charge, or a college of presbyters, or individual congregations. Other divisions seem simply to arise from one church leader disliking another.
In all events, the situation in which we find ourselves seems so unhappily in contradiction to Christ’s last prayer, his final request before his suffering and death, which we heard in this morning’s Gospel:
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one
I would humbly suggest that Christ’s prayer went beyond sentiment. That the unity, the one-ness, to which we as the body of Christ are called, is not about some vague, half-hearted acknowledgement of each other’s existence. You’ve heard that hand-waving excuse from people, you’ve said it yourself, and I might have even said it once or twice: “Well, different strokes for different folks, we’re all praying to the same God, and all that.” I’ve increasingly come to believe that this is an excuse. We are excusing ourselves from what is a horrible sin perpetrated through the centuries: the breaking of Christ’s body.
And the really sad thing is not that we happen to go to different buildings on a Sunday morning. The really sad thing is that our divisions impair our witness. Later in the chapter from which we just heard, Jesus says the following:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Church unity is not an end in itself, but a means by which others are brought into the fold. In a world of political and cultural division, the unity of Christ’s Church could be a powerful sign of the Gospel’s reconciling power. We’ve done pretty well at welcoming people of other Christian backgrounds into our parish, people who are curious about the way Episcopalians practice the faith. This is a good thing. But how many once totally uninterested people have come and said, let me check out this Christianity thing? Some, certainly, but not as many, and I think that part of the reason is because divisions in the church are a scandal. The Gospel is compelling, but if we’re not living it, nobody will know that it is.
All of this can seem awfully discouraging. There appears to be little for us to do individually, as real, tangible church unity is a matter discussed at higher levels than ours, among popes and bishops and officials of various churches. The terms of such conversations revolve around weighty debates about what is essential to Christianity and what is not, issues which seems intractable. We can be charitable about the choices friends and loved ones may have made about being a part other churches, but the larger issues of church unity seem to be outside our sphere of influence.
Even when the opportunity arises for larger agreements between different flavors of Christianity we can recognize that the call for unity (not just intentional but institutional) can be complicated and that setting aside genuine disagreements in order to feel better about our openness can end up looking a lot like cheap grace.
Take the latest ecumenical proposal which will come before our church’s General Convention next year. A joint commission of of Episcopal and United Methodist leaders have drafted a full communion agreement similar to that which exists between our church and the Lutherans and (you might not have known) the Moravians.
Now, fun fact, Anglicans everywhere, all eighty million of us, are bound by a document called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral when engaging in ecumenical dialgoue leading to such full-communion relationships. The Quadrilateral provides, as one might expect, four points which are understood as so essential that they must be present before institutional unity of any significance can be established. These sticking points are (1) the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation, (2) the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds as sufficient statements of the faith, (3) the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and (4) the “historic episcopate locally adapted”, the definition of which is always controversial, having to do with the ministry of bishops in apostolic succession as leaders of the church.
So here we have a summary of what our church reckons as essential for “church unity” to actually be something meaningful. It’s a definition of which leaves out plenty that you or I might find somewhat important- I think there are five more sacraments and about a dozen more books in the bible than the quadrilateral requires, but I don’t think they should be reckoned essential.
When the deal with the Methodists gets debated by our General Convention and their General Conference, I guarantee people are going to focus on things like our different positions on gay marriage or whether Welch’s is valid matter for Communion, and I understand that, but I don’t think one’s position on those issues has a lot to do with whether little “c” churches are fully within the capital “C” church.
The rule, falsely attributed to Augustine but important nonetheless, holds- “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” With regard to the current ecumenical proposal, I honestly know neither how a Methodist view of “that which is essential” differs from ours nor the degree to which each point of our quadrilateral is satisfied (though I suspect the most delicate discussions will have to do with how the historic episcopate is or isn’t embodied in Methodist polity, and I pray that this is approached with sensitivity as well as thoroughness). I remain cautiously optimistic that our churches will each focus the discussion around what is deemed essential and that some progress might be made in our perrenial attempt to reëstablish the unity Christ intended for his body.
Granted, most of us don’t have an active role in making those decisions for the church. Even so, there is one thing we can do, and which I myself need to do, as difficult as it sometimes is. We need a change of heart. We can say “we’re all in the same business” a thousand times without really believing it. I can state my own appreciation of the work of other churches until I’m out of breath, while still secretly seeing those other churches as “the competition”. We can in one moment give lip service to ecumenism, and in the next moment be snide about how weird and out of touch those “other Christians” seem to be. I’m frequently guilty of this.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that Christ’s prayer for unity was not about being politique or delicate with those with whom we think we have so little in common. Christ’s prayer for unity has its basis in genuine love:
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Through our love of Jesus we come to love one another, even those whose religion seems to us strange or over-the-top. Again, none of us is in a position to effect the institutional unity of the church to a great degree, but we all have a part to play in bringing about its unity in love. Ultimately, that sort of unity is a necessary precursor to the other. Unless we truly love our brothers and sisters, unless we have that invisible bond of unity, visible unity can never exist. Far from being a matter for only the highest levels of church leadership, church unity must begin with each of us, setting aside our discomfort, and “living in love as Christ loved us.” This is easier said than done, but it is our charge. May we be given the charity to accomplish it.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.