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Walking Together, Ecumenically.
The Right Rev. Winfield Mott
Editor’s Note: This essay also appears in The Line Issue 10.7 (July 2023); it is a follow up to Walking Together.
We are in the Body of Christ, the catholic Church. There is only one Body of Christ, which we entered through our baptism. The obvious discrepancy between that fact and the existence of a large number of denominations, each separate entities with their own structure, has been seen in different ways.
Some see their denomination as identical with the Body of Christ, with all others excluded from the Body.
Some see the Body of Christ including all denominations, or all catholic ones, or all orthodox, creedal denominations, or all denominations which define membership as being those who love Jesus.
Some see the Body of Christ composed of an invisible Church, partly overlapping with the denominations, but not at all identical with them. Some see the invisible Church as those predestined as the elect, others see it as all the baptized or all the believers regardless of church affiliation.
Some choose not to think about it.
Jesus is not one of those in category four. In the final hours before his crucifixion, he prays to the Father that all who believe in him (Jesus) through the ages “may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:20-21). That mandate to be so unified that it resembles the seamless unity in love within the Trinity is a theme throughout the New Testament. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united” (1 Corinthians 1:10), says St. Paul. Even in those early days, there were factions, one following Paul, others Apollos, or Cephas, and another following Christ.
This unity among Christians was not seen as an optional extra, but as central to the existence of the Christian community. Can Christ be divided? It is a physical fact that a body divided means some parts are separated from it and die, or if the damage is serious enough, the entire body dies. The compelling necessity of unity has not changed since the First Century, nor has the splitting of the Body. The nature of the divisions has varied over the centuries. The fact of them has not. There have been major and long-lasting divisions in the Church in every century. Several continue today from the Fourth Century, others have happened within the last few years.
The basic truth remains: The Body of Christ is one. Those who are responsible for dividing it are engaged in a sinful act of the most serious nature. Those who fail to seek ways to heal the divisions become conspirators with them by their acts of omission. Nor is it sufficient to declare that the way to fix this is for everyone to join my denomination. Neither is it possible to resolve it by pontificating that all conflicting beliefs are of equal value, a commitment to what former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold called “pluriform truth.”We are not united if we are divided by opposing beliefs.
Last month, this column talked about Christians walking together, never alone but always in community. Given the absolute mandate of Jesus, how does this play out ecumenically? The attempts to “heal the breeches” have existed for as long as the divisions. Many were successful. Most of the church councils of the first millennium convened in order to deal with serious conflict within the Christian community, and not infrequently were eventually able to reach a consensus. It seems, though, that the solving of a dispute was followed by another dispute, and the number which resulted in splits continued to grow. Today, hundreds of Christian denominations exist.
The attempts at healing continue. In the last century, the World Council of Churches has been constituted as a forum for the many denominations which belong to discuss ways of uniting and doing acts of service together. Local councils of churches are plentiful. A national, indeed, world day of prayer has been proclaimed and observed. Unfortunately, another group of denominations has called their own day of ecumenical prayer, thus dividing the effort. Denominations have merged. Dialogs are numerous, both official and informal, and sometimes result in agreements of inter-communion and sharing ministries. Yet the divisions remain, even as new ones continue to happen. Is there more which we can do than these formal and institutional measures to achieve real Christian unity?
One major step is to stop seeing the unity process as primarily that of institutional merger. The Body of Christ is incarnational and needs institutional forms. But it is not the institution, it has no constitution and bylaws. Rather, it is sacramental in nature, overflowing with the love and grace of God freely given. Institutions develop their own being, including a strong self-survival instinct. This can actually interfere with the unity of the Body. And the sacramental Body of Christ is not, and cannot be, divided. Regardless of institutional forms and multiplicities, it is we and not Christ who are divided.
Thus, the basic commitment of a Christian is to do everything together, to walk together, in every way possible without compromising his or her creedal allegiance. For instance, charity, the expression of Christian love to those in need, can be done in conjunction with other Christians without requiring creedal unity. Why do we need separate denominational bodies serving the same compassionate purpose, helping people who are destitute, caught in disasters, droughts, floods, refugees from war and violence, all the unfortunate happenings in our world? Whether locally or globally, Christians respond to help in the same way, and could do it together.
Christians of various backgrounds can, and sometimes do, share church buildings; worship, meeting, teaching and office space. Why not in most places? Sharing a building does not require doctrinal agreement. It often makes economic sense as well. Publications, and other publicity can also often be shared.
In these and other ways, the guiding principle is to do everything together which is possible without compromising the essentials required by your conscience. Unfortunately, institutions have a different goal, promoting “brand loyalty” and dedicated fundraising by stressing their individual prominence and desirability, at the expense of sharing as much as possible within the wider Christian community.
Despite soothing comments about Christian unity, competition among churches is a more dominant reality. Institutional survival requires funds, clergy and churches are seen as successful when they can grow membership, not share it. Church growth is not often the result of evangelism, reaching those who are not Christian. Much more often, it is done by one congregation at the expense of another, known in church circles as “sheep stealing.” This is not a comment on efforts to reach the large number of people who have been alienated by their church. It is the more common and much easier effort to entice people from one church to another. Both those who are actively seeking a new affiliation and those who have burned out on having any affiliation should be welcomed. But competing among ourselves to recruit from the shrinking number of active Christians is more an exercise in competition, free spiritual enterprise, than in evangelism.
Thus, the basic question needs be always, “How can we cooperate with the other Christians around us?” rather than “What can we do to appear ecumenical without giving up any of our institutional advantages?” When answered honestly, the former question leads to a plethora of activities and places that can be shared.
It is also a beginning in truly contributing to the healing of the Body of Christ. It may seem hopeless, but it can lead to some marvelous results. The Holy Spirit, after all, can even work with the likes of us, when we let him.
The Right Rev. Winfield Mott is a retired diocesan bishop.
Book: "The Earth is the Lord's"
Background: RR CEO, healthcare administrator, asst to cabinet minister, HR, campus pastor. newspaper columnist, city councilman Academics: M.Div, M.A. (history), grad study U of Lund, Sweden.