"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pray for Christian Unity

Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church;
That we all may be one. 
               ~Prayers of the People, Form III, BCP

This week, beginning with the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and continuing through to the Conversion of St. Paul, marks the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an idea popularized early in the twentieth century by the French ecumenist and Roman Catholic priest, Paul Couturier.  Richard Meux Benson was a priest of the Church of England, and the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  Fr. Benson writes:
We, as members of the human race, are not so many individuals existing alongside of one another in the world, but by nature we are one; and we cannot be restored to the love of God merely as individuals.  We must be restored in the consciousness of that unity to which we belong.  We are not taken out of the one body to be individuals in heaven.  The law of sympathy is a law which lives on with us, and without it we cannot be saved.  We cannot truly have a personal interest in Christ, unless we have a collective interest in Christ.  We cannot have our sins blotted out by Christ's blood, unless we have fellowship with one another.  This law of unity is the law under which we are created, and we must accept it as the foundation of our moral state.  We must then have a real sense of our own participation in the sins of the whole race.  And we must humble ourselves before God.
Lack of unity among Christians is hardly a new problem.  Despite our Lord's prayer "that they may be one" as He and the Father are one, we've done a pretty fine job of splitting ourselves into sects and divisions right from the start.  From St. Paul's concern expressed to the Corinthians that they were splitting into factions of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, through the early Church's struggle to define its orthodoxy, through the Great Schism between East and West in the eleventh century to the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth, and the subsequent continued splintering of Protestantism that continues down to our own day, it would be easy to look around and think that Christian unity is more distant than ever.  The idea of Christian unity is famously tricky, in part because there is not even agreement about what we mean when we speak of it.  Do we seek a single, unified institution?  Varied institutions in full communion with one another?  Universal conformity in doctrine?  A simple charity of spirit on matters of adiaphora (though that would entail agreement on what is adiaphora and what is essential)?  In short, one could become frustrated quite easily.  All the more reason to pray fervently for that unity which, apparently, is meant to be a defining mark of the People of God.

The Church in America is not unique for its disunity; disunity afflicts the Church the world over.  But I think we in America, perhaps more than most, need to be reminded of the scandal of a divided Church.  From the beginning, America has seen a multiplicity of churches, and that diversity has only grown over time.  We also cherish the ideals of individuality and personal liberty, so much so that we are most apt to speak of these things as blessings, unique and characteristic strengths of religion in America.  But individuality and personal liberty are largely incompatible with the gospel and the idea of the Church as presented in the New Testament and in Christian tradition (or, more accurately, it is the pervasive individualism that passes for these ideals which is incompatible with Christianity).  In becoming members of Christ's body, we become bound to Jesus, our Lord and Master, and also bound to the rest of the Body. We are instructed to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (what red-blooded, liberty-loving, self-reliant American patriot would willingly be bound in submission to anyone or anything?).  The freedom of Christ is not a license to do whatever we want, as both Paul and Peter point out in their letters.  And, popular evangelical phraseology not withstanding, Jesus is not my personal Savior; he is the Savior of the world.  One may counter that this is simply semantics, that Jesus is both Savior of the world and the Savior of me, personally, as a beloved individual creature in this world.  True enough, but I think many in the Church in America today have been fed so much of the language of personal salvation that they may understandably intuit that it really just boils down to "Jesus and me."  After all, "it's about relationship, not religion", right?  I suspect that many American Christians would balk at Benson's assertion that "we cannot be restored to the love of God merely as individuals", that without fellowship and real sympathy with our fellow humans "we cannot be saved."  But I believe it is so.  Christ founded a Church, not a loose association of individuals.  This idea of the Christian faith as communal by definition needs to be regained with vigor.  The Christian faith simply cannot be separated from the Church and passed off as an endlessly individualized series of options for the lone spiritual seeker who won't be tied down.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us insight into the profound nature of the unity of the whole Church and the reality that our individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole when he writes, "only together with us would they be made perfect" (Hebrews 11:40).

The Christian lives in hope.  Despite the seeming bleakness of our deep, long-ingrained disunion, we continue to pray.  Let us pray, not in desperation, but in expectation.  In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, in what is perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament on Christian unity, Paul prefaces his creedal statement about "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" with this injunction: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."  No matter how we divide ourselves, the Holy Spirit will not be divided.  To the extent that we, dispersed though we are, cling to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Body, and seek only to build upon the foundation that has Christ as cornerstone, we may live in hope that the unity of the Church, a perpetual reality that we have often obscured, will become ever clearer as the Day approaches.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.  But each one should be careful how he builds.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ ... So then, no more boasting about men!  All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future -- all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.   
~ I Corinthians 3:10-11, 21-23 

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in the one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.
~A Prayer for the Unity of the Church, BCP

No comments:

Post a Comment