On Church Unity

Pope Francis and some flags – Photo via images.google.com

I was recently directed to a very interesting piece on the Telegraph website from Charles Moore, “A new Pope, a new Primate and a new life for Christianity“. The central premise of the piece is fascinating; that the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury herald a new era for Church unity in particular and Christianity in general.

I’m not quite personally convinced. Moore’s article is good as it recognises that there are divides amongst the different Churches that make up the body of Christ, but it is weak as it fails to recognise the full scale of those divides! There is a slightly odd Western bias here – ish – as he seems to recognise only the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church. What of the Orthodox, that ancient Greek strand of the Christian faith whose adherents number over 200 million? The Orthodox Church split from the Roman church in the 11th century, in what is called ‘The Great Schism’. Naturally, given that all churches have a human and religious element in them, the reasons were varied, both doctrinal and diplomatic, spiritual and political. There have been in Church history attempts at reunion – the failed 1274 Second Council of Lyon and 1439 Council of Florence, and the majority of the Eastern Orthodox Churches still eschew formal union. That said, there has been more ecumenical spirit and dialogue of late, but to leap from Moore’s article to full unity is a leap.

There are, of course (I am one), also the Evangelicals. Though a fragmented and varied bunch, globally there are over 200 million Evangelicals, across various traditions, and in every culture and country. The Evangelical Church is a mixed bunch. You get many in the C of E – like the famous HTB of Alpha and WorshipCentral fame – who are happy to work with Catholics. But that does not represent every evangelical. John Piper, a well known Reformed Evangelical Baptist had something fairly firm to say to the new pope, which he graciously clarified. In my own circles, I know many godly men and women on both sides of the debate – some would say that even the Anglican Church is heretical and should be avoided (due to its dilution and breadth), whilst others genuinely believe that the Pope, at any time, could be the Anti-Christ. Between the Evangelicals and the Eastern Orthodox, there are at least 400 MILLION Christians who would have a wide range of interest and views in and on the new Pope or Archbishop. In the UK, its important to note that there are around 500 FIEC Churches, 300 NewFrontiers, and 100+ Vineyard, all of whose members and leaders would hold diverse Evangelical viewpoints.

I, for one, am optimistic about the C of E. As I reported on my blog and also for Evangelicals Now, when Justin Welby visited the church I’m part of, I came away very encouraged. He is a smooth operator, clear on the Gospel, and very diplomatic at dealing with brothers and sisters he disagrees with. After the women bishops controversy, Welby is exactly what the C of E needs. I’m less optimistic about the Catholic Church, though the new Pope Francis appears by all accounts to be a wonderful man of God. I’m wary of the control that the Catholic Church seems to wield and use, though I am also grateful for their strong stand on many issues, and the historical nature of the Vatican. That said, I do somewhat lean towards Piper’s position, and would stand with the Reformers on the crucial issue of Justification  If you disagree with me, I’d recommend you hunt down a copy of ‘Five Views on Justification‘ , which demonstrates the contemporary and continued dissonance between churches. There are some things that can’t be brushed over.

Unity is a painful, costly thing. I believe it can come only around a center, where we can unite under Jesus the King. But that has to be defined. If we are to be united – literally of one mind – then we need to agree. The way that Grace, leadership, communion and worship (to name but a few!) are approached can differ wildly between churches. I’m grateful for the historic Creeds, and the joy I can take in knowing that Christ’s Church will be built, will be called and will be saved regardless of our theology, through him. But I’m wary of the disagreements we can easily end up in through disregarding Scripture, Church History, the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ, and so on. Unity can happen – and one day will fully happen – but until then I think the shattered and kaleidoscopic nature of Christ’s Church is a demonstration and part of the Kingdom of God: now, and also not yet.

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