The latest article of Fr Jonathan Munn Unity with two integrities? has goaded me into a few reflections of my own on Christian unity. I find Fr Jonathan’s article a little on the abstract side, though obviously well-prepared and a result of some serious work.
I once thought I was more attracted to the Universal than the particular, but I find in my life (with something of a scientific explanation) that I relate to particular and concrete realities better than the Universal Idea. This is true of my relating to the Church. When it is a real community with a priest and some people around him, a place of worship (which might be a humble room in a house), I can recognise the Universal Idea of Church in it, but when someone talks to me about conversion to the (true) Universal Church – when it remains a remote idea in relation to my immediate experience – I can no longer relate to it. Perhaps this is a leftover from Nominalism which inspired the Franciscan movement, Luther, most of the Reformation and the Jesuit counter-Reformation. Platonism seems to present a more healthy view of metaphysics, but it is hard to relate to. These questions of ontology, when we have had our experience of the Paralysation Chambers (lecture rooms) of the Lazy A (the Angelicum) in Rome, will determine our understanding of what theologians are on about when they talk about the Church.
With my experience of having given up on the Roman Catholic Church (it never spoke to me as a human being but in terms of canon law and management criteria), I discovered the dimension of the Goliard Church, by this I mean the little pockets of Roman Catholics and Anglicans who operate outside the mainstream, relying on the ancient notion of the Bishop and the Eucharist celebrated by him or by a priest under his pastoral oversight. In most of these marginal communities resides the Catholic Church through the profession of the Faith and celebrating the Mystery of Christ through the liturgy and the Sacraments. In a few cases, some of these Churches have healed differences between themselves from the grass roots. This is happening in the Continuing Anglican world through joint synods and the work some of are doing on the Internet.
Perhaps one day, there may be an act of union of the mainstream Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and other Churches, but the little Churches and Goliards will be ever more marginalised and banished by the arrogant mainstream. It would be that much worse if they were united in iniquity like Pontius Pilate and Herod over an expedient solution to be rid of Christ.
Unity and reconciliation between the big Apostolic Churches, the little Apostolic Churches and the hundreds of Christian denominations without priesthood or Sacraments (other than Baptism and marriage) seem remote and daunting. We like to believe that the credibility of Christianity depends on it. It seems like wagering one’s life for a frivolity on a winning card. We are dealing with centuries and generations of cultural estrangement and mutual blame for some very real grievances including murder, torture and pillage. The problem is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Pope John Paul II tried a new approach, one of humility and repentance, on the basis that schism and separation were caused by sin and human wickedness. Sin is that much more horrifying when committed by those expected to be holy and living according to a higher ideal than money, power and sexual conquest! John Paul II was widely criticised for this gesture – why not also a gesture of repentance to the traditionalists who suffered from the intransigence of Paul VI and many bishops up to the present day? The problem with repentance is that it does involve a ceasing of sinful conduct and real conversion. That does somewhat inconvenience institutions that have been set in their ways for a while!
I don’t think that the reunion of all Christians in a single institution is possible. I am not sure whether such is desirable. We now face not only persecution or ostracism from the mainstream as “dissidents”, but major and unacceptable changes in the said mainstream Churches. There are things that we just cannot go along with, as Fr Jonathan notes in his article.
I have always felt and thought that there is a higher priority than trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, that of witnessing to the world through the way the entire Church is manifest in the humblest little Continuing Anglican or independent Old Catholic dioceses with just the minimum. It would be a real challenge for the mainstream Churches just to recognise the existence and witness of these little communities, as the Methodists in England have done in regard to our little Anglican Catholic diocese.
Baby steps, one at a time…