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Division and Unification

Anglicans tend to be ambivalent about the Reformation. Are we a reformed church or not? I can already see the letters to the editor answering this question vehemently from both sides – and that very disagreement tells us something about the Anglican Church.

Certainly the Church in England was caught up in the political struggles of the time as the newly emerging nation-states centred on various monarchies asserted their independence from Rome, took control of their own taxation, and took control over their lands and laws. Following the Lutherans, we uphold the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” but our Church has never made this a theological necessity. With Calvin we uphold the absolute sovereignty of God and the covenants that God has forged with God’s people, although we are decidedly ambivalent on predestination.

Undoubtedly, one of the chief consequences of the Reformation is a divided church, which was no new thing at the time. As we read St. Paul in Galatians and Romans (the foundational New Testament texts for the Reformers), we see him battling a deeply divided young church in the apostolic era. New Testament scholars will dispute precisely what those divisions were, but generally they had to do with those who saw the emerging Christian faith as a sect entirely within Judaism, and those led by Paul who saw the Church expanding into the gentile world. From Paul’s correspondence we can tell that the disputes were not polite or pretty. By the second century the Greek-speaking churches and the Syriac-speaking churches had drifted apart theologically and liturgically. And of course there was the Great Schism of 1054 as the Western and Eastern churches finally parted company over a host of political and theological issues.

The Reformation turned the division of the Church into an ongoing practice. Once Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Church of England, and the Anabaptists had made the break with Rome, it opened up the possibility for all kinds of splinters and divisions within the Church. Every time a group disagreed they broke off and formed a new church and we continue to see this process ongoing in the Anglican Church today.

The Ecumenical movement of the 20th century sought to staunch the flow of blood from the wounds in the body of Christ. At the same time a new stirring of the Spirit blew through the churches in the Pentecostal movement. The United Church of Canada, the Uniting Churches in Australia, and the Churches of South India and North India all show us the possibilities that can emerge when churches reunite. More recently, there have been a fruitful number of agreements to share ministry and/ or communion, such as our own Church’s agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

We regularly pray, “that the Church might be one.” This comes from John 17 where similar phrases are used four times as Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and the Father are one. This suggests the complex territory of the doctrine of the Trinity where the Father and the Son are distinct and separate while at the same time being one. This is the model for the Church that John proposes.

I would like to suggest that perhaps a divided church is God’s will for the Church. It has certainly always been a historical fact in the life of the Church and we are a faith that says our God acts in and through the messiness of history to achieve God’s will. One of the lessons the Church has learned is that humans respond to and live out the message of the Gospel in a variety of ways: from quiet contemplative solitude to social action on the streets. The diversity in churches reflects the very different ways that each of us receives God’s grace in the Gospel.

When we gather together around the Lord’s Table for the Eucharist, our first action is to give thanks and then to break and divide Christ’s body among us. The breaking and dividing of bread reflects the breaking and division of Christ’s body on earth into the church’s. Christ is finally broken on the Cross. Yet it is through that breaking, dividing, and sharing that ultimately the Spirit is let loose upon the earth to stir up, change, and transform.

Christopher Trott is the Warden of St. John’s College.

Broken and divided we all share in the one body: Christ’s body. And that for me is the lesson of the Reformation. We do not relate to each other as church to church. Our fallen world would never make that work. But each church and each member of each church relates to Christ in and of themselves. The World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches provide the institutional vehicles through which we relate, but it is only through that mediating relationship to Christ that we are in any way unified.

2 Comments

  1. You mention the Syriac-speaking churches. This makes me put two things together. Christ spoke Aramaic, and the only surviving (if still surviving) Aramaic speakers are in Syria. Has anyone you’ve read looked at that? This is a tad peripheral to your theme, but an interest of mine.

  2. It is my belief Christ is moving the Church through the Holy Spirit toward that unity of one body

    I see this in the ecumenical act of Lutherans and Anglicans breaking bread together as one. I see this in the act of Pentecostals and Baptists and Apostolic Faith denominations sharing space in our buildings and participating in joint worship

    Churches will fail
    In the effort of unity if they give in to human temptations and frailty. Yet if we come together in a true sense of unity knowing unity dies not mean conformity we will get closer to Jesus’ vision of being one

    Add to this our intentional work on reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and unity appears possible and let us remember one day in our eyes is not the same in God’s. I for one champion the effort at working toward an inclusive version of unity. May God bless this vision and make it so.