This is good shit and a good read. Nothing more need be said.
The headline was “Churches Agree on incarnation After 1,500 Years of Strife“. For a heavy theological piece, it was surprisingly popular. To recap… the Oriental Orthodox Churches with their wonderful titles redolent of the Mysterious East… the Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, Malankara Syrian, and Armenian Apostolic Churches… and the rather more mundane C of E had agreed on ways of talking about the incarnation of Christ with which they were all happy. 1,500 years was a bit of a stretch, as the C of E only existed since 1534, but it inherited the Western tradition, which was one-half of the original argument. Nowadays, a 1,500-year-old argument seems plain crazy. In the UK, there’s more denominational fluidity than ever before. Indeed, most of the life and growth is in congregations that don’t identify with the historic denominations at all. It’s becoming rarer and rarer to find someone who’ll say bluntly, “I’m a Methodist”, or “I’m an Anglican”… particularly, in the Protestant evangelical tradition. “I’m a Christian who goes to a fill-in-the-blank church” is as far as it goes.
However, here’s the thing… I’m one of them. I have the name of my denomination running through me like Blackpool through a stick of rock. I’m fiercely proud of my heritage, I think we’re right about stuff other people are wrong about, and I blow my nose at people who think we should all be one super-Church. Christian unity? Up to a point, and not very far at that. In other words, in today’s terms, I’m a delusional dinosaur, a point made wordlessly by the pitying expressions on the faces of fellow-ministers to whom I once tried to explain myself. I said, in the way of Lord Cardigan suggesting, “Let’s go that way, shall we?” “What we need isn’t less denominationalism, but more”. The view didn’t find favour. Now, I know… we wouldn’t start from here. No one can read the history of the Church without wishing that things had been different. However, here is where we are, and just maybe, identifying yourself proudly and passionately with one manifestation of the Church and not another just might have something going for it. Here’s why.
Firstly, truth matters. Those Anglicans and Orientals spent as much time as they did talking about theology because it was important. How God was incarnate in Christ is significant in a way that other things, like human sexuality, are just not. Get it wrong, and you end up with a Christ who’s untouchably divine, unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, or unremarkably human, unable to save us. Most divisions in the Church began in the same way… with a deep sense that something desperately important was at stake, and that someone needed to rescue a truth that was having the life choked out of it by an institution. For Methodists, it was the need for personal salvation and a relationship with God. For Baptists, it was even more fundamental…how do you become a Christian? Are you born into the faith, baptised into it as an infant, or do you choose freely, baptised into it as a response to God’s call? For new Church movements… think Vineyard or Christian City… it was frustration at the old wineskins, expected to contain the new wine. To be true to their own vision, their pioneers had to leave and start something new. The story has it that the Apostle John found the heretic Cerinthus so alarming that he once ran out of a bathhouse, crying, “Let’s flee, lest the building fall; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within!” Therefore, do we still value truth, or are we just interested in whether the chairs are comfy?
Secondly, we learn stuff from our spiritual ancestors. All those years, or centuries, of a particular tradition, leave their mark on our souls. Spirituality is subtly different in different places and among different people. The stories that we tell and the stories that our elders told us, the way that we learn to pray, the songs and hymns that we sing, the sermons that we hear… they help create a certain kind of Christian. Of course, we can learn from other traditions as well, and one of the exhilarating things about the last few years is the way that dyed-in-the-wool Protestants have learned to sing Taizé chants in Latin. Nevertheless, the beauty of cathedral worship, the intense biblicism of the Brethren, the richness of Methodist hymnody… they’re the soil from which the fruit grows, and it needs to be cultivated and enriched through a deep connection between believers and their heritage.
Thirdly, though, if proud denominationalism… or non-denominationalism… ever becomes a way of defining ourselves over against other Christians, it’s gone too far. The truths and traditions we’ve received from our spiritual ancestors are precious, but they’re to be shared, not jealously hoarded… and if there’s one thing to be said for today’s indifference to history and theology, it’s that these things no longer divide as they did. In that perfect world, the Orientals wouldn’t have split from the rest. The Great Schism of 1054 wouldn’t have happened. Martin Luther would’ve nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg church door and the bishops would all have said, “Do you know, you’re absolutely right?” And so on.
Christians have dis-fellowshipped each other, and worse, far too easily. Byron wrote in Don Juan that “Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded/That all th’ Apostles would have done as they did”. There’s a fundamental unity between Christians that stems from us being “in Christ”, joined with an indissoluble spiritual bond. Put like that, small denominational details just look ridiculous. I would gladly, for the record, worship with any other Christian at all, collaborate on any worthwhile enterprise, honour and defer to my spiritual superiors of whatever brand. However, still… our ancestors didn’t teach us nothing. Give me an Anglican who’s a real Anglican, a Methodist who’s proud to be a Methodist. If you belong to a church that’s thrown off the shackles of the past and is trying to be something new and different and emerging and not emerged… be glad of that too, but remember that you didn’t come from nowhere… find your place within the whole Church, not off to one side of it. Difference is delightful. Let’s treasure it.
4 November 2014
For the record, I AM ORTHODOX. Furthermore, I AM RUSSIAN ORTHODOX. I’d submit that there’s a very real difference between “Russian” and “Greek” Orthodox, one so profound that it’d probably scupper the notional “all-Orthodox Sobor” pushed by the EP for so many years. The MP would insist that the OCA and Czech/Slovak Church be voting members… the EP would refuse… that’d be the end of it. QED. I think that TWO “all-Orthodox Sobors” would ensue… a slave council at the Phanar (it’d be a real Latrocinium), under the dominance of the EP (and their Langley puppeteers and paymasters), and a free one at Novy Ierusalime, under the MP. It’d only deepen the already wide gulf between the “Greeks” and us. Both sides would accept defectors from the other side and might even break off communion with one another.
However, this’d be a GOOD thing. We’d see divisions now papered over openly for what they are. This’d be a GOOD thing, as it’d allow us to deal with it… it’d take a long time, more time than there is in several lifetimes, but it’d allow us to begin the long process of healing properly. Of course, there’s the possibility (not small) that the Phanar would go Uniate. In that case, there’d be no division, only a group of heretics leaving the body of the One Church, that’s all. We’d have to reintegrate the loyal Greeks into Traditional Orthodoxy (they’ve departed from it since the time of Metaxakis, I’m afraid). The OCA would split in two… its inherent divisions would crystallise. Some would go with the Mother Church; others would go off with the Phanar, whether as Orthodox or as Uniate would depend on where the Phanar ended.
Yet, this’d be for the best… our present situation is unstable in the extreme. One side or the other must give… I can guarantee that the Centre isn’t going to surrender. It bids fair to be interesting.