In the second of a two-part series, the Executive Director of the Living Church Foundation, Dr Christopher Wells, explores how the Church can remain united despite deep difference.
The communion of Christians and churches is a journey of faithfulness over time, on two counts: because the Christian life is corporate, and because we are called by God not just once in a flash of conversion but to sustained growth in obedience. Following St Paul (see Romans 5:3-4), St Augustine named this journey by grace perseverance.
For divided Christian churches, the question becomes: How can we persevere together – not simply along isolated, or possibly parallel, paths, but along roads that may converge in God’s good time, as we learn to cooperate with him and his Spirit, and to follow more surely the path of his crucified Son, the way of the cross, which leads to resurrected life? This is the question of walking together, along the one road of the gospel and its truth, in a bid of common formation and conversion.
While there are various points along the road, and not all will walk together at every point, the hope, at least, to advance along the road after our Lord marks an irreducible criterion of evangelical authenticity. Seeking to follow Jesus – “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) – is all that is required of anyone to begin the journey of discipleship.
Just here, the Church of England Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) recent reflection, “Gospel, Church & Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life,” presents a compelling case for the unity of catholic and apostolic truth: catholic because shared throughout the world and across time; apostolic because given and articulated as the definitive deposit of ancient faith.
If the catholic aspect of the Church especially pertains to the “structures of conciliar relations and decision-making” (to quote the World Council of Churches), as well as the visibility of a common ministry and common witness, the apostolic aspect of the Church concerns the content of the faith itself: right doctrine, as a true reading of the Scriptures in accord with the consensus of our forebears.
To be sure, fullness of Anglican Communion does not seem readily available at the moment and is likely not in the offing in the near future. The Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission acknowledged this in its recent, creative discussion of the interim arrangements made with its traditionalist minority on the matter of the ordination of women, calling the arrangements “a remarkable adventure in how ecclesial communion can be sustained without agreement in belief and practice on something that has been considered to be of decisive importance for ‘full’ communion” (section 68 of Communion and Disagreement).
Some similarly generous arrangement may be possible, and necessary, for the Communion as a whole regarding our intractable disagreements over sexuality and marriage, and the CEEC text may be read as suggesting ecclesiological reasoning to this end.
As the whole Communion takes up this work, may we do so with a lively sense of accountability to one another as “fellow Christians,” in the words of CEEC: brothers and sisters who seek to advance in the way of catholic and apostolic faithfulness, albeit at varying – different, differentiated – points along the road. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).