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Presentation to the Association of Interchurch Families’ annual conference at Swanwick, August 2001

Christian Unity: Why? What? How?

Canon Martin Reardon


There are at least five inter-related reasons why we should seek to discover and promote Christian unity.

  1. Jesus Christ wanted it and prayed for it (John 17), and virtually every New Testament author pointed to it, argued for it and encouraged it.
  2. John and Paul saw it as reflective of the very nature of God (John 17: 11, 21, 23) and of the purpose for which Christ came (II Cor. 5: 18-20).
  3. The world in which we live is deeply divided, and needs to discover true unity. We cannot convincingly preach unity if we ourselves are divided.
  4. All our churches are formally committed to seek closer unity.
  5. It would help interchurch families and all who encounter problems in seeking to marry across denominational divisions.


But what kind of unity? It is easy to produce reasons why we should be united, but that immediately raises the question "What kind of unity?" It is ironic that there is scarcely anything that divides the churches more profoundly than their differing ideas of what Christian unity should be like. We all tend to envision it in the shape of our own tradition. To begin to answer this question, we need to look at the New Testament, not only at what the authors teach about Christian unity, but also at how they understood the Church.

To summarise what the authors of the New Testament have to say about Christian unity, and to attempt to say it in five or ten minutes, is hazardous.

I begin with Jesus’ command to us to love one another as he has loved us (John 15: 12, 17), because God is love (I John 4: 7 and 8). This word loveoccurs in every book in the New Testament except, oddly, the Acts of the Apostles. I hope we can take this for granted. I mention it because it is clearly central to the nature of Christian unity; but also because among ecumenists there are those who say that it is all that is needed, and others (notably the late Jean Tillard) who have tended to deprecate what he called ‘kissy-kissy’ ecumenism. I also mention it because it is, I hope, central to marriage and family life, and something therefore that interchurch families see from a very particular viewpoint (cf. Eph. 5: 21-33).

Moving from the word love to the word unity, we may be in for a surprise. The Greek abstract noun for unity (enoths, henotes) occurs only twice in the New Testament, and both times are in Ephesians 4 (verse 3, ‘taking care to preserve the unity of the Spirit’; and verse 13, ‘until we all come to the unity of the faith’). Before we draw the wrong conclusion, however, the word one occurs many times. The Greek numeral ‘one’ has a masculine, feminine and neuter form, and so normally takes on the gender of the noun it goes with, but not here in John’s Gospel. When Jesus describes his unity with the Father (John 10: 30), and when he describes the unity he shares with the Father and his disciples (their co-inherence, 17: 21 ff.), the text uses the neuter (en, hen). This may be just a peculiarity of New Testament Greek, but some scholars find more in it than that. First of all, it is very concrete, not abstract. It is sufficiently visible to enable ‘the world to believe …’ Secondly, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Qumran Community at the same time had a parallel religious vocabulary which delineated a community united in action together in one time and place (Hebrew yahad) – a communion of people living the same way of life. It is not primarily a unity of organisation, but a community together united in heart and mind, and with the same fundamental belief.

This is very much the picture we get of the early church in Acts (2: 42-46; 4: 32): ‘they persisted in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (koinwnia, koinonia), in the breaking of bread and the prayers … they were together (epi to auto, epi to auto) and had all things in common … they persisted together with one heart and mind (omoqumadon, homothumadon) daily in the temple …’ ‘The whole assembly of believers were of one heart and soul.’

In the last few years theologians have picked out one work that describes the content of unity in the New Testament better than any other – the word translated fellowship in that passage from Acts. The word actually occurs 38 times in the New Testament, but because it is translated by half a dozen different English words, we miss its force in translation. It can be translated as communitycommunionsharingpartnershipparticipationfellowshipsolidarity. Its root in both Greek (koinos, koinos) and Latin (communis) means commonsharedpublic, as distinct from privateindividual. It means we are irrevocably together.

What or who in the New Testament is being shared in koinonia?

    1. Fundamentally, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is sharing himself with us.

I Cor. 1: 9 (God called you into the koinonia of his Son)

II Cor. 13: 13 (The grace of Christ, the love of God and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit …)

Phil. 2: 1 (The koinonia of the Holy Spirit …)

I John 1: 3 (Our koinonia is with the Father and with Jesus Christ)

II Peter 1: 4 (We are koinonoi – sharers in the divine nature)

    1. If we have koinonia with God, we cannot have it with evil.

I Cor. 10: 20; II Cor. 6: 14; Eph. 5: 11; I John 1: 6; Rev. 18: 4

and this means avoiding false teachers – II John 11; I Tim. 5: 22

    1. Koinonia in the Gospel – Phil. 1: 5; to share in its blessings – I Cor. 9: 23; koinonia in grace –

Phil. 1: 7; koinonia of your faith – Philemon: 6

    1. Koinonia in the sufferings of Christ – Phil. 3: 1; I Peter 4: 13; Rev. 1: 9; and in the sufferings of

his disciples – II Cor. 1: 7; Phil. 4: 14; Heb. 10: 35; so as to share his glory – I Peter 5: 1

    1. Koinonia with fellow Christians – II Cor. 8: 23; Gal. 2: 9; Philemon: 17; I John 1: 3, 7 (in Luke

5: 10 it refers to the business partnership between Peter, James and John); Acts 2: 42

    1. Koinonia includes sharing possessions – Acts 2: 44, and especially through Paul’s collection from

Gentile churches for poor Jewish Christians – Rom. 12: 13, and 15: 26; II Cor. 9: 13; Phil. 4: 15; I Tim. 6: 18; Heb. 13: 16

  1. Koinonia in the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper – I Cor. 10: 16 (the Latin translation

of this text is communicatio, not communio, hence modern Roman Catholic usage of communicatio in sacris)

Among all the other things one could say about unity in the New Testament, I choose two that show that unity is not a once for all static reality, but a constantly threatened but dynamic reality growing towards perfection in the Kingdom of God. In Ephesians 4, the author uses the familiar image of the Church as a body with diverse members all of which are contributing to the unity of the whole. But he then adds that all together are growing up into maturity in Christ (verse 13). The same idea appears in John 17: 23, where Jesus prays that the disciples may be perfected into one in himself.

This growth in unity was not all smooth either within a local church or between different local churches. We learn from I Corinthians that divisions were threatened (1: 10, schisms) as well as heresies (11: 19). The most serious division was between those who believed that Christ’s followers should all obey the Old Testament Law and all males be circumcised, and those led by Paul who believed this not only unnecessary for Gentiles but also in danger of perverting the freedom Christ preached as far as Gentile believers were concerned. The problem came to a head over table fellowship. Some Jewish Christians refused to eat with Gentile Christians lest they inadvertently contravened the ritual purity laws of the Old Testament. This meant that they could not share the eucharist, what we now call the sacrament of unity.

They dealt with this threat by holding what we now call the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), probably in fact a small meeting between some of the leaders of the Church of Antioch, including Paul, and the leaders of the Church of Jerusalem, including James the Lord’s brother, Peter, and probably John. They reached an agreement which today we might call a compromise, and claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for it. The Jewish Christians would not require Gentile Christians to keep the whole law, but where Gentile and Jewish Christians belonged to the same local church, the Gentile Christians would make sure that they avoided practices which might cause Jewish Christians to become unclean by the Old Testament Law requirements. This allowed Jew and Gentile to sit at table and have communion together in the same local church. The Gentiles maintained their freedom and integrity, but out of consideration for the conscience of the Jew they refrained from certain things they might well have done otherwise. Although only the leaders of the two churches were in the formal discussion, it seems that both congregations (Antioch and Jerusalem) agreed it and received it.

The theme of this weekend is Christian unity. Subconsciously I suspect that some of us will have thought of it as Church unity. Indeed, some of us may say there is no difference. What do we mean by ‘Church’? Again, it is hazardous to answer the question in two minutes, but … In the New Testament the word ‘church’ is actually taken over from the Greek Old Testament word for the assembly or congregation of the people of Israel, for instance, as they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land. The early Christians regarded themselves as the faithful remnant of the Israel of God (Gal. 6: 6). The word ‘church’ is used in two senses – first it signifies the Assembly of Christians in a particular place, say Corinth or Rome. Where there are several churches in a region such as Galatia, Paul writes to ‘the churches’ in the plural. The same usage appears in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Book of Revelation. Indeed, so localised is the word ‘church’ that it is sometimes used of the assembly of Christians in a single house (Rom. 16: 5; I Cor. 16: 19; Philemon: 2).

The other use of the word ‘church’ is a general, universal, or, as I would prefer to say, a cosmic use. At any rate, it is not, at this stage, a universal geographical sense, as sometimes used today in Roman Catholic circles. This sense of ‘church’ transcends time and space (Eph. 3: 10, and 5: 25, 27; Matt. 16: 18; Col. 1: 18, 24). It is most definitely not used in a denominational sense, since Paul, for example, inveighs against all sectarianism (I Cor. 1: 11-13).

The local and cosmic senses of church coincide, since the cosmic church of Christ is manifested in the local church; and there are some uses of the word ‘church’ that could apply both in a local and in a cosmic sense (I Cor. 12: 28) at the same time.

To recognise both these uses is important since it is clear that the New Testament is concerned both for the unity of the local church and of the cosmic church.

Before we leave the concepts of church expressed in the New Testament, I must make it clear that I am not being fundamentalist. Other senses of church developed since New Testament times are not all wrong. There is nothing wrong with the concept of the universal church of all Christians alive today across the world, nor of the church as the body of Christians united with Christ in a particular nation, but these and other usages need to be judged as developments from New Testament times, and of course the Council of Jerusalem shows the beginning of that concern.

How did the early church try to encourage and maintain unity between the local churches? First of all they saw unity as vital and integral to the Christian faith itself. They prayed for it and expected the Holy Spirit to guide them. They maintained active communications between local churches, and accorded the apostles, including Barnabas and Paul and others, together with, it seems, a number of peripatetic prophets, considerable moral authority. They appointed leaders of the local churches, whose responsibility included maintaining unity and resisting what they regarded as false teaching. They gradually developed forms of worship and simple credal formulae, and they accorded to the larger local churches founded by the apostles a certain moral authority and tended to refer to them on disputed questions. These churches included Jerusalem at first, then Antioch and Rome and Alexandria, and later Constantinople. Rome as linked to St Peter and St Paul and as the capital of the Empire exercised a moral pre-eminence. From the second century onwards single overseers/bishops were appointed alongside other local church leaders in each local church, and from time to time these were gathered together to decide practical or doctrinal questions for the catholic/world-wide church. From the time of Constantine in the fourth century AD the Roman Emperor called together and presided at these universal or ecumenical councils. Alongside these developments the churches were gathering together accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and letters written or purporting to be written by the apostles, deciding which were authentic, and then putting them together to form the New Testament. They also agreed a baptismal and eucharistic creed.

The achievement of the world-wide church in the first five centuries in establishing a basis for unity was remarkable, and much of it stands to maintain unity today, but it was not easy and it was not universally successful. Some churches in the East were separated from the main body of orthodox or catholic churches, and some remain separate to this day, although in the last few decades great progress towards reunion has been made. To a large extent the reasons for these divisions were doctrinal, and with hindsight today we would say that the disagreements were often the result of misunderstandings or different ways of expressing the same things rather than differences over what was fundamentally true. Perhaps in the early centuries, as today, there was insufficient understanding of differences of language and of philosophical approaches, and, as today also, insufficient patience and mutual love to take the time and trouble to understand each other. Each party wanted to prove itself right.

The first major division, however, was between the East, what we now call the Orthodox Churches, and the West, the Roman Catholic Church. With the creation of Constantinople and the crumbling of the Roman Empire, the East and West tended to have less and less regular contact. Pope Leo the Great (d. 461), who considerably increased the power of the Papacy particularly in the West, knew no Greek. The Latin West introduced the phrase ‘and the Son’ (Filioque) into the creed unilaterally, even though the Greek East regarded it as heretical. By 1054 the division of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism was more or less permanent. The way the Western crusading armies did not always distinguish between Muslims and Eastern Christians, and the forcible establishment of a Western church in Constantinople in the fourth Crusade, added bitterness to the division, and partly explains Eastern fears of proselytism by the West even today.

If the East-West divide of the first millennium was primarily caused by failures in communication, the Reformation, as its name suggests, began as a movement to reform the Catholic Church. The papacy was in disrepute; the Pope had become also a secular ruler heavily involved in European politics at the time of the rise of the nation state. All serious churchmen at the beginning of the sixteenth century saw that reform was necessary, but how and in what direction? Luther complained at the sale of indulgences, but Rome did not take him seriously. The leaders of some of the German states backed Luther against the Holy Roman Emperor, their overlord, and politics got mixed up with religious reform, as a little later in England. Many religious leaders on both sides struggled to preserve or re-establish unity, but they failed. Once the unity of the Western Church had been broken, the Protestant reformers themselves began to split from one another, sometimes supported in this along national lines. The result at first was the practice cuius regio, euis religio – the local ruler decided the religious affiliation of his subjects. Thus the Nordic countries became Lutheran, England Anglican, the German states Lutheran or Reformed.

As the centuries passed and religious toleration was gradually accepted, and particularly as separate denominations living and working alongside one another geographically became the norm in places like the United States, what is sometimes called denominationalism became normal in many countries, particularly among Protestants. There was a widespread acceptance that denominational affiliation was a matter of personal choice, and the permanent existence of more or less equal denominations alongside one another in the same locality was perfectly normal.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches never officially accepted this, and Nordic Lutherans and English Anglicans, for example, would still tend to assume that theirs was the proper church for citizens of their particular nations.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many Christians in many different churches realised that the parallel and separate existence of denominations was wrong. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople proposed a League of Churches comparable to the League of Nations. Many Protestants and Anglicans, especially those working in the so-called mission field, called for much more co-operation and even unity.

In 1942 the British Council of Churches and in 1948 the World Council of Churches were formed – significantly, on the basis of membership by autonomous national churches. Although some Roman Catholics had been deeply involved in work for Christian unity in the first half of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church did not participate at all at this stage in Councils of Churches. Rome is of course a world-wide church, not primarily a communion of national churches, but a deeper reason for hesitation was that it might be thought it was colluding with the background concept of more or less equal denominations, whereas it believed it was the one true church. The Orthodox Churches did gradually join, although they too regarded themselves as the true church, but they had developed into autocephalous churches in full communion with one another.

The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was marked by the discussion among the Protestant and Anglican Churches of a whole succession of union schemes, aiming at uniting two or more churches into one Church. This succeeded to a certain extent, in the Indian subcontinent particularly, but also elsewhere. In England it led to the formation of the United Reformed Church. I believe that this period gave the impression, which was by no means true, that church leaders thought that Christian unity was all about the institutional union of the Church.

In the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church formally entered the ecumenical movement through the Second Vatican Council. Three points are to be noted:

  1. It was able to recognise the validity of other churches’ baptisms. This meant that for them all the baptised were in a sense part of the universal Church.
  2. It was able to recognise that the Holy Spirit was at work in other Churches, so that, even if it did not recognise their ministries, for example, as valid, it could recognise that God was working through them.
  3. It consciously preferred to say that the one Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than the formulation that the one Church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8). It thus made it possible to recognise that elements of the one Church of Christ could exist also in other Churches and ecclesial communities.

After this it felt able to join the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, though not the Council itself.

Partly because of its concern for unity in faith, but also because of the Faith and Order movement generally and the recognition by other Churches that theological agreement was important, the period from 1980 to the present day has focused particularly on interchurch dialogue which tries to overcome the doctrinal disagreements between Churches. Perhaps the most famous are Faith and Order’s Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission’s Final Report, and the Lutheran-Catholic agreement on Justification. This moved the focus from institutional union to theological agreement, and tended to suggest that agreement in faith was the most important thing.

So WHERE are we now and WHAT PART can interchurch families play in the immediate future?

To answer this I want to move specifically to the English scene. The English have not been very successful with national institutional unions, nor, with a few exceptions, have we produced leading theologians on unity. We have however led the way in encouraging local work for unity. The first local Council of Churches was formed in 1917 in Oldham, and in 1964 we began to establish Areas of Ecumenical Experiment, now called Local Ecumenical Partnerships, in places where local churches wanted to commit themselves to live and work much more closely together than in a local Council of Churches (now often called a local Churches Together). Most of the country is now covered by local Churches Together, and at the latest count there were 861 Local Ecumenical Partnerships, with a new one being created every two weeks. Moreover, virtually every county or metropolitan area has its Churches Together through which the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops and Free Church leaders are encouraged and enabled to meet, to pray and to work together. In 1990 the British Council of Churches voted itself out of existence and was replaced by national Churches Together, of which the Roman Catholic and several other churches, not previously members of the British Council of Churches, have become full and active members. It would take too long to detail all the differences between a Council of Churches and a Churches Together, but briefly: (i) whereas Councils of Churches tended to replicate but not replace the work of the Churches themselves, the Churches are now trying to do together through Churches Together some at least of what they would previously have done separately; (ii) regular prayer and worship together has been given a much higher profile; (iii) Churches Together groups and committees take no important decisions without first ensuring that the relevant decision-making bodies of the Churches are in agreement with them; (iv) member Churches have made a formal commitment to one another to seek "to become more fully … the one Church of Christ, united in faith, communion, pastoral care and mission".

It has been customary in England for some time to refer to the "ecumenical C-scale", and to encourage people to move up the scale from competition, through co-existence, co-operation, to commitment and ultimately to communion. Buckinghamshire, probably above average among the English counties in its work for Christian unity, recently did a survey of virtually all their local member churches, asking them to estimate honestly where they were on the C-scale. Only just over a quarter completed the questionnaire, but the organisers reckoned it was a reasonably accurate assessment for the whole county. The result was as follows: Competition – 0; Co-existence –15; Co-operation – 65; Commitment – 23; Communion – 6. When Cardinal Hume in 1987 committed the Roman Catholic Church to joining the new ecumenical bodies he said that he saw this as a move from co-operation to commitment, and this word was written into the foundation documents of the new bodies. If the Buckinghamshire survey is accurate and matched across the rest of the country, only about a quarter of our churches have really committed themselves to work towards unity with other churches.

I believe some interchurch families are in a good position to lead their churches further forward in this respect. In marriage, we have covenanted with one another for life. This involves living together and sharing everything we really value with one another, and that includes for most, if not all, of us in this room, the best of the particular Christian tradition to which we belong. By participating in the life of one another’s churches we provide an example to others. More than that, our shared participation (our koinonia) is a reality in our home, our domestic church, and a sacramentally-recognised reality, which draws other members of our congregations to share it to some extent. If this is true of husbands and wives, it is even more true of our children.

How can we encourage this? Archbishop Runcie and Pope John Paul II in 1989 made a joint statement in which they said that Christian unity was not only about removing obstacles (which the church leaders were trying to do in their dialogues which focused on the points of disagreement between our churches); it was also about sharing gifts (koinonia again). If our churches are really to be motivated to move to the next stage, they need not just to remove obstacles, but to see that the other churches may have preserved some Christian gifts and values better than ours have, or discovered new gifts which they also would like to share. They need to move from defining their own identity as distinct from, and in some cases over against, that of other churches, to a common identity. This, after all, is what we experience in a good marriage. Husband and wife remain distinct individuals, with their own individual identity, but they gradually establish also a common shared family identity, and it is this shared family identity on which their children build, and into which they grow.

This is what the churches are beginning to discover through Churches Together in England’s programme entitled Together in a Common Life. This programme had its source in 1997 when the Forum [of Churches Together in England] saw that Christian unity was not a static reality which we either had or did not have. It was a goal to work towards, yes! – but it was also a gift God is offering to us and something which we grow up into: it is, to quote the Forum’s phrase, "a way of journeying now". Pope John Paul II said to Archbishop Runcie as he left Rome in 1989 that their affective unity would eventually lead to effective unity. In marriage we learn to live in one another’s lives lovingly, respectfully, so that at best we gradually become "of one heart and one mind". We need to encourage our churches to do the same, and so to discover one another’s gifts, values and treasures.

Into what kind of unity will this lead us? Two phrases have recently been used to describe this – first, a very old phrase, "organic unity", which can be traced to Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ, and second, a relatively new phrase emanating from Germany and from the Lutheran World Federation, "unity in reconciled diversity". The latter phrase was coined as a corrective to those who interpreted "organic unity" as organisational unity, implying a central authority imposing uniformity. The two phrases are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Organic unity implies diversity – the body would not function as a unity unless its very diverse parts worked together, as Paul points out. Unity in reconciled diversity requires a real unity while also insisting on the preservation of diverse elements. Professor James Dunn recently coined the phrase "co-ordinated diversity".

What is clear to everyone now is that we cannot move in one jump from our present state of division into a perfectly-functioning organic unity. Before that we need to reconcile our diversities into a growing unity. What we cannot tell at present is the exact structural form it will take.

Presentation to the Association of Interchurch Families’ annual conference at Swanwick, August 2001



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