When it comes to Christian unity, some theologians say no

When Protestant leaders were developing plans for a new form of the church for twentieth-century America, some of the most supportive participants were theologians in the several churches. Other members of the academic community, however, opposed the venture. Some of these negative responses were prompted by the publication in 1967 of Principles of Church Union, a slender volume outlining the new church as it might be.

Almost immediately Episcopal theologian John Macquarrie invited a group of professors to provide their assessment of COCU’s Principles. He published their ideas in a 64-page booklet with the title Realistic Reflections on Church Union.

The 64-page, small-format volume contains brief papers by seven scholars. Three were on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York (Macquarrie, Reginald H. Fuller, and Paul L. Lehman). Four were Episcopalians (Macquarrie, Fuller, Walter C. Klien, and John Knox), and another was a member of the Church of England (Eric L. Mascall). One was Roman Catholic (John A. Hardon) and another was Presbyterian (Lehman).

Macquarrie notes that all of the participating scholars agreed on two points: that the COCU process should be slowed down and that it was inappropriate at that time to move forward toward “organic union.” He identified three reasons for slowing the process: 1) Despite certain positive characteristics of the recently published Principles of Church Union, the document did not provide an adequate foundation for building a church that would be truly catholic and reformed. 2) Even if the principles could be improved, the union of these ten churches would be a setback to genuine Christian unity. 3) The very idea of “organic union” was old-fashioned.

Reginald H. Fuller noted that Episcopalians held two principles as they worked for unity. First, they always looked three ways: toward Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Second, they used the four points of the Lambeth Quadrilateral as criteria. He believed that the Quadrilateral’s points were treated positively, although inadequately, in the Principles, but that the three-fold interest in unity possibilities would be significantly compromised by COCU.

One objection was that the Principles fell short with respect to matters that were important to catholic Christians (among them the sacerdotal character of the ministry, especially of bishops, and the sacramental nature of baptism and eucharist).

Macquarrie’s band were unwilling to accept the COCU proposal for solving some long-time disagreements, which was that the united churches would accept certain structures and systems as necessary for the life of the united church (the office of bishop, for example) but would not insist on any one theological explanation for that structure or system. Two writers mentioned that if Lutherans had also been participants in the process, doctrine would not so easily have been underplayed. Because of their confessional character, Lutherans would have insisted that the Principles deal more fully with ecclesiological issues.

Some of the contributors expressed their disagreement with the intention that the new church be evangelical. One writer saw this emphasis as a veiled way to insisting that the Word would be dominant in the new church. Another feared that the evangelical emphasis provided a way to preserve the two major “aberrations” in Protestant theology: liberalism and pietism.

The harshest rejection was offered by Paul L. Lehmann, a Presbyterian professor of systematic theology at Union Seminary. Historically, the experience of the church had been that the emphasis upon structural union leads to the church’s disobedience. Procedurally, this proposal was a top down approach to unity and failed to involve the grass roots members of the church. Ethically, the proposed union failed because it focused attention upon the church’s own life when it ought to be focusing their attention upon the world that was “riven by war and injustice and driven by powers” that were threatening humankind. “What would it profit, if through COCU, the Church gained her life and lost her soul?”

These scholars represented a three-fold point of view concerning unity movements that has been held by many people then and now: 1) Christian unity is to be highly valued, but it can only be affirmed when it leaves the ideas and practices of one’s own tradition exactly as they currently exist. 2) Even when viewed in the most charitable way possible, efforts like COCU are trying to create a new church that is built on unacceptable principles that would contribute little of value to the church’s own life or to the life of the world. 3) The leaders of COCU and similar ventures probably mean well, but they are wrong and if they have their way the possibilities for more genuine unity would be obstructed.

When leading scholars of the church hold this view, how would it be possible for church executives to work effectively for Christian unity? Other scholars, however, responded to COCU’s Principles more favorably. More about them next time.

One Response to When it comes to Christian unity, some theologians say no

  1. […] I reported in a recent column, some theologians registered unfavorable responses to the theological aspects of the documents that […]

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