Leader: Two ways to hold the body together

by
23 January 2008

IN A SERMON in St Albans Abbey on Sunday, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the Roman Catholic Dominican order, spoke about the centenary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was extraordinary how far the Churches had come, he said; “but we can’t just go on muddling along, vaguely united in Christ.” Something new had to be built on 100 years of “just being nice to each other”. His suggestion was 100 years of disagreement. If it had been established that no limb of Christianity is complete without the other limbs, then people in other denominations were worth “reasoning, arguing, debating” with.

In its perverse way, Anglicans seem to be living this history in reverse. It certainly feels as if we have had 100 years of disagreement. If the present cracks widen further, and a separate denomination develops, we can predict that niceness will return. When there is no structural power to wrangle over, and no compulsion to meet, the desire to squabble fades away. Just so long as people do not make the mistake of assuming that quiet co-existence satisfies Christ’s demand to be one.

There are two models for unity. One is structural, juridical unity, where Christians are under the same discipline, follow the same precepts, and are responsible to the same authorities in matters of law and practice. This is the lean, skeletal model of the Church, where the bones can be seen holding the body together. For this structure to work, the hierarchy, the bones, must be confident enough to allow diversity in non-essentials. In their turn, the laity must feel free enough to approach God in their own way, while remaining loyal to the whole.

The other model is the fat view of the Church, where the bones cannot be seen beneath the flesh. Here the organs, the heart, the stomach, are a more important element in unity. Structural unity is less evident, though it might be there, and yet the different parts of the Church relate to each other without reference to a centre. For this model to work, groups of Christians must spontaneously recognise their need for communion with others unlike themselves.

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Neither model is necessarily right or complete, and Christians routinely experience both, as they relate to people in their own denomination and those outside it. The structural bond is stronger than the spiritual — possibly because it is easier, not because it is better. Structures tend to be built on a foundation of like-mindedness, and hide an inate discomfort with diversity.

The Anglican Communion is at a pivotal point in its history — something that the Lambeth Conference does not appear able to address. It has thrived so far because of a unique blend of the two models: employing structural bonds within provinces, spiritual bonds between them. The Covenant is a means of applying a structural unity at the international level for the first time. It will have no more success than the previous model unless it is held in place by commitment and good will.

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