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What is Christian unity?: Abp of York: "good disagreement"; Rollin Grams: "one Lord, one faith, one body"

What is Christian unity?: Abp of York: "good disagreement"; Rollin Grams: "one Lord, one faith, one body"

by Barbara Gauthier
Anglican Mainstream
August 13, 2023

When the Archbishop of York delivered his Presidential Address to open General Synod, the only thing that received any attention from his audience, commentators and the media was a single comment: "For if this God to whom we pray is 'Father' -- and, yes, I know the word 'father' is problematic..."

It immediately set off a flurry of responses, reactions, commentaries and criticisms.

The rest of Cottrell's address was pretty much ignored by everyone except Murray Campbell. At the end of his lengthy dissection of the Archbishop's views on fatherhood and patriarchy and just before his heaty exhortation to "Listen to Jesus, not the Archbishop of York," Campbell inserted the following short paragraph on the rest of the Presidential Address:

"The Archbishop went on to talk about unity and mission, as does every denominational leader who is trying to keep the sinking ship afloat with one hand while drilling a hole with the other. Gospel unity and Gospel mission are sublime, vital, life-giving and God-glorifying realities. But redefine sin and you've redefined the atonement and you've removed the message of God's mission. Redefine God and you've created a new religion and walked away from the Spirit-given unity as the body of Christ."

I do wonder if those who jumped so hastily on Cottrell's acknowledgement that "the word 'father' is problematic" may have been distracted from the far greater import of the rest of his address: what is the basis of unity in the Church? It is one of the best efforts I've ever run across in its attempt to establish scriptural precedent for Welby's definition of "good disagreement" as the essence of Christian unity.

The Archbishop of York chose the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) as his proof text -- or more specifically, a single word in the Lord's Prayer: "our." So often the current disunity within the church is framed primarily in abstract terms -- institutional unity vs. theological unity. But there is another concept of unity at work in the modern church: relational unity. How do we relate with one another in our human community?

Years ago we began using the term "communitarians" for those Christians who focus primarily on relational unity by emphasizing almost above all else the connection between the individual and the community as the basis of unity. What we believe is immaterial, so long as we love one another and care for one another as we "walk together" in "good disagreement."

Cottrell Lord's take on the Lord's Prayer seems to embrace whole-heartedly this notion of communitarianism laced with significant overtones of universalism.

"We have got used to disunity. We think it's normal. When in fact, it is a disgrace, an affront to Christ and all he came to give us.

"But if we begin with the word 'our' and let it change the way we see ourselves and see each other, then we will also see that our belonging to each other is not only non-negotiable, it is what we must prize and hold onto in all our discussions, all our decisions, and in all the issues we face. Moreover, we must always go the extra mile of finding those ways of widening the tent of our inclusion, but without letting anyone be lost.

"Disagreeing well really does matter."

What's important is not so much the destination as it is the journeying well together towards whatever the future holds.

"Finally, that image of walking together, being in relationship and partnership, even if there is not complete agreement, even if it's impaired, is a deeply synodal image...

"When I was with Pope Francis he said this: "We must walk together, we must work together, and we must pray together". In a world of so much division, separation, shallow individualism, and an erosion of community, even an impaired unity among ourselves and a commitment, ecumenically, to keep on talking, praying and walking is very good news indeed. And is so much better than the alternatives!"

Two days later Rollin Grams (a former professor of Biblical Theology and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell now with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life) responded with a rousing rebuttal: "True unity is unity with Christ." His treatise on "The Theological Unity of the Church and Its Separation from Darkness" is careful and thorough exegesis of Ephesians 1 beginning with twelve essential characteristics of the Church that establish her identity in Christ -- and the nature of her unity. However, Grams also notes that the Church's unity comes first and foremost from the oneness of God and the Church's own participation in the eternal life of the Trinity: "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."(Ephesians 4:4-6)

"This statement is theological and Trinitarian. One implication of this theology for the Church is that its unity is not to be found in an ecclesiastical institution. Yet it is also not to be found primarily in a purely human community, as important as those relationships are. (Ephesians 2-4 develops the relationships of the Church in various ways, but always in relation to Christ.)

"The unity of the Church is theological in the sense that, as Ephesians 1 shows, every aspect of its unity is derived from its participation in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit."

When the Church ceases to embody these Pauline characteristics, Grams says, she ceases to be the Church and has lost her unity in Christ because she is looking elsewhere for her true identity.

"Therefore, those breaking their relationship with God by not being the Church as it is meant to be and as has been described in Ephesians are not the Church. They may hold the keys of power in an institution, but they are not the Church. Distinguishing ourselves from them by refusing to follow them in their wandering from God is a way of expressing theological unity--unity in God."

If an ecclesial body is no longer walking in the light of Christ and is refusing to follow his commandments, then the time has come for "separation from darkness."

Scarcely a week later, Grams posted a much longer exegetical article entitled "Toward a Biblical Theology of Division from False Teachers, Theological Errors, and Immoral Persons in the Church." Expanding on his previous work, Grams examines in detail how the NT church dealt with false teaching, theological error and acceptance of immoral behavior and how their guidelines can be applied to similar situations in the Church today.

In a footnote, Grams sets forth the theological basis of progressive Christianity, intent on providing the Church with a new identity and fostering division within the Western churches.

"Progressives champion what they call 'social justice,' which may or may not be real justice. The key problem here is that, with their energies focussed on social action, they are, like Liberation Theology, weak on doctrine and personal ethics. They are less concerned with Scriptural authority. Theology is no longer based on Biblical interpretation; it is more about application of justice principles."

"A theology of unity in the Church presupposes a theology of division," Grams contends. "The two are not opposed to one another but inter-dependent."

Division first appears as factions within the Church, which Paul considered a necessary part of true spiritual discernment: "For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized." (1 Corinthians 11:19) Eventually factions, if not resolved in a godly manner, may require going separate ways as John noted in his day:" They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." (1 John 2:19)

Grams begins with a description of how this theology of division is being applied today, most notably in the Methodist and Anglican churches.

"Mainline, Protestant denominations have been in the process of schism over several decades. Currently, the United Methodist Church is dividing, while the Anglican Communion is solidifying its divisions from liberal, Western provinces, including the Church of England. Throughout the process, theological concerns over schism itself have been a part of the debates.

"Liberals and theological revisionists have argued that the orthodox should not leave the denominations because unity is an essential doctrine for the Church. In saying this, they have diverted attention away from the issues causing division. By 'unity' they mean loyalty to an institutional community, not theological unity. In this way, any insistence on Biblical teaching and orthodoxy has been treated as secondary to organizational unity."

(or as Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia so aptly put it nearly twenty years ago, "If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. For as a heretic, you are only guilty of a wrong opinion. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ.")

What we need, Grams declares, is "a Biblical understanding of unity that stands over against false teaching about unity in our day," What then follows is a rigorous exegesis of 25 New Testament passages that deal specifically with false teachers and how the Church is to actively respond to false teaching, theological error and promotion of immoral behavior in her midst.

It is obviously quite lengthy and substantial, but well worth reading carefully for a fuller grasp of the theological underpinnings which have informed decisions being made by both GSFA and GAFCON and can help their insistence on the need for visible differentiation or complete separation.

At the very end Grams adds what I think is an absolutely essential part of this theology of division. It is not enough to just separate. Those who remain faithful must also be intent on pursuing uprightness of character and growing in holiness, so that the Church may more fully embody what the Lord has called her to be. Grams quotes here from 2 Peter 3:

"...what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness..." (v.11)
"...be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace..." (v. 14)
"...take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (v. 17-18)

May it be so.

Remember, Lord, your one holy catholic and apostolic Church
redeemed by the blood of your Christ.
Reveal her unity, guard her faith, preserve her in peace.

-- from the Liturgy of St. Basil

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