A paper presented to the Fareham Clergy Fraternal at St. Dominic’s Priory, Sway, Hampshire
11 May 2011
Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia
Where Christ is, there is the Church. Whether we have thought about it or not, whether we would phrase it like that or not, we can’t get away from the simple truth: where Christ is, there is the Church.
In this reality lies our unity as Christians, in all its diversity. And in this very same reality lies also our sad, yet necessary and indeed legitimate, disunity.
Against this reality, Christians and churches are prone to sin in two seemingly opposite ways.
On the one hand, we are tempted by the sin of false exclusivity―of denying that the Church is found wherever Christ is found, because He is found over there, with them, who are not us and not like us and not with us. And so we make ourselves, likeness to ourselves, agreement with us, definitive of the Church―and thus deny Christ.
On the other hand, we are tempted by the sin of false inclusivity―of denying that it is in Christ that the Church is found. We define the Church in terms of our fellowship with one another, seek unity by seeking unanimity with one another and make common goals with one another, and set aside or ignore the differences that exist. And so we make ourselves, our agenda, our views, definitive of the Church―and thus deny Christ.
And of course, these two sins are really the same sin, differently applied. They both deny the reality of the Church as the body of Christ, and make it a body of believers instead. The only difference is in attitude and preference. One is inward-looking, the other outward-looking. But both are looking, not at Christ, but at self.
But let’s break things down first.
One of the great achievements of the last 100 years in the Church has been the Ecumenical Movement. Ancient barriers of hostility have been broken down globally, regionally and in local places. Many years ago I had the privilege of spending an evening in the company of the great NT scholar C.K. Barrett. In the course of the evening, he recalled a source of sadness from his student days at Cambridge in the 1930s: as a Methodist, never once was he allowed to receive Communion in the Anglican college chapel. These days, Anglicans and Methodists don’t only extend eucharistic hospitality to one another’s members, but in many places they have formed joint parishes. Many Lutheran and Anglican churches exchange members and clergy. There’s even traffic between the Anglican church and the Church of Rome, though that appears to be moving only one way at the moment. Amazing times!
One of the great battle cries of the Ecumenical Movement ever since its beginnings in Edinburgh in 1910 has been the prayer of Jesus in John 17: “ … that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me … so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” A united Church bears witness to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which is a mission imperative: “that the world may believe”! A disunited Church bears witness to a divided Christ, which is no witness at all. One Indian delegate at one of the early ecumenical world conferences begged the Western churches to sort out their divisions, because their divisions were such an obstacle to mission outreach. “Come and join the Church.” “Which one? ” “This one.” “Why this one, why not that one? Or the one over there? Tell you what, come back to me when you have sorted out which church is the true church amongst yourselves.”
We all recall Paul’s indignation at the divisions amongst the Corinthians, who had formed little denominations within their small congregation. Is Christ divided? Since the Church is the body of Christ, and since there is only one Christ, then there can only be one Church. And since the Church is the body of Christ, wherever Christ, the head, is, there the body, the Church is also. To deny that is to deny Christ.
As I said at the start, our unity is based on the reality that where Christ is, there is the Church. We can’t even establish unity with other Christians or with other church bodies―because if it exists, there is nothing more to establish. We are simply called to recognise such unity. It is Christ who establishes the unity of His body by grafting members into it.
But this is also where trouble brews. We all recognise that where Christ is, there is the Church. But let’s ask a few questions: Where is Christ? By what marks do I recognise Him?
Is Christ found in a particular hierarchy or organisation of the Church? Is He embodied in a particular episcopal office? Or should we seek Him in a particular set of experiences? Or a certain kind of ethos? Is Christ present in the Sacraments? Which ones? Or is Christ in fact absent with His presence mediated by the Spirit through some phenomena (which ones), or simply through the believer’s inner conviction? Or is it a particular theological confession, broad or narrow, that signals the presence of Christ?
I could go on. Given the very reasonable and harmonious gathering here present, the list may seem churlish and petty. But of course, any item on the list only seems petty to those who swear by a different item on the same, or some other, list. The claims of the Bishop of Rome, or of the signatories to the Lutheran Confessions, or the Lambeth Quadrilateral, or whatever theological touchstone you may have, are all based on the ultimate conviction that by them we can recognise Christ’s presence in His Church.
The relationships that follow are necessarily asymmetrical. The standard set by the Holy See of Rome may seem unreasonable and draconian to those who don’t believe in them, but to the Holy Father they are the logical outcome of His confession of Christ. The Lutheran practice of closed communion―only inviting other Lutherans to receive Holy Communion―is hopelessly narrow-minded and un-Christian to modern Anglicans and Methodists, but it is the only logical outcome of our confession of Christ.
Because that’s the business we are in: of confessing Christ, of saying, “ Jesus is Lord.”
The temptation is always to seek unity with one another, to make agreement amongst ourselves the goal, and to equate that with Christian unity. After all, Jesus prayed that we may be one.
But in fact Jesus wasn’t praying for His disciples to get along. He was praying for them to be one as He and the Father are one. The ‘as’ here is not quantitative, but qualitative. It’s not about how much the disciples are to be one, but in what way.
The Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit are one, because they are one God: three persons in one God. Christians are one with Christ, because they are in Christ―“I in them and you in me”, as Jesus said. And Christians are one with one another, because they are individually and collectively in the same Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, emphasises this again and again that once we are in Christ, we no longer deal directly with one another. When I see my Christian brother and sister, I see Christ in him and in her. I relate to her, not directly, but in Christ. Our relationship with one another is defined by the Gospel. We consider others better than ourselves, because we consider others to be the face of Christ to us. We forgive one another, because we are called to be the face of Christ to one another. We are to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, because we are in Him, He is in us, and to have any other kind of mind would be a denial of who we are in Him and who our brothers and sisters are in Him.
And so we are called to an essential unity and a necessary disunity. We must acknowledge and confess Christ wherever we find Him, wherever Jesus is confessed as Lord by mouths and lives. And for the very same reason, we must also draw lines where Christ is not being rightly confessed by mouths and lives. Jesus prayed for us to be sanctified in the truth of the Father’s word―that is, in Jesus. He in us and the Father in Him, that we may become perfectly one.
Let me finish by having a little trot on my hobby horse.
In the business of Christian unity, we should resist the temptation of taking comfortable shortcuts, of deciding to be charitable and reasonable with one another, without reference to Christ, for the sake of missions or outreach or for some other pragmatic goal. If we are to proclaim the Gospel to the world together, we must first agree on what the Gospel is and how it’s communicated to us. And so, for the sake of unity, we need to seek all the time to grow closer to Christ together, to be united to Him together. In the process, we will find ever more things that already unite us; and more things that divide us; that some of the things that divide us are not of Christ but of us and therefore don’t divide us; that some of the things that we thought were not divisive are in fact of Christ and do divide us after all.
In the meantime, we can continue happily and harmoniously to work together in those things that we have in common. This will then be our witness to the world: not ourselves, but Christ for us, Christ among us, Christ in us.