A new road leading to Rome, via Canterbury

welcome matAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”

After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.

The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.

The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.

Canterbury Cathedral

That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.

The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)

Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.

But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain.  Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Vatican

insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.

“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”

Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.

“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”

The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.

Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury. 

St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”

He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.

200 years and counting: ‘Unity is not a luxury,’ but it is a process

250px-Declaration_and_Address_1809There’s an old joke about a man who dies and goes to heaven. As St. Peter escorts the new arrival down a golden street, he tells the man to be especially quiet as they pass a particular mansion.

“Why?” the man asks.

“That’s where (name any exclusive Christian sect) live,” Peter explains. “They think they’re the only ones here, and we don’t want to upset them.”

Thomas Campbell, were he still alive, would get the joke. He might even tell it, which would have scandalized many Christians two centuries ago.

Campbell was a Presbyterian minister who migrated from Ireland to the frontier of western Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. But he was frustrated by the divisions among Christians, some of which were absurdly transplanted from the old country. For example, his denomination might withhold communion from other Presbyterians over an obscure Irish political issue.

In response, he gathered a few dozen like-minded believers into a local nondenominational group, with cooperation on their minds.

To explain their actions and to encourage other Christians to take similar steps, the 46-year-old Campbell wrote a long essay in 1809, “The Declaration and Address.”

This early call to Christian unity was based on a simple but then-radical notion: that “the church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” (Note the present tense: “is.”)

Campbell didn’t offer a blueprint for a united church. Instead, he presented the New Testament as a “constitution” – a notable word, just 20 years after the U.S. Constitution went into effect, laying the groundwork for the nation but requiring ongoing interpretation.

“He knew unity was a process,” said Paul Blowers, professor of church history at Emmanuel School of Religion and a co-editor for The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans). “The foundation of unity is identification with Jesus Christ, but what does that entail? How much of a common core do you need? The first-century church didn’t have it perfect. There will always be opinions. Theology is inevitable. The question is how unity works with diversity.”

Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)
Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)

Campbell said Scripture was the final authority for Christians. Beyond that, the creeds and rites were valuable for teaching or expressing a common faith, but not as tests of whether someone was a true Christian.

“Forbearance was one of his favorite words,” said Dennis Helsabeck Jr., associate professor emeritus of history at Milligan College and co-author of Renewal for Mission: A Concise History of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (Abilene Christian University Press). “He puts a lot of emphasis on patience. There’s a sense of unity in that, not in that we all understand in the same way.”

But unity was not Campbell’s main objective.

“Campbell was interested foremost in the mission of the church,” Helsabeck said. “Reconciliation with God was the ultimate goal. He decries the terrible effects of disunity, which endangers the mission of the church.”

“The Declaration and Address” served as a starting point for what grew into the Stone-Campbell Movement, named for its early leaders: Campbell and his son Alexander, eventually the movement’s best-known voice, and Barton W. Stone, another unity-minded Presbyterian in Kentucky.

This “restoration movement” evolved into three major church bodies: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Churches of Christ, sometimes called noninstrumental churches since they do not use musical instruments in worship. Together, these groups claim about 3.5 million members in the U.S. (Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion, both near Johnson City, Tenn., are affiliated with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, which is also my church heritage.)

Campbell would find it sadly ironic to know his reform efforts mutated into yet more church groups that would divide and divide again. But he would be heartened to know his spiritual descendants have taken steps to reconcile in recent decades.

One example will occur tomorrow. To mark the bicentennial of “The Declaration and Address,” Christians from all streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement will gather in regional communion services around the world, an event collectively called the Great Communion. One service will be held in Seeger Chapel at Milligan College at 4 p.m., and is open to all Christians.

“We are pushed to deal with people who differ from us,” Blowers said. “That’s part of Christian discipleship. Can I share communion at the table with people who believe differently? Everyone needs to be reminded that Christianity is bigger than us and our congregations. Unity is not a luxury.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 3 Oct 2009.