Monday, September 11, 2006

The Desire for Unity in the Church

Brother Pontificator (thanks to him, once again) put me on to this talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko, late of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. In the article Hopko, addressed a Roman Catholic (RC) society that seeks to foster dialogue between RCs and eastern-rite (presumably RC and Orthodox?) members. In the talk, Hopko makes what is for me the single most important statement about what is at issue in on-going theological/ecumenical dialogues. To quote him:

... [M]y opinion is that what is really required of the Orthodox most of all
above everything, is a real desire for unity…to want to be one, to suffer over
the division, to weep over it, to carry it around like a sword in your soul that
we who claim Christ and praise God in Christ (especially in this world which is
getting less and less Christian as the clock ticks), that Christians would be
He goes on to suggest, to lament that the Orthodox do not even feel that about disunity within the orbit of Orthodoxy -- let alone about the wider disunity of the Church. He accuses his own tradition, then, of not wanting unity.

And I think that that is true of all traditions. We have grown so hard-hearted with respect to the "unity" of the Church that we are perfectly content to pray for unity and do not one thing to try to achieve that or to allow the Spirit to do her work and get it done. (Yes, I do believe that we can impede the work of God in this world, which is why I take comfort in His eschatological promises).

What Hopko lays on Orthodoxy is true in spades of Lutheranism. (I could rant on, too, about its truth in Roman Catholicism -- I have, in fact, characterized its ecumenical posture as "Y'all can come on back to us anyday. But I'll stick to throwing stones in my own yard today.) We Lutherans positively relish in our "truth," in our "fullness," in our theological integrity. And we resist any effort to suggest that the unity of the Church is a big issue -- that to have the Body of Christ chopped up is a scandal of huge proportions. Oh, we cite the "satis est" of CA 7 (older translation: "... it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.") and see therein confirmation of our posture to stand firm since we (perhaps we alone) have the truth.

I did a little acting in college and one of the roles I really enjoyed was that of Johann von Staupitz in John Osborne's very Ericsonian play, Luther. (Without too much background, but based on some things I have read -- especially from David Steinmetz -- I'm inclined to think that the portrayal of von Staupitz was pretty accurate, even though the picture of Luther was way inaccurate,) As von Staupitz, I was charged with urging Luther "don't think that you -- only you -- are right." That's good counsel to us who follow in Luther's steps (supposedly) and bear his name.

Hopko rightly asserts that to pray for the unity of the Church and do nothing is blasphemous. That may be semi-Pelagian (as I guess Orthodox are allowed), but it's still correct.

I am increasingly convinced that the "unity" of the Church does not, pace CA7, depend on an institutional reunion. I think a kind of "communion of communions" is probably the way we ought to think. But we may not, even in such thinking, give up on the strenuous and often disheartening work of re-establing the One Communion among Christ's people.

In that spirit, Hopko invites us all to examine our consciences and the practices of our individual traditions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that unity always involves compromise.

What have we Lutherans already given up for the sake of "unity"? Too much, in my opinion.

I'm all for unity in the church - but at what cost? Our souls? Lord knows that our Lutheran identity has been gone for a number of years already, and I think that in many ways our Christian identity is on its way out the door, too.