Christian Unity

Christian Unity February 14, 2017

Despite its orientation to Catholics, Thomas Ryan’s Christian Unity is full of practical suggestions for pastors, lay people, and theologians of all Christian traditions. A few more or less random gleanings.

Ryan quotes Cardinal Kurt Koch’s warning that we must not be satisfied with mutual recognition in a situation of division: “On the part of the churches and ecclesial communities of the Reformation above all, the originally envisaged goal of visible unity in the shared faith, in the sacraments and in ecclesial ministry has steadily been abandoned in favor of a postulate of mutual recognition of the various churches as churches, and thus as parts of the one church of Jesus Christ. that such a goal must be considered insufficient and in contradiction to the theological principles of Catholic and Orthodox ecumenism has been expressed in clear words by Pope Benedict XVI: ‘The search for the reestablishment of unity among divided Christians cannot therefore be reduced to recognition of the reciprocal differences and the achievement of a peaceful co-existence: what we yearn for is that unity for which Christ himself prayed and which by its nature is expressed in the communion of faith, of the sacraments, of the ministry. The journey towards that unity must be perceived as a moral imperative, the answer to a precise call of the Lord’” (27-8). Settling for mutual recognition, it should be added, doesn’t just violate Catholic and Orthodox principles. It violates the demands of the New Testament.

This doesn’t mean that Ryan (or Catholics in general) despise the goods in other churches. Ryan devotes a chapter to enumerating specific strengths of different Christian traditions, set against the background of John Paul II’s insistence that we are not engaged in “an exchange of ideas” but “an exchange of gifts.” Francis I puts the point pneumatologically: “If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us” (167).

Ryan envisions a reunified church that expresses the best of every Christian tradition: “When God puts us back together again . . . this great Church will be marked by the dignity and repentance of the Anglicans, the order and sacraments of the Roman Catholics, the warm fellowship of the United Church, the Presbyterian desire for good preaching and the Lutheran respect for sound theology. There will be the Evangelical concern for individual salvation, the Congregational respect for the rights of the lay members, the Pentecostal reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit and the Quaker appreciation of silence. We will find there the Mennonite sense of community, the social action of the Salvation Army and the Reformed love of the Bible, all wrapped in Orthodox reverence before the mystery of God” (179). Ryan recognizes that the path to reunion is the path of penitence, so in each case we can hope for a renunciation of all that is contrary to the Lord and His gospel.

Seminaries are key to the pursuit of unity, but it’s not clear that they have equipped themselves for the task. Ryan quotes Lutheran Mitzi Budde’s observation that “Seminaries conscientiously teach students the history of the church’s divisions: early church heresies, Reformation disputes, modern denominationalism. Yet we also need to teach the quest for unity. When I teach students, usually I find them well educated about these theological divisions, but not about the decades of ecumenical dialogue that have addressed and, in many cases, bridged these divisions. We re-inculcate the divisions of the church into every successive generation” (131).

This is most certainly true, and worse than Budde suggests: Some seminaries not only teach the history of division, but put a high value on teaching future pastors how to maintain divisions, with virtually no attention paid to how they might pursue unity with faithfulness.

Some Protestant friends complain that I give Roman Catholics a pass. They argue that my call for unity requires a broader and more foundational repentance from Catholics than it does from Protestants. I’m quite aware of that, and my main rebuttal to that complaint is that Catholics have in fact shown a capacity for foundational repentance that is still dishearteningly rare in my little corner of Protestantism. Ryan gets this point just right, with an observation that is as true as it is stunning: “The transformation of the Catholic Church’s view on Christian unity from before the [Second Vatican] Council to now has been one of the greatest examples of organizational conversion in the history of the world” (86).

Some Protestant still need to learn this lesson: Go and do likewise.


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