What would we do in all our towns and villages if God communicated to all churches that there was to be only one group meeting together? (Well, for starters, we’d have, at least, to listen to each other if there was no option!) I asked this question – obviously as a hypothetical – in the Theology and Unity Group (of Churches Together in England) – where the topic was catholicity but the discussion for quite a while had been ecumenism. It is easy to stay in our own little church or congregational worlds but we shouldn’t forget that there are other sheep who are not part of our sheep pen. We’re always in the tension between the church as one meaning my congregation (or denomination) only and the church as one meaning any and all groups who say they are Christian (so that theology is pretty well irrelevant). Within that tension there those who say that the oneness of the Church is found in the bishop; other say in Jesus Christ; others say in the confession about Jesus Christ. But the reality is that while the Christian Church is growing globally, it is shrinking in many countries, and even fracturing further (so that the number of groups is growing but they’re getting smaller).
On my trip to Israel I chatted with quite a few denominations and I sensed and heard that many of those who are involved in inter church relations were tired and wondering almost ‘What’s the point?’. The goal of many ecumenical or pan-church groups emerging in these last 70 years seemed to be an organisational oneness that simply isn’t happening. Denominations today are making decisions or pronouncements on various issues and discovering that their partners don’t agree (the current issue is same sex marriage). It strikes me that churches don’t really think much outside their frame of reference. Lutherans, in my experience, are not known for thinking about the message of and witness to other denominations when we make theological decisions. (We should at least know what our ‘theological neighbours’ – the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches – think and say about our teachings and views, in my opinion.)
I do understand busy people in busy worlds prioritising time and effort. Nevertheless we say in our creeds that the Church is one and holy and catholic (which we quickly qualify as ‘universal’) and apostolic. These are all faith statements. We definitely can’t prove them to the world but we can live them as best we can – not to ‘create’ these attributes of the Church – but as expressions of the truth that God has established his church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We also have a baptismal theology that leads us to regard other Christians as ‘family’ (brothers and sisters in Christ). That, too, needs to play a part in our day to day living.
Nevertheless, it strikes me that, we remain in our theological groups because we can – and that we see and discuss things between us often on a surface level – if we can all raise our hands to Jesus or work on a social project, everything will be fine – whereas I think we need to talk theology – to sit together under the Bible and hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Yes, I know I just said ‘churches’. We’ll always have our groups – there were groups mentioned in the New Testament. I’m just hoping that honest robust theological discussions will help Christians work together and share the Good News with the world. — GS