"Why Don't the Churches Get Together?"



A WEATHER-BEATEN local worthy was driving me “down the island.” We passed two identical church buildings on opposite sides of the same fenced half-acre. Very evidently they had been constructed from the same set of mail-order blueprints, except that, to maintain individualism, the steeple of one was on the right and that of its twin was on the left.

In answer to my amusement, my Jehu explained, “Both’s the same sect, only one’s hard-shell and t’other ain’t. What’s the difference b’tween ‘em? Blest if I know, an’ I b’long to thet one on the left! I only know the folks that b’long to t’other one is jest plain skunks.”

There’s a theological criterion for you! How loftily dogmatic! “The man on the sidewalk,” now popularly considered Solomonic for wisdom, sees the sheer ignominy of such bigotry. And he grows indignant that “by God ” should have been demeaned to “bigot.” He himself is broad-minded, you understand — as it were, a Pharisee in reverse. Yet at least he feels that what keeps the churches apart is something which should not. For the very, very lay man the rock-ribbed shibboleths of orthodoxy do not count much. He is sure that dogmatics do not keep the churches apart half so much as personal prejudices do. The formularies of a bygone era of doctrine, he angrily says, have no real weight in the face of an obvious common sense which dictates economy, efficiency, and prestige by unity.

This blunt non-professional has small comprehension of ecclesiastical technicalities. He is repelled by professional religionists whose esoteric vocabulary so easily grows artificial and unrealistic. He dares the sacerdotal pundits to translate their sacrosanct terms into a language understandable to unconverted people. The resemblance to Alice’s Humpty Dumpty, paying words extra to mean what he chooses, is too apt. Athanasian geometries of the inner nature of the Trinity, postversus pre-millennialism, limited or unlimited election, two-seed-in-the-spirit assumptions, Barthian apocalyptics versus the Voice of Prophecy’s oracles from Revelations — of such he is only faintly and irritatedly aware. But he does not like the infallibilists who competitively assert their monopoly of Truth — that much he knows. He would chuckle if he knew that it is from Duns Scotus’s men we get the name of dunce; for these medieval Schoolmen endlessly and intricately debated questions which seemed as footless as that of the number of angels able to dance on the point of a needle. The churches must reckon with the mood of this very, very lay man or he will nonchalantly pass them by.

Next, there come the nominal Protestants and the minimum Catholics. How intelligent is their allegiance to their respective communions? How much is it based on purely personal association?

To be sure, the nominal Protestant and the minimum Catholic know that ‘twixt Catholicism and Protestantism there is a great gulf fixed which seems impassable. So far as prejudices go, they abide by that cleavage. It is a socially atmospheric, oil-and-water division. Of course the Protestant says, “I know some mighty fine people who are Catholics, but I don’t let their religion interfere with our friendship.” And the Catholic says the equivalent, vice versa. Both are vaguely informed of the doctrinal basis of their dogged dogmatic difference. The Protestant’s hackles rise at what he believes to be the Catholic axioms of papal infallibility, at the efficacy of the Rosary, at belief in transubstantiation, at the wearing of scapulars, at the rules (and their implications) for mixed marriages, at birth control strictures, at the whole uncompromising inflexibility of the Roman Church’s claim to sole validity. So far as his Protestantism goes, this hostility is more an anti-Catholicism than a Pro-testantism.

How much of the loyalty of the minimum Catholic is likewise compounded of antiProtestantism? He has his antipathies too. He dislikes the easy divorce and remarriage he feels Protestantism tolerates; he cannot regard with respect that granulation of Protestant sectarianism which puts pathetically weak churches into competition in even the smallest villages; he is scornful at “hot gospeling” fanatics of the “lunatic fringe”; he has no patience with white-ribboners’ zeal for prohibition and other forbiddings; he is disdainful of the awkward and individualistic forms of skeletal worship as compared with the rich, sonorous, colorful, historic aesthetics of his own High Mass. On the affirmative side, he has the advantage of rote, catechetical summaries of the Faith. His mind is made up. His mental idiom is definitely non-Protestant, not merely in doctrinal pattern but in kind.

In contrast, the nominal Protestant is not thus implemented with definitive, mentally labor-saving axioms. Except for the Fundamentalist wing (which has fewer merely nominal adherents, because of its intensity of literalism) the very tenets of his church encourage liberty of conscience and aim for something other than rote regularity of faith forms. And he takes this liberty as permission for a nominality that is individualistic, fragmentary, and loose-fitting.

The true Protestant accepts the responsibility of being “on his own” because he believes in an open system for the ultimate sake of self-realization by spontaneities. He cannot define faith as the submission of the mind. He would feel ridiculous to include himself among those who, like the peasants standing meekly before Louis the Magnificent, quavered, “Sire, what are our convictions? ” Therefore it is the nominal Protestant, far on the periphery of real Pro-testantism, who takes the bit in his teeth and runs away into “Nothingarianism ” on his own wild lone. His very little knowledge has become his danger of shallow opinionativeness.

For fear of unscientific, Fundamentalist extremisms on the one side and authoritarianism on the other, the very, very lay man who is not tied to either system cries out, “A plague on both your houses,” and follows the path of superiority-complexed indifference to religion.


Let us move in a bit closer. What of those in the churches who actually have a reason for the faith that is in them? Their religious intelligence makes them the backbone minority of their churches, the truly directive and vindicating control group. They care both deeply and comprehendingly for the doctrines and polity of their respective communions. From them has and will come all action for or against church unity. Here is the determined and determining force of all its strategy. Let the nominal Protestant or minimum Catholic underrepresent the actual faith as he may, the members who understand and therefore act or react are the nucleus on which to reckon.

Yet a new cleavage is patent within this nuclear minority, both within any given communion and throughout the whole Church. There is no uniformity of interpretation of the faith. In Protestantism this divergence can be vocal; and it is quietly true of Catholics, despite the official proscription of Modernism. Conservatives and liberals have drawn wider and wider apart within their own folds in the past few decades. This is as inwardly true among Catholics as it is among Protestants, despite outward appearances of conformity.

It would be easy enough to quote horrible examples of cocky extremisms. If the assumption of truth’s sole guardianship were to be found only among a comparative few of the led, never among leaders, extremisms might be disregarded. But the vaunt “ L’église, c’est moi” gets disproportionate outside reputation because of its very insistence. The meeker membership, and the general public too, do not realize that extremisms are truly extremisms and that some middle group is the majority.

Few Episcopalians would themselves ratify the bland assertion tossed at the Presbyterian consultants by an ultra-Anglo-Catholic, “ But you know you haven’t any Grace!” Yet outside the fold one fears this might be taken as typical of the Episcopalian whole position; which it just isn’t. Few of the earnest Fundamentalist sort would consider it of watershed cruciality whether or not there is any salvation after the first rapture. (There are three raptures, be it explained to the uninitiate, at the time of the Second Coming: the first, when the Messiah appears in the clouds; the second, when the elect feel themselves caught up off terra infirma to meet Him in the air; the third, when they and He embrace!) Yet the sonorous thunder of an arch-lion proclaims this the quintessential article of faith, and outsiders and simple insiders may take this as typical of all Fundamentalism; which it isn’t. From the spread of Saturday advertisements, announcing that this or that revealer will tell us just what the Book of Revelations foretells about Hitler, Hirohito, or Mussolini, the innocent reader must not infer that here is the one major prophet of our era.

At the other pole, we must not judge that there is any groundswell of concern behind some agnostic humanist who makes the headlines by vociferating that it is quite possible to have a religion containing no belief at all in God. The sensational is not the significant. Charity and humility do not shout from the housetops. The church is the church people: its noisiest disputants are not. The main membership is simple in its faith.

If we are to be realists we must recognize one more fact. It is this: conservatives of all communions are closer to each other than they themselves realize. They have a common habit of mind. They are temperamentally akin. The Fundamentalist may hold fast to a sixteenth-century concept of validity, the Anglo-Catholic more nearly to a pre-Reformation concept of validity, the Roman Catholic to a Petrine concept; but they are cousins under the skin. They all hold to a faith once for all delivered long ago.

The liberals of all communions are also mentally closer to each other than to the defenders of the status quo ante of their own communion. They have a common trend of mind. They believe that revelation is not a closed process but one which has things new as well as old in its treasure house. They are expectant of new truth, they accept the scientific method in religion, they feel the past is a running start for a race yet to be run. They put small reliance upon the perpetuation of the institution as such and are ready for elastic adaptations to current needs and opportunities. For them validity is not in unchanging form. They prefer to quote that the wind of the Spirit blows where it lists, and that by its inspiration those born of the Spirit are expected to be creative.

We may well chalk up an N.B. over this finding that we have now come to a time when there are really only two great groupings, the conservative and the liberal, which are more important than the sundry sects. A horizontal line of demarcation is now cutting across the vertical lines of the denominations.

The conservative would of course say that the liberal too blithely discards items of faith without which Christianity is not Christianity. He is earnest to keep the ancient faith in its original monstrance of miracle. He is genuinely afraid that Modernism will interpret away the essentials by its handling of their external tradition. Therefore he stresses the literal Virgin Birth in order to keep the faith of the Incarnation: he identifies essential fact with its asserted method. He clings to belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus in order to preserve the faith of His immortal Presence. He stresses regularity of orders as the guarantee of validity to safeguard the faith that the Church is the body of Christ on earth.

On the contrary, the liberal would say that the conservative has not outgrown concepts of magic. He feels that his opponent is not scientific, that he has not faced the facts of higher criticism of the Scriptures or the facts of history. He thinks the conservative has enclosed faith in a glass case marked “Do not touch.” He fears that the conservative’s argument that there’s everything in the way in which a thing is done leads straight to an authoritarianism which is undemocratic, even piously fascist. The liberal therefore gives himself to movements for unity with few of the conservative’s inhibitions or scruples.

And those of either philosophy are very sure indeed that the Holy Spirit is with them and against the alternative camp. Not to be defeatist, but nakedly to know the problem, it is a grave question whether the champions of the two divergent moods can come to dogmatic grips with any hope of agreement. Force or majority vote will not change convictions deeply held and emotionally colored. Is there the possibility of mutual compromise? Should there be?


As for the possibility of Roman-Protestant union on a dogmatic basis — that impasse is absolute. Except for the more advanced Anglo-Catholic, it is unthinkable for the nonRoman even to approximate the Roman idea. The Roman Catholic is not only temperamentally out of tune with the non-Roman but he is flatly inhibited outside his own church. The Modernist movement inside the Roman Catholic Church was definitely forbidden. Cardinal Newman’s interpretation of the Church’s identity of faith as developmental, like that of the oak from the acorn, was denied acceptance. Father Tyrrell was forbidden the esoteric interpretation of doctrine phrased in his “Much Abused Letter.” Cardinal Mercier’s conversations with Lord Halifax pére were not ratified.

Good but literal Pope Pius XI settled once for all all theological fraternizing, with his encyclical (1928) Mortalium Animos. Speaking of conferences between delegates of all Christian faiths he said, “Such efforts can meet with no kind of approval among Catholics. They presuppose the erroneous view that all religions are more or less good and praiseworthy. . . . Those who hold such a view are not only in error, they distort the true idea of religion and thus reject it, falling gradually into naturalism and atheism. To favor this opinion, therefore, and to encourage such undertakings, is tantamount to abandoning the religion revealed by God. There is but one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered, and that is by furthering the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it.” It thus seems hopeless that the Roman Catholic Church can come any inch toward meeting or even understanding general Protestant conviction.

What then is the chance of church unity among Protestants on the basis of agreement on doctrine and polity? To the liberal it seems ironic that at least the non-Catholic churches cannot sink their differences. For, as the Edinburgh Conference made plain back in 1910, there is no real disagreement on the cardinal elements of credal belief. All the churches believe in God the Creator, in the divinity of Jesus, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the Church’s stewardship of a saving Gospel, however they or groups within them interpret these affirmations in rigid or elastic ways. It is polity which is divisive. Church governments, administrative setups, schemes of organizations — these are the stumblingblock. They have become haloed by historic tradition until they seem as holy as the doctrines, but the flat fact is that mechanism should not be idolatrized.

Apostolic succession (never officially defined), Confessional Articles, Books of Discipline, Pilgrim Fathers’ precedents, are not primary after all. But there is a common denominator of Christian truth which is! This common denominator is even shared by the Roman, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, and all the Protestant churches, from Fundamentalist to Unitarian. And any church which elevates its institutional arrangement to sacrosanctity finds itself no bridge church to unity but a drawn drawbridge church to prevent it.

It passes understanding how so many of us can read with deep emotion St. Paul’s fiat that there are diversities of gifts but the same spirit, differences of administrations but the same Lord, diversities of operations but the same God working all in all, and then go on dissociatedly. We’d best beware a kind of corporate egotism, a holier-than-thou presumptuousness, which bolsters up our own dogged stubbornness. Very few of us can plead completely innocent for our particular communion.


What are we seeking? Do we want (1) church uniformity, or (2) church union, or (3) church unity? However they may blur into each other at the edges, the three ideals are very different.

(1) Let’s be prompt to disavow the first. We don’t want uniformity. We couldn’t keep it if we could get it. The very idea violates human nature. Stereotypes sacrifice individuality. Goose-stepping sameness can be only in appearances. People differ temperamentally. Some demand aesthetics of one type, some of quite another. Some think coldly and logically, some emotionally and mystically. Some are ritualists by nature, others are quietists. To meet their legitimate rights to inspiration the Church must be all things to all men. Personal fulfillment comes by encouraged spontaneities. Educed personality is humanity’s first Magna Charta demand.

No, uniformity is not worth a moment’s consideration. Only the narrowest of denominationalists seek it. The subdivision and subsubdivision of sects once attempted it, but in vain. Even the long list of denominations and sects now recognized in the Census represents a compromise with uniformity; if sectarianism were strictly carried through, there would be millions. The pathetic infra-red and ultraviolet fringe of sectlets beyond the spectrum carry individualism to manifest unwisdom.

Nevertheless, there are cousin groups which can attain a median degree of uniformity, for whom there is no excuse to remain asunder. The split between Northern and Southern, born of the War Between the States, is now almost healed, as it should be, in Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. The Reformed Episcopal Church is still apart from the Protestant Episcopal Church but should not be. Lutheran Synods, separate because of diverse national origins and mother-tongue services, are coming into a semi-union because of general uniformity and second-generation synthesis. Yet in every case this uniformity is only approximate. Liberty in all nonessentials remains. Beyond this, uniformity cannot go.

(2) Union is a less impossible objective. Already, as mentioned, where there is approximate uniformity in pattern there is likelihood of union. The rub comes when communions beyond consanguinity take up the question. But there is adventure afoot even for this. Witness the manifesto issued by the leaders of the Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist leaders in England, urging their people to consider this time a providential opportunity to explore the possibilities of merging in one United Free Church. The response is reported to be enthusiastic. The Christian World editorially says: “Nothing stands in the way of a United Free Church of England except prejudice and inertia. . . . No vital principle stands in the way.”

We may think we know India if we know Gandhi and Nehru and Tagore, but Bishop Azariah and his long-attempted South India plan of unity between Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Primitive Methodists is likewise in the picture for its vast influence not only in the whole movement for unity but also in modifying the workings of caste. If the home constituents of the South India adventurers could only see their way to bless the plan, they would have to allow it for precedent anywhere, including the home areas. There’s the rub.

In America the moment’s live issue of union is that between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Protestant Episcopal Church. The General Assembly of the former and the General Convention of the latter have avowed their intention of organic union, yet not of rigid uniformity within the hypothetically united church. In both these communions the liberals find it easiest to agree.

The proposal has been put forward that the Presbyterians accept the Episcopate, constitutionally defined, and that the Episcopalians adopt the ruling eldership. This goes farther than the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church is ready to go and perhaps than the conservative wing of the Presbyterians is prepared to go. The stricter Anglo-Catholics feel that Presbyterian orders are not valid, and fail to agree that presbyters can act in an episcopal capacity, or that the Episcopate’s powers can be constitutionally determined since they come by the Holy Spirit; while the more fundamentalist Presbyterians are suspicious of Episcopal High Church tendencies and of the liberals’ necessity to take the Westminster Confession and other Calvinist dicta in a somewhat Pickwickian sense. Proposals for joint ordination, the inclusive Basic Principles of the ultimate united church, the question whether Confirmation is a sacrament or only a rite, are under debate and await referenda.

There is full realization that the possibility of this marriage between churches not automatically akin provides a test for all endeavors toward union between other communions not obviously similar. The question trembles in the balance.

Dr. Stanley Jones ably advances the idea of a world-wide Church Union parallel to the proposals of “Union Now.” He has a large following.

(3) But unity is an entirely other objective. One ever so feasible. So feasible that it is gloriously in process. For unity is team play in the practical application of Christian principles. It starts from an entirely new angle on the whole problem. The rationale begins with the recognition that, after all, Christianity is a way of life, not a creed. That way of life is the helpful, educative, upbuilding, compassionate, forth-giving, Christ-spirited, and practical individual and corporate way of selfless selfcontribution. Christian is as Christian lives.

Christian self-contributions deserve coördination as clearly as a college crew needs the coxswain’s megaphone. Therefore it is freely granted that people shall get their inspiration where they will, but that their true Christianity begins at the church door coming out, not at its threshold going in. We are judged not so much on the correctness of our belief (who dares boast he knows the whole truth fully?) as on how we live in the light of what we believe. Christianity should be lived in unity of endeavor for the common good.

This team play will locally show itself in joint planning of church placement, of projects like weekday religious education on excused public school time, of massed publicity, of joint canvasses, of the proper expression of Christian opinion on legislative, social, and benevolent movements. This way lies hope. In the large, too, its efficiency is unquestionable.


The progress of church unity within the past twenty-five years leaves one breathless. It eclipses that of all the preceding post-Reformation centuries put together. In it is much of the hope for a qualitative world peace inside the framework of any treaty to be made. For this unity is not only local here and there: it is international and interracial. Its potential power is incalculable. Not yet sure, but a likelihood.

It may not be expedient to review here the earlier stages of achieved unity. The Conferences at Edinburgh, Stockholm, Lausanne, Oxford, again at Edinburgh, Madras, and Amsterdam which have followed each other through these latter years have resulted in significant international organizations with bureaus and committees all over the world. More heartening still is a tide of public interest which makes the organizations something more than projects on paper. The war has both seemed to interrupt and to make more imperative the most promising new beginnings of unity for three hundred years.

All over our globe, despite or because of the war, unity projects increase. The mission field was imperious in its plea for unity. Long since, most missionaries on the frontiers have shown a statesmanship ahead of their home secretariats. How typical of what should not be was a little salt-box meetinghouse of New England pattern on a side street in Shanghai, bearing a great sign, “The American Dutch Reformed Church of China "! As if the Chinese had to know all the connotations of that involved title to be Christian!

But the wiser main corps of missionaries worked together. Dr. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom was not fantasy: it had ample factual data to show that even Protestant and Catholic often dovetailed their labors. Now that the war finds the Christian Church in China and in Japan perforce so autonomous and dehabitized from Western notions, we may be confident that sectarianism will get scant perpetuation in competitive action. The Nippon Sei Ko Kwei, and Kagawa and Company, will not always be militaristically submerged. The Chung Wha Sheng Kung Hui and all the other Chinese missions have common cause; they are stirred in the vast bowl of a China now forced out of regionalism into a homogeneity hitherto impracticable. Back from every mission field comes the insistence on a cessation of uncoördinated work. English and American mission boards now combine for comity. And the International Mission Council has come to pass, with all its potence of ecumenical tactics.

In America the work of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ is an oldish story, but it grows into new reaches every month. Local Councils of Churches of state-wide or community scope are becoming normal everywhere. They have their initial difficulties of solvency, but as soon as it is seen how they prevent overlapping of effort and duplication of overhead their axiomatic wisdom is evident.

Now there is a British Council of Churches, too. It includes the Church of England, the Free Churches, the Churches of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, the Salvation Army, the Society of Friends, the Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A. It welds together three interdenominational agencies: the Council on the Christian Faith and a Common Life, the Commission of the Churches for International Friendship and Social Responsibility, and the British section of the World Conference on Faith and Order.

The description of its recognition service in St. Paul’s brings a mist to the eyes. The spectacular procession around the great cathedral and through its doors included officials in scarlet and purple stoles or copes, in the colors of the Salvation Army, in the somber robes of Russian, Czechoslovak, Dutch, and Armenian clerics. Archbishop Germanos, carrying a massive gold cross, led the Greek Orthodox representatives. Norwegian and Swedish priests were there in their Elizabethan ruffles and sweeping trains. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached the sermon. He rightly said, “There is no compromise of distinctive principles in our coming together. In days like these, when the basic principles of Christianity are widely challenged and in many quarters expressly repudiated, the primary need is for clear and united testimony to Christianity.” Unity need not wait for dogmatic unison.

The World Council of Churches is more than a dream: it is formed and ready. Just as the war began, it came to pass with definite organization, and despite the war it has begun to function — for example, in chaplaincies to prison camps, and in providing means of getting food into some areas of starvation. It has not had a free chance yet; but the moment the war is over, it will be strategic and efficient (with better acceptability than any League of Nations pattern). It is no idle boast that along with the Roman Catholic Church the Protestant churches have now forged and maintained the only unbroken world-wide bond for unity that remains.

More dramatic yet is the degree of unity of action in England between the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Free Churches. The present Archbishop of Canterbury and Free Church heads have found a notable team-player in Cardinal Hinsley.

The initial move was a remarkable letter published in the London Times on December 21, 1940, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and York, Cardinal Hinsley, and the Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, embodying and expanding the well-known Five Points of Pius XII and insisting that “no permanent peace is possible in Europe unless the principles of the Christian religion are made the foundations of national policy and of all social life.”

But this was no mere “letter to the Times.” There has been energetic follow-up. Two commissions were formed to work along parallel lines and to coöperate by a joint committee. These two are the polysyllabic “Commission of the Churches for International Friendship and Social Responsibility” (which Americans would long since have indicated only by initials — C.C.I.F.S.R.) and the Catholic organization with the more dramatic name, “The Sword of the Spirit.” Archbishop Temple and Cardinal Hinsley have repeatedly keynoted their unity side by side on the same platform. Now a “Religion and Life” organization of all the Protestant churches is in full swing, which promotes the joint program with “The Sword of the Spirit” by “Religion and Life” weeks in cities and towns, in which Catholics, Anglicans, and Free Church folk buckle down to realistic consideration of applied religion.

Despite doctrinal variance, they agree to work together for social purposes. They want the country’s problems about money, labor, education, and the relation between the rights of the individual and the state solved the Christian way. And Englishmen are apparently generously ready for such realism. “Little Malverns” are therefore being promulgated, week by week, in team play. Publications and publicity permeate the nation. In the fighting units of the British and Fighting French, and in Belgium, Poland, Africa, and Canada, the movement is spreading. The emergency has wrought a quickening. In English history the Church plays a more determinative part than it has played of late in America. Whatever may have been the surface appearances, there is a deeper subsoil of religious influence yonder. Evidently that subsoil has provided rootage for a new growth of practical idealism.

Moreover, as a kind of postscript, which is not at all an anticlimax, both in England and in America Christian-Jewish understanding and coöperation has new strength. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish unity in spokesmanship and action is ever so evident. “The British Council of Christians and Jews marks the final step in the coalition of British faiths in the movement for interreligious coöperation in social and economic fields and the planning of post war rehabilitation.” On the basis of unity of endeavor it is feasible for all who believe affirmatively at all to join against those whose ideallessness is a negative creed.

The growing power of the Church is thrilling. The Confessional Church and the Catholic together have been the only indomitable internal foe of Hitler. Quisling has had to back down before the Norwegian Church’s defiance. A purged and evangelical Russian Church seems in process of resurrection. Kagawa is yet to be reckoned with by Japan. China has the most sincerely Christian government in the world. Perhaps, oh perhaps, if American churches will divest themselves of churchianity and come to a more drastic realism, the Four Freedoms may legitimately include strong religious freedom. May the peace that passes misunderstandings prevail! Perhaps, oh perhaps, the Nazarene will sit at the peace table and be listened to.