What About Church Unity?

by BERNARD IDDINGS BELL

1

CONTEMPORARY man, in his zeal for scientific discovery and technological effectiveness, plainly has outgrown his ethical breeches. Almost everyone realizes this. More and more, intelligent people are seeking some spiritual basis sufficient for the salvation of a society which seems hell-bent for self-destruction; or if this docs not exist, if indeed we must endure another Dark Ages, at least there is need for a foundation sufficiently firm for individuals to stand on, through fast-moving disintegration, without going off their heads — need for a faith which, as Richard Russell puts it, can “remain untroubled in the bankruptcy of liberalism, the bankruptcy of nationalism, and the bankruptcy of dictatorship.”

It is little short of tragedy that when those who are disillusioned about the future of man and the permanence of civilization decide to turn for illumination and strength to the religion of their fathers, the religion centered in Jesus, so many of them should get the impression that Christianity speaks not as a serene mother of souls but rather as a quarrelsome sewing circle.

In justice it needs to be said that those within the churches are even more concerned about disunity than is the general public. In every segment of Christianity there are those who realize that schism is sinful, who fast and pray about it in deep penitence, who are doing their best to approach the problem constructively. So widespread is this disquiet of mind and conscience within the churches, and so strong is the pressure upon them from without, that there is indeed grave danger that they may move toward reunion not too slowly but too rapidly, without adequate diagnosis; that they may arrive at a oneness the price for which is intellectual dishonesty and useless sentimentality; that in becoming one they may become meaningless.

To many outside the churches and to a dangerously large number inside, reunion is all too apt to appear merely a matter of casually and mechanically stitching together some disjoined segments of a homogeneous and easily renewed entity. The result of such restitching might easily be only a patchwork quilt of a Church.

Philanthropy and general good will are not Christianity; Christianity is a religion, a sanction and dynamic behind philanthropy and general good will. As the editor of the Christian Century once put it, “The Christian faith is a way of looking at the universe, the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the unveiling of life’s ultimate purpose and of the nature of the world in which we live, as the cornerstone not of the Church alone but of civilization.” No Church unity can have significance except it come from utter commitment to a Jesus so regarded.

If there is to be such a commitment, the churches need to make a realistic evaluation of their concept of Christ and of the sincerity or lack of it with which they commit their lives to Him. Some time ago a proposal of reunion was made between the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church, a proposal about as mechanical as a merger between a couple of steel companies. A distinguished Presbyterian minister, when I asked his opinion of it, thought for a moment and replied: “Well, sir, if the Episcopal Church is as weak morally, as confused intellectually, and as dead spiritually as is the Presbyterian Church, — and I am persuaded that it is just that, — I cannot for the life of me see any particular use in tying up a couple of corpses. Some day by the grace of God both communions will come alive again. Then, not now, is the time to talk of reuniting.”

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EVEN a casual listening to current talk about Christian unity, even a desultory reading of the voluminous literature on the subject, can hardly fail to lead to a suspicion of what larger study shows to be indeed the truth — namely, that most of those who speak and write confuse three concepts that ought carefully to be distinguished from one another: Tolerance, Coöperation, and Organic Unity.

What religious tolerance means is often misunderstood both by professedly Christian people and, equally important, by disbelievers and the indifferent. Tolerance does not consist of an eager assertion that religion and unreligion are all of a piece or that one religion is as good as another: that snake worship in the backwoods of Kentucky is as noble as what goes on at the Riverside Church under Dr. Fosdick; that voodoo incantations are as intelligent as that which is taught at the Catholic University in Washington or at Andover Newton Theological School; that there is no difference, really, between casting one’s babies into the fire before Moloch, on the one hand, and the Sacrifice of the Mass or the Friends Meeting on the other; that every form of Christianity is equally reverent, perceptive, and moving; that you pay your money and nonchalantly take your choice and it makes no difference whatever.

To say such things is not to be tolerant but to talk nonsense. Tolerance means, rather, a willingness to let any man have cult, creed, and code that are different from one’s own until one can persuade the man that one’s own are better. What tolerance actually involves is well put in a book used in Roman Catholic parochial schools in America, a book bearing the imprimatur of the late Cardinal O’Connell of Boston. It is a reader called Early American Life, by Mary G. Kelty and Sister Blanche Marie (Ginn and Company, 1943).

We may feel that some other religion than our own — one that is very different from ours — is wrong. But we reason the matter out in this way:

Suppose that you and I keep someone else from worshipping God as he sees fit. We say that he does not think as we do; so he must be wrong! But perhaps tomorrow he and his friends may be strong enough to keep you and me from worshipping God as we see fit. He will say that we do not think as he does; so we must be wrong.

Therefore if I want freedom for myself I must be willing that other people should have freedom too. That is the only way that I can be sure my own freedom will last.

Not all Christians are willing to go that far, but most of them are; it is a rare denomination indeed that has failed to advocate and practice tolerance for at least half a century. Would that in America there were as much tolerance between secret societies, political parties, geographical sections, racial groups, minorities of variant origins, as exists between the churches! If the popular complaint against Christian disunity involves a charge that the churches are mutually intolerant, desirous to coerce either one another or the unreligious, it is an accusation based on ignorance or prejudice or both.

Coöperation is always possible between mutually tolerant people, individually or by groups, even though they remain unable wholly to fuse into one. There never, for example, have been two great nations more at variance ideologically than Russia and the United States; yet it is not only necessary but entirely possible that they act in concert in the common task of preserving world peace, provided, of course, they remain truly tolerant each of the other’s theory of how to carry on a state, that neither tries to coerce the other into accepting a way of life alien to its convictions.

Similarly, no sooner was tolerance the rule rather than the exception in circles ecclesiastical than the various communions began at once to find that, without waiting to arrive at complete agreement doctrinally or liturgically, they could effectively join forces in many projects of human welfare, in many a common witness to the impact of the morality of Jesus upon a secularistic world. These coöperations have in the last decade been made critically necessary by the devastations of war, physical and moral. They are more common than those outside the churches seem usually to know and they are constantly growing in number and variety, not only between Protestant groups but between Catholics and Protestants.

Most of them are local and informal, but one avowed and nation-wide organization for such mutual action has been created in this country. It is the Federal Council of Churches, a body now in process of development into a wider group known as the World Council of Churches. These are “fellowships of churches which accept the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour” and neither has other creedal tests for membership; what each coöperating body means by those words is for it to determine.

These federations exist “to bring the Christian bodies into united service for Christ and the world; to encourage devotional fellowship and mutual counsel concerning the spiritual life and devotional activities of the churches; to secure a larger combined influence for the churches of Christ in all matters affecting the moral and social condition of the people, so as to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation of human life.” They “have no authority over the constituent bodies adhering”; their province “is limited to the expression of counsel and the recommending of a course of action in matters of common interest to the churches, local councils and individual Christians.” They have “no authority to draw up a common creed or form of government or of worship.”

An instance of the sort of thing they do is the work of their Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace, of which John Foster Dulles is chaiiman, a group which had much to do with seeing to it that the framework of the Uniled Nations Organization was so changed at San Francisco as to have a more Christian aspect than was at first intended, and which still continues to watch the emerging peace with a Christian brief. Almost all the nonRoman Christian bodies have membership and cooperate in these federations, with a few exceptions of which the Southern Baptists and the Lutherans are the only large ones.

There is nothing to prevent the Roman Church also from belonging, except a reticence of its own that is entirely understandable by anyone who knows Roman Catholic polity; and from the start there has been nothing but good will between the federations and the Roman Church, as well as frequently coincident though independent action.

A general intention of coöperation between Rome and the other Christian bodies has been made plain also by several declarations of the American hierarchy of the Roman communion, and even more strikingly by the formation in London of a Standing Committee for Common Action for the Social Regeneration of England, its chairman Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, lately made Archbishop of Canterbury, and its co-chairmen the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and the Moderator of the British (Protestant) Free Church Council. This committee’s statement of intention reads in part: —

We agree that a compelling obligation rests upon all Christian people to maintain the Christian tradition in the handling of social, economic and civil problems in the critical post-war period. . . . We feel that all Christians alike are bound to oppose the present tendency . . . to treat Christianity as a matter of private concern without relevance to the principles which should guide Society. . . . Our purpose is to unite informed and convinced Christians in common action on broad lines of social and international policy.

Just as tolerance is the rule among the churches of today, so also is coöperation already general and rapidly becoming common. Anyone persuaded otherwise does not know what is going on.

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BUT that does not mean that Christian people themselves are satisfied with tolerance and coöperation. They long for something greater than these. They keep hearing St. Paul’s plea that all are to be one body, severally members of the same in as true a sense as the hands and feet, the ears and eyes, are members of a human body. They recall the prayer of Jesus to God the Father, offered in the night before He was crucified, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Nothing less than reunion organic and mystical will satisfy the churches themselves.

The Church’s unity was first broken by the Great Schism between East and West which came to open cleavage in the eleventh century, a break partly doctrinal and liturgical but far more political and ethnic. Then came the Reformation of the sixteenth century, also partly concerned with dogma and worship but far more concerned with contentions political and economic. Today the four varieties of Catholicism — Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and Old Catholic — and the more than three hundred groups of Protestants live, move, and have their being after centuries of separate and variant histories. To bring them organically into one would in any case be a gigantic and complicated task; but it is a task the more difficult because, of late years, there has come into being a fundamental difference in ideology within these many denominations, and this still further divides Christians into contending camps.

Frequently it happens that divisions among men are horizontal and vertical at the same time. For instance, the Second World War has been and is not merely a contention between nations but also a struggle between economic and political ideologies which cut straight across the frontiers of states. An armistice in the horizontal war by no means involves an ending of the vertical war, as Mr. Churchill found out in the 1945 elections in Britain; as the Council of Foreign Ministers soon discovered when they tried to write the peace treaties; as we Americans are coming to know with the post-war upsurge of labor demands and management demands in our own country.

The differences among Christians today are similarly not only horizontal, between denominations, but also vertical, within denominations; and the vertical conflict, which cannot be healed by any sort of interdenominational reintegration, is much the more serious of the two.

The existence of this vertical conflict makes relatively meaningless any amalgamation on the horizontal level. What good would it do to unite in one body Methodists and Congregationalists and Baptists and the rest as long as each sect remains full of contention within itself?

Of all the churches, only the Roman Catholic Church has today what approaches an inner unity, a unity enforced by iron discipline which tolerates no contradictions. This rigidly uniform Roman Church will not, cannot, discuss unity with any other church as long as that other church is unable to make up its mind what it believes. Now unity without Rome would not amount to a great deal, for it would be a unity which would leave out over 250,000,000 Christians, or nearly half the whole number. Even if the rest decide that a non-Roman reunion of denominations is to be arranged, how can such reunion matter much as long as the constituent bodies remain each a battleground between basically differing convictions?

What are the two quite different religions which today divide Christianity not denominationally, not horizontally, but vertically? The contention is not over such minor matters as the verbal errancy or inerrancy of the Bible, science versus religion, forms of worship; it goes to the very bases of faith. The struggle is between historic Christianity and what may be called neo-Christianity.

The division is not between Catholics and Protestants. As Professor Niebuhr of Yale has put it, “Protestantism historically has meaning only as a movement in Catholicism.” The traditional Christianity common to both Catholicism and historic Protestantism, the Christianity which today tries to maintain its long ascendancy in all the Christian bodies, is as much the religion of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Moody, and Gore as it is that of Bernard, Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori, and Archbishop Spellman.

For four centuries Catholics have regarded Protestantism as schismatic and Protestants have looked on Catholicism as too minutely defined, undemocratic in government, too political, legalistic in morals; but such arguments have been between people who, whatever their minor differences, agreed on the nature of man, on the nature of God, on the mission of Christ. Today the situation is quite different. Today those who still believe this faith of the ages are opposed, by a group who used to like to be called “Modernists” but who now prefer the more pleasing term “Liberals.” These would retain the old forms of devotion, or some of them at least, and even perhaps the old creeds, but put into them meanings widely, indeed fundamentally, different from those which these old creeds and the old worship used to bear.

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THE differences between “traditional” Christianity and liberal Christianity are many; it is impossible in a brief paper like this to enumerate and analyze them thoroughly; but they become less confusing if we observe that they stem from varying concepts of the nature and destiny of man.

The Christianity of the centuries has always held, and still holds, that natural man, man apart from God, is an unreliable creature except for this: that one can always count on his getting nowhere that satisfies him in his individual living, and on his inevitably ruining by war and other deadly devices the social fabric which he dreams of and tries to realize. This continued failure is not due to ignorance of technology or philosophy, but springs from a deeper defect. Mum leaves undone what he knows he should do, does what he is quite aware he must not do. He is, in other words, sin-possessed.

“Natural man’s integrity is a thing destroyed,” as F. J. Hall lias written in his Theological Outlines. “His intellect is so defective that he cannot discern realities in perspective; his affections are subject to concupiscence and fixed on inferior objects as constituting the good; his will is so weakened that he cannot avoid the evil even when he knowrs it to be evil.” Education may as easily as not make man only more dangerous than otherwise he would be, more effectively an iconoclast and a killer, more potently mad. Increase of creature comforts may easily result only in his speedy self-ruin by making him vain, greedy, quarrelsome, a fool.

Because the race is what inherently it is, man gets nowhere much by way of progress in time; he tears down what his fathers built and builds what his children will reduce to rubble. His history moves in cycles of development and decay. Fiercely gazing into the future for meaning, he rides on a merry-goround which takes him over and over again to where he was before. This is what the Bible teaches. The traditional Christian is of the opinion that it is what the study of history also reveals.

Since there is no significance for man in terms of progress, since man cannot solve his problem by pulling at his own bootstraps, even such admirable bootstraps as science provides, man must and can be saved from futility only by the intervention of God, a power not of ourselves that makes for righteousness. By faith, which in theology means “entrustment of one’s self,” a human being can lay hold on the kindly hand of the Infinite and be lifted out of the tragic round of failure.

Christianity is a religion of redemption — divine redemption of man from an otherwise inevitable inanity. “The Christian Gospel,” says Principal Micklem in his Theology of Politics, “declares that in the Person of Jesus Christ Almighty God has Himself plunged, as it were, into the angry sea to rescue us; that, Himself with us in our weakness and despair, He has stretched out His hand to hold us and to bring us home. . . . God has identified Himself with us in our defeat, that He might identify us with Himself in victory.”

Participation in this salvation, traditional Christianity says, is made possible for man by God within His Church, a mystical body of believers who are sealed to Him in Baptism, who are fed by grace (which means “the imparted comradeship of Christ the God-Man”), and are guided and made strong by God the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and the Giver-ofLife.” The Church, a divinely created organism, is entered into here on earth but exists also beyond death. Within the Church, united to God in Christ, there is meaning for man. “Outside the Church is no salvation,” as Cyprian put it; outside the Church there is at best dubiety.

To those who hold this doctrine of man’s fatal flaw and God’s intervention, which means 99 per cent of the Christians of the past and the greater part of Christians today, religion has urgency, since without God, without redemption, without grace, there is nothing facing the individual or society but a senseless whirligig, the only true name for which is Hell. For those who hold to this teaching, the Church is guardian of faith, reservoir of grace, divinely made, one may not join it but must be joined to it by divine act; against it, because it is of God, the gates of Hades itself cannot prevail.

Until lately no Christian, whatever his minor differences from the brethren, would have denied this. It is the faith which has sent the martyrs happily to death, inspired the confessors, made the saints. It was the faith of Augustine, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventura, Newman; it was equally the faith of Huss, Erasmus, Shakespeare, John Donne, Milton, Wilberforce; it is the faith of millions of people now, including many who possess first-rate intelligence and scientific proficiency.

But during the last century or two, there has grown up beside it a quite different sort of Christianity. Its adherents are sure that man is by nature potentially good and that he will inevitably get better if only education is made more generally available and social environment improved. To them Jesus is a great moral teacher and a supremely good man. He is the son of God only as we all are God’s children, differs from us in degree of divinity but not in kind of divinity. Prayer is a process of affirmation of the highest values we may know, but is not otherwise effective since there is no possible intervention from beyond the sensible universe. God is the Good, the True, the Beautiful. In Jesus one sees the Good, the True, the Beautiful portrayed in greater perfection than anywhere else in history. He is to be honored, His sacrificial life imitated if possible; but He is, after all, only a man and is not to be adored.

The ancient creeds are to be said if one desires, but only as poetry. The sacraments are dramatic devices by which we remind ourselves of the example of Jesus and of the love and kindness of a God who is imminent but not transcendent. As for the Church, it is a voluntary association of people who wish to be like Jesus; the Church is not essential to Christianity but is good to belong to provided one understands its necessary limitations.

These two Christianities compete in the churches today. It is impossible to say that they are one religion, or even two aspects of the same religion. They are essentially incompatible ideologically; if one of them is true, the other is not. In both camps are good people, sacrificing people, honest people. But is man capable of getting better and better by his own natural development, or is he doomed to perpetual failure unless God intervenes? It makes a deal of difference which of these alternatives is correct — difference not merely in theoretical doctrine but also in one’s attitude toward living, one’s sources of happiness. And in moral conduct as well. Shall we labor in love with expectation of human gratitude and effective coöperation or, knowing that these may not be had on earth, shall we look elsewhere for the sanctions that lie in hope?

At any rate, there the two religions are, each a little scornful, understandably, of the other, yet trying to occupy a common house from which is going fast a common understanding. It is this difficulty which must be faced when the investigator of Church unity or the lack of it gets beyond the consideration of tolerance and coöperation and begins to look at the possibility of a restored Corporate Entity. Obviously such a problem is not soluble by way of mechanical devices; it exists because of a theological divergence, a philosophical fissure of the first magnitude, which will have to be solved if Christian reunion is to be more than a subterfuge.

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CONSIDER, for example, the communion in which I have been a priest for thirty-five years. The Episcopal Church is a quiet pool of some two million placid, perhaps too placid, communicant members, most of whom are vaguely but affectionately attached to their Church or, more often, to their local parishes, which they attend about one-third of the time, on an average, and to whose financial support less than a fourth of them contribute. In this pool are two vortexes the centers of which are men and women of intense conviction. One of these is called “AngloCatholic” and the other “Liberal Evangelical.” These represent religious and philosophic emphases so different, and their adherents are so much in earnest, that the whole communion is in a state of what to outsiders must seem continuous bickering.

The Anglo-Catholics, who are for traditional Christianity, have on their side the official formulary of the Anglican Communion, the Book of Common Prayer, which appears to any impartial observer to be a reformed but Catholic and traditionalist volume and which is harder to get changed than is the Constitution of the United States. But this advantage is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that the central ecclesiastical organization is controlled by Liberal Evangelicals. The Anglo-Catholic can count on many bishops, a majority of the clergy (especially of those under forty years of age), twentytwo “religious orders” of monks, friars, sisters, nuns, and a strong minority of lay people which includes many late converts.1 The Liberal Evangelicals have a large minority of the clergy, some bishops strategically placed and strongly vocal, a majority of the lay people (especially in the larger parishes on the Eastern seaboard), and lots of money. The result is that within what is formally a single church there is disunity so real that schism seems frequently around the corner of next week, a disunity which hampers moral witness and the cultivation of spiritual stability.

But neither the unchurched nor other Christians can too much fault the Episcopal Church for this sad state of affairs, because the Methodists , Presbyterians , Baptists, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalists, and the rest are internally in the same situation .

So general is this strife within (not among) the churches that there are those who seriously maintain that the only way to real reunion among non-Roman Christians is to scrap all the existing denominations, or let them dry up and blow away, and reassemble the traditionalists from many folds into one new body and the modernists into another. If that were possible, the first of these integrations might eventually be able to make some sort of free but effective concordat with Roman Catholicism, which remains, as has been said, 100 per cent traditionalist. Probably, though, nothing would come of that in the near future, because of Roman intransigence on other matters than those theologically central. Still, something of the sort might be worked out, especially amid strain of continued political deterioration in the modern world.

Be that as it may, it is hard to feel that much good can come from a healing of merely horizontal divisions, from uniting what are now denominational battlefields between traditional Christianity and a widely differing Modernism. That will result only in creating a larger and more scandalous arena for internecine combat.

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To sum up, it may be said that today it is a rare thing to find in Christian circles a preaching or practice of intolerance. More and more, also, most of the denominations coöperate satisfactorily and increasingly in good works and in a helping of one another to a deepening understanding both of mystical reality and of what is involved in bearing moral witness to Christ in a self-destroying world. But those who work the hardest for these good ends often find themselves embarrassed, sometimes exasperated, by the sort ol super-churchman who clamors for a restored corporate communion tomorrow, today, this instant, even at the price of intellectual shiftiness concerning essential convictions about man and God.

What is it that makes these ever agitating extremists so disturbingly enthusiastic about premature intercommunions, mergers, and amalgamations? There are those uncharitable enough to suggest that what is chiefly desired is bigger and better ecclesiastical bureaucracies for possible manipulation, financed by bigger and better drives, promoted by bigger and better promotional devices. It is more probable, however, that the advocates of immediate organic reunion are merely carried away by the sound of their own voices as they echo what seems to them a popular cry for oneness at any price.

Those in the churches who are most concerned over man’s predicament, intent on promoting Christ’s morality as the solution for man’s present plight, have more important things to work for, at least at the moment, than short cuts to corporate reunion. They know that it is not because Christianity is organized in many forms, rather than in one, that it has today small influence and is esteemed lightly even by those who are well aware that modern man has slipped his moorings and is morally incompetent. They know that the real reason for the sad neglect of the churches is a common impression that, in respect to what is believed about human life and what may be done to implement that belief, none of the Christian communions dares to call its soul its own, or God’s; that all of them are apparently caught up by and geared into the secularism which destroys.

In a time like ours, when civilization is in dire peril, any Christian body, if it is to gain and hold respect, must give a clear and single answer to basic questions about man, about God, about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural; about whether Jesus Christ is only an excellent human sage or Godmade-man for man’s salvation from man’s incurable folly and weakness of will.

What is needed right now above all else is a stable basis for courageous human living. In the face of legitimate demand for that, as long as there remain within the churches confused voices about fundamental entrustments they exasperate and alienate thinking people. We have this desperate need to understand ourselves, to catch a glimpse of human purpose. If the churches are to contribute to the current bewilderment anything more than confusion worse confounded, it is required that their vertical disunity be resolved. This is the first step toward reunion of Christians, a necessary step if Christianity is to be even noticed amid the clamor of rival and revolutionary ideologies. The horizontal disunity is relatively unimportant, except to ecclesiasts. Demand for it prevents attention being given to the more vital reconciliation. Consideration of interdenominational mergers may better be postponed to less exciting, less exacting days.

  1. Such as Samuel E. Morison, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Frances Perkins, Mary Ellen Chase, Joachim Wach, F. A. Pottle, Clark Kuebler, C. S. Lewis, Theodore M. Greene, Henry A. Wallace, William A. Orton.