Traditions and Visions

Some more thoughts following the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:

The different branches of Christianity used to be called ‘persuasions’ – people stuck passionately to what they believed, what they had become ‘persuaded’ of, and tried to persuade others they were right. Then, with increasing tolerance, the term ‘denominations’ became more popular. We saw the churches as differing from each other in their names, with one not necessarily being any better than another. As the movement for Christian unity caught on, the term changed to ‘traditions’. Churches now tend to think about how they can share with each other the precious heritage, the treasure, that has been entrusted to each of them.

But are we laying too much stress on tradition? We all recognise the need to change in response to a changing world, but even as we do this we seem to want to look to the past for permission. For instance, when people question the reason why Roman Catholic priests have to be celibate, it is sometimes pointed out that this has only been the rule since the 11th century. That is certainly a very long time – half the history of Christianity! – but it does give people some kind of authority for saying that the rule could possibly be changed. Behind this there seems to be an assumption that if it had always been there it could not be changed.

When we discuss the status of women in the ministry of the Church we note the fact that although Paul seems to have forbidden women to preach (1 Cor 14:34-35) there were women in the very early Church who were active preachers. Paul himself (Romans 16:7) refers to someone who was ‘prominent among the apostles’. The name appears in the different manuscripts as ‘Junias’ (a masculine name) and ‘Junia’ (a feminine name), and sometimes even ‘Julia’ – this suggests an early attempt by some of the copyists to cover up the fact that she was a woman. If little bits of evidence like this were not there, it might be even harder for people to accept women priests and bishops than it already is.

This tendency to dig for evidence in the past is natural. The Christian faith, after all, is the product of centuries of tradition, and we have ancient Scriptures that we revere. However, this does not mean that we should be bound unconditionally to what is in Scripture or ancient tradition. Apparently Jesus himself told his disciples that there were truths they were not yet ready to hear, but the Holy Spirit would continue to teach them when he was no longer with them (John 16:12-13). 

What makes me uneasy about this whole ‘tradition’ business is that Christianity is an essentially forward-looking faith. We believe in the kingdom of God, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Surely this means that our chief concern should be not how things were in the beginning but how they are meant to be in the end.  

We could have a more exciting and creative dialogue if, instead of just sharing our traditions, we started sharing our hopes and our visions. What kind of Church do we dream of as an expression of the promise of God’s kingdom today?

We could even be a bit more adventurous, and apply this approach to inter-faith dialogue. Here most of us start from a position of ignorance and need to find out more about each other’s beliefs and traditions. But why not take another step forward, and start talking about how all of us, as human beings living in the twenty-first century, can explore together the meaning of life and the mystery of God?  

‘Christian Unity’ – a Bore?

A conference of the British Council of Churches held in Nottingham in 1964 proposed that the different denominations in Britain should work and pray to be united as one Church by Easter Day 1980.

I thought at the time that this was quite a reasonable expectation. Churches were already coming much closer together, the bad old days of hostility and rivalry between different denominations seemed to be over, and when you are young (as I was then), sixteen years seems a long time – certainly enough time to sort out any problems that remained. Some people were a bit sceptical, but some were saying ‘Why so long?’

Well, here we are, forty years on from the target date, and we are as divided as ever. Why?

One reason, probably, is red tape and bureaucratic inertia. It is fine to talk idealistically about how we all belong together in the same faith, but church leaders have a vested interest in the status quo. We all feel comfortable in the familiar structure, especially if our jobs depend on it.

Members of congregations, too, are comfortable in their own church or chapel, and don’t like the order of service changing too much. On special occasions, like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are happy to organise united services and be all pally together, but these are almost always an addition to the normal programme. It it still very rare to find a congregation willing to give up its Sunday service to join in with others.

We have also underestimated the depth and seriousness of the divisions among us. There is still a great gulf between a Catholic faith that clings to the continuity of tradition and the Apostolic Succession and the more free and informal ways of Protestant churches. In addition, we have become more aware of the deep differences not just between our denominations but within them. A lot of ecumenical discussion has been conducted among people who have generally the same kind of attitude – liberal, tolerant and a bit laid-back about theological differences. But, usually outside these discussions, there are those who have a strictly evangelical faith, insisting on the infallibility of the Bible, a particular doctrine of the Atonement, and the unchanging authority of the moral code.

The local church I belong to is an open and inclusive church which tries (not always successfully, we must admit) to make people feel at home whatever their race, culture, gender, sexual orientation and everything else. Some of our neighbours are shocked and disgusted that we are willing to bless same sex partnerships. I would feel very uncomfortable in a church that was not like this. In this respect I have much more in common with some people of other denominations, and even of other religions, than with most of my fellow Baptists. In view of differences like this, the union of all churches seems as far away as ever.

Meanwhile, events are overtaking us. Many congregations and clergy are just ignoring the rules. I have received Communion from a Roman Catholic priest in an informal Mass held on Baptist premises! A Roman Catholic nun once asked me, a Baptist minister, to be her spiritual adviser. Among the most active members of a congregation where I was the minister were a Unitarian, several Salvation Army members, one or two Roman Catholics, I don’t know how many Anglicans, and at least one agnostic.

Talks about formal church unity are becoming more and more irrelevant. To quote Harry Williams (Some Day I’ll Find You, Fount Paperbacks 1984, p 318), a rather unorthodox Anglican priest: ‘ecumenism is the last refuge of the religious bore’.

As the organised Christian churches in Europe are in sharp decline, a new spirituality is emerging. Jesus is as important and attractive a figure as ever, but many who are drawn to him have no interest in the churches that claim to represent him. His call is to a far greater and wider unity. The word ‘ecumenical’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘the whole world’. Surely that is where the focus of our prayers should be.