05 August 2007

growing into union

Throughout the 1960s, the Church of England embarked upon a plan for uniting with the Methodist Church in England, from which it had separated at the end of the 18th century.

In recent years further progress on this has occurred, but in the 1960s the proposed Scheme had failed under criticisms from Anglicans, both Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic. Yet, apart from shared opposition to the Scheme, Evangelicals and Catholics in the Church of England were hardly united in outlook.

At the recommendation of a friend, I've been reading through a book, published in 1970, called Growing into Union: Proposals for forming a united Church in England. The authors were two Anglican Evangelicals and two Anglican Catholics, and they attempted to work through some of the differences that separated them - particularly with regard to Scripture and tradition, grace and justification, church and sacraments, and episcopacy and ministry.

The Anglo-Catholic authors were E.L. Mascall, the well-known systematic theologian, and Graham Leonard, the Bishop of Willesden at the time of publication. The Evangelical authors were Colin Buchanan, a liturgical and sacramental theologian, and J.I. Packer, a scholar of Reformed and Puritan theology. There was a remarkable degree of consensus among these four men on issues of theology, as well as the way forward ecumenically in their context.

The participation of Packer is noteworthy, especially in light of the surprise in some American quarters with regard to his signing of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) in 1994. While this later document involved Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, it shared many issues in common with Packer's ecumenical work with Anglo-Catholics in the quarter century prior, as well as his publications in the later 1960s on Roman Catholic and Anglican relations. At any rate, his participation in ECT really ought not to have been so surprising to friends and observers.

The content of Growing into Union is already distilled and dense to the point that it is difficult to further summarize. Yet some quotations from the doctrinal section might be of interest, especially given that the book is not readily available. The practical proposals for ecumenism in the 1970s Anglican context are also fascinating - especially their interaction with the South India Scheme - but probably of less interest to a general audience and so I will not quote from that part of the book.

Scripture and Tradition

The chapter begins by attempting to outline and set aside mutual misrepresentations and misunderstandings - the Evangelical perception that Catholic distinctives are "directly due to an improper use of Tradition as a second source of doctrine, over and above the Scriptures" and the Catholic perception that Evangelical distinctives are "directly due to an improper use of the Bible which has isolated it from its true context in the Church's continuing life...and has pressed it into service of unbiblical negations" (30).

The authors go on to complete a quick survey of the notion of "Tradition" historically and competing notions of Tradition, including the evolution of the notion of Tradition as a "second source" distinct from and alongside Scripture. They present their own agreed-upon perspective in the following terms:
The ground of both Scripture and Tradition, the reality to which they both point, is the fact of divine Revelation given fully and finally in and through Jesus Christ, who is both the Word and the Wisdom of the Father and who, by his crucifixion and resurrection, has redeemed the human race. (33)
The revelation of Jesus Christ was itself witnessed to by the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and normatively and authoritatively recorded and interpreted in the writings of the New. The church in time came, by the Spirit's guidance, to recognize the intrinsic authority of the New Testament writings.

In this context, then, the authors were able to agree and assert that
...what the traditionary process passes on should be view in the first instance as a primary and provisional exposition of the biblical fail, and that what is written in the biblical documents should be viewed in the first instance as the archetypal and normative tradition, the authentic apostolic paradosis which must both form and, where necessary, reform the later paradosis in order that the knowledge of Christ should not be obscured. (37)
The authors agree with the Protestant Reforms that the Scripture is "clear in its meaning and sufficient in its content for purposes of salvation" so that there is no need for an infallible magisterium (38). Yet, they affirm, "the witness of Scripture to Christ will be made clearer, and its contents come to be better known and appreciated, within the living fellowship of the people of God" since, in giving the Scriptures, God never meant them "to be self-sufficient as a means of instruction and life, but to operate within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship, and prayers" (38).

God and his Grace

With regard to grace, the authors begin with the observation that the absolute distinction between Creator and creature means that humanity and all of creation are utterly dependent up God and that all of reality has the character of radical giftedness. And this grace is what we recognize and celebrate in Christian worship: the "free, unmerited, unsolicited love" of God that takes "the initiative to rescue the undeserving an enrich the unlovely" (41).

Thus the Church and its worship have always stood against every form of Pelagianism. They go on to note that for Paul, in the New Testament, the Gospel theme of grace is exposited most importantly in the doctrine of justification which is, they say, "in truth, of the essence of the gospel" (42).

After a reviewing the Protestant Reformation and its central concerns, and outlining six issues that tend to polarize debates between Protestants and Catholics, the authors note that an ecumenical rapprochement has begun. They suggest that "the revival of biblical theology throughout the Church has produced a wide consensus" on the topic of justification, which they summarize in four points:
(a) justification in the New Testament belongs to a basically forensic model of man's relations with God, into which, speaking purely conceptually, sanctification does not enter;

(b) God's justifying act belongs to a total salvation "in Christ," of which subjective renewal is an integral part;

(c) Christ's unique priesthood is all-sufficient, and his priestly ministry is that on which our salvation directly depends;

(d) the fiducial element is essential to faith in God and in Christ. (44-45)
To this they add historical scholarship that indicates that Luther never wished to "separate justification from sanctification ontologically" and that even Trent can be responsibly read in ways that are more amenable to Protestant concerns (45).

Out of this discussion, the authors are able to affirm together eight theses regarding divine grace:
(1) Grace is the Triune God loving men.

(2) Grace in this fallen world is the Triune God enriching sinners in and through Jesus Christ.

(3) God's way in grace requires of us total dependence upon God in Jesus Christ for our salvation.

(4) Justification is God's acceptance of sinners through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, into a new life of forgiveness, communion, and hope.

(5) The divine act of grace, in which the declaration that a believing sinner is justified, is central and basic and is in its totality and act of effective and vital union with the living Christ, and hence is constitutive of new creation.

(6) Faith, in its beliefs about God in Christ, in its trust in God's promises, and in its persevering hope of God's glory, disclaims all self-confidence, relies on God only, and praises God alone.

(7) Grace is personal meeting between God and man.

(8) The purpose and effect of God's work of grace is to establish a redeemed community, to which he stands in covenant relation, and which he fills constantly with his Spirit. (46-49)
On points (4) and (5) the authors explain further that the forensic model of justification is central, normative, and not able to be reduced to and explained in other terms. Nonetheless, an "organic incorporation-model" is equally ultimate and a biblical doctrine of justification "is only achieved when set in the context of incorporation" (48).

Moreover, while God's justifying word is, at the same time, a creative word so that "new status and new life are complementary and inseparable aspects of what it means to be in Christ," it nonetheless must be emphasized that "the word of aquittal and acceptance is pronounced on the basis of Christ's vicarious obedience and suffering for us, not on the basis of any aspect of the new creation itself" (48).

Church and Sacraments

The authors begin by drawing attention to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, without which there would be no Church and upon which rests the possibility for a new corporate form of life as Christ's own body and temple. They continue
This type of imagery - body, temple, etc. - which emphasizes the unity of the Church "in" Christ carries strong implications for our understanding of membership. If to belong to Christ in discipleship is to be "in" Christ in membership, then the members, by the sheer fact of discipleship, belong organically to each other. It is unthinkable that a man should first be converted and later "join" a or even the Church. As the New Testament sets out the evidence, and as the Church of the Fathers practised for centuries, a man is confronted by a community proclaiming Christ and serving him, and if he comes to believe in that Christ he comes ipso facto into that one community. Discipleship and membership are inseparable. (52)
Out of these observations, the authors posit three agreed upon doctrinal points with regard to the sacraments.

First, "both sacraments declare Jesus' death and resurrection and mediate to us both their benefits and their challenge" (54). Second, "both sacraments relate to the organic corporate character of the Church," which is marked out and entered through baptism and sustained and revealed through eucharist (54). And third, "both sacraments bear the same relationship as each other to faith and to God's grace" (55).

On this last point there is a tension between Catholic and Evangelical understandings. Scriptural language with regard to the sacraments is "the language of sheer unqualified efficacy" with the "simple expectation...that those who partake of the sacraments are partakers in them and by them of God's grace" (55). Yet, Evangelicals want to emphasis that, in the biblical language, "faith was taken for granted" and that the same language is used of God's word and Spirit so that the efficacy of the sacraments seems "dependent upon a prior acceptance of the word of God by faith" (55).

The authors admit there is no final resolution to this tension readily available. But perhaps the tension itself is salutary. They explain:
We dare not argue as to which comes first, the sacrament or the faith. Without faith it is true that a sacrament is not in itself salvific. Without the sacraments it is true that the Church has no warrant for treating men and women as in Christ. The two simply belong together. If the sacraments are to be placed alongside the word then they are comparable to the word administered and received, not simply to the word as preached.
With regard to baptism in particular, the authors note that just as sin is corporate and involves human solidarity in Adam, so also faith is corporate and involves human solidarity in Christ.

Thus "baptism and faith only unite us with Christ in his death and resurrection by incorporating us into the one body" so that in baptism we enter upon the corporate life of the Church as the "sphere within which is being worked out the restoration of the unity between man and Gd, the unity between man and man, as also seminally between man and creation and (often quite notably) within man himself" (57). Thus a person "has no warrant for looking for this restoration outside the unity of the one Body of Christ which he enters at baptism" (57).

With regard to the eucharist, the authors see the common life entered in baptism as sustained and nourished in Christ so that we are, in the Supper, "newly re-apprehended by Christ and thus enabled by his grace to love out the death-to-life of our baptism" (59).

From this point they take up the thorny issue of the senses in which the eucharist may be said to be a "sacrifice." The authors share a concern "to proclaim the uniqueness of Calvary and the total dependence of man upon God's redeeming acts" so that any notion of eucharistic sacrifice cannot appear to "rival or dim" these facts.

In the final part of this chapter, the authors address the unity of the Church. They see such unity as of a piece with the Church's holiness and mission, as sought visibly particularly on the local level, as retaining and exhibiting diversity, and as raising questions of church authority and consensus.

Episcopacy and Ministry

One of the difficulty faced by any attempted union between Anglicans and most non-Anglican Protestant bodies is the question of the historic episcopate. This chapter is, in many respects, the most difficult to summarize and involves a number of biblical and historical considerations. They attempt to work through the issues by addressing three main questions:
1. What is said in the New Testament about the appoint of ministers in the Church?

2. What is the relationship between the New Testament ministry and the subsequent episcopate?

3. What is the relationship between the existing non-episcopal ministries and the episcopate?
How they answer these questions is complex and nuanced and I would commend the actual discussion if it is an issue of interest to you.

All in all, Growing into Union is a thoughtful and provocative volume of ecumenical theology, both in its positive doctrinal project and in the way it serves as a window on one particular ecumenical scheme in a concrete time and place. As such, it might be helpfully read alongside something like Lesslie Newbigin's The Reunion of the Church: A Defense of the South India Scheme.