The Challenge of Unity

Back on Reformation Day (October 31st), I saw a sermon circulating around Facebook which caught my eye.  It wasn’t a triumphalist proclamation about how great the Reformation was, and how bad Roman Catholicism was or is.  Rather, it was a sober reflection on the price that was paid for this Reformation.  It was written by Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant, so it’s not like it’s a Catholic trying to “call us home.”  It’s an honest reflection on the weaknesses of the Protestant church resulting from the Reformation.  It can be found here:

Experiences of unity & disunity

I’d like to start with this quote:

I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin.  You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation.  Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise?  We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.

We have no experience of unity – what a statement!  Many people I know would scoff at such a claim.  “Of course we know what unity is; I experience it in my church whenever we get together,” one might argue.  But is the local gathering really what unity is about?  What about global unity?  What about unity with Christians in other ages of history?  It’s not that Protestantism condemns this as unimportant, but it’s simply not on the radar.  As I said in a recent post, Evangelicalism is focused on the local church community instead of the global church community.  Hauerwas illustrates what this means:

The office of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that when Christians move from Durham, North Carolina to Syracuse, New York, they have some confidence when they go to church that they will be worshiping the same God.

Without such an “office of unity,” as he puts it, Protestants have to ‘test out’ each church they visit before they can commit to it.  There’s an unfair level of individual discernment that ends up being required of us.  I say ‘unfair’ because when you consider how many people don’t get very much discipleship it’s no wonder why people flock to churches preaching the ‘health & wealth gospel’ and other such heretical attractions.  Now, being part of a denomination helps fight this issue, but the proliferation of the number of protestant denominations really cuts down on the usefulness of denominational loyalty.  In most cases the individual is left to fend for himself in finding and remaining with a healthy local church, and that is disunity.

what unity does and does not demand

Protestants (and especially individualistic Americans) often fear that unity at the Catholic level is constricting to our freedom in Christ.  But as Hauerwas puts it:

As I oftentimes point out, it is extraordinary that Catholicism is able to keep the Irish and the Italians in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.  I think Catholics are able to do that because they know that their unity does not depend upon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth which makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

The Protestant/American fear is of coercive uniformity.  The fear is of conformity and the loss of one’s individuality.  Obviously, there is a degree to which we all must “die to self,” as the Scriptures say.  But Catholicism doesn’t go as far as people often fear.  Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans have very different spiritualities.  The Irish, French, Italians, and Spanish have very different temperaments.  In the Protestant world, each of these spiritualites and nationalities almost inevitably end up in their own denominations.  What Catholicism shows us is that these differences can be united without compromising their distinctions!

how Tradition is perceived

The Protestant and Catholic situations, then, lead to different perceptions of what Tradition is all about.  To the Protestant, who is used to each spirituality or distinction having its own denomination, a unifying tradition has to be viewed with suspicion!

‘How much of this do we have to believe in order to remain identifiably Christian?’  That’s the reason why Protestants are always tempted to rationalism: we think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than with the unity of the Spirit occasioned through sacrament.

But to the Catholic, who is used to differences being held together in one Church, tradition is that amazing thing that enriches all.

Catholics do not begin with the question of “How much do we need to believe?” but with the attitude “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” … Therefore Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another.

When I talk with Evangelical Protestants, this dynamic comes up frequently.  The temptation is to boil things down to common denominators by clearing away as much tradition as possible, when in the Catholic world it’s that very tradition which allows for a unity that Protestantism hasn’t achieved in over 500 years!

Unity as Memory

One last thing about unity that Hauerwas points out is the idea of memory.

So justification by faith through grace is not some general truth about our need for acceptance; but rather justification by faith through grace is a claim about the salvation wrought by God through Jesus to make us a holy people capable of remembering that God’s salvation comes through the Jews.  When the church loses that memory, we lose the source of our unity.  For unity is finally a matter of memory, of how we tell the story of the Reformation.  How can we tell this story of the church truthfully as Protestants and Catholics so that we might look forward to being in union with one another and thus share a common story of our mutual failure?

Throughout the Old Testament God speaks through the Law and Prophets and the Psalms telling his people Israel to remember what he has done for them.  When they forget God and his works, they stray from him.  One of the central means of remembering God was through worship.  Many of the sacrifices required in the Law were described as memorials.  They were reminders of the covenant so the people would remember God (not just in their minds, but also in their hearts and lives), and so God would remember his people (again, not just in mind but in deeds).  Jesus did the same thing when he initiated the New Covenant – he instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist as his remembrance.  These memorials and remembrances, being key features of God’s covenants with his people, thus tie together both salvation and unity.

Thus being “saved by grace through faith” includes remembering God and his works, especially the Church.  With this in mind, we realize that history isn’t just a discipline for history buffs like myself, but part of the story of God’s salvation and God’s people from which we receive both our salvation and our unity!  In other words, it comes back to that Catholic mindset “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” because tradition is that which binds us together despite our individual, local, and temporal differences.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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