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Tough medicine

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The Covenant Seminar was just what I needed. Of course, the fellowship was delightful: to form new bonds of friendship and renew old ones is a valuable thing in itself. The beautiful setting, reverent worship, and time away from my parish all worked their medicinal effects.

But Radner’s Brutal Unity was also just what I needed, though in a more difficult way. Radner’s ideas came as distasteful medicine to me, as someone who has been happily committed to the conciliar ideal. While his lofty description of the conciliar ideal reminded me what I fell in love with in the ancient Catholic Church, his descriptions of the Church’s sins were hard to receive — but in the end, I think they were true.

Where I have liked to think the Church has little to learn from the liberal state and everything to teach, Radner’s position was the opposite: another bit of medicine that, while distasteful, seemed upon reflection to be nourishing. His conception of the ecumenical task as finding the unity that we already have in Christ seemed at first too Calvinist, but Radner is deeper and subtler than that: he does not use the success of Christ’s salvific mission as an excuse not to engage, but as a moral imperative to engage, separated fellow Christians: to go where Jesus goes, outside the camp, to give ourselves for the ungodly.

I have studied Anglican ecumenism in some depth and for several years, but lately when I taught a class on the divided Church, a lay person asked me what the solution was, and I had no answer — and I realize that I have never had an answer. Now, for all the parts of Radner’s theses that I wrestle with, I think I may begin to glimpse his hopefulness for a solution, and even to share it.

The ecumenical movement certainly seems stuck in the ruts of all our old ways of thinking. I suspect it will not hurt to try something different, which takes the Church’s sins realistically, and which is so powerfully Christocentric. I want to continue to use Brutal Unity in my ecumenical thinking, and to wrestle with how to popularize Radner’s insights. Popular ecumenism overlaps Radner in some significant ways, but needs to be redeemed in some significant ways, too.

There is a thorny paradox in the popular mind between wanting the Church to unite, and indeed in our transient American culture of churchmanship acting for all intents and purposes as if it were so, on the one hand; and on the other, an almost martyr-like ethic of standing on the dictates of one’s own conscience, come what may. I hope to do more work on this.

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