Church Unity and the Episcopal Church

By H. Boone Porter

Octave for Christian Unity

The eight-day period from the Feast of St. Peter on January 18 to the Feast of St. Paul on January 25 has been widely observed as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. Its observance has varied considerably from year to year and from place to place. Ten years ago, when the Roman Catholic Church was first coming strongly onto the ecumenical scene, the octave (largely of Roman Catholic origin) was in many areas an exciting period in the church year. In some towns and cities, there were services each night in a different church, with special speakers, special music, and so forth. Some places continue to have this. Others are just beginning it. Still others have had it, benefitted from it, and allowed it to taper off.

Whatever else is done or not done, all of us can in any case pray for Christian unity, and ask God, through his Son, to show us the way to it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Purely solitary prayer, however, is not enough. If Christian unity is what we desire, then to pray for it together with other Christians is a basic expression of what such prayer is intended to mean.

Ecumenical News

This week, somewhat more than most weeks, THE LIVING CHURCH has news of ecumenical significance. Some of this news is encouraging, some of it discouraging, some of it puzzling. We will continue to carry such news, first of all because we believe it is of interest to readers. Secondly, in today’s world, many events and developments affect all religious bodies. In order to gain perspective, and to have a wide understanding of the events in any one church, it is often important to know of events in other churches. And most obviously, since New Testament times, it has been part of the apostolic message of the Church to proclaim the significance of the oneness of the followers of Jesus Christ. A journal such as this, committed to the heritage of the apostolic faith, must continue to speak up for Christian unity.

Today, ecumenism is no longer so new and adventurous as many found it a few years ago. Yet, at the local level, probably American Christians of different churches are doing more in cooperation than they ever have before. When a church building burns down, or when larger facilities are needed for a special event, different churches unhesitatingly lend their buildings to one another. Pastors of different Christian bodies are constantly working together in various common concerns. Theological seminaries often employ faculty members of other churches. Not of least importance, lay people of different ecclesiastical backgrounds are talking to one another about their faith, visiting each other’s churches, and often taking part in each others’ formal church activities. Occasionally this involves newsworthy events which are reported in the press. Very often, however, ecumenical activities at the local level are on an unpublicized person-to-person basis, which is probably better. From time to time, we should recognize that these local efforts on the part of Christian people are going on, and that they are significant. At this time, we gladly call attention to them.

Ecumenism in the Episcopal Church

Most of us have an ambivalent attitude toward Christian reunion. On the one hand, we are all committed in theory to a desire for the unity of Christ’s followers. On the other hand, we all cherish our own distinctive beliefs, feel pride in our own peculiar historical background, and hold to our own manner of worship and church order. This is not just a description of the Episcopalian position … Believe it or not, members of other churches feel this way too, although the exact beliefs, histories, and usages differ for each ecclesiastical community. To discover precisely how other Christians do feel, and why, is a great eye opener for all concerned. Sometimes it is also an eye opener to make an assessment of the feelings that exist in our own church, and even within our own individual hearts and minds.

Conservative Evangelicals have customarily sought closer relations with Bible-centered churches, with comparatively little debate over such questions of church order as sacraments and ordination. Conservative Evangelical bodies have often stood apart from councils of churches and other mainline ecumenical organizations.

Liberal Anglicans have understandably pursued relations with other liberal Christians, notably those within the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational folds. Being less tied to specific doctrinal positions than the conservatives, and less tied to specific traditions of church order than the Catholics, the liberals in all churches have had highly negotiable positions and have tended to be very visible, and often dominant, in the established ecumenical agencies of this country — although this is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world.

The organized international ecumenical movement owes much to the American high churchman, Bishop Charles H. Brent, and to the Swedish high churchman, Archbishop Nathan Soderblom. Yet Anglo-Catholics have understandably been most interested in reunion with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Concern is also felt for relations with the Philippine Independent Church, Old Catholics, Swedish Lutherans, and Oriental Orthodox churches, such as the Armenians and the Copts.

It is undeniable that each of these three groups within the Episcopal Church is motivated by the sincere desire for the oneness of Christ’s Church. Yet it is also evident that each group has also been motivated by the desire to enhance its own position within the Episcopal Church by seeking numerous and influential allies in other churches. It is not even unlikely that the members of other churches have noticed this.

In recent years, the rapid growth of ecumenical interest within Roman Catholicism, and a somewhat analogous development among conservative Evangelical groups, has blasted the old ecumenical spectrum. All our cherished preconceptions are shattered by gala charismatic gatherings of people from all sorts of churches, or by Roman Catholic sisters teaching in Baptist Sunday schools, or by Methodists making retreats in Benedictine monasteries. Where does the Episcopal Church stand in all of this today? It is a question to ponder.

At the last General Convention the two big issues both had ecumenical implications, but these were evidently of little interest to many Episcopalians. The Proposed Prayer Book with its ecumenical calendar of Sundays and major feasts, its ecumenical lectionary, and its return to the Holy Eucharist as the main act of regular public worship, represents a massive advance toward Christian unity. Yet many Episcopalians regard these items, for this very reason, as undesirable, and advocates of the proposed book did not emphasize its ecumenical dimensions.

In one particular respect however, the Proposed Book of Common Prayer is an ecumenical disaster area. This is in the Nicene Creed. The traditional English version has long been recognized as faulty. It had been proposed that the new Prayer Book contain a reasonably accurate translation of the original Greek version of this ecumenical creed. This involves two changes in the third paragraph. It meant restoring the adjective “holy” to the Church and removing the words “and the Son” with respect to the Holy Spirit. These later words, the so-called “filioque clause,” had been demonstrated long ago by Anglican scholars to be no part of the original Nicene Creed. This historical fact is today generally recognized by scholars of all churches. The entire subject is rather technical, and we hope it may be more fully discussed in the pages from various points of view, at a later date. Our present concern, however, is that the Eastern Orthodox Churches are highly opposed to this unauthorized intrusion into the historic creed. The reinsertion of it by the General Convention into the new translation of the creed has been understandably viewed by Eastern Orthodox as an effort on the part of American Episcopalians to disassociate themselves from the historic faith.

The other big issue in the last General Convention is more complicated in its ecumenical dimensions. Many other Christian bodies have ordained women clergy. On the whole, however, they have not made this an issue in ecumenical discussions, and it does not appear that any significant ecumenical steps were held back by the fact that the Episcopal Church had not had such women clergy. On the other hand, the principal churches which do not have women clergy are strongly opposed to the usage for a variety of reasons. The Roman Church has historically been strongly so opposed, and theoretically is today, but will in all likelihood be ordaining women to the diaconate in the 1980’s. It is quite likely, furthermore, that in the 21st century they will also be ordaining women to the presbyterate. Whatever the long-range effect may be, for the present moment, the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church is a problem. Whatever else one may say for it or against it, it must be recognized as a major setback at the present time for the otherwise auspicious relations which are developing between our two churches.

Within Eastern Orthodoxy there has been for many years some discussion of reviving the diaconate for women. Ancient canon law, and the form for ordination for this, still exist among the Orthodox but have not been used for many centuries. A training school for women was established in Athens some years ago, but, so far as is known, its graduates have been serving as women church workers in various capacities, but without ordination as deaconesses. Developments within the Episcopal Church at the present time have probably created a negative attitude on this subject among some Eastern Orthodox.

If the movement for the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church had developed in a different way, been advocated on a more theological basis, and been accompanied by a more evident respect for ecclesiastical tradition, its negative effect might not have been so great. To deny or ignore the reality of this negative impact, however, would be to delude oneself and certainly do not good either to the Episcopal Church, or the cause of Christian unity, or the women themselves who are involved. Opponents of such ordination have of course called attention to its negative implications. It now seems high time that the advocates of this practice also face this aspect of the matter and give evidence that they have constructive steps to people. Meanwhile, as year after year goes by, one has yet to see thorough and broadly based Anglican studies of the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate which would bring us up to date in the biblical, historical, and theological dimensions of these three orders.

The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 22, 1978 issue.


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