Cæli enarrant

Does anyone really contest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is right to call for “mutual flourishing” in the Church, across well-worn divisions? As he told The Living Church at Trinity Wall Street, the Church of England has now adopted a set of “guiding principles … to help everyone remember where their unity lies,” since even amid disagreement with one another, “we are all in Christ” (see p. 5 of the most recent issue of TLC or “Gospel as Counter-narrative”). And the theme is one he has spoken of often, sometimes in terms of “good disagreement,” which he defines as discrete and respectful conversation, aimed at listening to and interpreting others “in light of their best intentions” (Phil Groves and Angharad Parry Jones, Living Reconciliation, p. xiii).

In any case, the answer to the initial question is yes. Mutual flourishing seems offensive and dangerous to us when it comes to all sorts of issues, both in churches and in civic settings. We are accustomed to our leaders calling for clarity of principle and for steadfast justice (mercy is out of fashion), on the basis of which we stand against error and defend the faith as we understand it.

Is this wrong? In defense of defending the faith, one thinks of Aquinas’s confident account of how Christian theology should respond both to heretics and to those who “believe nothing of divine revelation.” “Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated,” writes Thomas, “it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered” (Summa theologiae I 1, 8 c).

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We do well, however, to consider the difference between false teaching simpliciter and what Paul calls the necessary divisions that emerge in local churches, through which we are tested and tried (1 Cor. 11:19). The Church has held that the former sort of error is easily answered, with reference to the deposit of the faith and its authoritative interpretation via councils and settled orthodoxy. The latter arguments amount to something more like the formative fire to which we are subjected, in order to “test what sort of work each has done” (1 Cor. 3:13). Here we touch something intrinsic to the life of the Church as rightly ordered and normatively understood, namely, that she is on the way, composed mostly of erstwhile infants just now fixing to get ready to digest some solid food (3:1-2); folks, as Paul makes clear, given to in-fighting until a minute ago, who need encouragement to let the arguments between Apollos and Cephas drop, urged on by Chloe’s people and … yes, a rebuke or two from the apostle himself (3:5-6; 1:11ff.; cf. Galatians), to which a good soldier can only reply, “Thank you, Paul, may I have another?”

This is the school of reconciliation at the heart of the gospel, that is itself the Church: the forming of Christians by repentance and humility, through which our cheap facsimile of wisdom is shown to be a sham, and so may be replaced by an altogether more interesting, if surprising, curriculum, centered on “the word about the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). Baptism serves as the letter of admission, initial orientation, and first semester of classes rolled into one; on the other side of this harrowing experience the faithful hope to see rapid growth in the good, fed by an edifying environment of encouragement and challenge, ordered by divine initiative (3:6-7).

Will defense of the faith show up here? Or training in justice? Yes, but only as set around a divine center, since God is the subject matter, and the community and its singular mind are formed in him. Accordingly, a particular character emerges.

First, as both Son of God and Word, Jesus Christ is all about encouraging creaturely discursiveness, so teaching takes a prime place. A healthy Church is a doctrinally engaged Church that seeks to ask and answer questions under the heading reverent wonder. Debate is welcomed, as is correction, through which all may seek transformation by the renewing of their minds, so that they may “discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In this way the faithful learn to renounce sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and robbery, for instance (1 Cor. 5:11), every day if necessary (15:31), because these have no place in the household of faith and must be driven out. Ash Wednesday is tailored to the task: “Have mercy on us, Lord.” And they find freedom by giving judgment its due, for “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). Without such a formative interchange, the gospel makes little sense, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but now are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:23-24).

Second, as is already clear, the language of this school takes a certain form, in service of holiness and unity. Good disagreement does not simply bless all difference and diversity but strives to resolve difficulties as they arise. And this is the historical pattern of Christian reconciliation: that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against then, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). In this way, Christian reconciliation takes the form of Christ’s own sacrifice, which effects the life of grace and calls forth grateful imitation. This is clear in Ephesians, as the facing and overcoming of division constitutes the Church. For Jews and Gentiles are “made” one body in the flesh of Jesus, “reconciled … through the cross” (Eph. 2:14, 16). On the other side of such instruction, one cannot help but be changed. Virtue is the name of the game, reflected in the fruit of the Spirit, which provides a certain measure of progress.

Third, in good Augustinian fashion, the inscrutable mystery of God is reverently marked and honored. Commenting on the recent consecrations of Libby Lane and Philip North, a friend noted that many modern churches now distinguish between sacramental validity and efficacy. Validity, however critical, does not strictly condition efficacy. And the point holds true in the most hierarchical and orderly of Christian churches. Writing to his friend and former colleague, the Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann of Bavaria, then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked in 1993 that ecumenical conversations have importantly yielded

the realization that the question of the Eucharist cannot be restricted to the problem of “validity.” Even a theology along the lines of the concept of succession, as is in force in the Catholic and in the Orthodox Church, should in no way deny the saving presence of the Lord in the Evangelical [Lutheran] Lord’s Supper (Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, p. 248).

Surprising, perhaps. But less so as we grow accustomed to serving the Lord of the Church on our knees, in the hope that prayer will inculcate a proper reserve. Classically, for Augustine or Aquinas, validity also fails to guarantee efficacy, pace the Donatists. As Aquinas says, the sacrament itself is not the same as its reality (ST III 66, 1; 64, 9). Thus, Augustine also made room for reception of grace by desire, short of sacramental communication (68, 2). And, Thomas notes, Christ did not confine his power to the sacraments, even as they remain the ordinary means of salvation and in that sense necessary for the faithful (67, 5; cf. 65, 4).

Facing divisions in the body of Christ — including Anglican divisions, and the dioceses and parishes of one and another contending church — the school of reconciliation would teach the faithful to speak as sinners, who admit that “often enough, people of both sides were to blame” (Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, para. 3). And having confessed, they may marvel that, by grace, the Lord welcomes all who show up as servants of the Servant (1 Cor. 3:5). In such a school, Christian argument is necessarily transformed by love — by which everyone, including the faithful themselves, know that they are his (John 13:34-35).

In Lent especially, the school of reconciliation beckons. Our Lord sets the curriculum. And, after writing the book, he serves as exemplary student and teacher. The common thread through it all is the Passion, and like all crosses this one can seem heavy. But that’s the flesh talking. On the other side is new life in him.

See you in class.

This article appears in the latest issue of The Living Church (February 22, 2015), pp. 30-31. 

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation. He oversees the publishing, budget, fundraising, marketing, and staff of TLC, and with his colleagues articulates the evolving mission and program of the foundation in collaboration with elected leadership.

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