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Christian Unity and One Body, One Doctrine, One Spirit

Christian Unity and One Body, One Doctrine, One Spirit

Here we are in the middle of the Week of Christian Unity, bracketed by the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul, the two irrefutable giants in the development and promulgation of the Church. And in today’s second reading (Eph 4:1-16) we hear Paul saying, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” That is a lot of “ones”, seven in all. And he says we are called for the “building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” 

He preaches with soft words, calming words, begging the church in Ephesus to be worthy of the calling to which they were called, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Nobody begs for something that is not an issue. So we know that there are tensions, even rifts.

Paul’s letter suggests where these divisions in the community in Ephesus come from. He sees that the Christians in Ephesus are like children, being driven hither and thither by the winds of doctrinal influence, all kinds of doctrine, from the many forms of pagan belief, mystery cults which were in full bloom in the Roman Empire, and from Greek philosophies, to the doctrines of those who still followed John the Baptizer and those who claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ. He admonishes, Grow Up. There is only one doctrine and that is Christ Jesus, who by his death, resurrection, and ascension bound us to him and by adoption to his Father, and that Jesus is the one and only undoubted head of the Church, here and above. Period. End of arguments.

And we know that there are rifts in Christianity today. We too are pulled in many directions, some secular, some within and between the churches. In many ways Paul sounds more like the Right Wing Evangelicals with their literal reading of Scripture and blindness to cultural sea change, and, in many cases, to hard science. It doesn’t sound much like the Episcopal Church. I am going to step into deep waters.  Before I do let me state loud and clear that I Am A Liberal. A moderate one, who believes in the doctrine, the words of the creed, the words of Jesus in Scripture, and most of what Paul and the other letter writers had to say if read with the lens of history and in the context of their personal history. We are incarnate, after all, and pretty flawed. Today the divisions between and within the churches are more often not about grave theological matters, like those which tore the faithful apart during the Reformation, More likely now the issues are cultural and social. Social issues have torn us apart before, the abolitionist movement for one. So let’s be very brave children, like those who went through the wardrobe into Narnia, and explore some scary places. Let’s take one very current example. Like same sex marriage.  

The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby, a man, who by his works and words, is a profoundly Spirit filled man, fully dedicated to the Good News of Jesus, and who is bringing the Anglican Church in Great Britain back to life, even he is still wrestling with the realities of a gay life and gay marriage. The Episcopal Church has moved in another direction embracing gay marriage as affirmed in Canon Law, and the fallout is still being seen and it will take decades if not centuries to evaluate. Most of the Anglican Communion opposes gay marriage. In many of these places the Church is thriving, and is a moral and ethical guidepost and personal support to millions, especially in the churches in Africa. While the American church feels the issue is settled by Canon Law, it is far from settled both here and worldwide, and disagreements are not by haters and nutters, but by people who hear the call of faith differently. And none sanction attacks on any Christian soul, no matter their gender expression or belief. This is a mess, despite all the good words about how Jesus sanctions anything if it is done in love. There still is doctrine. And there still is Scripture. And there still is the moving of the Spirit, which can sometimes be such a quiet whisper as to be unheard and often misinterpreted.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (approved in 1886 by the House of Bishops, and again approved by the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888, pp. 876-878, BCP) was derived from an essay “The Church-Idea, An Essay Towards Unity” (1870) by the Rev. William Reed Huntington. The Quadrilateral states that Scripture is the primary and ultimate source of the faith, that the Nicene Creed is a complete statement of the faith, that the two dominical sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist, and that our bishops are in the line of Apostolic Succession from the early church, commonly believed to be from St. Peter. At Chicago it also stated that while the charism of the Episcopal Church meets all these requirements, a move toward reuniting the shattered body of Christ through ecumenical dialogue was called for.

There is a Lambeth Conference scheduled for 2020 for all active bishops and their spouses, and the text which will be used to guide the work and prayer will be the first letter of Peter. And we can be assured that in forbearance and Christian love by the guidance of the Holy Spirit issues of gender will be on the table, as will race relations, climate change, and a host of social justice issues. And probably the accords the Anglican Communion is forging with other branches of the Universal Church. In Archbishop Welby’s vision for Lambeth 2020 he says, “It leads us into being God’s People, in God’s World, for God’s World.” Through praying Scripture, they will work with themes of persecution, witness, holiness, hope, prayer, and being witnesses to the Good News, in the world but not of the world. The archbishop says that we are one people, transformed and transforming, witnessing our mutual love and respect for those with whom we differ within the One Body, but within the authority of Scripture and guided by the Spirit. Prayerfully. Listening. “The world needs the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Can we go out with our hearts on fire, and hope that the archbishop’s prayers will be the Lambeth 2020 outcome?

Doctrine and obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ are not black and white. We humans, in the world, but not of it, are not only slaves in Grace to our Lord and God, but also slaves in sin to our cultures, and fears, and perceived needs. And if we are going to open dialogue within our own Anglican Church as well as with the rest of the church’s denominations, we can’t just gang up with those who agree with us on all points against the others as enemies. Perhaps if we start praying now, thinking of our differences with tolerance for those who sincerely are struggling, as are we, with where the Body of Christ is going in this millennium and how we can keep the Good News alive and spreading, by Lambeth 2020 we might stand a chance to move with the Holy Spirit toward a renewed church.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.



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