The kind of unity we need

So the Church Times mini-series on the ‘State of the Church’ has come to an end. Like many, I suspect, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there have been some fascinating insights, and it has been good to focus on something other than the latest bust-up in the Church. On the other, I have been left with the kind of feeling that you have after a headache or migraine has subsided—the sort of dull ache that reminds you of something unpleasant. Alongside the interesting and profound, I have also been disturbed by some of thinking that is clearly influential in the Church.

In the concluding part, there was a fascinating diversity of views expressed on the future of the Church and the issues raised. Martyn Percy, Principal of Cuddesdon, warned against a single obsession with numbers:

We may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than the singular objective of numerical church growth currently allows for…Having a knack for  imaginative, reflective, and refractive public theology and spirituality does indeed intrigue and draw people in.

I wouldn’t disagree with the second half of his observation, but to borrow an earlier epithet, the chief failing of the Church of England is not an over-obsessive preoccupation with numerical growth.

The different visions for what the Church might look like in 20 years were great. Maggi Dawn wants us to be generous and hopeful. Peter Ould painted a hilariously detailed scenario, even naming the future Archbishop of  Canterbury. Susie Leafe probably appears to some to be painting the future of the Church as being rather like Reform writ large. However you react to that, she includes some statistics that we must take seriously:

The 350 or so churches represented by Reform have bucked many of the trends of the past 20 years. One third of their average congregation is under the age of 30. One third of churches have experienced sufficient growth to require them to start a new congregation in the last ten years. Their average weekly attendance is three times that of the average C of E church. They produce three times the average number of ordinands.

Given that the theological tradition of the Church is largely determined by those traditions that are generating future leaders, this is significant. And it is a reminder too that evangelicals have consistently been under-represented in the C of E. With larger congregations than other traditions, and less interest in committees and structures, the further you go ‘up’ the organisational chart, the fewer evangelicals you will find.

Graham Tomlin offers an interesting and, in many ways, compelling vision. There needs to be more flexibility in church planting; we need younger leaders; academic training needs to be dovetailed with curacy; apologetics and the use of overt evangelism strategies, like Alpha, need to feature strongly. It reminded me of the approach of a relative newcomer to the scene in theological education…now what is its name…?

Out of all the pieces, the one I found most compelling was by that old lag (and former archdeacon) Bob Jackson [it's ok—we are friends!] and David Goodhew. The key feature of this piece was the most overt statement of two, often diametrically opposite truths. On the one hand:

God wants his church to grow numerically. Only God grows the church; our job is to collaborate with him…The New Testament is full of positive examples of numerical church growth…The most important reason why there is hope for  numerical church growth is that God wants his church to grow.

Here we find the most explicit, most confident and most theological expression of confident conviction about numerical church growth. On the other hand:

Empirical research show that there is significant church growth happening across England…Research over the past 15 years has given us a much better understanding…

So hand in hand with theological conviction is a real commitment to research and giving attention to empirical evidence.

This was rather a contrast to the ‘lead’ article in this section by Linda Woodhead. Here, we find what I can only describe as expressions of paranoia: ‘A neo-puritan takeover is in process…its leaders [have a] devotion to unity at almost any cost…bought a the price of historic breadth and variety.’ All this says more about Woodhead’s own beliefs than her analysis. She does then move into a helpful and clear description of the different strands in the Church, and quite rightly, even astutely, identifies six key sectors: the cathedral group; those with community focus; the charismatic; the conservative evangelical; those concerned with justice; and the ‘open’ church. But what she then does with these is odd—she imagines them as distinct ‘franchises.’ Of course, this is only a ‘fantasy’, and exercise of the imagination, but it is one that seems to lack any theological insight. The vital thing about these traditions, or strands, or ‘franchises’, is that they need each other. The cathedral group needs the charismatic if it is to avoid religious formalism; the charismatic needs the cathedral if is it to avoid becoming banal. Both need the conservative evangelical if they are not to be loosed from their moorings in Scripture. And the evangelicals needs the justice group to remind it of the biblical vision for the welfare of the world. And so on. We do need to hold together.

So amongst these diverse visions of the church, what kind of unity should we seek?I think it is the kind of unity that was found at another period of history, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 during the controversy about the two natures of Christ as human and divine.  What the Chalcedonian Definition did, in effect, was to draw some boundaries; in the one person, these two natures were:

…without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…

Rather than try and pin down, positively, who or what Christ was, the vital thing this definition does it describe boundaries around what Christ wasn’t. It is a paradoxical feature of ‘negative’ rules (you can’t do this, you can’t do that…) that, like the lines around a football pitch, they actually create a space for play, rather than pinning down (as ‘positive’ rules do, ‘You must do this, you must to that…’) and prescribing action. It creates a bounded space for a variety of theological understandings, and that is just what we need.

We need both variety and boundaries. The recognition of the need for variety will, of course, frustrate those influenced by a more modernist understanding of truth, who would like to see everything pinned down, theology expressed as a single point or proposition of truth. And the need for boundaries will frustrate those who are more influenced by the postmodern paradigm, who see all boundary-drawing as an attempt at coercive control. But spaces are only created by boundaries, and the myth of the Church of England as an infinitely extendable broad church needs to be killed off.

The roots of this idea of bounded diversity don’t just go back to Chalcedon. They are found in the gospels themselves. There are four gospels—or, rather, the one gospels told in four different ways. (The gospels are ‘according to…’ not ‘of…’) But there are other accounts which are not gospels, ones which lie outside the boundary of the truth-telling, authoritative testimony to Jesus that we have in the four.

It is only as we inhabit such a diverse, bounded space that we will be able to trust one another, learn from each other, and act with the generous confidence we need.

12 thoughts on “The kind of unity we need”

  1. Speaking broadly, Art, why does ‘this religious space’ occasion dust-ups between authoritarians (sometimes real, usually imagined) and anarchists? Both seem to me to be fighting shadows.

    If everything in the doctrinal standards that vaguely distressed someone were magically removed by some lawful means, those of both tempers would protest. Loyalists would object to the change, of course. But fidgets would also feel acute unease at having standards that were no longer so easily ignored. For some, any pleasure felt at being in agreement with their church would be more than compensated by the unpleasant thought that religion was no longer so obviously a matter of private fancy. Neither loyalists nor fidgets would care at all that they were in shared agreement with their ‘frenemies.’ They cherish their disagreements, and sometimes their antagonisms, although for different reasons.

    I have not heard an adequate explanation. The least inadequate explanation that I have thus far heard is that these are two styles of consumer behaviour just as visible in other markets. Some want the familiarity of a consistent brand and others a certain reaffirmation of their consumer sovereignty. Loyalists value unity through conformity, especially across generations, which means that the objects of their affection must be stable. Fidgets value narcissistic self-fashioning through choice, especially reversible choice, which means that something must always remain unchosen, and the best choices are often off-menu. When either loyalists or fidgets do not seem quite rational, it is because on those occasions the force of temperament is then nakedly exposed, just a step away from farce. And comedy may be a more healing response to this than most theology.

    So on this account, there is nothing religious about any of it– loyalists are loyalists in lots of things, fidgets are fidgets in lots of things. All that is unusual about religion is that loyalists and fidgets who seldom cross paths cannot avoid it in, say, The Church of England. But that they cannot or do not avoid it there is unusual enough that this is not quite a good explanation.

  2. Easily dealt with, by a non-literal use of theological terms:

    a Jesus either was or was not born of a virgin. The virgin is a mistranslation into the Greek of ‘young woman’, it follows birth views of other deities but in this case suggests a chosen prophet. It is otherwise beyond history, beyond biology. The gospel accounts include mythic-genealogies of his biological father Joseph, so two myths play against each other. Either he descended down the male line from David or he didn’t… is an equally false binary.

    b. Jesus either was or was not sinless. What is it to have sin other than to make a judgment: for example, it is quite sinful to suppose that demons can be sent into pigs that then en masse throw themselves to a death.

    c. Jesus either did or did not physically resurrect on the third day. This is about the pharisees belief in resurrection, and the belief that a messiah who was present would have to be the first of the resurrected prior to transformation of him and all else.

    d. Jesus either is or is not God in human flesh. Define God to start with. You are defining God by the actions of Jesus. Thus Jesus becomes God.
    e. Jesus either is or is not the only name by which we must be saved. Christians follow the narrative by which they look to the life and works of Jesus to save them, but it doesn’t apply to other forms of belief. The only Buddhist way is through the Buddha, Dharma and sangha, for example.

    All you do is change the philosophy of meaning, from a binary one to a cultural narrative of belief one. Similarly, either Jesus went into Egypt as a baby or he didn’t. Ah, but that doesn’t seem to matter as much.

    So what defines Christianity: a person who follows Jesus Christ as via an interpretation of scriptures, traditions and reasoning.

    Your boundaries are not as secure as you think they are.

  3. Carl, Ian’s main idea, a unifying circumference around emerging models of ministry is probably worth an article in itself. I’d love to read it.

    He was not suggesting, and I was not discussing, an alternative to the Apostles Creed. I take him to be proposing only the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure. And that was wise.

    Meanwhile, you have intuited that PSA* might be a part of that circumference, and I have added CVA** so that your idea could be, in fact, unifying. I had a certain C20 history in mind in pairing them in a ‘logical conjunction’*** that returns the same truth value for PSA that your own statement does.

    To be clear, it does not say ‘choose the one you like.’ It says, with most evangelical academic exegetes nowadays, ‘do not separate PSA and CVA.’ And following Ian’s original idea, it says it equally to all the growing congregations, whether Reform parishes or wild cathedral ministries. But it does not pick the hymns for either one.****

    Sticking to the two extrema, Reform people read their bibles, follow debates in exegesis, and may already be doing the right thing. The wild people, having other interests and distractions, may need the update: “Sing CVA (or PSA) as much as you like; teach both CVA and PSA as they are in scripture; and never, ever mock PSA (or CVA).”

    A moment’s thought will show (1) why it might be better to engage in a doctrinal exercise in the fluid early days of a growing ministry, and (2) how it could be destructive to have styles of ministry that plant misunderstandings that are seeds of later conflict. Of course, we do not know that (2) is actually happening, but, Ian, thankfully, took the moment and had the prudent thought.


    * PSA = ‘penal substitutionary atonement.’

    ** CVA = ‘Christus Victor’ atonement.

    *** Logical conjunction =

    **** Scripture is the guide here, and there we find both the awareness of personal sin in PSA and the awareness of cosmic evil in CVA. Each is related to the other, neither is seen lightly, and either can be the emphasis of a sound ministry centred on Christ.

  4. The idea of a bounded space sounds attractive. However, Chalcedon was an abject failure. It permanently split the Eastern churches. Those from Egypt were suspicious of ‘in two natures’ rather than ‘from two natures’ – it sounded like having two people in Christ despite the assurances of the rest of the statement. That’s the trouble with unity around definitions and doctrines – it often doesn’t work. The alternative is to consider the church as family. We don’t all get on, we often disagree, and our uncle is rather embarrassing, but still family. Families don’t have hard boundaries (are my second cousins ‘family’?).

    • Jonathan, I do not think that Ian was intentionally baiting centre-huggers, boundary-pushers, and tunnel-diggers. Rather, I suspect that he was talking about the subset of the church mentioned in his article– a ‘clan’ of ‘families’ with different centres, and a shared experience of present-moment growth in C21 England. They probably have to differ somewhat if they are to succeed. They may be the future Church of England.

      Unity around definitions and doctrines? The right ones work so well that those who temperamentally fear them cannot denounce them enough for fear that we will notice. But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

      And it is not for our time. We have more than one orthodoxy now.

  5. Bowman

    Your alternative contains several difficulties that must be addressed.

    1. The hypothetical example you offer regarding CV vs PSA has produced a boundary that is not sufficient for the task intended. It implicitly offers an either/or construction that draws an equivalence of orthodoxy for both views. The formation would suggest that a Christian may believe in CV to the exclusion of PA or vice versa. The boundary provides no necessary reason to affirm both as true. Instead it would be sufficient for a Christian to affirm one to the exclusion of the other. And this is in fact how it would be used. The boundaries would become a hodge podge of doctrines representing various factions. Boundary creation would no longer be an exercise in doctrinal coherence but rather a exercise in doctrinal representation. It’s true that the boundary might prevent people from speaking out against the rejected doctrine. But then you don’t have unity. You have a cease fire.

    The boundary I offered had a different purpose. It said nothing about the truth or falsehood of CV. It said that PSA was a necessary Christian belief. That is why it stood by itself. My intent was precisely to exclude those who would reject PSA. Your formulation is deliberately intended to frustrate that objective. But that is a necessary component of unity for me. So how then does this formulation accommodate me? It does not. It only accommodates those who hold their doctrines lightly.

    2. The are several issues which have binary answers, and so are not amenable to a construction of multiple pieces.

    a Jesus either was or was not born of a virgin.
    b. Jesus either was or was not sinless.
    c. Jesus either did or did not physically resurrect on the third day.
    d. Jesus either is or is not God in human flesh.
    e. Jesus either is or is not the only name by which we must be saved.

    You can’t have boundaries that both affirm and deny each of these statements. That would be logically absurd. And yet that is what would be required. Again each if these statements represent essentials of the faith that define the basis for unity. If you choose sides, you exclude. If you don’t choose sides, you make the effort nonsensical. Boundaries differentiate. A boundary that provides no differentiation is not in fact a boundary.

    The effort as you describe will not establish a difference of emphasis. It will evolve into a creation of incoherent and perhaps mutually exclusive doctrines chosen to allow as many people as possible inside. But that means the doctrinal fights will be built into the boundaries. And how does that promote unity?


  6. Ian may be assuming that the reader sees an implicit problem.

    Several models in the Church of England are showing growth at the same time. What if they disagree among themselves?

    If each has unity in itself, then each has shared belief in itself.

    If they are not all the same model then the belief that each has may differ in some emphases.

    If they are all in the Church of England then they do accept many tacit and explicit expectations.

    However, a common boundary maintained by all could prevent open contradictions among them, eg–

    * “You can’t reject either [Penal] Substitutionary or Christus Victor doctrines of the atonement.”

    * “You can’t deny that the Bible contains both divine speech and also divine narrative.”

    Stating these in the negative form allows differences of emphasis in a way that stating them in the positive form does not. In that freedom, for example, those who love PSA but not so much CVA can keep the ‘ol’ time religion,’ and those who belong to the C21 consensus can emphasise CVA accordingly, but should refrain from saying any more rude things about PSA. Both doctrines being true, this is a difference of emphasis that mainly relates to piety.

    If it is objected that mere boundaries cannot do the hard work of the Spanish Inquisition, then I have to agree, of course. They fail to reverse the centuries-old pluralism of the Church of England. They do nothing to stifle these new models before they attract any more suspicious-looking people to the Church. And like all the vague knowledge of this aeon, such boundaries as these are far inferior to the end-time when all shall see all in the vision of God. The proposal is plainly inadequate.

    But fewer frivolous fights would be a good thing. And for now, as we see in a glass darkly, Ian’s idea would exert a wholesome influence for the peace that is possible.

  7. While I have to say I agree with both of these earlier comments about the positive content of communally held belief, I’d ask Paul: what might be your equivalent negative boundaries for today’s Chalcedonian Church?

  8. Negative boundaries can’t possibly achieve the goal you are seeking Any presented negative boundaries will be disguised positive assertions. For example (just because I like being contentious) I would establish one ‘negative boundary’ thusly:

    You can’t reject Substitutionary Atonement

    What am I really saying? What boundary am I really establishing? The bulk of controversial issues will be presented in this way, and so the fight will not be avoided. It will simply be translated into a different vector space.

    People don’t find unity in shared disbelief. They find unity in shared belief. Both an atheist and a Christian will disbelieve that God the Father is a glorified man on the planet Kolob. That does not give them any basis for agreement on spiritual things. To create the basis of unity, you must do the hard (and by ‘hard’ I mean ‘excluding’) work of defining the positive necessary doctrinal content of Christianity. That means you must draw positive boundaries and exclude those who reject those boundaries.

    This is what people resist. They flinch from saying “You reject the divinity of Christ? Then you are not a Christian.” But that is what is required. Otherwise you get people agreeing to say the same words but only so long as they can attach any meaning they like to those words. And suddenly you have conflicts over essentials, and unity is shattered.

    Unity is found in common agreement regarding the identity and content of essential doctrine. You can’t escape this reality no matter how hard you try


  9. The whole statement by Ian’s reference is: One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us. It has quite a few positive statements as well as the negative statements.
    Phil Almond

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