|Their unity was not through an institution,
but because they knew their love of God
was measured by their love of each other.
Today, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, marks the end of the semi-official "Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity." I call it "semi-official" in that, while alluded to in various subtle ways in the Book of Common Prayer, it doesn't actually appear in the Calendar, and is really more of a "Church Headquarters" sort of event, urged on more from the "top" of the various churches than arising organically in most places. The motivation for this week of focussed prayer is laudable, indeed essential; but its execution bespeaks its gradual failure as a movement and a theology.
The origin of Christian Unity is found in the unity of God: One in Being, Trinity of Persons. We may seek no more true definition or way of living out unity than this. This unity is expressed powerfully in Christ's "High Priestly Prayer" as found in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to John, culminating in Christ's revealed will that we all be one as He and the Father are one. Here is the authentic source of our unity: the living presence and mind of Christ as known and shared in His followers--members of His Body. That Body, to be truly alive, must be One.
The origin of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from the early twentieth century, and was an earnest attempt to place before the churches the ongoing scandal and effects of our brokenness, emphasizing the need for organic unity in order to live out our commission from Christ. There was a debate about when in the Church Year to observe this commemoration, with the current period eventually being chosen; another date, focussing on Pentecost, was also advanced and also observed in some places. That choice was probably a better one, as it placed a clearer emphasis of rooting our unity in the Great Commission, the Pentecost, and the Holy Trinity in whose image we were made.
As it is, the Octave has become obscured by the subsequent history of "official" ecumenism: various pronouncements about institutional unities, agreements over dogma, or (as is sadly perhaps more common) the decision to ignore actual differences in order to gain the economic, institutional, and organization-maintaining efficiencies larger agglomerations of people can provide. The original impetus of Mission and dwelling in the Mind of Christ has largely been lost in the welter of these far-less compelling motives.
Doctrinal unity is, of course, very important and can signify the achievement of meaningful union. But, it may also signify that those who are taken up with these matters most of the time have reached a level of mutual understanding not shared by those who labor "in the trenches," so-to-speak. As when a wave runs up on a beach, the top of the wave advancing faster than the slowing lower portion, the resulting differential leads to breech. When the breech between these two parts of Church life grows too great, a disconnect becomes a failure to transfer spiritual energy and missiological vision; the wave crashes, the movement is expended, and the need for renewal follows. That has happened, it seems to me, in the American Church.
For years now, we have heard about agreements made at the "top levels" among church bodies and have spoken blandly in public about the need for unity between Christians, all the while going home or to our own confessional bodies and pillorying those who call upon Christ as Lord, but do not share our way of living, our views on controverted issues, or our way of worship. By substituting "official" or organizational unity for the True Unity of the Trinity, we settle for something far less powerful--and inspiring--than the Prayer of Christ, and this season's original message. The hypocrisy is generally ignored, but continues to eat away at our witness, as hypocrisy always does.
In some places and amongst some groups, it might be best if we simply admit that we don't actually desire unity at this time rather than continuing to pray for it but not doing the hard and humbling things for it to happen. Unity is, I believe, a divine gift and not another human project. It is something proceeding from God and manifested in the hearts of believers in communion with God and neighbor. It is when we look at another person and see the Gospel in action, see Christ in that person--quite apart from the other considerations of denomination or institution or culture or ethnicity--that the mystery of Faith is experienced and unity is made real.
The quest for real unity is an essential activity of the Christian faith; without it our witness to the Risen Lord is deeply impaired and our message compromised in terrible ways. That quest, however, cannot be sought in public but rejected in private; neither may it be advanced as a "fact" on official levels when on the local level so much rancor, judgment, and distrust is allowed to go unchecked. A new "ecumenism of the heart," expected by all levels of the various churches and measured not by institutional pronouncements but by charity, shared Gospel work, and openness to the other on the local level, is needed to provide a real base for the already-proclaimed "ecumenism of the head."
To start this, each of us should think of those other Christians whom we find difficult or repugnant and bring them before God in prayer, asking that God forgive us for our condemnation of others, and to see the truth that these whom we have so long despised actually hold the key to the prison doors that restrain our faith. Perhaps then we will be given grace to meet with, learn from, and serve alongside these brothers and sisters currently lost to us, but essential for our fullness of faith.
But this can only be true if we realize the degree to which we are, in fact, imprisoned in our current condition. It is that kind of earnest desire for having the Unity of God that will make us as individuals--and then as churches--embrace Christ's call for an authentic ecumenism of the heart and the head. Such an ecumenism is one of conversion, humility, love and unity in the truest sense: the love and unity of the One God we worship and adore.