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Organic Church Unity

VALUABLE as has been the service rendered by the federation of the churches to the cause of the Kingdom, the conviction is steadily growing that some-thing more is necessary if the prayer of the Lord for the unity of his disciples is to be fulfilled.

There are many Christian men, without a doubt, who have no desire for any degree of unity closer than federation can supply. They think habitually in terms of churches, never in terms. of the Church. They have no expectation nor hope that the ecclesiastical fragments with which Christendom is strewn will ever be gathered into a single basket. The ideal of a catholicity one day to be visible seems to such neither possible nor desirable. To them denominationalism is not a temporary expedient, nor a recourse made necessary by the misfortunes of Christian history, but the expression of the Christian ideal; and such a federation of denominations as is exemplified in the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America is to them the last word upon the subject of Christian unity. "There never will be a time," writes President Strong of the University of Kansas, "when the Christian body will not be organized in different groups." "To let denominations decay," says Dr. Shailer Mathews, now President of the Federal Council, "would be to let churches decay. What we are getting now is a co-operative Protestantism. . . . I am not writing in a spirit of sectarianism, but as one who recognizes that the denominations are economically necessary to the development of a really effective Protestantism."

There are, however, many signs that the Christian consciousness of our day cannot be so easily satisfied. The process of federation has already gone too far if the churches are not to go farther. There will be an inconsistency in many of the activities in which the spirit of unity is expressing itself, as long as the imperialistic claims of the individual de-nominations to the exclusive possession of essential truth are unabated. The policy of interdenominational comity, reciprocal denominational exchanges of churches in over-churched communities, and the division of unoccupied territory, both at home and on the foreign mission field, into districts wherein particular denominations are invited to labor with the assurance of non-interference on the part of others, seems to be definitely accepted and established. But note what this involves. If the differences between evangelical denominations are sufficient to make organic unity impossible without the surrender of essential truth, then they are sufficient to make both inconsistent and wrong the concessions that are necessary for such division of responsibility for the vital activities of evangelism and religious education. No denomination which sincerely believes another to be so lacking in knowledge of the truth as to make organic unity with it impossible has a right deliberately to commit, either in practice or in theory, the souls of any portion of the world to the exclusive ministrations of that de-nomination. To do so evidently concedes that it is what the churches hold in common that saves, and not the distinctive principles of any one of them, and so cuts the ground beneath denominational divisions. The federated churches must either go forward to-ward organic unity, or they must retrace the steps already taken. Dr. Newman Smyth very truly says, "Federations of churches are to be regarded as at best only way-stations in the progress of the Church; the line of development of true Catholicity runs on and on, and our denominations are called to be through passengers. They shall not otherwise finish their course in faith."

There is today, it is true, as there has always been, an invisible catholic Church, which is held together by the mystic bonds of spiritual fellowship that transcend all boundaries and divisions. "Our Church," says Prof. Harnack, "is not the particular church in which we are placed, but the societas fidei, which has its members everywhere, even among Greeks and Romans."1. This is a conception to which the Christian heart has clung with a persistence almost pathetic, amid all the visible disunity with which the Church has been distracted. But it is a conception that satisfies the Christian conscience less completely every passing year; and there is no indication of the spirit of our times more evident or significant than the yearning for some new and more universal order of Christianity in which the unity of the faith may be visibly manifested. It is a thought that is rising simultaneously in a multitude of minds everywhere throughout the Christian world, and that is being expressed in many ways.

The ideal of organic unity has never been completely lost from the consciousness of the Church. The Pauline ideal of the Church, that he transmitted to the local congregations he founded, was that of one body with many members, after the analogy of the human organism. "For in one Spirit," he declares, "were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit."' "Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof."1. The wonderful panegyric of Christian love with which he follows the description of the organic unity of the Church is meant to extol the principle that is necessary for its attainment and maintenance. The Church, even in the period of its bitterest contentions, has not lacked for prophetic souls whose voices have been raised in the interest of unity and peace. Calvin wrote Cranmer in 1553, "I should not hesitate to cross ten seas if by this means holy communion might prevail among the members of Christ." Said George Calixtus, professor in the University of Halmstadt, in a letter to the Roman Catholic Universities of Germany, breathing a tender spirit of reconciliation, "If I may but help toward the healing of our schisms, I will shrink from no cares and night-watchings, no efforts and no dangers . . . nay, I will never spare either my life or my blood, if so be I may purchase the peace of the Church."2 Zwingli and Melanchthon, Grotius, Leibniz and Bossuet, Richard Baxter, Milton, Wesley, Jeremy Taylor, and John Locke were all of them advocates of Christian unity, at times when a belligerent sectarianism was tearing Christians apart.

It is true that many an irenicon devised by large-hearted leaders in the past has come to naught; but is this a reason why, in this generation, earnest men should cease to pray and to labor for the unification of Christendom? History presents no period so full of encouragement for the friends of a real and visible unity of the Church. We live in a new age wherein many of the barriers that once kept men apart have been broken down. Geographical hindrances have largely disappeared: we are nearer to England today than was New York to Boston at the beginning of the last century. Modern methods of travel and of the intercommunication of thought are fast transforming the world into a single community. In America, at least, political barriers have been overthrown, and free churches, in a free land, meet. each other upon the same level, equal in all their privileges. Theological bitterness is fast disappearing and mutual respect and esteem are taking its place. The divided churches are being driven together: they are also being drawn together by the cords of love. The democratic and co-operative spirit of the times provides an atmosphere favorable to the unification of the churches, particularly in the United States, where men of so many racial strains are learning to live and labor together and to sink their differences below the level of the new patriot-ism that unites them. Prejudices as well as peoples are in solution in "The Melting Pot."

The utilitarian and pragmatic spirit of the prevalent philosophy, with its appetite for theories that "work," that produce results, and its regard for the practical, tends to withdraw interest from the abstractions that divide, and to concentrate it upon the activities that unite. There is less disposition to-day than ever to judge institutions by their claims: "by their fruits ye shall know them." Creeds are measured by the same criterion. Christians in the pew are willing to sacrifice for the spread of the kingdom of God, but not to perpetuate divisions in the Church unless some unquestionably valid reason for their perpetuation can be offered. It may be that the present halt in the enthusiasm of missionary propaganda may be due, not to any failure of interest in the supreme mission of the Church, but to a growing suspicion that there is something fundamentally wrong in the method that the Church is pursuing. That there are now in America 143 communions, every one of which justifies its separate existence by the claim to possess some distinctive and essential Christian truth not held by the remainder, would seem to prove, if these claims are true, that there are 142 necessary or valuable Christian principles lacking in each one of the denominational bodies, which to the ordinary mind proves too much, and reduces the whole sorry scheme to absurdity.

The experiments in organized interdenominational co-operation, which the nineteenth century inaugurated, prepared the way for those experiments in actual Church union which the twentieth century is now conducting. In 1804 was organized the British and Foreign Bible Society, followed in 1816 by the American Bible Society. In 1817 there was formed in Philadelphia "The Sunday and Adult School Union," the real beginning of the American Sunday-School Union, which took its present name in 1824. The Evangelical Alliance dates from 1846. Inter-denominational movements such as the Young Men's Christian Association, the Young Women's Christian Association, and the United Society of Christian Endeavor are gifts of the last century to our own and have powerfully drawn the present generation of Christians of every name together. The famous fourfold proposals of the Protestant Episcopal Church for the unity of the Church were issued at Chicago in 1886; in 1895 the Congregational Churches of the United States issued their proposals of a similar character; in 1893 was organized the Brotherhood of Christian Unity, and in 1895 the League of Catholic Unity. These events indicate the point to which the movement had progressed at the close of the last century.

In 1905 was organized the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, which, while it does not advocate the principle of organic unity, is the most ambitious experiment yet attempted in inter-denominational cooperation. In 1910 the Protestant Episcopal Church appointed a Joint Commission to bring about a Conference for the consideration of questions touching Faith and Order, and in the same year the National Convention of the Disciples appointed a Commission on Christian Union, and the Congregationalists a Committee on Comity, Federation, and Unity, while by a noteworthy coincidence the Synod of the Dioceses of the Church of England in Australia and Tasmania was simultaneously appointing a committee to "watch for, and, if possible, take advantage of any opportunity which may be offered for further conference with other religious bodies with a view to a better understanding of our mutual position and the furtherance of union among Christians." Since that time Commissions of a similar nature have been appointed by the Presbyterians (North) and by the Church of England in Canada.

The Episcopal Commission on a World Conference has invited and already secured the appointment of co-operating Commissions by more than 30 Protestant bodies, among which several countries are represented. In May, 1913, a preliminary conference of members of a number of these Commissions was held in New York City, when, in a spirit of the utmost candor, with a full realization of the difficulties with which the undertaking is confronted, the first steps in preparation for the calling of such a World Conference were taken with a heartiness and unanimity full of encouragement for the future. According to the resolutions adopted at this meeting, the conception of the proposed Conference is that of "a great meeting participated in by men of all Christian churches within the scope of the call, at which there shall be consideration not only of points of difference and agreement among Christians, but of the values of the various approximations of belief characteristic of the several churches." It was further declared "that while organic unity is the ideal which all Christians should have in their thoughts and prayers, yet the business of the Commissions is not to force any particular scheme of unity, but to promote the holding of such a conference as is above described." A deputation appointed at this preliminary conference to confer with the non-Anglican communions in England, Scotland, and Ireland has since reported a favorable hearing on the part of 31 groups of Christian leaders in the countries visited, and the definite promise on the part of each that the appointment of Commissions on the World Conference would be recommended to the annual meetings of the denominations represented.

This proposed World Conference, suggested first, in Westminster Abbey, by the great-hearted missionary leader, Bishop Brent of the Philippines, adopted enthusiastically by the Protestant Episcopal Church in its General Convention in Cincinnati in 1910, and recommended by it to all the divisions of Christendom, has already received so large a measure of approval on the part of other Protestant communions, and is being projected with such breadth of view, and in so generous a spirit, that all who pray for the peace of the Church will watch, with the deepest interest and concern, the progress of the negotiations that must precede its convocation. Some have thought the literature thus far issued by the Episcopal Commission defining its character and purpose, to be too deeply tinged with sacerdotal and sacramentarian conceptions foreign to the thought of a major proportion of American Protestantism, to make it likely that such a conference could accomplish more than did the announcement of the Chicago-Lambeth Proposals of 1888. In any event, however, a frank discussion of differences and agreements upon a common platform will do much to clear the air, and to reveal the actual elements that enter into the problem of unity upon a doctrinal basis.

The plans for the Conference contemplate the participation of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, without which there can be no reestablishment of catholicity. This introduces difficulties that appear at first sight to be exceedingly great. Because of the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, the possibility of re-union with the Roman Catholic Church seems more distant than at any previous time since the Reformation. "The reunion of the scattered branches of Christendom," Cardinal Gibbons has recently said, "is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and I would gladly sacrifice the remaining years of my life in lending a helping hand toward this blessed result." But he proceeds to say, "The first essential requirement is the recognition of the sovereign pontiff, who, as the successor of St. Peter, is the divinely appointed head of Christendom."

It is inconceivable that Protestantism will ever so stultify itself as to give even serious consideration to such a suggestion. Yet the genius and history of the Roman Catholic Church are such that it seems to be irrevocably committed to the dogma of the infallibility of the pope, and by its solemn promulgation to have shut itself out from the possibility of change or compromise. "To feel the necessity, and to seek the ways, of gathering together the scattered members of Christ," Bishop Bonomelli of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cremona has said, ". . . is a surpassingly noble and beautiful aim, and worthy to be studied and translated into action with all zeal; and it is very con-soling to see how our Protestant brothers are striving for this end with evident sincerity and thorough good-will." "I cannot, however," he continues, "shut my eyes to the very grave difficulty of the enterprise; first of all, the situation of the Roman Church, which cannot recede from its position, or yield upon any essential point of its doctrine, without being renegade to itself. The Roman Church, with its definitions, with the affirmations repeated a thousand times of its divine character, and with all the acts of its government, has cut down and is cutting down every bridge behind it. It can well allow itself to be joined by the dissident Churches with unconditional submission; but it cannot turn back, review its own decisions, modify its dogmas, change its hierarchy, lessen its authority... . And in this, I believe, consists the greatest obstacle to that unity, the need of which is so deeply felt."1. But the spirit of the times is profoundly affecting this, as well as all other churches, especially in America. The powerful and wide-spread movement within the Roman Church known as modernism, which, in some of its phases, appears to be a reassertion of the primitive gospel of the apostles, and an approach to the evangelical principles held by Protestantism, is a sign of promise of a better understanding between these two great divisions of the Church, even though the outcome of that movement is still in doubt. If some day there should sit upon St. Peter's throne a modernist pope, susceptible to the thousand influences that are emphasizing the simple forms of experience and belief which characterized the life of the earliest disciples and that are drawing Protestants into a new unity upon the basis of a New Testament Christianity, the hope of a closer approach of Catholic to Protestant would receive an impetus quite beyond our present ability to measure.

There is no apparent indication of the drawing together of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches. "It might seem," writes Archbishop Platon of the Greek Church, "that no Church is closer to the Orthodox than is the Roman Catholic. Chief among their resemblances, the two have the same number of sacraments; yet the distance between them is so great as to terrify us; it is almost immeasurable."' So far as the relation between the Greek Orthodox and Protestant communions other than the Anglican is concerned, it is sufficient to say that the grounds upon which Archbishop Platon thinks some approach of Anglicans and Greek Orthodox Christians to one another may be possible, namely, the rejection on the part of the Anglicans of the dogmatic authority of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, which deny the sacramentarian character of holy orders, would probably raise an issue upon which most non-Anglican bodies would find it difficult to unite with either Anglicans or Greeks. Many of the obstacles that stand in the way of Church reunion must be left to time and the Spirit of God to remove, in the confidence that what to man may seem impossible, is possible to God.

The ultimate union of Protestantism with the Roman and Orthodox Churches must in any case be preceded by the reunion of Protestantism itself. To that practicable and hopeful task the advocates of Christian unity within the Protestant churches will do well for the present to confine themselves. And the first step in that direction must surely be the combination of the various divisions of particular denominations. Unity is probably to come by piecemeal. Of the 12 bodies of Presbyterians, 18 of Methodists, and 13 of Baptists, the larger branches are kept apart by the purely geographical divisions of North and South. There is no latitude nor longitude in the kingdom of God, and when these artificial divisions are swept away by the rising tide of Christian love, the way will be cleared for the union of the manifold varieties of varieties of Christians that are separated now by distinctions often so minute as to be indiscernible. When the Director of the Census can distinguish between two Christian bodies only by the difference in the color of the covers of their respective annual reports,' it would certainly seem that unity might be possible without loss to either. The combinations of denominational fractions into integers are taking place with increasing frequency. Already Baptists and Free Baptists have consummated a practical union in their missionary agencies, and a complete union in many of the states. The Old School and the New School Presbyterians, who divided in 1837 on doctrinal grounds, came together again in 1869 on a basis of orthodoxy and liberty, while in 1875 four divisions of Presbyterians in Canada came together in a single organization, and the following year saw the combination of the Presbyterian and the United Presbyterian Churches of England.

More recently, in 1900, the United Free Church of Scotland was formed to include the Free and the United Presbyterian Churches of that country, and almost simultaneously six Presbyterian churches in Australia and two in New Zealand came harmoniously together. The Northern and Southern divisions of the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church, and the United Presbyterian Church are engaged in negotiations that appear to promise a closer union of Presbyterians within the United States in the near future. Nor are the Methodists behind in this fraternal movement. The Methodists in Canada, until 1874 divided into five independent bodies, united in a single inclusive church in 1883, and a similar union has taken place in Australia. At the present moment, the two branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North and South, and the Methodist Protestant Church are considering the formation of a united Methodism. Already Commissions from the United Brethren and the Methodist Protestant Church have agreed to unite, subject to the ratification of their General Conferences. Such tendencies in these three typical de-nominations are characteristic of the spirit of the new era within other Protestant bodies. The organic union of the Lutheran and the German Reformed Churches in Prussia, long ago consummated under a single government and administration, with liberty in the use of creeds and catechisms, was no more easily accomplished than might be a similar union among the related branches of these churches in America. The desire for such formal union is spreading among all the Lutheran bodies in this country, with the possible exception of the Missouri Synod. The plans for the union of the Old Norwegian Synod, the United Norwegian Lutherans, and the Hauge Synod are already practically complete. Many Lutherans cherish the hope that by 1917, when the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation is to be celebrated, it will be possible to adopt some plan of union that shall be acceptable to all the Lutheran bodies in America.

Following such unification of divisions of single denominations, we may hope for the combination of such separate communions as may most effectively and easily unite in administration and service. Al-ready the project of the union of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches in Canada is hopefully advancing toward completion, under the name of "The United Church of Canada," and in its magnitude and meaning it well deserves to be characterized as "an extraordinary movement, in some respects not paralleled for several centuries." Twenty years ago the Protestant 'Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church, North, entered into negotiations looking toward union, and though the plan of union failed at that time, it was for causes that would hardly prevail to-day in either communion. From South Africa we hear of attempts of Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians to form a closer union; and from Australia, of similar attempts on the part of Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians.

In many parts of the world fresh indications of the prevalence of the spirit that is healing the divisions of Christendom and drawing the hearts of Christians together are manifest, and so rapid is the progress of the movement that it is impossible adequately to record it. Denominations diverse in their methods of government, and that have been thought to be as wide asunder as the poles in their conceptions, are anxiously seeking a platform upon which they can unite hearts and hands in their common tasks. At a recent meeting of the Free Church Council of Great Britain, which includes all the great dissenting bodies, an enthusiastic reception was given to the proposal of the Rev. J. H. Shakespeare, that all the non-conformist churches of the country should come together under the title, "The United Free Church of Great Britain." On the foreign mission field, as we have seen, the cause of Christian unity thrives apace, and the anxiety of its best friends is lest its progress be more rapid than wise. "The Christian Church in China" bids fair to unify, before very long, all the stronger Protestant forces of the republic, and the spirit of China is reflected in all Oriental missionary situations. We are in the midst to-day of a mighty movement, as significant as the Reformation, that is sweeping with irresistible power over the entire world, and that is shortly to change the face of Christendom. Who can doubt that it is of God?

The churches in America are learning and borrowing from each other, and approximating to one another in many respects. The tendency upon the foreign mission field to-day is toward as large a measure as possible of independence and self-government for the local church. In America, even in de-nominations episcopally governed, there is a larger degree of independence of action upon the part of the local congregation than would have been possible a quarter of a century ago; while, on the other hand, there is a decided tendency toward coordination and centralization among denominations of the congregational and independent order. The observance of the church year is coming into increasing favor among communions that once wholly ignored it, and liturgical embellishments of the service are finding their way into non-liturgical churches. Many indications point toward the development of a type of church to which no de-nomination at present wholly conforms, but to which every denomination is contributing some-thing distinctively its own.

The establishment of the Constructive Quarterly, in 1913, a magazine of the highest order, whose avowed purpose it is to create "a better understanding between the isolated communions of Christendom," is at once a sign of the spirit of the times, and likely to become a powerful influence in accelerating the spread of that spirit. "It is not neutral territory that is sought," declares the publisher, "where courtesy and diplomacy would naturally tend to avoid issues and to round off the sharp edges of truth and conviction, but rather common ground where loyalty to Christ and to convictions about him and his Church will be secure from the tendency to mere compromise or to superficial and artificial comprehension. The purpose is to create an atmosphere of mutual confidence and to induce a better understanding and a truer sense of fellowship."

If this movement is of God, nothing can check it, and he who would serve his generation must lend his hand to further it. "The reunion of Christendom," declared Prof. Goldwin Smith, "is likely at last to become a practical aim. Probably it would be a greater service to humanity, on philosophical as well as religious grounds, to contribute the smallest unit toward this consummation, than to construct the most perfect demonstration of the free personality of man. As things are, rationalism and fatalistic reveries may be laboriously confuted, but amidst the energies and aspirations of a regenerated Christendom they would spontaneously disappear."1.

Questions as to procedure and method are still in solution; but this great guiding principle, at least, is emerging from the aspiration, and prayer, and free discussion which are gathering about the great theme, that unity will manifest itself in proportion as the hearts of Christian people are prepared for it, and as the tide of devotion to the Head of the Church, and to the cause of his Kingdom rises to the flood.

"I stood beside the sea one day,
The tide was low; With quiet flow
It scarcely lapped the ocean's rim,
Whose waving lines, now clear, now dim,
Revealed the shelving, sandy beach,
Where oft the waves
To watery graves
In quick succession swiftly bore
Each other as they climbed the shore.
The little hollows in the sand,
Like silvery nests
Where sunshine rests,
Just for the time appeared to me
As lasting as the shore to be;
But later, when the tide had turned,
I found no trace In any place
Of all the basins, which had seemed
So lasting as they gleamed Beneath the glowing summer sun.
Why had they fled
Like bright hopes dead?
Because the ocean in its sweep
Had gathered all in one great deep.
Here in the pools upon the sand
I seem to find
Within my mind
A type of churches, sects and creeds,
Established for the great world's needs;
Just for a while they will remain,
Each with its plan
For blessing man,
Till God's great love, like ocean-tide,
In one shall all divisions hide.
Then, folded on our Father's breast,
Like tired child
That wept and smiled,
At last, we all shall come to see
One Church, in its divinity."

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Union Of Christian Forces:
The Expense And Waste Of Christian Disunion

The New Testament Ideal Of Christian Unity And What Became Of It

The Passing Of The Sectarian Spirit

The Growth Of The Spirit Of Christian Unity

Christian Unity Through Federation

The Union Of Christian Forces In Country And Village

Co-operation In Home Missions

Co-operation On The Foreign Mission Field

Organic Church Unity

The Basis Of Organic Unity



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