Time to consider ederal concept as an answer?
By Lady Stansgate
A new stage in ecumenical discussions will open shortly with the invitation to take part in "Talks about Talks" issued by the United Reformed Church to other Churches in this country. The U.R.C., it will he remembered, came into ex istence last autumn after nine years of negotiations between the Congregational
and Presbyterian denominations.
As the first working model of organic Church Union to be set up in England since the Refor mation, it prides itself on offering a challenge to others to follow its example and join with it in setting up an all inclusive National Church. Some Churches are still thinking this over, but the response to date is said to be good.
As regards Catholics, the tI.R.C. magazine Reform states
in its August issue: "It is recognised that their participation may have to be on a different level from that of some other Churches."
The coming talks make this a good time to consider what is involved in the call to total organisational uniformity, and to ask whether or not it• presents the best way forward to a general reconciliation of Christendom.
The U.R.C. merger has been much commended as a direct result of the happy unfreezing of inter-Church relationships which is one of the great new facts of our age. Few Christians would wish to reverse this state of warmth, still less to halt the practical collaboration in many fields that has flowed from it. At the same time there are doubts in different quarters as to where this all-out drive for organic union is leading us. It is seen by many people as undesirable, for two reasons. First, because it fails to take into sufficient account the existence of deeply-held conscientious differences; and secondly, because by making unity the main objective, it involves everybody concerned in the continual need to compromise. The flaw is that each side has to accept a number of things it deems to be wrong in order to hold fast by others it believes to he right. In the case of the U.R.C. an able and convinced leadership brought the vast majority of both denominations into the merger.
Although goodwill prevailed throughout negotiations at the top, there have been inevitable compromises on both sides and disruption on one. The overall result for ex-Congregational Churches has been to gain the fellowship of 300 exPresbyterian ones and to lose the adherence of 480 of their own.
And there are still as many denominations as there were before, as well as two new groups — an Evangelical Fellowship and a body of unaligned Churches. The Pyrrhic flavour of this "Victory for Reunion" points to the pitfalls that lie in the way of wider talks when much more would have to he sacrificed on all sides.
Are all these sacrifices and compromises either desirable or acceptable? In the past, diversities were the cause of divisions. Today. that scandal has practically disappeared. Christians are increasingly able to enter into the experiences of other Christians and to appreciate that there are many different ways of approach to the one divine Reality. For many, this way lies through the depth and beauty of liturgical worship; for others in the simplicity of a village service. Some are best reached by the persuasions of preaching; others in a listening, Quaker silence.
Many, with the New Testament pattern before them, set believers' baptism at the centre of their witness; others are content to have been brought as infants into the Christian family of church members and to make their own commitment from there, later on.
Where Authority is concerned, there will always be a great number who find it in a church meeting where two or three arc gathered around the One in the midst; and there will always be millions for whom it comes ex cathedra from a "I.iving Voice in a present day world."
How can all this varied wealth of belief, experience, and practice possibly be pressed into one mould? It is more than doubtful whether it can ever be done at all. At the best it can only be attempted, and this by a process that at times draws more inspiration from the spirit of the age than from the Spirit of God; and from the streamlined methods of managerial mergers than from the Ways of the Kingdom. For many this is totally unacceptable.
Is there, then, a better way forward? Over the years a different idea altogether has been gaining ground — the idea of a Federation of Churches. From time to time this has been expressed by different people in different ways. Those in favour have included civil servants and scientists as well as scholars and theologians, parish clergy and once, lately, an Anglican bishop.
In 1970 a detailed suggestion along these lines came from the veteran American Evangelist, Dr. Stanley Jones. In his book "The Reconstruction of the Church — on What Pattern?" (Abingdon Press, New York) he calls for a world-wide union of "comprehension, not compromise" based on the recognition that those who belong to God in Christ belong already to each other.
The future state of Christendom. he believes, will be that of a federal union in which each branch of the Church will retain its own name, its autonomy and whatsover creeds, liturgies, traditions and organisational forms it holds dear. It is to be a way of mutual acceptance in which no Church makes unwelcome demands on any others as the price of unity.
Federation emerges as the one solution that would force no issue — inter-communion included. It would offend no one's conscience and distress no one's feelings, for it would not make the mistake of supposing that the language of Christian belief and practice could ever be turned into anything like a standardised tongue — what Rudolph Otto once called a "religious Esperanto".
Faith, like life itself, is much too deep and rich and real for that sort of contriving. Unity in the richest diversity is the pattern of the natural universe around us. Federation would bring this same pattern securely into the highest of all concerns
our Christian religion.
This is the answer that is made to-day, by the majority of those who continue to be Congregationalists, to the call for a Super Church. It is illustrated by recent events. On October 5, last year, the U.R.C. made its appearance. A week later, on October 12, the Congregational denomination rose from its fragmented body, but with a difference. It was re-born as the Congregational Federation.
This brings a new name into the denominational vocabulary of the nation. At first it may seem to have a secular sound,. but here it has by no means its normal political usage. It returns to its origins as a theological word and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary specifically calls it so. It is made plain that the bond which holds human beings and societies together in a federation is that of a common faith. Federation spells fidelity fidelity to God and to one another.
This name has been chosen by Congregationalists/federalists today, not only because it gives a correct description -of the relationship of their Churches to one another, but as the token of a wider hope. All those who hear it are united in believing that only federation, in its widest reaches, is capable of supplying the unitive link so long sought by Christendom.
They see this as a very challenging and hopeful time. They are sure that no Church should either give up any part of its own faith and polity in the supposed interests of Christian unity, or opt out of the fray altogether and retreat behind denominational barriers. The world itself would be much impoverished in either case, By federation we can be saved from the rigidity of enforced uniformity.
How could it be done? Well, there are no blueprints in existence and no pressurised campaign is contemplated, or needed. If the idea commends itself, then as time goes on it mill fall to the best minds in all denominations—not only at the top but at the grass-roots as well — to work out lines of friendly collaboration and of equally friendly demarcation.
From this there will assuredly arise some light bond or covenant to make plain that unity exists in diversity. But above all, and best of all, Federal Christian Unity will mean taking each other as we are now, for better or for worse, with a saving realism that sees the Church Universal for what, in fact, it IS — a mosaic and not a monolith
It may well be that, in the end, this alternative will have as great an appeal to Catholics as to Congregationalists.