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I haven't said a lot about full visible unity in this blog, which might seem odd as it is a major theme in the thinking of many committed ecumenists. My problem is, I don't think there is clear agreement about what it means and therefore it is hard to think about it strategically.
Visible unity is where two or more traditions are united under one organisation. So, for example, in 1976 visible unity was achieved between most of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in England and Wales. Full visible unity is often meant to be similar unity for all the churches. I think this is a Protestant vision of church unity and it culminated in the English Covenant, which fell apart in 1982. The 1989 Swanwick Declaration was an announcement of a new approach called Churches Together but many have clung, perhaps implicitly, to the original vision of full visible unity.
Visible unity is feasible, not only because examples can be found but also because pathways to visible unity can be planned. So, the Anglican Methodist Covenant is seen as a step towards visible unity between the Church of England and the British Methodist Church. However, to say something is feasible is not the same as saying it is likely. We know the necessary steps towards visible unity but the two churches may or may not be likely to take them. The pathway may be clear but it is not guaranteed easy and some may not be willing to face the implications.
The pathway goes something like this:- within the Anglican Methodist Covenant we move to shared ministry (now under consideration by both churches) and then by way of women Bishops and Methodist Bishops, we progress to interchangeability of ministry and then the final step to structural unity. Whilst it is certainly possible to take something like this path, there are significant strategic problems - but that's a topic for another time.
We need to take care not to assume because structural unity leads to visible unity, visible unity requires structural unity. We are so used to assuming the two are essential to each other that the effort of imagining visible unity without structural unity is daunting. But what if it is structural unity that blocks progress to visible unity? I can think of four reasons why structural unity is not an adequate pathway to full visible unity.
- It is assumes the Christian world is static. Any feasible version of full visible unity must be able to accommodate change.
- There are massive implications about accountability for use of power in a single structurally unified church.
- It would be unstable. Both conservative and congregationalist tendencies would destabilise it. There are several groups in the traditional churches who do not agree with ecumenism and believe their expression of church is the one true church. It is hard to conceive of a united single church which could accommodate such various and strongly held views. On top of that there are others who don't believe in the authority of church organisations (let alone Bishops).
- Theologically, I wonder whether it is the right direction. The mindset is one of law. The church hierarchy determines the law and the rest of us obey. This is not the Christian understanding of the rule of spirit and love. It isn't that some discipline isn't needed in any church but holding something as immense as a world church together, using the discipline of a single structure, would be impossible.
Formal conversations are usually seen as steps towards structural unity but I am not convinced it is where they are leading. Their main success has been to open up the possibility of mutual recognition between the churches. This is ground upon which Christians can build. We forget not long ago most Christians believed those of other traditions were not proper churches. Today it is a view held by a minority, albeit a vocal one.
If we want full visible unity we won't find it through formal conversations or strategic plans. It is something churches discover as they participate in conversations and grow closer in praxis.