Two points. We can be confident, with some significant but small exceptions, the Canon and the creeds are common ground between most traditions.
Also, strategically having these agreed texts liberates us in the use of them. They will always be there. We can and do depart from them in all sorts of ways. Sometimes this can be highly creative, to the degree a new departure leads to a new tradition. At other times it can be destructive, especially when an interpretation is identified with the Canon and creeds. Their unchanging nature (apart from new translations) means any interpretation is legitimate insofar as the interpreter is aware that is what they are doing.
So, we can experiment with confidence that no harm can be done to the foundations of faith. This is theology based on forgiveness, we can be confident because we know that there is always forgiveness if we make a mistake. But it is crucial as well for those who take a strict traditional view; they too can be forgiven.
We find our common life then, not through the branches of the traditions but in their roots. The diagram illustrates what I mean. It shows the general progress of faith as different traditions split off. The rules are we can flow only in the direction of the arrows. Each numbered node is a point where there was a split in the tradition and the dashed line is where one tradition influences another.
So, nodes 1, 2 and 3 could illustrate the great schism where the Western and Eastern churches split.
But let's consider nodes 5, 8 and 9. These could be the Church of England in the eighteenth century (5), the Church of England today (8) and the Methodist Church today (9).
Here are a few comments:
- The diagram is actually no different to a growing church, where each node is a congregation that splits when it reaches a certain size. Splits that create new traditions might be different in motivation but may still be evidence of growth.
- Node 5 no longer exists. We tend to talk loosely as if nodes 5 and 8 are the same. They are not. Both 8 and 9 are new churches descended from node 5.
- If node 9 is the Methodist Church, the dashed line shows how other traditions made a contribution to its foundation. It was formed by a split in node 5 but was influenced by node 7 which might be the eighteenth century Moravian Church. John Wesley was influenced by several traditions.
- The creative times may well be at the times we see splits between traditions. What is the nature of the inspiration that leads to a split? Some may be more creative than others. I suspect the most creative insights are not meant to lead to a split. A split motivated by a leader's lust for power is not likely to lead anywhere significant. But where there is genuine inspiration, then the split represents a genuine choice which in fact creates two new traditions, which go on to develop in parallel.
- We could see the various traditions as organised ways to explroe different aspects of the faith, over the generations. Together they represent the entirety of the Christian faith. There is no single correct tradition.
So, we can see the churches are united in history but not in the present. Our unity is in history rather than in contemporary structures.
I have presented this as an example of an alternative way of looking at the diversity of Christian traditions. What are its implications in practice? Next time I'll attempt a worked example.