Will Britain’s Churches Unite?
WHEN the Anglican Church broke away from Rome, she was simply a national church, whereas the Roman Church was already of international status. However, the expanding British Empire was to take the Church of England to many parts of the world. Today, daughter churches are to be found in more than 20 countries. All are independent but tied to the mother church by being part of the “Anglican Communion.” Thus the Church of England, too, came to have international status, an advantage when negotiating with the Vatican.
In comparatively recent times the Catholic Church has promulgated three dogmas that have heightened the barrier between itself and the Protestant churches. These are the Immaculate Conception (sinlessness) of Mary (1854), the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven (1950), and the doctrinal infallibility of the pope (1870). Stumbling blocks to unity with other religions, indeed!
Anglican-Roman Catholic Efforts
In 1966 the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is generally acknowledged to be the spiritual head of the Anglican Church, agreed to the formation of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Beginning in 1970, it spent 12 years examining the difficulties hindering unity and recommending possible solutions. The Commission, made up of ten scholars from each religion, paid particular attention to three controversial issues: authority (including papal primacy and infallibility); Catholic adoration of the Eucharist; and the ordained ministry.
How was the Commission’s report received by the two churches? Neither rejected it out of hand. In fact, it is expected that each Church will take years to formulate an official response. But a London Times editorial forecast that “actual union between the two [Rome and Canterbury] is surely a generation away at least.” Blocking the path are such issues as contraception, married clergy, the infallibility and jurisdiction of the pope, the adoration of Mary, and the ordination of Anglican clergy, declared to be “utterly invalid and altogether void” by Leo XIII at the First Vatican Council in 1896.
When Pope John Paul II visited Britain in the summer of 1982, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed to set up another international commission to study further the possibility of moving towards unity.
Anglican and Free Church Efforts
Meanwhile, the Church of England has also been holding discussions on unity with three of the Free, or Nonconformist, Churches—Methodist, Moravian, and United Reformed. The United Reformed resulted from a merger in 1972 of Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England and Wales.
Serious obstacles to unity exist. For example, the Church of England is against women ministers, whereas the Free Churches have them. On the other hand, the Free Churches dislike the episcopal structure of the Church of England. Nevertheless, each of the Free Churches decided for unity. Yet the Church of England, after debating the proposals in July 1982, decided not to unite with the Free Churches.
The Free Churches were bitterly disappointed. The secretary of the United Reformed Church commented, “I think this will make other Churches very wary of dealing with the Church of England.” The secretary of the Methodist conference said he thought it was very doubtful that any scheme for unity could be attempted for a generation.
Anglican enthusiasts for ecumenism were also disappointed. Unity remained elusive after years of work. Others, however, heralded these setbacks as rescuing the church from ecumenical entanglements that obscure its own mission. Supporting this view, The Economist says: “The Church of England now faces a long period free to preoccupy itself with its own mission. . . . The problem for the Church of England is how to minister to those who want to know about belief when it is not sure itself what it believes.”
So in the space of a few months, two substantial efforts at attaining religious unity in Britain had bogged down.
The Motives for Seeking Unity
Why the concern of Christendom’s religions to unite? Cardinal Hume told a conference of Catholic bishops in Rome that “there can be no doubt that a major obstacle to the effective preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the scandal of the disunity among his followers. . . . Throughout this century in particular, Christians have experienced increasing frustration and impatience with divisions amongst themselves.”
Some years ago, Anglican bishop Charles Brent said of the need for religious unity: “It’s little short of absurd to try to bring into the Church of Christ the great nations of the Far East unless we can present a united front.”
Others think that the motive for seeking unity lies elsewhere. Russell Lewis wrote in the Daily Mail: “My impression is that the drive for unity is not really a popular movement at all but something got up by a trendy elite of bishops and lesser clergy who think that it will stop the decline in their audience ratings. It is striking how the big urge to unity has coincided with plummeting attendances beginning in the Sixties in the Protestant mainline churches and in the Seventies among the Catholics.”
Whatever the motives for seeking unity, the religious disunity that has prevailed for centuries in Britain is contrary to the apostle Paul’s clear exhortation to Christians: “Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”—1 Corinthians 1:10, New International Version.
What Happens Now?
Well aware of the religious disunity around them and the setbacks they have encountered, the ecumenists continue their conciliatory efforts. For them, unity is a pious hope for the distant future. For the time being, they seem happy to settle for cooperation and mutual respect. The talk is of “union without absorption” as the joint chairmen of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission described it.
Striking the same note, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the representatives of several religions: “I rejoice in our distinctiveness. It would be a sad day if we were to be amalgamated into some grey uniformity.” So the unity they have in mind for the foreseeable future is not true unity at all, not a return to the pure Christianity of the first century, not a return to the Bible.
Where do the tens of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain stand on this issue of unity? They have achieved impressive harmony and unity not only in Britain but earth wide, among peoples of all races and nationalities. This unity is not shattered by bickering over doctrine, practice, or internal government. It is not shattered when nations go to war, for Jehovah’s Witnesses remain strictly neutral and keep their Christian brotherhood intact.
About the Witnesses, the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote: “Their agreement is not on just the trivialities of life, but the vital things—rules of conduct, adherence to principles, worship of God.”
Commenting on how such unity is achieved, a British newspaper remarked: “Behind everything a Witness does lies a Scriptural reason. Indeed, their one basic tenet is recognition of the Bible as . . . true.”
The Witnesses invite you to examine the validity of this claim. When next they call, why not speak to them about it?
[Pictures on page 17]
Historic meeting in 1982 of Pope John Paul and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie