In the Anglican tradition, every Sunday morning immediately following the sermon, the congregation rises to its feet as the celebrant says something like, “Now let us together confess our faith using the ancient words of the historic Nicene Creed.” Near the end of that recitation, we make the following declaration:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I know what that statement intends to convey. All people everywhere, throughout all of Church history, who have confessed Jesus as Lord, are members of what Paul called “the church which is (Christ’s) body.” Irrespective of denominational characteristics or doctrinal distinctives, and despite the plethora of groups and alliances which identify themselves as one type of “church” or another, the creed affirms that all Christ-followers belong to a single entity, under the headship of Christ, known in creedal terms as “one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.”
We would surely not be surprised, however, if a non-Christian attended a Christian worship service for the first time and responded to that assertion in the Creed with a quizzical expression and questions like, “Really? What does that mean? One Church? Really?”
For most of the first half of its history, roughly 1000 years, the Church was fairly united despite being spread over a wide expanse of territory in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Then came the “Great Schism” which separated the church into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) divisions in 1054. The Western church suffered further division in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It had barely recovered from that when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, and the Protestant Reforma- tion was born.
From that decisive moment, I submit, the most common method of dealing with conflict and disagreement in the Church has been to divide into factions with the proponents of the various points of view going their own separate ways. The result has been a continuous series of splits and splinters among the people of God on a scale that extends from worldwide communions to local congregations. Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have mainly dealt with their differences by separating from one another, and the multiplied thousands of denominations and sects and alliances, all claiming to be a faithful representation of the true Church, are the result.
This preference for separation must break God’s heart. On the night before He was crucified, Jesus petitioned His Father in heaven on behalf of those who would come to faith through the witness of the Apostles. Here is what He said in His “High Priestly Prayer,” which John recorded for us in the seventeenth chapter of his Gospel—
20 “My prayer is not for (these apostles) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The purpose for this post is not to explore the issues which have caused all these divisions in the Body of Christ. Nor am I devoting any more than this line to acknowledging that divisions are sometimes sadly unavoidable. What I want to offer in this post is a way of looking at my own spiritual pilgrimage as a reflection of my anguish over this deplorable situation and my own feeble effort to address it.
Two recent incidents provided the impulse for this perspective. Last Saturday I spent time with some new friends whom I met as a result of initial contact occasioned by this blog. This couple recounted a pilgrimage in many ways similar to my own. Like me, they have been drawn into the liturgical tradition from a more mainstream Free Church background. We are not looking for the “next new thing” because we are unstable and hard to please. We are serious in our pursuit of authentic faith, and we recognize that the multiple splits and divisions among Christians over the centuries mean that no single tradition represents the complete fullness of truth and spiritual reality.
At least twice in a two-hour conversation I heard the husband say, “I have a passion for the unity of the church.” I knew exactly what he meant. I have a similar passion. There may be little that we can do as individuals to overcome centuries of discord within the church and break down the barriers to fellowship and communion which have been built and reinforced over the years. But by our example we can testify to the value inherent in virtually all Christian traditions.
Our journeys are not a repudiation of traditions we have forsaken but an embracing of new elements of truth and practice which have enriched our experience as believers by complementing what we experienced within and among those communities of faith which we once called home.
And then, a second incident which helped prompt this post. On Sunday I came upon a Facebook post by one of my former students. She and her husband, also a former student, have recently moved to Southeast Asia where they will be working in Bible translation. She had shared the link to my last blog post on her Facebook wall with the introduction, “My former professor, Mr. Kouns, and a bit of his journey.”
Below the link to my blog post, she wrote a bit more in the form of a comment. Here is part of what she wrote.
I’ve thought a lot about this professor of ours, and his journey. The churches here in (this part of the world) tend to be on the Charismatic side of life, and in church this morning I got this crazy, almost humorous, picture of Mr. Kouns adding yet another dimension to his eclectic list. What would a Charismatic Anglican Anabaptist look like? Yeah, that would be a new one! Why does it seem that God calls some of us to fit everywhere and no where at the same time? This world is not our home….
What she didn’t know then, but will now learn, is that I have deep roots in the charismatic community. In 1987, I spent an entire week at the Vineyard Church in Anaheim, CA, with Jon Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement and a leading advocate for charismatic gifts, particularly in the area of healing. I did not emerge from that experience as a convinced charismatic, but I came to appreciate that perspective in a new and fresh way.
My former student referred to the traditions I have identified with over the course of my pilgrimage as my “eclectic list.” I know what she meant, but I object slightly to the use of the term “eclectic.” To me that suggests a cafeteria-line approach to discipleship where one simply partakes of those items that he finds most appealing—a smorgasbord of spirituality, if you will. That is not my experience at all.
My exposure to a wide variety of Christian traditions has resulted in my conviction that there is far more to unite us as believers than to divide us. In a world where it is easier to fight than to work things out through negotiation, compromise, and “preferring one another,” my pilgrimage across denominational lines and through a variety of traditions may seem eclectic and unstable. I can testify, however, that I have been enriched and, indeed, humbled by the experience, and I am grateful to God for blessing me with the opportunity to benefit from the good things within the Body of Christ that I would have missed if I had not been willing to explore possibilities and expand my horizons.
My pilgrimage continues. I fully expect to die an Anglican. An Anglican with strong Anabaptist convictions. An Anabaptist-Anglican with deep appreciation for the power of God which energizes the charismatic community. An Anabaptist Anglican with charismatic sensibilities who reads Calvinists and Arminians, conservatives and liberals, young-Earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. I don’t agree with all of them. But this “eclectic list” gives me hope that, at least in the Kingdom to come, the prayer of our Lord for unity within the Church will finally be answered.
Soli Deo Gloria.