I’ve just had another useful and challenging meeting with Professor O’Donovan about my MTh dissertation (summary here). He put two questions to me about it:
- What makes the URC part of the Church catholic (rather than, say, Unitarian or humanist)?
- How does my account of the nature of denominationalism help me in supporting my contention that the URC’s agreement not to agree on sexuality is a good thing rather than a failure?
These are both very good questions and ones I will try to answer in the next draft of my dissertation and in the meantime this post will explore them.
My most immediate answer to the first question is to point to the Basis of Union and especially Schedule D: ‘A statement concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church’. This clearly states that the URC confesses the Trinitarian faith of the Church Catholic and it acknowledges the supreme authority of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments.
All members, elders and ministers of the URC should, on assuming the privileges and responsibilities that go with these statuses, have confessed these things. On this basis I think it fair to assert that the URC is and remains part of the Church Catholic. We acknowledge the divinity of Christ and his rule over us.
There are those within the denomination who would appear to some eyes not fully to uphold this catholic faith, but this is true of pretty much every part of the Church and has probably always been so. This is not a huge problem to me so long as the Basis of Union with its orthodox affirmations remains the core defining document of the denomination.
This clearly implies that this doctrinal core has significance for me as marking membership of the Church Catholic and so it does, not because I think the doctrine in itself is the most important thing about the Church. Rather it has this importance because I think that without it we cannot fully recognise Christ as what he is, the incarnate Son, and that if we don’t see that we can’t appreciate what God has done for us in Christ. It is that recognition, of God revealed in Jesus, that marks the boundary of the Church (for me).
The Church is the body of Christ and can only properly be so if it recognises Christ’s headship. This is turn can only be accomplished by a perception of his uniqueness as God with us. All the rest follows from this as consequence.
This does not imply that huge effort should be expended in attempting to create doctrinal uniformity. For one thing understanding is only one precondition for knowing Christ and one that may not be indispensable. For another there are many ways of articulating this understanding, none of them adequate, and what appears to be disagreement may well actually be misunderstanding or mutual incomprehension.
Professor O’Donovan’s other question is less easily answered. Briefly I think that all existing denominational expressions of the Church express some aspect of Christ’s rule (and I include in this the Roman and Orthodox churches and the various national churches of the reformation as well as dissenting, non-conforming and non-established denominations like ours). This contention is based on a belief that the Church visible is an eschatological reality, that as long as we continue to live in a creation marked by sin and death, that is until the second coming in glory, the Church too is marked by sin.
Our divisions are a sign of sin, of our inability to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. The various forms of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity conflict with one another this side of the eschaton. In the meantime the various denominations take sacramental responsibility for living out aspects of the Church’s vocation. Each has its particular task, given it by God as it was called into existence.
In the case of the URC this is the call to be one, to be united. This can be discerned, in my view, in the Basis of Union and in (the particular focus of my studies) our debates on sexuality. At crucial moments (especially in 1999-2000 and in 2007) those we have asked to consider this matter have turned to our vocation to unity to find the right way forward for us.
We remain committed to what our Congregationalist forebears especially perceived, the necessity for Christians to be together in love through their disagreements on any matter other than that Christ is Lord. We have said that being united isn’t a consequence of agreement on other matters but rather a necessary aspect of the search for truth and even more importantly for the will of Christ, which is itself the basis of any partial truth we may be able to perceive and articulate.
The vocation of the URC, what the URC is for, seems to me to be to represent God’s will that Christians be together, that the Church be one. This oneness isn’t all there is to the Church but it is the thing the URC is here to stand for.
This doesn’t imply, either, that this is the primary calling of all people, communities and institutions within the URC. Local churches and other constituents of the denomination may well have their own special callings and our people certainly will. But insofar as we are URC ecumenism defines us.