Disunity about Unity: Spiritual Unity vs. Federalism

Posted on Posted in Theology

The founding ecumenical insight is that there already is some kind of unity among the churches. Every church professes that the true church is one; the difference of opinion is where the boundaries lie around this one church. Time spent together in conversation, prayer, and study has shown that there is a lot more common ground between churches than was previously thought. We do after all confess faith in the same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whom we know through the same holy Scriptures.

The question is: is that enough? Does such “spiritual unity” suffice for the unity of the church, or does there need to be some kind of organizational unity too?

The answer to that question, of course, varies quite widely. The more congregationalist you are, the more you think organizational unity is irrelevant; the more episcopal you are, the more you think organizational unity is essential. In the space in between these two extremes, generally among churches of presbyterian or synodical organization, the proposed middle ground in the early twentieth century was called “federalism,” much like in secular governments.

This form of unity would allow individual church bodies to maintain their independence but cooperate in very specific ventures, especially in areas of diaconal service or government lobbying. It would give a “visible” profile to the unity without getting bogged down in the details.

The problem is that this model doesn’t really represent “unity” in any meaningful sense. It’s more like a tactical alliance. As the ecumenist John Kent put it: “Christ is more than the president of a federal republic of Christian associations; he is the Head of the Body which is his church.” It’s also hard to locate any spiritual component in it, and the moment one church disagrees with the others it can withdraw. Such unity would be fragile at best.

One thought on “Disunity about Unity: Spiritual Unity vs. Federalism

  1. “What will a reunited Church look like?” It’s easily among the most FAQ I receive whenever I make a presentation on ecumenism. I’m sure it is for you, as well. Now, I don’t know about you, but I always find that the question, in the various ways in which it’s posed, reveals a great deal about the hopes & fears of those who ask it, not to mention the hopes & fears of the churches to which they belong. Chief among such revelations is the presumption that there exists some master vision of unity toward which the ecumenical movement is working, and people want to know just what that vision is, principally so that they can decide whether they & their churches should be for or against it. How disappointed they are when I reply that there is no such master vision exists.

    Of course, this is not to assert that the churches enter into dialogue without some idea of the goal they’re seeking. This may be a vision of what unity might look like; it definitely contains elements they believe essential to unity. Nevertheless, precisely how these elements will be received by their dialogue partners and the overall shape these elements will take when visible unity is restored is not something that the churches claim to know. The reason is that the unity God wills for the Church is not something that the churches will, let alone can, create. Like the Church itself, unity among Christians is the work of God; it a gift that God will realize in us, God’s People, through this good work that God has begun in us, i.e., the good work of our dialogue.

    Without a doubt, this assertion reveals a great deal about me, not to mention about the church to which I belong. It is rooted in the statement from Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that I give below, i.e., that by virtue of our Baptism we are already one in the Lord, and that though we may eat at different Tables, even with different minds, through our participation in the Breaking of the Bread the Lord is preparing our hearts to receive the oneness He & His Father are already effecting in us – and, I might add, in us for the sake of the world, lest we forget that God has called us not as a sign of God’s infinite good taste, but for the sake of the Gospel. What this unity will look like, only God knows. In the face of this uncertain future, I believe the only essential – and often unasked question – is this: are we & our churches for or against what God will give?


    “In the human nature united to Himself the Son of God, by overcoming death through His own death and resurrection, redeemed man [sic] and re-molded him into a new creation. By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified. Through Baptism we are formed in the likeness of Christ: ‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.’ In this sacred rite a oneness with Christ’s death and resurrection is both symbolized and brought about: ‘For we were buried with Him by means of Baptism into death’; and if ‘we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, we shall be so in the likeness of His resurrection also.’ Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. ‘Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.’ In this way all of us are made members of His Body, ‘but severally members one of another.’ (Lumen gentium, §7)”

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