‘Is Christ divided?’(1 Cor 1:13).
This was the provocative question St Paul put to that Corinthian community he so loved and suffered for.
It’s the question that the World Council of Churches has put to us this year through our brethren in Canada.
It’s the question echoing in our ears after the readings in this holy place this afternoon.
Is Christ divided?
Well-known is the Summa Theologiae of the Dominican St Thomas Aquinas. Intriguingly, it is simply a series of questions, each of them answered with the same methodology. Each of them is given a first spontaneous, obvious answer – the seeming answer – and then a more reflective, truer answer. ‘Does God exist?’ It would seem not. It would seem not for a variety of reasons. But then comes the turning point, marked by 2 Latin words: sed contra (‘but against this’). And then from Scripture, Tradition, right reason the second more thoughtful answer is elaborated.
Is Christ divided? This is our question.
Well, it would seem that he is.
This year marks the centenary of this Cathedral. November will mark another anniversary, the 50th of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. It opens thus: ‘Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to humanity as the true inheritance of Jesus Christ. All indeed profess to be disciples of the Lord, but they differ in outlook and go their different ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Certainly, such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature’ (UR 1).
Is Christ divided?
It would seem that he is. Here, in oour Corinth-like vibrant, multi-ethnic port city, we have two bishops, one moderator and three Cathedrals! Here in the city centre of Aberdeen, with only 8000 residents, we have more than 20 churches: Episcopalian, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Free Church, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, Junction Church, Elim Family Church, Hebron Evangelical Church, City of Joy, Fountain of Love and more. Is Christ divided? There’s not one of us here, I imagine, who for all our mutual appreciation would not have serious difficulties with aspects of the faith and worship of some of these communities. Many here, I’m sure, would have such difficulties with elements of Roman Catholic belief and practice. And then what of the Corinthian-like divisions within our own individual communities? Even if any of us here, which I doubt, thought our own community had a monopoly on Christianity, we would still feel the force of Paul’s question.
Is Christ divided?
Diversity is one thing, division another. St Paul licenses the first and castigates the second. For all our appreciation of the variety of the Spirit’s gifts, for all, please God, our common willingness to profess Jesus as Lord, for all our common faith in the Triune God and the Word made flesh and the salvation wrought on the Cross, are there not still real divisions among us on matters doctrinal and ethical? Matters ecclesiological and sacramental, for example. To allow that these may be secondary is not to dismiss them as unimportant. Doctrine is a constituent element of the Christian thing, and doctrine always forms a ‘body’ too. It has a coherence and inter-connectedness. ‘If one member suffers’ here too, if there is disagreement on one part, the whole is affected, ‘all suffer together’ (1 Cor 12:26). And the difference of outlook and walk resurfaces.
Is Christ divided?
If only, we could find refuge in the word ‘seems’! But don’t we have to confess, with confusion of face, that he, Christ, is indeed divided? In some sense…That the unity of Christ’s body is wounded, who can deny? That division – apostasy, heresy, schism – make up one possible narrative of Christian history, there is no doubt. Think of the often-forgotten division of Christianity into Jewish and Gentile forms, with the former disappearing so early in history. Recall the divisions that arose in the 5th c. over the dogmatic formulas of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalecedon. Think of the parting of the ways of Eastern and Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. And how not remember the dramatic fractures in the West from the Reformation onwards?
‘The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes…
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room’
as GK Chesterton expressed it. There it is, with the upshot all of us suffer from: the division in so many hearts and minds between the pursuit of what seems good for the human being and what Christ and the Church appear to offer. A humanism divided from the Son of Man.
But is there a sed contra? Is Christ divided or not?
‘In faith, say our Canadian friends, we respond No!’ And the Decree on Ecumenism’s second paragraph begins, ‘But the Lord…’
There is a saving ‘but’.
‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor 15:14). The Letter to the Corinthians that begins deploring division concludes affirming the Resurrection. And if Christ has been raised, then life, light and love have been raised. If Christ has been raised, victory belongs to goodness, truth, beauty – and unity.
Is Christ divided?
By using the simple single word ‘Christ’, Paul is surely answering his own question. Considered in himself, how could Christ be divided? He cannot be divided from the Father, because the Father and he are one. He cannot be divided in himself, because as the great Ecumenical Councils say, he is always ‘one and the same Lord Jesus Christ’, his natures, in their duality, coming together in one person or hypostasis (Council of Chalecedon). He cannot be divided from his people because he died for us, and risen from the dead comes to us, abides with us all days even to the end of the world. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ (Acts 9:4). I and my Body are one.
How then could one so undivided allow division to conquer us? How could such a Unity not unify – even scattered, fractious, quarrelsome, self-opinionated us?
I am a Roman Catholic bishop and can only speak as such. And I know that kindly you’ll not only forgive this, but expect it. And I am sure we are one in agreeing that our shared quest for unity is best served by being honest about who we are and what we believe.
So I would just like to offer briefly a Catholic affirmation of how unity prevails over division, of how the divine narrative of gathering the scattered is never wholly subverted by the human one which tells the contrary tale. I want to proclaim three ways in which Pentecost gets the better of Babel, three ways in which the Father continually answers the continual prayer of his Son ‘that they may be one’ (Jn 17:21), three ways in which the Risen One shows himself the hidden Lord of history.
First, we recognise – to quote Vatican II again – that ‘all those justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into Christ…and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord’ (UR 3). Isn’t this a present unity to celebrate – a deep, broad unity of faith and grace, a mystical, sacramental unity? Doesn’t this mean that we are all contained – through no merit or works of our own – within ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13:14)? Doesn’t it mean that – in each of our cathedrals and meeting-places – we are his beloved, his elect, his sanctified, and therefore more united with one another than we can conceive? Doesn’t it mean that we have received mercy and can be conduits of that mercy to others? Often in our churches, the font stands near the entrance. This is the font the Fathers of the Church often compare to the virginal womb of Mary where by the power of the Holy Spirit God and man were united in the person of Christ. Mary’s womb: the locus of Christ’s unity. The baptismal font: the well-spring of ours. Whenever the Holy Spirit elicits the profession ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor 12:3), whenever baptism is validly administered and fruitfully received, this unity triumphs. Before we scatter to our different chapels, we are one at the font.
Yet the victory of the Resurrection does not end there. The primal unity can take and does take a real concrete form. So I want to affirm secondly something sensitively and firmly stated by our Decree on Ecumenism: ‘Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose’ (UR 4), ‘Catholic Church’ meaning here that Church ‘governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him’ (Lumen Gentium 8). So unity, we believe, is not something that merely once was and now must be retrieved. It is not merely a future possible. It is something yearning to be enlarged but also already given, something at once imperfect, incomplete, and real, something – like the Lamb in the Apocalypse – wounded but alive, something that allows for diversity but not division. This unity belongs to the realm of the Spirit and grace and love and yet takes visible form in the profession of one faith received from the apostles, in a common celebration of divine worship, in acceptance of a common episcopal authority rooted in the apostolic succession (cf. CCC 815). St John Paul II in the 1995 Encyclical he devoted to ecumenism said this:
‘It is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the various Christian Communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future. In accordance with the great Tradition, attested to by the Fathers of the East and of the West, the Catholic Church believes that in the Pentecost Event God has already manifested the Church in her eschatological reality, which he had prepared “from the time of Abel, the just one”. This reality is something already given. Consequently we are even now in the last times. The elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities, where certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized’ (Ut Unum Sint 14).
And it is towards this unity all the baptized are orientated.
I offer this, not out of any disrespect for other convictions, but simply as a Catholic contribution to that sed contra, that No!, which we all want to hurl at Paul’s question. If we say these things, it’s because we believe they are a sign of the victory of the Risen One. There is unity not only round the font, but in the nave.
Let me conclude with a third and last affirmation. It is perhaps the third way in which the Father continually answers the continual prayer of his Son, the third way unity prevails over division. We cannot realistically expect, I think, that the perfect visible unity of Christ’s disciples will ever be irreversibly achieved in this life. But neither, surely, can we simply accept the status quo. I don’t think we do. I think we have a unity of aspiration. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is intrinsic to being a Christian. It is a further bond. It pains us that we are not yet fully one. Wherever we locate ourselves in the body of the kirk, as it were, our eyes do converge on the sanctuary. We do aspire towards the kingdom of heaven that sanctuary symbolises, and we do aspire too surely to visible corporate unity. A unity to be consummated at the altar. This was the hope that underlay the beginnings of the ecumenical movement. May it never die! So there is, please God, this unity of hoping, wanting, desiring, willing, praying. A common search for appropriate initiatives. A unity of intention we must not allow to flag. A longing for the constant renewal of the Church, our individual conversion to the Gospel, moments of prayer in common, willingness to learn about and meet with one another, developing an ecumenical sensitivity among our people, collaboration in forms of service: are we not at one about these things? And isn’t that a real unity? A victory in itself and the augury of the great and final one.
Is Christ divided?
Thank you for patiently hearing my attempt at a ‘No’! I believe that there is a unity that is given and can grow:
- a unity as baptised and believing children of the Father;
- a unity with which Christ, for all our sins and limitations, has graced his Church, and which, please God, can attract as well as repel;
- a unity of intent and effort the Holy Spirit keeps alive in our hearts. Christ is risen!
And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all!
+Hugh Gilbert OSB
Bishop of Aberdeen
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 15 June 2014