Unity in Tension: An Address Given at the Triennial Dinner of the Evangelical Societies, at Honolulu, September 8, 1955.
By Leland Stark.
Philadelphia: Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship, 1955.
Three years ago at the dinner of the Evangelical Societies at the General Convention in Boston, the distinguished Bishop of Washington made a notable address. Those of you who either heard it or read it later may recall that he began, as tonight I too feel constrained to begin, with a confession of certain misgivings. Among other things, he said that the very existence of societies such as these are evidence both of honest differences of opinion as well as of deep divisions that exist among us.
In more or less degree, no matter how much we may glory in our evangelical convictions, I daresay all of us share these misgivings. We have no desire to be a political party within the Church we dearly love. Few, if any, of us want to be branded with a “party label.” Indeed, one of my own clergy who belongs to a somewhat analogous society that takes the “high road” even questioned the wisdom of my acceptance of this invitation to speak tonight, but I trust he was mollified when I assured him I would play no favorites and would accept with alacrity a similar invitation to speak before his society.
Yet at the same time that we do have certain misgivings lest our motives for meeting tonight be misunderstood, certainly we all recognize that the nature of the Episcopal Church is such that we have both the right and the duty to keep the evangelical viewpoint before the people of our Church just as those of Anglo-Catholic persuasion have the right and duty to keep their viewpoint before the Church.
These introductory words now bring me to my topic for tonight, which I have entitled “Unity in Tension.” This is a phrase used in a somewhat different context in a book, which will be familiar to many of you, called “The Fullness of Christ” by a number of Evangelical scholars of the Church of England, and my borrowing of this phrase will by no means be the only place tonight I shall be indebted to this fine little monograph. This phrase, “Unity in Tension,” seems to me to put in a few words what, our Church being what it is, all loyal Episcopalians may well be seeking, and I should like now to proceed to speak along three main lines: first, to speak of the kind of inner unity that exists among us despite our differences; second, of the tensions that exist within that unity; and third, of ways and means by which tensions may be lessened and unity strengthened.
I. Our Fundamental Unity
Coming first to the inner unity that exists among us in our Episcopal Church despite our many differences and points-of-view, I would submit to you that the things which hold us together are much more important than the things which tend to divide us.
I am not at this point thinking of those basic fundamentals of the Christian faith which, of course, both “protestant” and “catholic” elements hold in common—like belief in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, and our belief in the supremacy of Scripture, our reverence for the Sacraments (despite our difference in interpretation and number), and our loyalty (in most quarters) to the Book of Common Prayer. These are elements which, of course, cement us together, furnishing us the basis for our fundamental inner unity, and the existence of these common factors we may assume without argument.
But I am thinking rather, as from within the framework and ethos of our Church, of that which makes our Church (and other Anglican Churches) unique in Christendom.
For we are both a Catholic and a Protestant Church, and I daresay all loyal Episcopalians are eager that this dual character be maintained. If here I am asked quickly to define these terms, I would say that by “catholic” I am thinking particularly of the apostolic ministry, of the succession, (as we believe) of the line of our bishops as coming down unbroken from apostolic times, of our holding to the historic Creeds of Christendom. And by “protestant” I think particularly of our great heritage from the Reformation period, when the glorious truths of the New Testament were recovered and became again the basis of Christian thinking and living.
And blessed are we indeed that we have in our Church this togetherness of protestant and catholic elements, for they are both valid expressions of the Christian faith. Admittedly they make for tension, as I shall soon point out in some detail, but as Bishop Dun put the matter so well three years ago: “. . . we need correction by one another. We need correction by the insights of others, but always in the context of our life within one household, in brotherly love.”
For whatever our faults as Anglicans, and they are no doubt legion, the Anglican Communion—including our own Episcopal Church too, of course,—is the picture of something quite unique in Christendom, and it may be for that very reason that the Holy Spirit may have a special mission for our Church and our Communion in the reunion of fragmentized Christendom.
As the eloquent words of one of the Reports of the 1948 Lambeth Conference put the matter:
The co-existence of these divergent views within the Anglican Communion sets up certain tensions; but these are tensions within a wide range of agreement in faith in practice. We recognize the inconvenience caused by these tensions, but we acknowledge them to be part of the will of God for us, since we believe that it is only through a comprehensiveness which makes it possible to hold together in the Anglican Communion understandings of truth which are held in separation in other Churches, that the Anglican Communion is able to reach out in different directions, and so to fulfill its special vocation as one of God’s instruments for the restoration of the visible unity of His whole Church. If at the present time one view were to prevail to the exclusion of others, we should be delivered from our tensions, but only at the price of missing our opportunity and our vocation.
II. The Tensions Within This Unity
Within this unity, however, are many points of tension, and there is not a single person here tonight who, in some way or another, has not been touched by them. And sometimes these tensions grow so grim and rancorous that we become overwhelmingly preoccupied with them and even forget our fundamental unity one with another.
Some years ago when the well-known Irish statesman, T. P. O’Connor, visited this country, he was asked to comment upon the religious situation in Ireland. “It is not so good,” he replied. “We have the Protestants in the narth, and the Catholics in the south, and they are foriver a-fightin’.” Then he paused and went on wistfully, “Sometimes Oi wish they were all haythen so they could live togither like Christians.”
There are occasions, particularly at General Convention time when tensions are bound to come out into the open and are gleefully pounced upon by the Press and retailed all over the country, when one can’t help wondering whether some such situation does not prevail among us Episcopalians. For while we are quick enough in theory to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s positions and to see that the true genius of our Church is our ability to hold these diverse elements together in some kind of unity, the practical application of this principle in the area of human relationships is not so easy.
Tensions, of course, are inevitable, given the kind of Church we are. As an example of our diversity, I remember one Saturday evening prior to the last Sunday in October, glancing through the church section of a large metropolitan newspaper. The advertisement of one Episcopal Church stated that on Feast of Christ the King, the rector would preach on “What We Catholics Believe.” A little further down the column was the advertisement of another Episcopal Church, announcing a Reformation Sunday observance with the sermon topic, “What We Protestants Believe.”
Put these hardly compatible divergencies within our Church into one pot together, add the ingredients of human pride and sin, set it over the inflammable combination of solid convictions mixed with prejudices and sheer stubbornness, touch off that fuel with the match of disagreement, and it is not too astonishing that the pot occasionally boils angrily over.
III. On Lessening Tension and Strengthening Unity
But despite the realism with which these differences must be faced, if it be true that the things which hold us together are more important than the things which tend to pull us apart, then surely the problem of every loyal Episcopalian is to see how our tensions can be lessened and our unity strengthened.
There are so many things that ought to be said at this point. Even so elementary a matter as simple tolerance and sheer good humor has a significant role to play. I wish I might speak in detail of the importance of small groups with divergent points-of-view coming together in this place and that place with the deliberate intention of airing their differences and speaking boldly and frankly about the things which tend to divide us, and I would hope Evangelicals would take the lead in initiating such meetings and conversations. And, believe me, those conversations would be a two-way road, for Anglo-Catholics are often disturbed and agitated by things we say and do, just as Evangelicals are with them too.
But most important of all, so it seems to me, unity can be strengthened and tensions lessened by a conscientious de-emphasis on partisan spirit.
If this be desirable, then I think we may say in all realism and without self-righteousness that we Evangelicals have already begun that de-emphasis. Recent years have seen us comparatively inactive as Evangelicals. If I may speak specifically of the E. E. F. at this point, only a few dioceses have active chapters that come together regularly. The national officers and the advisory boards seldom meet. No one can accuse the E. E. F. of over-aggressiveness, and the same is true of the E. E. S.
Now let me hasten to say, let no one wrongly interpret this relative inactivity. It is not due to weakness or lethargy but rather to our reluctance to promote ourselves as a party. If some great crisis were to arise in our Church (which God forbid!), then evangelicalism would rise in its true strength. If some issue were to come before our Church which would clearly compel people to make a forthright decision, some issue that would require people to take an unequivocal stand on the side of maintaining our Church in its “protestant-catholic” duality or on the side of a denial of its “protestantism,” I have not the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority would stand shoulder to shoulder with us.
But while I would hope that no one would interpret this inactivity as weakness or lethargy, I for one cannot but rejoice in it, at least in one sense. For if a continuing de-emphasis on partisan spirit be the chief way to ease tension and promote unity, then Evangelicals can come into court with clean hands. No one can accuse us of precipitating disunity within this beloved Church of ours, and that is not difficult to prove.
Are we, for example, seeking a huge capital fund in six figures to promote distinctly Evangelical activities? We could—and without any puzzle contest too—but we are not.
Are we maintaining a regular office with a full-time director, secretarial staff, and an adequate travel allowance to allow such a director to go about seeking to establish diocesan chapters to promote our particular point-of-view? We could, but we are not.
Before the great Anglican Congress did we Evangelicals call an Anglican-wide “Evangelical Congress?” Indeed, before this present Convention did we call any kind of “priests’ convention” to which only Evangelicals would come? We could have —but we did not.
Are we issuing devotional manuals for the laity and servers’ manuals for acolytes which are based upon the assumption that some service book other than the Book of Common Prayer will be used for the main services of our churches?
Have any of our Evangelical clergy taken the Book of Common Prayer off their altars and substituted one of their own composition that to a great extent copies line by line from the Service Book of another Church?
I believe these questions can be asked without self-righteousness on our part because of the relatively innocuous partisan spirit that we have demonstrated, and I am sure you know that they are raised without rancor toward those who do choose to be aggressive in their partisanship. But if the British Anglo-Catholic writers of “Catholicity” be right when they contend that some things that contribute to Anglican unity “belong specifically to our Reformation heritage, (and) some .. . belong to our Catholic continuity, and it is vital to our unity that both are constant and unalterable,” then in the interests of unity first and partisan spirit second, is it out of place for us to suggest to our responsible Anglo-Catholic brethren that they reexamine and re-appraise the obvious aggressiveness of their party program?
Should they not ask themselves whether their aggressiveness is really productive of the inner harmony which as loyal Episcopalians they must surely hope will hold us together “in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace?” Should they not consider the obvious fact that a long continued partisan aggressiveness on their part must inevitably and ultimately provoke a similar aggressiveness on the Evangelical side in order to preserve that balance between our “protestant” and “catholic” heritages that are our true genius?
I can indeed foresee an Evangelical movement of tremendous strength emerging within the years immediately ahead, but if I may speak for myself, I pray God it will not need to come to pass. And it need not come to pass if responsible Anglo-Catholics on their side will de-emphasize their partisan spirit as indeed we have demonstrated we are doing.
And in God’s name in His Church is not this the time for emphasis upon unity father than upon party aggrandizement? Think of the world which we as Christians confront There are more people ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed in this world than there are people well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed. While the number of Christian people in the world is increasing, the evangelizing mission of the Church is not keeping pace with the rapid growth of the world’s population so that there are actually today more non-Christian people in the world than at any time since Calvary! We have reached such a state of “progress” that (so one expert warns us) the strategic placement of no more than 260 thermo-nuclear bombs could, by explosion or resultant radio-activity, wipe out every vestige of life upon this planet!
Surely at such a time the Holy Spirit of God is calling all Christian people to close ranks behind the banner of Christ, first of all the people of our own communion.
In the nature of this Church of ours it is evident that there cannot but be tensions within the unity of our household of faith, but we Evangelicals pledge ourselves that our emphasis will be not upon the tension but upon the unity of this Church we so dearly love.