Project Canterbury

The Lambeth Ideal of Unity

By Philip M. Rhinelander, D.D.
Bishop of Pennsylvania

Reprinted by permission from Constructive Quarterly for March, 1921.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton, 2007.

Intelligent reading of the Lambeth Appeal in the matter of Reunion will make it evident that the Bishops were more concerned with setting forth an idea or ideal of unity than with proposing actual methods for the achievement of reunion. The Appeal calls on Christians everywhere to give sympathetic consideration to the ideal of unity presented by the Bishops. It does not call for immediate action on the basis of definite and concrete proposals. Indeed, there are no definite and concrete proposals made. It is true that in one paragraph certain conditions are laid down without which it is felt that the ideal set forth cannot be reached. And some following paragraphs are given to explain and justify these conditions. But the emphasis of the Appeal falls on its interpretation and exposition of Church unity. This is its real message. And it is made quite clear that effective co-operation in the direction of actual reunion can be expected only from those who are prepared to adopt this same ideal of unity with something of the whole-heartedness with which the Lambeth Conference surrendered to it.

This point should be kept clearly and carefully in mind. In any case it is eminently reasonable that men should agree together as to the goal they intend to reach before they consider routes and itineraries for reaching it. In the case of reunion this is particularly necessary, because here more than elsewhere men are accustomed to put the cart before the horse, discussing and indeed quarrelling over means of reunion or steps to reunion before they have reached, or indeed tried to reach, a common mind as to just what the unity is which they are seeking. Nothing irritates more quickly, nothing more surely turns fruitful debate into bitter and unworthy controversy, than failure at the start to agree as to the meaning of the terms employed. If the same terms are used in different senses by different sides, each side in the debate is bound to irritate the other, because each argument set forth will seem pointless and inapposite. Whereas, if terms are used by both sides strictly in the same sense, there will at least be mutual understanding, and this will make it comparatively easy, no matter how wide may be the difference in conclusion, for each side to control its temper and to show consideration and respect for its opponent. Failure just at this point--failure, that is, to agree at starting on what Church unity shall mean--is undoubtedly the reason for a very large measure of the fruitless controversy, some of it bitter and contemptuous, much of it quite aside the mark, which the subject of reunion so often rouses in press and pulpit. We, Anglicans, have reason to remember this. We, as much as any other group of Christians, need this very discipline of thought which the Appeal urges on us. We need to clear our minds as to this preliminary question which, until settled one way or the other, must block further progress toward reunion.

For it must be admitted that "Anglicanism" (by which I mean the religious system in the Church of England since the Reformation and in the Churches which derive from her) has been ambiguous and obscure in this matter. "Anglicanism" may be presumed to have carried over the ancient and Catholic view of the Church in so far as it retained the Catholic Creeds together with many prayers and collects and diverse portions of the liturgy. But wherever "Anglicanism" expands its doctrine as to the Church, such expansion, I think in each case, shows a desire to choose a phraseology which will satisfy widely divergent, if not contrary, views. It must, I suppose, always be an open question how far the so-called Reformation Settlement really settled things, or for whom it settled them. The view that it was a sort of "gentlemen's agreement" that certain things should remain permanently unsettled has much to commend it. At any rate, in regard to a clearly formulated faith in the Church, the Prayer Book will be searched in vain for an explicit statement. [It may be sufficient in this context to refer to the obvious fact that nothing at all is said in the Catechism about the Church, and that Article XIX if put into the hands of any honest inquirer seeking merely information would be found to say nothing, to answer no question and to commit nobody to anything in particular. It might also be pointed out that in the Lambeth Quadrilateral itself no mention is made of the Church, and that there is at least an implication that the due administration of the Sacraments is of more importance than the faithful preservation and maintenance of the fulness and continuity of the Church's life.]

This should be recognized, for it is important and significant. What is set forth in the Lambeth Appeal is not set forth as a mere restatement of typically "Anglican" views. On the contrary, the Bishops clearly anticipate that many of their own people will be unprepared for, if not antagonized by, the ideal of the Church and its unity to which they have subscribed. "We place this ideal first and foremost before ourselves and our own people," says the Appeal in its closing paragraph. Plainly the Bishops felt that they were drawing on sources of authority and truth broader and stronger than Anglican tradition or consent.

Just what is that broader basis of authority and truth on which the Appeal depends? Where is it found, and how can it be justified? To give an intelligent and at least reasonable answer to that question is really the sole purpose of this paper. I have no right to speak for the other Bishops in this matter. But I shall try honestly to draw out the implicit meaning of the Appeal and try to avoid anything like reading into it what is not naturally or even inevitably there.

Speaking first in general, it may be claimed on behalf of the Bishops' ideal of unity (1) that it has behind it the clear witness of the New Testament and Apostolic teaching ; (2) that it is assumed in the Catholic Creeds, which means that it is the teaching which became universally established and accepted throughout Christendom; and (3) that it continued to be operative and controlling in all normal Christian thought and history until the Reformation, when by the Continental reformers and their followers it was abandoned, not so much deliberately or of set purpose, as by the pressure of events which forced it into the background. Over a large part of Protestantism since the Reformation it has remained in the background, not so much denied as ignored and forgotten.

It is evident that the Lambeth Appeal is intent on the restoration and recovery of a lost ideal rather than on the initiation of a new theory suddenly brought to birth. The Bishops certainly believed that their vision of unity was something belonging of right to the whole company of Christian people. The spirit of the Appeal gives evidence of a strong faith that when this vision has been recalled to the common Christian mind, that mind will claim it as its own and will find it revealed and vindicated in its own true historic development and discipline.

Coming now to a simple exposition of what is implied in the Appeal as to the nature of the Church and its unity, implied not only in the Appeal itself but also in the Apostolic and traditional doctrine of the Church on which the Appeal relies, I would lay stress on four leading principles which will cover the ground in a logical and comprehensive way:

(1) The "differentia" of Christianity is found in the gift of the Holy Spirit by our Lord in fulfilment of the promise of His Incarnation. If we follow the historic record of His teaching and of the original and creative' witness of the Apostles and the Apostolic Church, we shall not be willing to define a Christian in any less profound and comprehensive way than as one who has received the Holy Ghost. What we mean by Christianity is a gift given by God to men. It rests not in the faith which is willing to receive, but in the grace which is offered for our receiving. Just as the quenching of one's thirst is accomplished, not by one's willingness to drink, but by the water which is available for drinking, so the reality of Christian life is accomplished, not by our faith in Christ, but by His will to give, and by His act of giving, that life which is salvation. One does not reach the real thing we mean by Christianity until we come to Pentecost. Then it becomes real, because through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit there is established upon earth that fellowship of man with God in our Lord which was and is the whole purpose of His coming. We shall contradict the central idea of our faith in Christ if we define what we mean by Christianity in terms of human activity or virtue or merit or achievement of any sort whatever. It is all of grace. It is all a "grace gift." As St. Paul wrote: "By the grace of God I am what I am." It is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in those men and women who believe in Jesus Christ. A chief merit of the strong and notable tradition which we describe as "Evangelical" is in its clear and steady hold on this great truth. It is really on this central faith that the Lambeth Appeal is based.

(2) In the next place comes the obvious, historic fact that this gift was given originally as a corporate endowment to the society of the disciples, to the "Fellowship of the Upper Room." This fact became decisive. It set the rule. Spiritual endowment was to be normally received by virtue of membership in the Christian fellowship which is the Church. By "normally" is meant simply that which is according to Christ's will and ordinance. Certainly there is in the records no trace of any other method or tradition. From the very first there is a clear emphasis placed on membership, so much so that the concomitance of personal endowment and corporate membership becomes the instinctive and habitual rule. [Bishop Gore, at the Geneva Conference in August, 1920, is reported to have said: "I find an obligatory membership in a visible society to be the characteristic of Christianity. In the New Testament I do not find anything which is entitled to call itself membership of Christ which is not also membership of this one visible society." This view may, I think, be taken fairly as implied in the Lambeth Appeal and to be essential to its meaning].

(3) It is equally clear on the very surface of the history that this membership was secured and sustained by reception of and participation in universally accepted and authorized external and social means of grace called (perhaps unfortunately) Sacraments. Of these Sacraments the means of initiation into the fellowship was Baptism, normally completed by the Laying-on of Hands, and the central and characteristic means and mark of common faith, life and worship was the Holy Communion. It is, I think, timely at this point to note that the whole life of the Church, as indeed all life on every level, is to be conceived of in sacramental terms. It was the recognized and established order, as well as the joyful testimony and experience, that God's grace was conveyed through outward means. Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist did not stand alone. They were merely chief and striking illustrations of the law by which God works and governs, as in nature, so in grace. One feels quite sure that to a normal Christian believer, who has really grasped the fulness and the inwardness of the Apostles' teaching, there are more likely to be two hundred sacraments than two or even seven, while behind all separate sacraments, and equally behind the preaching of the Word, there is prayer, on which the efficacy of all grace depends, prayer which is the human activity, itself informed by grace, to which the gift of every grace is God's response.

(4) Finally, the Ministry plays its part in making all secure and permanent. The Church is not to be conceived as merely an association for the propagation of ideas, or for the promotion of moral causes. Rather it is a "body," or an organism, for the communication of life to and through its members. The original and originating gift of the new life is to be preserved undiluted and undiminished, so that it may flow into the last convert as freely and fully as into the first. Continuity is, therefore, of the essence of the Church's unity. Its contemporaneous spread and power will have no real spiritual significance unless in all its growth it hold fast with unbroken contact to its unfailing springs and sources. Here lies the true function of the Church's ministry. It began with the Apostles, who were ordained and authorized by Christ for the due ordering, unifying and perpetuating of the "fellowship of the baptized" which is the Church. It was continued by the Apostles, that the whole fellowship might have a ministry duly authorized and enabled for the work, and everywhere and by all freely acknowledged as guardians of the common and continuous spiritual resources of the whole fellowship and dispensers of the common grace. That is the real criterion of what is meant by "an Apostolic ministry," and it is such an "Apostolic ministry" that really matters. It is now, as it was from the beginning, indispensable for the effective manifestation of the Church's unity, alike continuous and contemporaneous. It is at this point, and only at this point, that the "Historic Episcopate" becomes important. Granted that an Apostolic ministry as defined above is indispensable to the Church's unity, how may it be had? If lost, how may it be recovered? This is the precise way in which the Lambeth Appeal approached this delicate and thorny question. This is why the Bishops put their question, and this is their complete justification for putting it just as they do: "May we not reasonably claim that the Episcopate is the one means of providing such a ministry?" To interpret this question of the Bishops as simply equivalent to the requirement of episcopal ordination as a condition precedent to unity, or intercommunion, with the Churches of the Anglican Communion, is either to miss the point or to charge the Bishops with insincerity. The question of episcopal ordination does not emerge, as a matter of real importance, except for those who are convinced (1) that the external and visible unity of the whole Church is our Lord's will and, therefore, a primary obligation, and (2) that an Apostolic and universally accepted official ministry is essential to that unity. For all who are so far agreed, it does become a matter of very grave concern to determine how such an Apostolic ministry may be established among, or recovered by, all the members of the fellowship. Logically speaking, it still remains a secondary matter, for it is a means toward the end, and not the end itself. But practically it is of primary importance in that the end of unity depends upon the means of ministry. The Bishops, not as Bishops desiring to magnify their office, but as men caught and claimed by a new vision of the unity of the whole Church, ask in all good faith and sober thoughtfulness: "Is there any other means for gaining this our common goal than the Episcopate?"

In conclusion, and by way of general summary, it is clear that in the Bishops' view unity is something already given to and present in the Church, which is to be manifested and maintained. It is not a humanly devised expedient, incidentally and almost accidentally forced to the front by the pressure of untoward circumstances. It is an enabling gift or endowment of the Holy Spirit present in the Fellowship from the beginning, waiting, like all other gifts, for human realization and acceptance, but definitely and irrevocably the plan of Divine wisdom and the goal of Divine will. Hence unity takes its place as a primary, moral obligation resting on the whole company of Christ's disciples. It is to be maintained and manifested by them with a dutiful regard to the inherent principles of the Church's life. The Spirit is always the Spirit of order. Its freedom of operation, in nature as in grace, is shown characteristically, not in spontaneous intervention, but in orderly procedure. As St. Paul puts it in memorable phrase, it is "the law of the Spirit of life" which is in Christ Jesus which has made us "free from the law of sin and death."

These inherent principles which mark and secure the structural integrity of the Body, and which are, therefore, binding on its loyal members, are sufficiently noted in the Appeal as including: (1) a sincere or bona fide acceptance of the Church's common and constant faith, not as a disciplinary requirement, but rather as providing the expert way of approach to God, proved by an indisputable and incalculable weight of witness, in order that all may receive according to God's will the full liberating power of His love and grace; (2) a ready acceptance of membership in the one Body by the universal means of Baptism, normally completed in all cases where it may be had by the Apostolic Laying-on of Hands; (3) a faithful participation in the Holy Communion and other sacramental ordinances as the proved and authorized means for the building up and strengthening of Christian fellowship.

This brings us to the crowning thought of the Appeal and to its dominating impulse. Unity is to be manifested and maintained for the sake and the welfare of the "Great Church," the whole fellowship of the baptized, living and departed and to come, not for the welfare of any part or section, still less for the perpetuation of local and temporary preference and privilege. Unity is to be sought, and sacrifices made for its attainment, in order that the whole Body of Christ in all its rich and divinely given diversity of thought, character and temperament may be enriched and edified; that all the nations and groups, with all their "peculiar differences" and special gifts, may flow into the Kingdom and find their home and sanctification there, and be made "one man in Christ Jesus."

We, Anglicans, must be at least as ready as any other group to apply this "self-denying ordinance" to ourselves. The nineteenth Article of our thirty-nine, in so far as we retain it, must be amended so as to read: "As the Churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome have erred, so also the Church of England hath erred," in seeking (as all other groups have done) to be too exact censors and judges of the requirements of Christ for all the people of His Love.

We must be prepared to acknowledge that in the eyes of the Head of the Church, as in the common faith of the Great Church which is His bride, the formularies of the Reformation, like the decrees of Trent, are likely to appear as landmarks of our wanderings in the desert of division, things to he forgotten and repented of when submission to the Spirit of His Unity has made us one in His Body.

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