Project Canterbury

Unity, Truth and Holiness.

By Arthur Michael Ramsey.

London: no publisher, no date.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2010

NOTE BY THE ARCHBISHOP: This address was given to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in the summer of 1960 when I was still Archbishop of York. It is now reprinted in the service of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It falls into two main parts. The first bears upon the work of unity everywhere: the second deals specially with the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglican Churches. MICHAEL CANTUAR.


In talk and thought about Christian unity, appeal is frequently and rightly made to the prayer of our Lord in the seventeenth chapter of St. John. There it is recorded that our Lord prayed for the unity of His disciples. It is equally true, but not nearly so frequently mentioned, that in the same prayer our Lord prayed also for the sanctification of the disciples; and in particular for their sanctification in the truth, 'sanctify them in truth--thy word is truth'. The truth is the revelation of the Father's name which He has given to them, and the Lord sanctifies Himself to the death on Calvary that thereby the disciples may be sanctified in truth. It is a threefold cord--unity, sanctification, truth--and through the unity of the disciples in Christ whose truth indwells them and in whose self-consecration they share, the divine Glory will dwell in them in anticipation of their vision of the divine Glory with their eyes hereafter.

The fulfilment of Christ's prayer has happened in the working out of a Church which is at once the Body of Christ and composed of frail and sinful human flesh. And that has ever been so. Once for all possessing Christ's holiness, the Church is the place where that holiness is wrought out in conflict. Once for all possessing Christ's unity, the Church is no less the place where unity has to realize itself in the conquest of conflicts, as we see early in Corinth and elsewhere. And once for all possessing indefectibly Christ's truth, the Church works out, in the ups and downs of history, the realization and the presentation of that truth. The sin of disunity is but one aspect of the sinfulness of the members of the Body of Christ frustrating the fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord. Disunity is one aspect of this, lack of holiness is another aspect, and failure to grasp the truth and to present it in simplicity and clarity is another. What is wrong with Christendom is not only that we are divided, it is also [1/2] that we lack holiness and that we monkey about with truth. And that being so, it seems to me entirely insufficient to think and talk about reunion unless in the same breath we are thinking and talking about reconsecration and recovery of the fullness of truth. That threefold cord cannot be broken.

In Christian history there have inevitably been phases and movements where there has been concentration on one or other of the aspects of the Church's calling. Both in ancient and in post-reformation history there have been movements which concentrated upon holiness as the one great desideratum, defining holiness rigidly and throwing out people who didn't seem to qualify. It is possible that future historians will feel it to be just as queer and lopsided when ecclesiastical statesmen have talked unity, unity, unity, as if that was something that could be abstracted, and have concentrated upon it and not always seen it as interwoven with the other matters. What we find in John 17 is really expressed in the credal description of the Church as 'one holy, catholic, apostolic'. Let any of us try to expound one of those notes of the Church and inevitably we find ourselves expounding the others at the same time.

What inferences do we draw for our own understanding of the situation and of our own needs and duties?

First and plainly, there is the need always to try to hold together the different aspects of approach towards unity--the diplomatic, and the intellectual and the ascetical. And because the ascetical is a part of it, it means that the movement towards Christian unity is like an iceberg. There is always the part of it that can be seen and can be expressed in talk and in conferences, negotiations, recorded successes. There is also the invisible part of it. We can as Christians be sure that the invisible part is no less important than the visible part--we can never be sure, so to speak, what the proportions of the two are--the relative value that Almighty God sets upon the seen and the unseen aspects.

A second inference is that the laws of speed concerning unity cannot be very different from the laws of speed concerning holiness and truth. We are called to be holy. That is a matter of urgency that brooks no delay. We know that it is wrong to pray like the unconverted Augustine: 'Lord, give me purity, but not yet'. We know that the Lord says to us, 'To-night is thy soul required of thee'; the call to holiness in the example of the obedience of Christ is urgent, and to be standing still is to be moving back. Yet, because it is a holiness after Christ, we know too, that very great patience is needed--not only human patience but supernatural patience--and it would be quite ridiculous if we thought that the recovery of holiness could be a matter of the Church's planning to be holy by Thursday week. So with unity. There is urgency in that [2/3] every moment of disunity is scandalous and sinful. There is urgency in that wherever there are two Christian bodies in a place they must be asking themselves--is it possible for us to cease to be two and to become one and why should we not do it? But yet, there is also the sort of patience required about unity that there is about holiness. The process whereby Christendom is made one, cannot, it seems, be other in the law of its operation than the process whereby Christendom is made holy.

A third inference is: should not the total criterion of unity, truth, holiness be kept in mind in judging about plans and schemes of reunion? Ecclesiastical statesmanship is sometimes liable to talk as if the essence of the matter was the reduction of the number of ecclesiastical bodies as such. Within the World Council of Churches this is at present very much an issue. There is a slogan: 'We intend to stay together', and on the part of some constituent members of the World Council of Churches that means, alas: 'We intend to enjoy being under the ecumenical umbrella which gives us a sort of togetherness, but we have no intention of ceasing from being separate denominations'. Over against this is the very strong plea being made from other quarters that the acquiescing in separate bodies is quite wrong--you must, wherever possible, turn your two or three separated bodies into one, as has been done in South India. But it is not just numerical oneness, but oneness in catholicity and apostolicity and holiness that is the criterion and the goal. If denomination A and denomination B and denomination C are going to unite, let them ask 'unite in what?' It is important that the union should belong to the movement towards the divine goal of one holy, catholic, apostolic Church. Let me give one or two instances. Supposing that the Free Churches in England united into one big, organized Free Church of England with one organization; would it be a step towards the fulfilment of unity according to the will of Christ? It might, it might not. It might have the effect of just hardening English Christianity into two, or rather three, groups--a Roman group, an Anglican group and a Non-Conformist group; each, because of its cohesion, might be all the more intractable in relation to final purposes. Again, it would be ex hypothesis conceivable for Christendom to coalesce into three, or four groups: yet the real goal would not be nearer if in the event the groups being so much bigger were more pleased with themselves and more rigid in their confessional frontiers. Separateness of a denominational kind is something that should fill us with horror. But the divine answer isn't just making separate bodies fewer in number, or one in number; it is becoming one in holiness, in sanctification, in the truth.


[4] Now I want to speak of the inferences I would draw from this about relations between Anglicans and the Orthodox. From the Anglican point of view, our relations in approaching Orthodoxy have gone through several phases. (I) In the early days of rapprochement between Anglicans and Orthodox the Anglican standpoint might be paraphrased as something like this: 'Hurray, we are not alone in maintaining on this globe the existence of a non-papal Catholicism. We are not the only Tractarian Church. There is another in another part of the globe, and thus it is all the more apparent that non-papal Catholicism is a reality, and not an English device invented by John Henry Newman in his book The Prophetical Office of the Church (the book subsequently called Via Media). Non-papal Catholicism is something that exists in its own right, doubly attested by the existence of another great Church in Christendom which, like us, maintains a continuity with the ancient, undivided Church.' Now there was a long phase in which the matter was seen thus. The difficulty was that this account of Anglicanism was not one which Anglicans universally gave, and the Orthodox were able to perceive this. (2) Then, in a second phase, Anglicans viewed the matter something like this: 'We are pledged to be doing our utmost for the recovery of Christian unity everywhere; we have our own Anglican inheritance, which we believe to be a truly Catholic and Apostolic one. To that we adhere; but when we meet the Orthodox we discover that all our presentations of Christianity in the West suffer from the ups and downs of medieval and post-medieval history and, through contact with Eastern Orthodoxy, we are helped towards the recovery of a more primitive perspective of Catholicism that goes behind our distortions in the West.' This view of the matter is one which I believe many Anglicans hold sincerely still. (3) But there is a third view of the matter, and it is something like this: 'When we look at the Holy Orthodox Church of the East, we see in it the challenge of wholeness; a faith, a church, an orthodoxy which is one whole, which is firm in its adherence to the Creeds, yet not in a scholastic kind of way, because the Creed is expressed through the Church's life and worship no less than through its definitions. It is a wholeness in which these elements of unity, truth and sanctification are never allowed to be separated.' It is here, I think, that we are able, if we are willing, to learn very much from you Orthodox.

Now let me say a word about the growth of Anglican and Orthodox rapprochement, as I see it. In the period between the two wars there seemed to be big progress towards doctrinal agreement, and possible intercommunion. It now appears that the very high, eager hopes which were built upon this by many Anglicans were [4/5] rather illusory. First, there was a phase when Anglicans thought that the great thing was to elicit from Orthodox Churches declarations that Anglican Orders were valid. That was due to a reading of Orthodox relations through the spectacles of relations with Pope Leo XIII, and it is now apparent what a false track that was. I think now Anglicans understand better what any Orthodox declarations about the validity of our Orders amount to--which is roughly that, if union were to come on the strength of total and complete doctrinal agreement, then re-ordination would not be necessary. Secondly, the advance was a bit illusory in that Anglicans tended to give a rather misleading picture to the Orthodox of what the Church of England is really like. The nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties were a time when the Thirty-Nine Articles were rather low in the scale of values: that was partly through the outlook of liberalism and partly through a catholic outlook that valued the Thirty-Nine Articles very much less than the Anglican appeal to antiquity. But it was misleading when a very distinguished group of Anglicans issued a manifesto informing the Ecumenical Patriarch that the Thirty-Nine Articles counted for little among us, because they dealt only with local controversies of the sixteenth century. And, then, our third bit of illusionism was, I think, the idea that you could take Orthodoxy as meaning so many dogmas, and Anglicanism as meaning so many dogmas; and find that groups of theologians discussing them could agree on the meaning of a very large proportion of them--and consequently assume that agreement on the rest might follow. This optimism missed the vital point, that, for the Orthodox, the Orthodox Faith is not a number of items, but one indivisible whole.

It was at the Conference in Moscow in 1956 that any trace of these illusions disappeared. This time there was no attempt to keep the Thirty-Nine Articles 'under the counter'. A good look was had at them all, and they were all exhibited to the cocoanut-shying of the learned Orthodox divines. Two or three of them they really did find very intolerable indeed; but I was surprised and pleased at the number of them which came through the ordeal. Furthermore, it became very apparent how big was the difference between the Anglican theological method of tracing dogmas from their historical origin, and discussing them in terms of their historical development; and the Orthodox habit, in contrast, of seeing and expounding dogmas solely as part of the one unbreakable structure, Orthodoxy. I felt, and feel, this to be the biggest intellectual difference between an Anglican and an Orthodox. An Anglican can be found saying, 'Well, there is a substantial body of dogma which we all believe--but there are one or two things about which some of us would say this, and some of us would say that'. Contrast, with that kind of talk, [5/6] Orthodoxy. It is a complete and beautiful picture which is all one piece--and if you smudge it at any one point you have really ruined the picture. It is in that divinely-given wholeness that Orthodoxy consists. And thus the way to make the sign of the Cross, or the way in which you salute the Mother of God is as much a part of the picture as belief in the Incarnation of our Lord, one person in two natures. By tampering with any part of the picture, a smudge can ruin it, because it is in the one-ness and wholeness that Orthodoxy lies. It was this contrast which came home, I think, to us Anglicans most vividly in the Moscow Conference. It is the real difference in intellectual outlook.

This, however, must be added. While the Orthodox position has this exclusiveness about it, you Orthodox do not make us feel that we are 'outsiders'. You make us feel that we are Christian brethren, and encourage us to go on believing that the essence of Orthodoxy really is within our Church. Hence, though fuller rapprochement involves a process of changing the Church of England, it is one of changing it by our drawing out from ourselves a realization of what we are. That might sound as if all the changes and repenting must be on the part of Anglicans. I humbly suggest that this really is not so. Whilst it behoves Anglicans to grasp what Orthodoxy really means in terms of wholeness, dare I suggest it behoves Orthodoxy to discover a little more of what it means to try to bear witness to that wholeness in the midst of the ups and downs of a very difficult history, and to recover it when it is partly lost? Take, for instance, the Communion of Saints. Say, if you like, that Anglican formularies and practice are very jejune about the Communion of Saints: but how could they be other when we went through the historical process of protesting against a tyrannical ecclesiastical system which had a very corrupt doctrine of the Communion of Saints? Say, if you like, that the Anglican expression in its formularies about sacrifice in the Eucharist is minimal: but how could it be other when we went through the process of finding our way from the false antitheses of medieval and post-medieval thought? I do not think you Orthodox have had any such false antitheses to fight your way through, and I believe that if you, of your charity, would appreciate the task of bearing witness to Truth and recovering where it has been lost, and working it out in the rough and tumble of a tempestuous history, in the midst of western culture, it would help our understanding of one another.

As to future theological work, my impression is, ever since the Moscow Conference, that there are two things which most need grappling with for greater understanding between our traditions: (1) the relation between the faith as eternal, and the faith as wrought out by the Church in historical circumstances; and (2) the relation [6/7] between dogma and the verbal formulation of dogma. Here within Orthodoxy itself, as we find in the Greek Fathers, there is the insistence upon dogma as inspired truth; but there is also the recognition that the words of dogma are under the impossible necessity of trying to give expression to the inexpressible. I believe that through the discussion between Anglicans and Orthodox of these two matters advance is possible.


But let me come back, finally, to my original theme. Christ prayed for our unity and sanctification in the truth. My plea is that we cannot separate the three parts of the fulfilment; they interpret and they assist one another. This is the context in which we press on, in our work of negotiation, in our theological tasks, in our pursuit of friendship, in our prayer. Christ is drawing those who believe in Him into unity, truth and holiness.

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