If the answer is in the affirmative then life in the supermarket of religions in the USA may be tolerable!
Let us begin with a contrast between “theoretical doctrine” and the “practical reality.”
The Lord Jesus Christ taught that there is one Church – “upon this rock I will build my Church”; his apostles taught that there is one Church and they identified this Church through the use of various metaphors or models – e.g., the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ and the royal Priesthood; and the ecumenical Creed declares in summary of the biblical teaching that there is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
However, what the eyes see in the USA is not one Church, not even one Anglican, one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, one Baptist, or one Orthodox Church. They behold a vast array of denominations, which are distinguished from each other by name, by size, by what they stand for, by their polity and organization, by their ethnicity and so on. Each of them claims either to be the whole of, or a part of, the one Church of God and some but not all of them are in fellowship with others. It is veritably amazing sight to behold and ponder.
So the question arises daily: How can we maintain belief in the One Church of Scripture and Creed, and, at the same time, live within the massive variety of competitive denominations and congregations in the West, particularly in the U.S.A.? More specifically, how can we as Anglicans live within the multiplicity of Anglican denominations, networks, groups and jurisdictions in “the homeland”?
We may recall that it was after the Reformation of the sixteenth century that the proliferation of separated Christian groups really took off—first National Churches broke off from the Papacy, then religious toleration within nation states led to various nonconformist and dissenting groups being active, and further toleration led to the multiplication of denominations and sects. In the USA with the separation of church and state and with religious freedom, the proliferation is immense and gets more so.
In England, the questions of what is, and where is, the Church were faced by the Anglican/Puritan/Presbyterian divines who met in Westminster Abbey, London, in the 1640s, and who produced the Westminster Catechisms and Confession of Faith. In Chapter XXV of the Confession they wrote this “Of the Church”:
1.The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been or are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic, visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
4.This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
5. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Church of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will….
In making a distinction between (a) the One true Church of God, known only in its entirety to God and thus invisible to man who belongs to space and time, and (b) the variety of visible national Churches (or later of national Churches and denominations) together making up the One mixed and divided Church of God visible on earth, this Confession stated what was held in common by all Protestants at that time. (We may note that Roman Catholics made the same essential distinction between the invisible and visible but stated the relation between the two in terms which effectively identified the visible only with the jurisdiction on earth of the R C Church.)
So we return to the present day and the supermarket of Christian groups in the USA! One the one hand, we believe in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and on the other, we practically believe in or accept a vast variety of denominations, effectively in competition with each other. And, for Anglicans, there is the added embarrassment of having separated missions and groups of churches (networks, dioceses or convocations) not only home-spun but also founded recently by African provinces on U.S.A. soil.
Let us be clear: for 99 per cent of Americans the vast variety of religious groups in the amazing supermarket of religion is part of the glory of America, relating to its foundation in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thus for the majority what I raise as a problem is rather a necessary and good part of the reality that is the U.S.A.
However, for the thoughtful, who take the New Testament and Creed seriously, there is a dilemma of reconciling what seem to be two irreconcilable things—One Church and a multitude of denominations.
It would seem that the only real option—unless one accepts the classic Roman Catholic claim and joins that ancient Ecclesia—for facing this dilemma is to accept in broad terms this distinction between invisible and visible—and for Anglicans we may say that the distinction is actually presumed though not explicitly stated by the Articles of Religion and The Book of Common Prayer (1662) of the Anglican Way.
How else, I frequently ask myself, can one make any sense of the complexity of the situation in the USA in terms of the massive variety of denominations, all claiming to be under Christ the Lord, all preach the Gospel and all based upon the revelation recorded in Holy Scripture?
Of course, to accept the distinction between the Church as invisible and as visible, does not mean that one should use it to justify the existence of thousands of denominations or to justify starting a new one when we feel like it.
However, one value in accepting it means that we can sleep at night and not be overwhelmed by the burden of the total disunity of the baptized Christians in the U.S.A.; another is that we see brothers and sister in Christ in groups and congregations other than our own, and we can view them as future neighbors in the heavenly Jerusalem! And, further, such considerations will surely lead us to desire to work for practical unity locally amongst the professing Christian people of the area—to serve the needy and poor and so on.
But, before I close, I need to indicate one major way in which the doctrine of the Church as invisible is often wrongly used. This is when someone acts as if, as a “born-again believer,” she or he has a kind of direct individualistic link as a human person to God the Father through Jesus Christ (a kind of dial-up instant link). Note how the Westminster Confession states in (2) that ordinarily there is no salvation outside the belonging to and being a full member of the visible Church—a local congregation where the Word is preach and the Two Sacraments administered.
In these days when individual autonomy is assumed as basic to living in the West, there is the real danger of linking this sense of autonomy to a doctrine of the Church as invisible and thereby misunderstanding the relation of the individual believer to Christ, to the members of Christ’s Body, to the local church and to God the Father! New birth, being born from above by the Holy Spirit, is birth into the position of a child of God: it is Salvation as an individual person into the family of God so that one has brothers and sisters from then and on into eternity! Thus the relation to God is together with others and not in a solo performance and existence—members one of another!
It will only be at the Parousia of the Son of Man in glory at the end of the age that the problem of the multiplicity of denominations will be solved. Till then we have to live with it, seeking in and through it to serve the Lord Jesus according to our best lights and will. This makes being a genuine Christian in America extremely difficult and demanding—not impossible but seemingly sometime nearly so.
Sept 19 2007
The Revd Dr Peter Toon