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XIV.

CHRISTIAN UNION.

John, xvii. 21. “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me.”

THERE has been an ever-recurring dream of a united Christendom. The dream has never been realised. Even at the first—supposed by many to be the golden age of the Church, just as men in after-years are apt to idealise the beginning of their life, and to suppose that such a glow of happiness can never return—even then there was no such union among Christians as many people imagine. On the contrary, there is the clearest evidence that there were parties then, as there are parties now—divisions of less or of greater moment—those who said that they were “of Paul,” and those “of Apollos,” and those “of Cephas,” and others—no doubt, 273holding all the rest as of inferior standing—who said they were “of Christ.”174174   1 Corinthians, i. 12. So marked, in fact, were the Jewish and Pauline types of Christianity in the earliest age, that well-known theories of the formation of the Church have been based on the recognition of this great distinction; and what is called Catholicism has been supposed to be not the natural growth of the original genius of the Gospel, but the conciliation of two antagonistic Christian parties. Whatever truth there may be in such a view, there can be no doubt to any intelligent reader of St Paul’s Epistles that the Apostolic Church, no less than that of later ages, was a Church without uniformity either of doctrine or of worship. As there were diversities of gifts, there was then, as there have always been, diversities of opinion, and equally so, differences of administration and of devotional form and practice. The dream of Christian union in the first age, any more than in any other age, vanishes the more closely we are able to inspect it. The radical differences which lie in human nature, Christian or otherwise, assert themselves before our eyes in the pages of the New Testament.

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The Church of the third and fourth centuries realises the vision of Catholicism more perfectly; but to the student it is no less a combination of many parties and opinions frequently in conflict with one another. It is customary, in reviewing these centuries, to class one course of thought and of action as catholic and orthodox, and the rest as sectarian and heretical; but the more intimately all the phenomena are studied, the less tenable does such a view appear. There is, no doubt, truth on one side and error on another; but truth is not always on the same side; the so-called “heretic” has much to say for himself—has sometimes as good a standing in Christian reason, and even tradition, as the reputed champion of orthodoxy.

Mediaeval Christendom, again—not to speak of the Eastern and original branch of Christianity then permanently separated from the Western or Latin branch—presents a picture of varied and frequently conflicting activity. The opposing colours appear the more lively, the more familiar the picture becomes—Pope at variance with Pope, prelate with priest, and monk with monk. The “variations” of Protestantism have become a byword. Long ago they were held forth, as at this day they are sometimes still spoken of, as 275an evidence that the true Church must be sought elsewhere than amidst such a “chaos of sects.”

What, then, are we to say of Christian union? Is it a dream? one of those illusions by which men try to escape from the hard world of reality into a world of beautiful possibilities where all falls into imaginary order, and none but voices of peace are heard. It is undeniable that some of the noblest Christian hearts have cherished this dream. Ever and again, from amidst the distractions of controversy and the miseries of unchristian strife, there has gone up the cry for a united Christian Church which should face the evils of the world, and the moral wretchedness which comes from division and unbelief. In a time like ours, which is big with all issues of good and evil—with heavenward and earthward aspirations alike with the throes both of a wider faith and a deeper scepticism—the longing for Christian union has grown in many quarters and taken various practical developments. It has sometimes seemed as if the wave of reaction from a preceding period of indifference or of bitterness would carry forward the growing enthusiasm till it issued in a mighty stream bathing all the Churches and flooding them by its onward flow.

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This aspiration after Christian unity, even if it take erroneous forms, is a blessing to be thankful for. It comes always of a certain large-heartedness, mixed as it may be with prejudice or the illusion of a hope more fond than rational. Large-heartedness—even if unwise or fanciful—is more interesting, and indeed wiser, than narrow-mindedness, or that scope of heart and intellect which can never see anything but the difficulties of everything, and is rich in the multitude of its small experiences. It is a good sign of our time, upon the whole, that so many in all Churches have had, and still have, dreams of Christian union, and that the voices of peace rather than of war have been heard from so many sides of the Christian Church.

But is the dream never to be realised? and the voice of prophecy never to be fulfilled? It is surely impossible to read such words as those of my text without acknowledging that there is a sense in which Christian unity should never be absent from the Church—nay, that in so far as it is absent, a true note of the Church is wanting. What, then, is the meaning of these words? and how do we rightly interpret them? They are solemn as words can be—part, as they are, of the sublime prayer which our Saviour 277offered up for His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed. They thrill with an affectionate aspiration and awe. They contemplate a state not merely ideal in its happiness, but capable of realisation—a true condition into which all the disciples of our Lord—not only those present, but all who through them should believe in His name—were called upon to enter as a token of their discipleship. “As Thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me.”

I. Plainly these words imply that a reality of Christian union is attainable among Christians; but plainly also, that the idea of union as conceived by our Lord is something different from the dreams which men have often had of it. These dreams have proved impracticable not merely because men are evil and prone to disunion, but also in a great degree because men 278are men, with different interests and tastes and tendencies. The picture of Christian division in the past, as in the present, has two sides. It proceeds from two quite distinct causes, one of which is a permanent, and therefore a good, element in human nature—the other of which alone is evil. Men have sought to bind the one element as well as the other. Nay, they have far more frequently sought union along the line of intellect and opinion than that of feeling and action. They have been more busy with the formation of a common creed, and the obligation of common modes of Church government and worship, than with the formation of a catholic spirit, and the obligation of brotherly concord and co-operation. So much so, that the idea of Christian union has come almost wholly to apply to the junction or incorporation of Christian Churches. Churches are specially said to unite when their ministers and members not merely join in common worship and common Christian work, but come under formal sanction to do so—to hold the same doctrines, and to follow no devious courses of opinion or ceremonial. Here, as so often, men have materialised the principles of Christ. They have been intent on doctrine, or ritual, or administration; while 279He was intent only on spirit and character. They have thought of uniformity, while He thought only of unity. They are proud of what they mean by uniformity as something higher than unity; whereas it is something really lower—something which is by no means necessarily a good in itself, and which can never be so if enforced from the outside instead of growing from the inside.

In short, there are two ideas of Christian union, one of which is spiritual and essentially Christian—so that where it is absent the Christian spirit is absent—and the other of which is formal in one sense or another. It is of great importance for us not to mistake which is the true and only practicable idea. While we mourn the past divisions of Christendom, we are at the same time bound to learn from them, and especially to learn from, them in the light of these words of our Lord. On the one hand we cannot doubt—no Christian can doubt with such words before him-that unity is at once an unfailing Christian obligation, and a fact of the utmost moment to the life and progress of the Church. Where it is wanting, the fulness of Divine life must be wanting, and the free course of Divine truth retarded. Only where it is present 280can the blessing and power of the Gospel receive their true development and attain their appropriate triumph. If in any respect our separate ecclesiastical organisations are allowed to obscure from us this great note of the Church, and to plunge us into unseemly rivalry and contention, sectarian bitterness and controversy, then they act injuriously. If not unchristian in themselves, they are put to an unchristian purpose. But, on the other hand, it is no less impossible for us to doubt that the unity of which Christ speaks is something essentially compatible with differences of ecclesiastical organisation, and even of dogmatic opinion—that the bond of Christian union with Him is not something outward, but something inward. The facts of human nature, the facts of Christian history, and specially the words before us in their true meaning, clearly imply this.

Let us examine the words of our Lord in proof of this. His prayer is, that His disciples may be one in Himself and in the Father. “As Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us.” The ground of Christian unity therefore, in our Lord’s view, is participation in the life of the Father and the Son. One Christian is united to another in so far as 281they share together the life that is hid with Christ in God. “I in them, and Thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”175175   John, xvii. 23. “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”176176   Ibid. xiv. 23. Christ, and Christ alone, is the centre of reconciliation between God and man. In Him we find God, and God finds us. And even so Christ is the only true centre of union between man and man. Out of Christ, and strangers to His grace, we are not only separated from God, but from one another—the spiritual unity of man with man is broken, the bonds of brotherhood are dissolved; and notwithstanding the ties of affection, and the sympathies of friendship, men have a constant tendency to isolate themselves, evermore within the limits of their own selfishness, and to mind only their own things. Such a spirit of self-seeking is deep in the natural heart of man, and shows itself in many ways. But whenever we touch the life of Divine love and self-sacrifice that is in Christ, the hard and selfish heart melts away. The enthusiasm of humanity—of a common brotherhood in humanity—kindles within us at the 282quickening touch. The love of self dies down, or is no longer an absorbing passion consuming our higher and better feelings. The love of Christ constrains us; “because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again.”177177   2 Corinthians, v. 14, 15.

The ground of all living unity, therefore, amongst men, is Christ, and there is no other ground. He is the centre which, when we touch, all our enmity is broken and our discords healed. Alienations, divisions, jealousies, fall away from His peaceful presence. When we really come into His presence, we find ourselves at one not only with Him but with our brethren, who are also His brethren. The spring of this union is spiritual, and only spiritual. It may be helped or confirmed by external aids, but it is itself in no degree external. It may take external forms—it necessarily will do so; but it is not linked to any of these forms. It is deeper than them all, as the soul itself—communing spiritually with the Father and the Son; it is wider than them all—overflowing the whole life, and manifesting itself in the whole service of both soul and body.

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But the language of the text helps us to understand still more clearly the character of Christian union. It is not merely a union in Christ as a common spiritual centre, but it is such a union as subsists between God the Father and the Son. Now, this union of Divine Persons in the Godhead—whatever else it may be—is a perfect consonance of will and affection, so that the Father hath evermore delight in the Son, and the Son in the Father. That there is more than this accordancy of will and affection in the Divine subsistence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—three Persons in one Godhead—we believe; and that the life of the Church in its strength and harmony rises out of, and depends upon, the adorable constitution of the Godhead we also believe: but how all this is, or its reason and method, we cannot comprehend.178178   “It is better for us to confess at once that we do not understand the mystery of the Trinity, than rashly to claim for ourselves a knowledge of it. In the Day of Judgment I shall not be condemned because I say I do not know the nature of my Creator: if I have spoken rashly of Him, my rashness will be punished; but my ignorance will be pardoned. . . . Sufficient for us that the Trinity is; we are not rashly to seek to know the reason of its being.”—Sermon in Appendix to Vol. V. Benedictine ed. of Augustine’s works; quoted by Dr Swainson in his volume on the Creeds. The author of the sermon is unknown. There is no difficulty, however, in understanding the 284unity of spiritual affection which subsists betwixt the Father and the Son, so that the Father Could say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased;”179179   Matt. iii. 17. and the Son could say, “I delight to do Thy will, my God;”180180   Psalm xl. 8. “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish His work.”181181   John, iv. 34. Every one can appreciate such a concord of will and affection, and recognise the light which it throws upon the bond of Christian union on earth. Whatever deeper character this bond may have springing out of the organic union which we have with Christ, and Christ with us, it must at least always be a union of spiritual desire and affection. As the Son evermore loves the Father, and the Father the Son—as one holy concord binds them ever in one—so the spirit of union in the Church must be everywhere the same spirit of love and moral consent. It must be a unity of heart with heart, and will with will; a union, therefore, characteristically of action, for all affection is already action. This is the lowest conception we can form of Christian union; but at the same time it is the highest. For whatever may be higher in the unity of Christ with God, and of Christians with Christ and with one another, we can only 285believe that this arises from its greater spiritual secrecy—its more profound mystery of spiritual truth. It is the spiritual depth of the Trinity that we fail to comprehend. So far from its being anything more outward or tangible than the unity of will and affection which we can comprehend, it is only because it is something more utterly hid in the Divine Essence; and, therefore, more perfectly and gloriously spiritual that it evades our power of conception and expression. A unity which is in any sense less than a unity of affection, of will, and common effort, is not Christian, whatever it may be. A combination which starts not from within but from without—from any consent save the consent of hearts fused by a common love and sympathy, and rejoicing in common action—is not after the conception of Christ, nor likely to have the blessing of Christ.

If this be the true view of Christian union, it is clear that this union is not to be sought or found in political movements or administrative changes, or alterations of doctrinal or ecclesiastical stand-points. Such things may be good or not. They have their own place and interest. It might be well that many improvements were made in our ecclesiastical arrangements, 286and that our several Churches were drawn into a closer union of creed and organisation; but the primary requisite is not outward but inward change—a growing desire for the blessing of unity—a growing love for all Christian brethren. This is the true line in which we must look for the realisation of our Lord’s Prayer. If our Churches were more externally united—this would probably be good; but not if union were supposed to consist in such external adjustments, rather than in the union of heart with heart, and life with life.

It is the preference of the outward to the inward which has been the bane of many recent ecclesiastical movements, as of such movements at all times. Instead of the eternal and divine provision for Christian unity, in the redemptive life and death of the Son of God, as the common treasure of all believing souls, some feature in the constitution of the Church has been held forth as of catholic or unifying efficacy. If Scotland would only become Episcopalian—some have said—it would enter once more into the Catholic unity broken by our rude Reformers. Or, again, if all Presbyterians would come together in the national Church, on a basis of popular privilege, then we would have a united 287ecclesiastical power, fitted to struggle with social evils, and to stem the tide of immorality and unbelief. On the advantages or disadvantages of such an ecclesiastical union, I need not dwell. Its utility for any practical end of good would certainly depend less upon its power than upon its enlightenment and the breadth of its intelligence. What I cannot doubt is that such ideas of union are not in the mind of Christ. No teaching was ever less ecclesiastical than His. Questions of polity did not move him. The unifying principle with Him is not here nor there—not in Episcopacy nor Presbyterianism—not in this form nor that—but in Himself.

Every Christian Church, of course, is so far ready to allow this. The principle is conceded; but all Churches alike fail to work it out. Somehow Christ is always on their side. They have Christ rather than others, and they have the Church which he founded rather than others. While Christ is the admitted source of all Christian blessing, yet somehow Christian blessing is only to be really and fully found in their way—in certain forms of outward appointment which they have accepted and approve. They are not content with saying that special modes of ecclesiastical rite and government—special 288views of Christian truth—are best, according to their experience, for developing and maintaining the full force of Christian thought and action. This were a fair and rational position. But they say—logically, all ecclesiasticism says—that a certain definite order of thought, and worship, and government is of rightful, and only of rightful, efficacy to insure catholic truth and unity. But the Divine voice nowhere says this. Truly, this is to make the grace of Christ no longer free, and the unity which comes from Him no longer spiritual—to link the one to historical accident, and materialise the other by external adjunct.

Ecclesiastical dogmatism, instead of helping towards unity, only tends to deeper disunion. Wherever external authority of any kind is arbitrarily asserted, souls, instead of being drawn together in the love of Christ, are always drawn apart into the assertion of their own indefeasible rights. The more tightly Church bonds are held, the more deeply is individual opposition excited, and the more violent are the ruptures of Christian charity.

But it will be asked, how can Christian unity exist apart from visible manifestation or “corporeity”? I answer, why should it not do so? 289Can I not love my brother because I do not agree with him about mysteries that neither of us understand—because I prefer one mode of worship and he prefers another? If I am much of a man—not to say a Christian—I will love him all the more because in some things we differ. I will respect his honesty, and get nearer to his heart while I do so. Unity of affection will come the more from difference of mind.

But it will be said, again, is not the state of our Christian Churches, standing aloof from one another in mutual estrangement and contention, a spectacle of offence to the Christian heart? No doubt it is so. But the real offence consists not in any intellectual, or administrative, or liturgical differences distinguishing our Churches; but solely in their moral separation—their unchristian alienations and jealousies. And what does this prove?—not the need of ecclesiastical uniformity, but of inward grace and of Divine charity. Divisions abound, and hearts are separated, not because we are aggregated in several Churches, and have different ecclesiastical usages, but because we keep away from the fulness of Divine blessing that is in the one Shepherd and Bishop of souls, and do not stand in awe and sin not—because our faith is weak, 290and our love cold, and our holiness but a feeble gleam amidst the darkness of sin. It is of the poverty of Christian thought that notions of uniform Church organisation are born; it is of the weakness of Christian feeling that our distinctions, as Churches, are made a ground of separateness. Did we enlarge our thought a little, we should know that men must always group themselves into distinct Churches; and did we only open our hearts to the full reality of Christ’s love, and the immeasurable bounty of His fraternal pity, these distinctions would be no walls of separation dividing us—but a very river of Christian unity would overflow our souls, the streams of which would enrich and gladden the city of God.

Why should spiritual unity, apart from uniformity, seem unattainable? Why should it be thought a thing incredible that Christian men should forget sectarian animosities and ecclesiastical traditions; and feeling that the deadly social evils around them are of overwhelming magnitude in comparison with all that divides them, unite heartily on a practical basis of Christian interest and sympathy—and with combined force give themselves to the work of the Lord? Why, indeed! But because faith in 291the great realities of Divine truth, among many who speak loudest of these realities, is weak beside adherence to the accidents of denominational distinction—because, to use language suggested by that of a great thinker,182182   Coleridge: ‘Aids to Reflection,’ p. 76. Pickering: 1848. we are apt to love our party more than our Church, and our Church more than our Christianity, and our Christianity more than truth—because the Christian spirit burns in us dimly, and the love of many has waxed cold. This is why the agencies of our several Churches, with all their apparent energy, are, after all, struggling but feebly against the agencies of sin and evil. Christian men must feel more than they yet do how immeasurably greater is God’s love than their own comprehension of it, and God’s truth than their own dogmatisms—how even wide differences, critical and speculative, are not only consistent with, but the very condition of, a high-hearted practical co-operation. They must recognise more thoroughly the sacred freedom of intellectual conviction, and the equally sacred power of moral sympathy—the latter triumphing in the very oppositions of the former. They must acknowledge more heartily the claims of reason and the strength 292of faith. And from this twofold root—and from it more than aught else—will spring forth the tree of Christian unity, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Many things warn all Churches that their one power is in the fire of Christian love that animates them, and the fulness of Christian action which comes from them. These Divine realities are stronger than orthodoxy, and more powerful than privilege. In any case, they are the only weapons left in ecclesiastical hands—“As Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee,” Out of this nearness to the Divine came all Christ’s strength. The strength of the Church—your strength and mine—can only come from the same source. Seek the centre of Christian truth and unity, therefore, in God the Father and the Son. From this Light of light and Life of life will flow down endless blessings to yourselves and others. Amidst changes of opinion, or advances of thought, you will not be moved; amidst the inroads of doubt—and even if you should have to part with much you once cherished—you will stand secure in the love of God and of Christ, and in united action, not only for your own Christian good, but the good of many others, who will rise up to call you blessed.

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Be it yours to hold the truth, but ever to hold it in love; to remember that large-mindedness is a Christian virtue as well as fervent zeal—that the love of Christ, and work in the name of Christ, are more than all ecclesiastical symbols. Let all in whom the Divine life is working—with whom the power of good is strong—receive your hearty welcome and sympathy. And whether they think with you or not—whether they worship with you or not—let your prayer for them be, that they share with you the love of a common Father and the grace of a common Saviour,—“that they may be one with you, as you are with Christ,”—that the world may believe not only that the Father hath sent Him, but that He dwelleth in you in all love and good works, to the praise and glory of His great name. Amen.

PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS.


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