This article was originally published in The Melbourne Anglican.
Eighty-six years ago, in preparation for the 1937 Faith and Order Conference in Edinburgh, Karl Barth wrote a short but profound treatise on the topic “The Church and the Churches”. The substance of the text was to address how Christians might listen together to the voice of Jesus Christ, and to seek in him the one ground for the one universal Church, in the context of a variety of ecclesial and theological traditions. What, he wanted to ask, is the relationship between the one Church – the holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of which we confess week after week – and the multiplicity of churches – in which the confession, worship, and following of Jesus takes place severally, differently, and sometimes even contradictorily?
As I sat on the floor of our national Church’s General Synod in early May, I had cause to ask myself the same question. At times during our deliberations, I wondered if we Anglicans do not also face the same issue. What is the relationship between the one Anglican Church of Australia, and the multiplicity of theological and ecclesial perspectives within it, that sit so frequently uncomfortably alongside each other?
When a Church seeks not only to worship Jesus in a multiplicity of ways, but also defines discipleship in equally as many ways, are we still the one Church? No more sharply was this question put than when, on the final day of the synod, the delegates voted to not vote on a motion on “Being the Body of Christ”. Why did we not even vote? Because as synod representatives we could not even decide whether to start with a statement of inclusion, or begin instead with a statement of exceptionality.
The truth is, despite us having more in common than in difference, the things on which we differ tend to be felt more viscerally. Tragically, there is often more fervour amongst us Australian Anglicans for the matters about which we disagree, than there is for those many other matters on which we find ready consensus.
One response to this state of affairs is often to recite to ourselves and to each other the truism, “unity in diversity” – that we remain one, even in our difference. There is, of course, much to affirm in what that says, and more than a handful of Scriptural justifications for it. Ephesians 2, Galatians 3, 1 Corinthians 12 all leap to mind, as does the motley collection of Jesus’ disciples – fishermen, tax collectors, political revolutionaries – who formed a single community around him. I cherish this truth, and rejoice in a gospel that joins the most unlikely of people together, radically relativizing their differences yet not removing them. Yet our debates at General Synod demonstrated that even that noble principle of “unity in diversity” can be contested, notwithstanding the synod’s respectful tone. Perhaps the saddest thing has been to encounter disagreement over the ground of our unity. How can we fully flourish in our diversity, if we don’t even agree on the basis of our oneness?
That the various “sides” believe firmly in their own fidelity, and thus in the others’ infidelity, underscores Karl Barth’s point about the missional tragedy that is the consequence of our disunity: that “the comparison of faith with faith [is] a menace to faith itself”.
So where to from here? Can we move forward together as one Church, even if we are a Church that is – in the words of one Metropolitan – in a “perilous” condition? Can we move forward together as one Church, when the prophetic woes of Isaiah 5 have been publicly proclaimed on the Synod floor against fellow members? Perhaps we can – but if we are to
do so, then we will need to take with far more gravity what Anglicanism’s much-vaunted and much-loved “middle way” actually says.
It seems to me that, far too frequently, we understand this middle way incorrectly. We treat it as though it was a second-best compromise position between two warring extremes.
Thinking in these terms, taking this via media is thus reluctantly accepting a concessional space that neither side actually wants. The inevitable result is resentment, and a renewed emphasis on the extremes that have been foregone.
But in fact, that is not what our middle way represents. Taken initially from Aristotelian ethics, the via media in fact refers to the “golden mean” – that space which is a more perfect expression of truth, between the weaknesses of the extremes. Properly understood the via media acknowledges the better truth which is to be found in the centre, without denying that there is always truth to be found at the edges (for where else did Jesus himself inhabit?).
In other words, an authentic adoption of Anglicanism’s via media is not a grim-faced and unwilling adoption of a compromise, but rather a joyful embrace of the better truth that more perfectly embodies what our own preferences only imperfectly express.
What, then, might this via media be? What might we, in all our diversity cling to, not as a concession but as a genuine ground of unity in the midst of our differences?
The answer is both simple and striking. It is a person, not a thing or an idea. Jesus Christ.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in the summer of 1933, “Christ is the centre that I have regained”. By being the sole mediator between ourselves and God – and between our old and new selves – he is thus the centre of all things, and all people. To paraphrase St Paul, Jesus stands where the dividing wall once stood, and so becomes the bridging unifier between previous antitheses – Jew and gentile, male and female, slave and free. As Anglicans, we might then rightly say that Jesus Christ is our via media – not as a concessional or compromise space, but as reconciling mediator who is in himself the perfect truth towards which our extreme positions can only imperfectly point.
To return then to Barth’s question, which is also ours: what is the relationship between the Church and the churches? What is the relationship between the one Anglican Church of Australia, and the multiplicity of often angry contradictions within it? The relationship is – can only be Jesus Christ – our via media, our centre. To acknowledge this – to acknowledge him – will not, of course, end our disagreements and debates. To acknowledge this will not, and ought not, end our dialogue. But this is the only place to start, if we have any hope of moving forward together as one.
The Reverend Professor Mark Lindsay is Joan F.W. Munro Professor of Historical Theology and Deputy Dean of Trinity College Theological School.