I’ve been trying to write an essay on Christian unity for an ecumenical volume on this topic. I’m supposed to write from my own Methodist perspective. Since I’m a Protestant, I’ve had to think about unity apart from specific ecclesiastical communions (i.e., denominations). Part of what I’ve been kicking around in my head is the question of criteria: when does a person, congregation, or denomination remove itself from unity with the church catholic? Does unity depend upon the confessions of faith and ethical standards that have been accepted widely through the ages and across the globe? Put differently, if a church decides, say, to change the words of one of the major creeds, or simply not to center these as standards for proper belief and proclamation, has that church diminished its connection to the church catholic? If a church does not practice Holy Communion, does it to some extent diminish its own catholicity?
This brings up another question: is Christian unity the same as catholicity? Can we somehow be united in Christ, even if we are not united in our proclamation of his person and work and what he requires of us? I just read through Wesley’s sermon “The Catholic Spirit” pretty carefully. Wesley believes that to hold the catholic spirit is to love other Christians regardless of differences, to seek their wellbeing, and to work together to the greatest extent possible in service to the will of God. He does think that doctrine, modes of worship, and congregational ties matter, but he doesn’t tie the catholic spirit to these. I think Wesley is right that this is how we should regard Christians of traditions other than our own, but is this catholicity?
Let me frame the matter another way: if the four marks of the church are that she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, can a church be any of these without being all of them? If you diminish the connection to the apostolic witness, or the holiness of the church, can a church still be one and catholic? I don’t see how it can. Help me out if you have any thoughts on the matter.
I hope I’m not making an argument for Roman Catholicism here. Nothing against Roman Catholics. It’s just that I’m a Methodist in my bones, for better or worse. Sometimes I wonder…