February 14, 2007

What Would Gamaliel Do?

I've talked before about applying the "Gamaliel Principle" (If it is of God, it will last) to our present crises. But I got to thinking today about its larger application to the church as a whole. And it seems evident to me that the one thing about the church that hasn't lasted is institutional unity. There were divisions in the church from the days of the Apostles on -- as we see from the various tiffs between Peter and Paul, with friends like Barnabas and John Mark drawn into the divisions, and foes like those troublesome folks in whose direction Paul tosses epistolary brickbats in his postscripts.

This tension in the church is usually seen as the cause of our "unhappy divisions" -- but it has lately struck me that this mournful tongue-clucking may be a matter of crocodile tears, since it is well within our power to end the divisions rather than piously asking God to do so. Problem is, we don't do that, as it means surrender of things we believe to be good and right and proper -- and more important than institutional unity.

My point here is that maybe God's plan for the church never was an institutional unity in which all members were the same, and part of a single institutional administration, but rather institutional variety in a fellowship of equals. I'm not just being "Anglican" here: I think of all those organs of the body with their different functions all working together -- and yet the eye is not the hand, the foot not the eye, and so on. Maybe it is the gift of the Episcopal Church to be an eye for a certain kind of justice, and for Nigeria to be a voice for a call to faithfulness; for England to be a hand for balance, the Caribbean and Central America a heart for joy and celebration. And beyond this: to the Roman Catholics for a call to seriousness in reflection, the Baptists and Pentecostals for a dose of the Spirit, the Moravians for their music and the Orthodox for their spirituality.

I noted on the floor of the General Convention that Jesus said we were to be one "as I and the Father are one." Well, as the old symbol shows us, the Son is not the Father and the Father not the Son, yet each and both is and are fully God. What if we were to acknowledge the fullness of the Church present in every separate organ, each a "person" in this wonderful divine embodiment; rather than pine for an external "unity" that "confuses the persons" into a single monochrome entity in which the eye and hand lose all distinction. What if each of the churches was to be seen as a hypostasis of the one ousia; fully and substantially the church -- as completely as Christ is present in each separate fragment of the bread that once was one, but now is many?

Perhaps we should accept that what has endured -- a church with many and various members and traditions -- is really what is "of God" -- and that, if we could accept it and stop bickering about our differences (and criticizing each others' gifts), we might then be about the tikkun olam that is God's purpose for the church in the world. What might that accomplish?

Worth trying, don't you think?

— Tobias Haller BSG
Valentine's Day 2007


Marshall Scott said...

I heartily agree: http://episcopalhospitalchaplain.blogspot.com/2006/06/varieties-of-gifts.html.

Andrew Gerns said...

Thank you for this. You may be on to something.

I would add that the image of the Trinity takes what you write further.

We have always believed that the Trinity reflects the fullness of God. The unique and distinct natures of the three persons of the Trinity do not detract, we believe, from the fullness of God.

The Trinity also tells us that God is relational by nature. That one of the signs of the unity of the triune God is the way the Three relate to each other as the One.

It is difficult for many people--including many Christians-- to grasp the truth and the mystery of the Trinity. If, as you suggest, our unity is not found institutionally but in our many charisms all pointed towards Christ, then perhaps it is an act of un-faith, an inability to trust in God, to think that the only way we can express our unity in Christ in strictly institutional terms.

Thank you.


R said...


Couldn't agree with you more. In a very clear sense, Jesus did not found an institution, and our chasing after one says so much more about us that it does about Christ.

I sense that you would agree with me that the body in the "Body of Christ" suggests an organic kind of unity with all the distinct parts that go right back to the Pauline epistles and the diversity of the apostles. We got hooked on uniformity with the rise of Empire. As some have suggested for many years, Anglicanism got in trouble when it became dependent on Empire, too. I think that's one of the big elephants (no hidden meaning there, I promise) that have not been fully addressed by any of the Instruments of Unity to this point.

Anyway, I'm also enamored with Church reflecting the Trinitarian understanding of perichoresis -- an organic unity, but more than that -- a dance that is interdependent, full of life, and lighthearted -- something my bishop, Marc Andrus, characterized in a recent address as a dance of possession and dispossession.

Most everything else is about clinging to power and control -- two things, it seems to me, God in Christ subverts with the very heart of the Gospel, particularly through the passion and resurrection that transforms not only the human heart but the very fabric of the universe itself.

Always good to comment here, and thank you for maintaining such a high level integrity that the rest of us bloggers can only aspire to!

God's peace.

Reverend Ref + said...

I would tend to agree with you. Unity doesn't mean sameness. We certainly can be unified while recognizing each other's gifts for ministry. But that doesn't mean we all have to sign off on the same confessional statement.

The problem, though, is that people have this If you aren't with us, you're against us attitude. Consequently unity has been bastardized to mean lock-step sameness. We tend to focus on what divides us, rather than what unites us. And that's a shame.

John B. Chilton said...

PB Schori is on to this Gamaliel thing, too. (See point 3, here.)

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most wonderful and wise insights I've read. I believe an insight as powerful and potent as this will last.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

It having been Valentine's Day, perhaps I ought to have followed up with the analogy of the Gumpian Box of Chocolates. Clearly some of the various churches are soft centers, while others are nuts -- but they are all chocolates!

June Butler said...

Tobias, I'm jealous. You got more valentines than I did.

Your post brings wonderful insight into what we see as the woes of the AC, which may well be the work of the Spirit. Your idea is definitely worth a try.

R, Jesus, indeed, never founded an institution, and I doubt that was in his plan.

And 3n1-1n3, I like the reminder that the nature of God is relational.

The post and comments here are enlightening and uplifting. They're a relief from the hand-wringing and moaning and groaning.

Paul said...

Tobias, I have always thought this way about the Body of Christ. You just expressed it more eloquently than I ever could.

I would just add that the church of J. S. Bach could be credited with a small contribution to our musical heritage.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Paul, I did think of our close friends the Lutherans, and my favorite composer (J S Bach); and certainly meant no diminution by their ommission from what I didn't mean to be an exhaustive list! As to JSB, I can only echo the famous words of Beethoven: he should not be a mere Brook, but Ocean... I would love to see us put him into Lesser Feasts and Fasts, as ELCA has him on the LBW calendar...