Beyond the experience of duality

The Church of the future

A prophetic look at the unity that exists across Christianity through baptism and a vision for an ecumenical Church of the future.


In view of the Pope’s projected visit to Britain in the near future, the question of the relation of the Anglican Church and the other churches to the Roman catholic Church acquires a new urgency. We should surely be thinking seriously about the kind of Church which we envisage, when we think of the reunion of the Christian churches, and especially of the changes required in the Roman Church.

Most people would probably agree that the greatest obstacle to the reunion of the churches is the present system of the papacy. It is this that has been the source of conflict ever since the Reformation and it remains a problem for most other churches today. But the present system of the papacy is not something that belongs to the permanent constitution of the Church. It grew up in the Middle Ages in the West after the separation of the eastern churches from Rome, and its structure was determined by historical circumstances, which no longer have validity today. The concentration of all power and authority in the Church in the Pope and the Roman Curia was a gradual process which culminated in the first Vatican Council and the decree on papal infallibility. But the second Vatican Council began to reverse this process and we are now in a position to see more clearly what should be the basic structure of the Catholic Church, and how the present structure of the Roman Church could be adapted to it.

We cannot do better than to take as a model for the Church the structure of the Church in the 5th century, before the division of the Greek Orthodox Church and the other eastern churches from Rome. In the 5th century under Pope St Leo the primacy of the Church of Rome was recognised by all the eastern churches. At the Council of Chalcedon, when St Leo presented his Tome on the Incarnation, this was accepted by all the eastern bishops present, who cried out with one voice: “Peter has spoken by the voice of Leo.” But while the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter was generally acknowledged, there were four other ‘patriarchates,’ which were held in no less honour. There was that of Jerusalem, which was held in honour as the seat of the original Church, though it now had little power. There was then the patriarchate of Antioch, representing the churches of the Syrian East: the Patriarchate of Alexandria, representing the Egyptian or Coptic Church and that of Ethiopia; there was the Patriarchate of Constantinople, representing the Greek Churches, and finally there was the Patriarchate of Rome, representing the West. This, which is the most ancient model of the Church, when it had reached its full expansion over the Roman Empire, is surely as good a model as we could wish for the Church today.

Since the Second Vatican Council the different bishops’ conferences have gradually begun to assume an authority over the respective churches and it would not be difficult to envisage a development of the bishops’ conferences into something like the ancient patriarchates. There could be a conference of the European bishops’ churches, of which the Pope would be head; a conference of the North American churches, of South American churches, of African churches and finally of Asian churches together with the Australian church. Each of these conferences, like the ancient patriarchates, would be responsible for their churches in every way. In the ancient Church each patriarchate had its own liturgy, its own system of theology and its own ecclesiastical organisation. The Pope normally never interfered in the affairs of the other patriarchates. Only when a dispute arose which could not be settled within the patriarchate would recourse be had to the Roman See. This is surely how we should look forward to the development of the Church today.

The bishops’ conferences would be responsible for the appointment of bishops within their own conference, for the development of the liturgy, for doctrinal development in the context of their own culture and for the organisation of their churches. If the Orthodox or the Anglican Churches were to be reunited, they would each form a separate bishops’ conference, managing their own affairs in all things, only acknowledging a centre of unity in the Church of Rome, and a right of recourse in matters of dispute. Other Christian churches, which were prepared to recognise this ministry in the service of unity in the Bishop of Rome, would also be able to form lesser conferences in communion with the larger ones. This would demand a recognition of other forms of ministry in the Church beside the traditional ones of bishop, priest and deacon. In the early Church there was a diversity of ministries: St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians mentions “apostles, prophets, teachers and administrators” and the letter to the Ephesians adds “pastors and evangelists.’ It would not be difficult to recognise the different Protestant ministries on this basis. The recognition of diverse ministries would, of course, demand the acceptance of a married clergy, which would be necessary with the Anglican and Orthodox Churches also. It would also allow for the ordination of women to the ministry on an equality with men.

The structure of the Roman church itself would, of course, have to be gradually changed. One would think that the recognition of the Vatican as a secular state with papal diplomates would no longer be required. The College of Cardinals, which is a product of the Middle Ages and has no place in the original constitution of the Church, could be allowed to lapse, and the election of the Pope given to a Bishop’s Synod, which would be a permanent body, chosen from all the bishops’ conferences. Other Christian churches having no bishops could also be represented in the Synod, which would thus include women as well as men.

The doctrine of papal infallibility, which is at present such an insuperable stumbling block, could then be given a new interpretation. This doctrine was proclaimed at the first Vatican Council, when the position of the Pope as head of the whole Church reached its climax and supreme authority was held to reside in him alone. But the second Vatican Council has enabled us to see that the Pope has no authority apart from the bishops just as the bishops have no authority apart from the laity, the people of God. The gift of infallibility was given by Jesus to the whole Church, when he communicated to the Church the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was to guide the disciples into all truth. The gift of the Spirit is given to all Christians at their baptism and every Christian shares in the teaching authority of the Church. The bishops and the Pope have a special ministry of service to the Church in preserving the truth of the apostolic teaching, but this authority can only be exercised in so far as they share in the communion of all the faithful. The charism of infallibility, or more simply of adherence to the truth of the Gospel, therefore, belongs to the whole Church, though it may be exercised on occasion by the Pope or the bishops, in the name of the Church.

How would this pattern of the Church work out at the parish level? Could one not envisage the different churches retaining their own autonomy? In any given area there might be a Roman Catholic, an Anglican, a Methodist and a Baptist church and others, each preserving its own traditional way of worship and organisation. But these churches would all be in communion with one another. Anyone would be free to go to communion at another church, while respecting the distinctive way of worship of the other church. The representatives of the different churches would meet regularly and share their wok as far as possible in common. The boundaries of the different churches would be fluid and crossing over from one to another would not be a problem. Each church would seek to witness to its own tradition while respecting the values of the other churches. In the same way the Christian churches in a given area would be in contact with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and people of other religions in their neighbourhood and would share I prayer and meditation and in discussion with them. The Christian community would be an open community, ready to enter into dialogue with other communities both religious and secular, recognising both religious and secular values, wherever they may be found, and ready to cooperate with them.

Finally, what would be the requirement of faith for communion in the ‘ecumenical’ Church? Could it not be simply baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? All other developments of the apostolic faith would be considered as the witness of a particular church, which the other churches would respect, but would not be required to accept for themselves. In regard to communion in the Eucharist the same principle would be accepted. The Eucharist would be recognised as the sacrament ordained by Christ, in which the Christian people meet together to enter into personal communion with Jesus Christ and with one another by partaking of the bread and the wine, as Jesus asked them to do, in memory of him. The exact significant of the rite could be left for theological discussion and a variety of formulations could be recognised. All that would be required would be that all should seek to do what the Lord had commanded them.

Is such theological pluralism permissible? The theory behind it would be that the object of Christian faith is not any particular set of doctrines, but a divine ‘mystery,’ what St Paul called the ‘mystery of Christ,’ which cannot properly be expressed in words. The language of the Bible and of the creeds and councils of the Church are attempts to express this mystery in human terms, but all are historically and culturally conditioned. None of these expressions can be taken as absolute. The nearest we can come to a simple affirmation of the mystery is the statement “Jesus is the Lord,” or in its more extended form: “This Jesus, who was crucified, God has made Lord and Christ.” These are the basic affirmations of Christian faith. All doctrinal statements which bring out the implications of this fundamental faith are secondary. In the same way the Christian or Catholic Church is the communion of those who share this basic faith and are united with one another in a common baptism. Baptism itself is an initiation into the mystery of Christ, and the Eucharist is a participation in the same mystery, as are the other sacraments. But the sacramental order and the doctrine concerned with it can take many different forms. Finally, the different ministries in the Church, from popes are ‘charisms’ are manifestations of the working of the Spirit in the Church, whose actual forms and structures will vary according to historical and cultural conditions.

This ‘blue-print’ of an ecumenical Church is a projection into the future, which may seem rather remote from our present situation, but it is surely worthwhile to reflect on what may be the possibilities for the future. It is offered as a rough sketch to be changed and emended perhaps out of recognition.

This article was first published in The Tablet 10/17 April 1982