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Up the Yangtze Movie review

Up the Yangtze Movie review

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Up the Yangtze
Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Reconciliation, and the Church:

Toward a “Heavenly Unity”?

Thomas Howard

No Christian, of course, is going to take the view that the union of all Christians is not “desirable.” Since Our Lord prayed to that end, a Christian would place himself in an awkward spot if he demurred on the matter!

The sticking point, once it is agreed upon that unity is, in fact, desirable, follows instantly: “We should all gather under this umbrella,” the umbrella being Calvinism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Plymouth Brethren, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Emergent Church, the independent churches, and so forth.

After centuries of conflict — even war — we all glided into an epoch of “ecumenism” as of the late l9th century. “Dialogue” became the thing. But of course dialogue can go only so far. Then the discussion runs aground on baptism, the Eucharist, church polity, eschatology, biblical interpretation, ethnicity, and, most notably, the very nature of The Church.

Given the ancient Catholic understanding of the mystery of The Church, obviously a Catholic would urge that no unity will ever be reached short of a return on the part of us all to the apostolic and patristic roots and trunk of The Church. The points he might begin with would include:

1) Authority. From the beginning, matters were referred, never to popular vote, or even to committees of theologians, but to apostolic ruling (that is to say, The Council in Jerusalem, and those that follow). St. Paul teaches us that “the church is the pillar and ground of truth.” In the free-church world, the notion of “the perspicuity of Scripture,” and a fortiori, sola Scriptura, is the touchstone; but of course this breaks down straightaway over baptism, the Eucharist, church polity, theology, and so forth. The Roman Catholic Church, alone in Christendom, has what is called The Magisterium, namely, apostolic teaching authority, which is itself, obviously, subject to Scripture

2) Visible unity. The apostles and fathers would be nonplussed if we uncorked for them the idea that “the Church” is nothing more than the aggregate of all individual believers in Jesus. Just where this outlook originated is hard to discover. Even more difficult for them would be the practice of splitting and starting new “denominations” more or less every hour on the half hour. The Catholic Church sees The Church as analogous to Israel (after all, it is “the new Israel”). Israel had wicked kings, even more wicked priests (their first High Priest made a golden calf for them), and general immorality and perversity in the laity. But a godly Hebrew could never say to himself, “This is chaos; I’m starting the whole thing over.” We find Simeon and Anna, not to mention Our Lord, faithfully there in the synagogue — the very synagogue which so bitterly opposed Jesus.

3) The Sacraments. At the Reformation, the Faith became, so to speak, abstract. Disembodied. Propositional. Discursive. The Eucharist became either an embarrassment or marginal. If one reads about the first decades of The Church, one finds that the liturgy was the center. The notion of “the preaching of the Word” as the virtually exclusive point about the weekly gathering would have been inconceivable for 1,500 years.

Some such considerations as the above would form, surely, at least some of the points upon which a Catholic would begin his contribution to the question of unity in the Church.

Thomas HowardThomas Howard is a retired English professor, scholar of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and acclaimed author of such books as Chance or the Dance? and On Being Catholic.

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