We hear a great deal today about ecumenism—a coming together to unite Christendom—but on what grounds are we to unite?

Some people are prepared to unite on any grounds, preferring unity to truth and thus avoiding a painful but honest separation. Conversely, we find others who seek unity only in terms of their own denominational exactitude; the problem with this approach is not so much exclusivism or sectarian triumphalism, but its lack of realism.

Catholics are never going to give up their love for the mother of Jesus and the saints because of Protestant sensitivities. Evangelicals are never going to give up their commitment to the “born again” experience in order to satisfy the more sacramental and developmental approach of Catholics.

Calvinists will not abandon providence and grace to Arminian insistence on faith and human will. Presbyterians will refuse to accept an episcopal church, and congregationalists will reject any hierarchical control. Will independent charismatic groups abandon their apostles and prophets? Will Christian Brethren at last legitimate “holy orders” and start ordaining ministers? Can Salvationists dip their flag, put away their uniforms, and leave behind their generals and citadels?

And can Eastern Orthodox churches forgive the Latin West and allow that they were mistaken when they rejected the bishop of Rome in the eleventh century or were wrong to insist on sticking with the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of A.D. 381?

If we believe that these things will happen, then we believe in fantasies, not realities. To think that we can turn the hurdy-gurdy of Christendom into a harmonic institution all playing the same tune is surely no more than a pipe dream.

Mere Orthodoxy

But there is an alternative to total separation and despairing cynicism. Christians of good will must unite—indeed, can only unite—on the grounds of historic Christianity. This ground is no less than the high road of basic orthodoxy: the common, yet holy tradition of Christian theology and spirituality that spans the ages from the New Testament to the present day. C. S. Lewis saw this mere Christianity, metaphorically, as the “main road”; in another apt image he talks of the great level viaduct that stands firm and sure over the dips and valleys of apostasy and heresy.

It is the road that stands for the sacredness and truth of the Holy Bible. The road incorporates and is directed by the ancient creeds and the great councils of the early church and by the undivided ecumenical church of the first millennium of Christendom, which sought to bear witness to a trinitarian God and the risen Jesus who was both God and man. It is the road of Christian pilgrims everywhere who press on believing in not only a God of miracles and revelation but also one of personal encounter.

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This road, this great viaduct, is the infrastructure of all mainstream Christianity—even though Christendom has been broken by schism and division. The orthodox believers—or to use the Greek meaning, those of true faith and worship—can, or rather should, be able to recognize one another across the broad expanse of the main road because they are members of the same family: of one blood and one body.

Is not the family resemblance still there even though the family is broken and divided by historical accident, betrayal, or conscience? Where the Holy Spirit is, there is still the church. Even the Eastern Orthodox churches, which believe they represent an unbroken unity of Christian faith and witness from the apostles to the present day, do not claim to own the Holy Spirit: He blows where he wills. No denomination or confession can contain him or limit his sovereignty. He alone knows who is the true family of God.

Modernity’s Siege

But why is this main road of mere Christianity so important today? It is crucial because the Christian churches are living on the post side of a philosophical and scientific revolution that has led to the undermining and the gradual erosion of the main road itself. It is not Catholicism that is under attack today, nor evangelicalism. It is not the Reformation that is now being countered or Pentecostalism that is being persecuted. It is the whole grand structure of the viaduct—basic orthodoxy—that is under siege.

And looking around in modernity, in our advanced industrial societies, we find that so often church unity is not a coming together of common believers on the main road in order to save the road and, in saving it, keeping the family of believers together. No! What we find is the coming together in the name of different gospels: there is the syncretism of John Hick’s religious pluralism on the Religious Left (not to mention New Age), or the New Thought metaphysics of the Faith Movement on the Religious Right. We hear of interfaith initiatives that deny the uniqueness of Christ and of the search for social justice in the name of Neo-Marxist liberationism (though social justice is indeed a hallmark of the kingdom of God). Existentialism beckons behind the barely concealed mask of “authentic” and “relevant” religion. And we are promised, by a few, a new systematic theology and ethics in the name of an evolutionary process philosophy that owes more to Hegel and Whitehead than to the Bible or church history.

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These enticing, and sometimes exciting, paths are not the mere Christianity of the main road. They are detours and always lead away from the highway.

But there is a far greater tragedy for the modern church than New Ages, New Thoughts, and liberal or modernist theologies. So often it seems orthodox Christians do not recognize one another on the main road or as fellow travelers in the way. Instead of marching together as soldiers, like the Roman legions, shields locked and ready for combat, we straggle along in separate groups looking inwardly at ourselves. And when we occasionally do look up, it is so often only to snipe at each other.

And all the while, amidst this indifference and separatism, the main road is slowly crumbling away.

It is time for us to wake up. The Philistines are upon us with their secular scholasticism and sophisticated sophistry. They are turning our Scriptures into a scrapbook of tittle-tattle, doodles, and aphorisms. The sacredness of the inspired text is dying under the relentless clinical surgery of the hermeneutical and exegetical knives. Secular specialists are wielding the blade now, not orthodox Christians, and naturalistic theology is undercutting God’s revelation in Jesus.

In Great Britian we have seen our Lord turned into a spirit figure with no historical significance by Professor Lampe. Or the Son of God has become a specimen of anthropology, according to Dr. Cupitt, where the all-too-human Jesus lived amongst us with not a spark of divinity. The Anglican bishop of Durham could declare in March 1989 that our Lord did not physically rise from the dead.

Perhaps we did not realize in the 1950s and 1960s that biblical iconoclasts swing their knives in ever-increasing abandon so that as we gutted the New Testament of its demons and miracles of healings, it was inevitable that we should eventually butcher Christianity’s great foundational truths—the Resurrection and the Incarnation. When the Incarnation becomes no longer an event in space and time but a myth, orthodoxy is silenced with a single thrust. There is no longer a God who came into humanity; no possibility of holiness permeating the material universe and transfiguring it from within.

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The fundamentalists of the 1920s may have been unwise to rely on theories of Scripture that owed more to nineteenth-century positivism than they supposed, but they at least could see that scientific incisions into the body of Christian orthodoxy would end in sheer butchery.

Now here is the rub that becomes for us all the imperative of orthodox ecumenism: Modernists and secularists are no respecter of denominations or religious constituencies. They do not care if you are Catholic or charismatic, Coptic or Christadelphian. It is orthodoxy that is their victim. Destroy basic Christianity, and the whole divided edifice of twentieth-century Christendom comes crashing down. Smash the foundational stones of the main road and all is lost.

But usually when we hear the cry, “Wake up, Christians!” we hear it within our own narrow perspective. To some it means, “Wake up, evangelicals! The Bible is at stake.” To others it is heard as a clarion call to save the principles of the Reformation: “Unfurl the banner of sola scriptura.” Catholics hear, “Be vigilant! The moral law is under threat and the holy tradition of the church will collapse!” As for the exclusivists and separatists, the sectarians and “holy huddlers,” they are too pure to dirty their hands with anyone but themselves; “Wake up!” for them means nothing but a closing of their fortress doors where they can hear only their own reassuring and unchallenged voices.

If waking up means either turning in on ourselves (denying our evangelistic mission to the world) or flying at each other’s throats—as if we were still at the barricades of the sixteenth century—then it would be better if we fell into a deep sleep. But maybe the shelling of the main road and the mines of Satan’s sappers will blast us to our knees so that in our different and discordant voices we will shout that blessed cry from the heart, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” If this happens, there will be an instant clarity of vision, an existential moment, an infusion of grace, and we will recognize each other as divided yet related members of God’s family—relatives together of the new humanity of Christ standing or kneeling on the main road.

And the Spirit will show us where we really are: not at the great East/West schism of the eleventh century, or even at the Reformation of the sixteenth century. We are scattered on the main road this side of the philosophical Enlightenment where, like that other Eden, the glittering angel whispers to humanity that we, too, can be gods and rule the universe.

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Joining Hands

Our situation today is analagous to the French resistance during the Second World War. The Gaulists and Communists, sworn enemies like the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, put aside their differences in their common cause of freedom from the Nazi tyranny. Only the common enemy could produce an alliance that on the surface seemed impossible.

This analogy, however, breaks down at various points. One difference between war-torn Europe and the present state of Christendom is that we have not yet awakened and realized that we are all under threat from the common foes, the secular ideologies of modernity (the present modes of our old enemy, the Devil).

Second, Communists and Gaulists had no claim to a family resemblance, but we Christians, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics do. Of course, we can be kept apart by conscience and conviction, but so often it is the fear of pollution that separates us. The non-materialistic pietist cannot reach out and touch the sacramentalist’s hand. In Great Britain the Anglo-Catholic within the Church of England finds it almost impossible to embrace the evangelical Calvinist—even though they are in the same denomination.

Maybe the fear of the common enemy will bring us together, but there is a better way: Our Lord loved us so much that he came and joined himself to our fallen and wretched humanity in order that we might be saved. He was not afraid to reach out and touch the leper, and he did not refuse the chaste caress of the prostitute. He is only asking us to take each other’s hands—not the hands of strangers, but those of members of a family that has had a tiff and has not made up.

In joining hands, we must do so in integrity. We will not pretend that all is well between us. There will be no sinking of differences for the common cause—there lie the deviant paths from the main road to apostasy and syncretism—but we will put our differences aside (for now) for the greater good of the kingdom. Archbishop William Temple once said that we should do all things together except that which conscience absolutely forbids. Mere Christianity is not a substitute for confessionalism, but we do need to recognize that it represents the core of Christian orthodoxy to which all mainstream Christianity lays claim. It is the threat to that core that provides us with our ecumenical imperative.

Reaching out and touching strengthens the body of Christ. Solidarity comes with linkage—a joining together of members. The scattered stragglers on the main road who join together as members of the totus christus will become an army “terrible and mighty with banners.”

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