purpose of the council is the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church so that it might make a truer witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we ought to pray for its success, just as we would hope that Roman Catholics will pray that our witness to Jesus Christ might be true. Therefore, I ask your prayers for this Council.
But it is not the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council that I would like to talk about today. Two weeks from today, that will be our topic, but today I would like to talk about the Ecumenical Movement. As you know the Ecumenical Movement is a non-Roman phenomenon that involves a large number of Protestant denominations in the world, and many of the Eastern Orthodox bodies including the Russian Orthodox Church. Over the past fifty or sixty years the people who have been involved in this movement have worked long and hard at the problem of understanding the things that divide us. They have made great progress in this understanding, so much so that it has been said that the twentieth century will be called the ecumenical century in Church history.
I am no expert in the Ecumenical movement. It is not my purpose this morning, therefore, to exhaust the subject in one short sermon. Neither is it my purpose to say that this matter is a simple or easy matter. But I would like for us to think this morning about the
If we take this question seriously, we would certainly have to begin by saying that theology divides us. We have differences in our understanding about the sacraments, or the Bible, or about ordination, and especially in our understanding of what the Church is. But at the same time, we would also have to say, if we take these matters seriously, that there are probably greater differences within the denominations (and certainly that is true in the Methodist Church) than there are differences between denominations. So this morning the thing that I would like to say is that there are many non-theological matters that divide us as Christians from one another. Plainer things like these three: history, Church government and sociology.
It is obvious, of course, that one of the things that divides us is history. We as Methodists have a certain history, out of the Church of England in the 18th century. The Presbyterians were founded by John Knox, one of Calvin’s students. We all have a certain past, a certain history; we grew up that way and that past is the creator, in a sense of our present. We have a long history of being separate denominations, and it can be said, that here in Stony Point we have a long history of being apart, and so it is that our history divides us.
We cannot, of course, deny that past. Nor can we say that it is unimportant. As a matter of fact, for Christian history is ultimately important. Christianity is not grounded in some strange tale about gods who lived on a mountain in some unknown place and time. Christianity is grounded in Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died under Pontius Pilate. Christianity is grounded in history because that is where we live, in a place and a time, and this history, of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s sign that our place and time is holy. We cannot say that history is unimportant, for history is ultimately important. But we can say that while one kind of history divides us, another kind unites us. For we claim allegiance to one Lord, this Jesus who is called Christ. So that if history divides us as Christians it also unites us, we ought to look to the Lord of that history.
In the second place, our Church government, sometimes called our polity, divides us. That is, we have different ways of operating the organization of the Church. We were talking recently in the Adult Membership Class about our Methodist connectional system and that it is probably the chief Methodist contribution to the doctrine of the Church. Our system of operating is not different in appearance to others, but it can probably be called unique in its actual operation. The Annual Conference is the key to the whole thing and a Church has its existence as part of this whole. Methodist Churches are not isolated units but a part of a wholeness called an Annual Conference.
This system grew up to meet certain needs, specifically the needs of the frontier. (John
Wesley originated the idea, but it was well-adapted to the American frontier.) The Annual Conference was a sending organization that sent its preachers wherever they were needed, sometimes as soon as people were out there. Historians have concluded that no other pattern could have done it so well.
We take a certain pride in our polity, not because we do not know that it has faults almost too numerous to mention, but because we find this way of doing things superior to any other that we know about. The Annual Conference continues to send their minister where they can serve best (or that is at least the ideal) we call it the appointive system. And men are moved with some degree of regularity and that is good. It means that a minister doesn’t depend on any congregation for his security and he can do things that need to be done and say things that need to be said without fear of reprisal. Besides that it makes the congregation depend on itself for leadership and not one one man, its pastor.
Now I could give you a lot of other reasons why I think that the Methodist connectional system is the best that I know anything about. But we are talking about the things that divide us, and one of those things is Church government. Finally, we must say about it that we do not place any kind of ultimate faith in polity. There is nothing sacred about the appointive system or any of the rest of it. No system ought to get in the way. Our connectional system came into being to meet very practical situations, if the situation changes then perhaps the system ought to chance too. Our organization divides us, but it ought not.
The third thing that divides us is sociology. Sociology, of course, is literally the study of groups, and one of the points that sociology makes is that we all belong to many groups that we never join. We are all members of the group called males, or the group called females, and we never consciously join these groups. And what I am saying is that our groupiness divides us. There are racial groups, for example. It is certainly one of the most grievous sins of the Church that only occasionally is it found to be leading in the battle for integration and true equality, instead of following, allowing the status quo to stand and hate to grow.
There are economic groups, and it is said that in any town certain income groups go to a certain Church. To be sure, this is a generalization, but the fact is that this kind of groupiness divides us.
There are traditions, habits, family ties, and many other things that make groups and these tend to divide us. I suppose that one of the hardest facts that we learned last year as we were talking about merging the two Methodist Churches in Stony Point was the general feeling that the two churches didn’t belong together and never would get along together. Our groupiness divides us.
But if we regard this groupiness as ultimately important then we are denying what we profess every Sunday morning, namely, our faith in the holy catholic Church. The Church is catholic not when it calls itself that, but when it preaches one gospel, follows one Lord, and professes its faith in the unity of the Church, for all groups, whatever their economics, their habits, their traditions and the like. These are the things that divide us.
As I was thinking about these things that I wanted to say to you today, I had the uneasy feeling that I was oversimplifying things. I do not want to do that. There is no point in sliding quickly over history, and church government and sociology as if they were not important, or as if they would just disappear by our having mentioned them. They are strong factors that divide is. That is part of the reason why the Ecumenical movement has not moved any faster, that is why all the energy expended on merger of the Methodists in Stony Point came to nothing. There are other ingredients in the whole problem of the things that divides us, like our pride in our accomplishments. But remember the Gospel lesson that we read this morning?
The ruler of the small town synagogue who came over to Jesus and the man that he had just healed and he said, “Why did you violate the Sabbath?” In his concern for the law he missed the miracle. Reprehensible, but all too common. We see the importance of history and polity and sociology and miss the importance of the Gospel itself. If there are things to do in obedience to the command of that Gospel then we ought to do them. In the area of Christian education, for example, if we could do the job better by pooling our efforts with say the Presbyterians, then we ought to do it.
Finally the things that divide us from one another ought not to separate us from our Lord. Let us consider these things that divide us.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on October 14, 1962 at Trinity Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York.
Mark 3:1-6 1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.