Visions for Christian Unity: Roland Allen and the Body of Christ

The Episcopal Church commemorated Roland Allen on June 8. (I’m a day late with this post. Oops.) Allen was an Anglican missionary to China and later Kenya in the first part of the twentieth century. For a variety of reasons—notably what his commemoration generously calls “a gregarious temperament combined with absolute confidence in his ideas”; i.e. he was a real S.O.B.—Allen never rose particularly far in the church hierarchy.

The church commemorates Allen primarily because of one book he wrote, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? This is everything an author could ask for in a book: short, profound, and still in print nearly a century after its publication. (And it’s now on Kindle for less than $2!) Allen argues that St. Paul’s missionary method was to found churches, teach them the gospel, establish a leadership structure, and then leave them to grow on their own. He contrasts that with the decades- and centuries-long hand-holding among mission agencies of his own time. (You may have heard of Allen because Vincent Donovan cites him heavily in Christianity Rediscovered, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be read by every Christian alive.)

Allen (and Donovan) can be criticized on various grounds but I want to remember Allen for something that is rarely mentioned about his writing: the vision he articulated for worldwide Christian unity.

But first, something slightly more recent. For the last quarter century, the Anglican Communion has pursued its efforts toward unity by arguing that the church is something like the Trinity. The loving relations of the three members of the Trinity are what the church is trying to approximate. Just as the Trinity is many but one, so too should the church be.

This is due, in large part, to an Orthodox theologian and bishop named John Zizioulas, who spoke at Lambeth 1988 and whose book, Being as Communion, was hugely influential on Anglicans (and others). The 1997 Virginia Report shows this influence: “Our unity with one another is grounded in the life of love, unity and communion of the Godhead. The eternal, mutual self-giving and receiving love of the three persons of the Trinity is the source and ground of our communion, of our fellowship with God and one another.” (2.9)

These Trinitarian themes have continued in Anglican theology, as, for instance, in the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, which says, in its first paragraph, “the communion of life in the Church participates in the communion which is the divine life itself, the life of the Trinity.” (The Presiding Bishop’s recent talk to provincial synods is in this vein as well, though she also seems heavily influenced by this more recent book.)

So, with that context in mind, back to Allen.

Allen’s vision for worldwide Christian unity was animated not by the Trinity but by something more Pauline: the body of Christ. Allen rooted his case for unity between churches in countries that sent missionaries (like his own England) with churches that were growing in places where missionaries were being sent (like China, where he wrote Missionary Methods). His insight was that the teaching about the body Paul applied to individuals within the Corinthian, Roman, and other churches could be applied to individual churches within the broader Church catholic.

That is to say, just as individuals in Corinth needed one another to be a fully functioning Christian community, so too did Christians in England need Christians in China (and elsewhere) to be a fully functioning Christian body. Coming at a time when mission reeked of colonialism and noblesse oblige, this was a pretty profound thing to be saying. Moreover, Allen realized, this meant each church was co-equal and had something of value to contribute. (Allen was silent on just what the Chinese church could contribute, an indication, perhaps, of the way in which he was still captive to his own time.)

One of the implications of thinking in this way—and Allen realized it—is that Christian unity is not something that is created by Christians. Rather, it is something that is a gift from God that Christians realize in their relationships. Christians join a body that exists long before they—or anyone else—were around.

Allen was not the first to apply the body of Christ imagery to the world church—John Chrysostom had done so in his sermons—but he is, so far as I can tell, the first to develop it in such great detail. He had a vision for the unity of the world church and that vision was rooted in the idea of the body of Christ. The Church Catholic is one body. Each individual Christian and individual church is a member of it and has gifts to contribute and gifts to receive from it. This body is not created but is joined.

Nor was Allen the only Anglican to rely on this vision to promote Christian unity. Bishops relied on it at the 1930 Lambeth Conference to talk about Anglican unity. The idea reached an apex in 1963 in Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ, the manifesto that laid out a new way of understanding the Anglican Communion. (Elsewhere, I’ve written an article about why MRI needs to be remembered in the Anglican Communion.) And it makes sense. Paul’s teaching on the body is intuitive and easily graspable.

In this context, the Trinitarian vision of unity in the past quarter-century seems like something of an outlier. And yet Anglicans have been debating and discussing and arguing about unity as if the Zizioulas-Trinity vision is the only way we have of understanding what it means to be a worldwide church without ever seriously questioning if it is the most helpful vision for Christian unity

It seems likely that the Anglican Covenant is dead. The debate surrounding it has focused primarily on its Section IV, the one that promises unspecified “relational consequences.” As Anglicans figure out a way forward post Covenant, perhaps we might also have a conversation not just about Section IV but also about the implicit assumptions underlying our visions for worldwide unity. What does it mean to say we are a “world church”? How do we understand relations between these various parts of that world church? Are those relations important? If so, why? The body of Christ, I think, gives us the language to begin answering some of these questions.

I’m hoping to publish a paper on this in the not-very-distant future so I’m not going to list all the reasons why I think the Trinitarian consensus of the last quarter-century is lacking and why the body of Christ might be a better answer. But perhaps we might use the commemoration of Roland Allen to reflect on just what vision we have for our world church. Zizioulas, at Lambeth 1988, said, “ecumenism needs a vision.” Substitute “intra-Anglican relations” for “ecumenism” and the point remains sound.

When we start looking for that vision, I think we might find that it’s time to turn away from the Trinity and return to the Body.

How do we argue in the church?

I once met an Orthodox woman who was flabbergasted to hear that in some parts of the Episcopal Church, Mary is not venerated. “I know there can be different practices on the Eucharist and other things,” she said, “but I just don’t see how you can be a Christian and not venerate the Virgin Mary!”

I thought of that woman the other night when I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine about communion with the unbaptized. This is the practice of sharing communion with all who come to the rail, regardless of whether they are baptized or not.

My friend, who opposes changing the practice, said, “I can’t see the point of having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this subject. It just seems so obvious what the answer is.”

My friend also supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. I pointed out to him that his comment is more or less what has been said by those who oppose changing the church’s teachings on homosexuality.

Everyone draws the line in a different place. Mary. Homosexuality. Communion. We all (and I include myself here) have issues on which we are unyielding and absolutely convinced of our own rightness.

We’ve had a decade or more of trench warfare in the Episcopal Church on sexuality (which continues). It has conditioned us to think of a major liberal / conservative divide in the church. What is interesting about the communion debate is the way in which it complicates this divide, as my friend demonstrates. This actually fills me with hope.

I hope that in this conversation about communion we will learn again how to disagree with one another. I hope we learn that the liberal / conservative understanding of the church is not set in stone and, in fact, doesn’t do a very good job of capturing its full diversity. I hope we can learn that Christian unity is not about ensuring that everyone believes and does the same thing. Rather, Christian unity is about recognizing a pattern of faithful living in another person, a pattern of living that shows that one’s life has been transformed by Christ.

It is very easy in any debate—sexuality, communion, Mary—for the stakes to escalate quickly and for anathemas to start being thrown around with reckless abandon. (It has always been so in church history.) What if, in this conversation about communion, we could start by focusing on our patterns of faithful living and pursue ways of building these ties? What would it be like for people who disagree on communion to come together for prayer, instead of debate? As much as I am filled with hope, I fear that Tom Ferguson is right and the communion question will quickly become one which “will just become another flashpoint as we organize ourselves into our little mini-communities, desperately trying to find the people who are like us, and, hence, the true Episcopalians.”

I’m not saying that conversation on this topic, and many others, is not necessary. But it’s striking how quickly we think debate can be the only thing we need to do in the church when, in fact, it’s a small part of what it means to be a Christian wrestling with a difficult topic.

The way in which the church argues can be a key part of our counter-cultural witness to the world. Maybe on the communion question we can begin to get it right.