Posting at the Gospel Side, Matt Marino asks a good question for the Episcopalian Church, but really a lot of denominations and a lot of congregations: can we unite around what unites us?
“We aren’t sure other folk are the same kind of Episcopalians we are?” several said. I suggested, “It might help us get buy-in if we had a statement of what we do agree on.” The consensus in the room was that we were such a diverse church that it would be impossible to agree on any kind of a statement. I pushed, “Can the youth people give it a try?” It took one draft and three edits for two liberals, a conservative, and a moderate to hash out a statement of “shared values.” Task completed in one day.
(Looking at their list of shared values, I can as a Presbyterian affirm #1, #3, #6, #7. I think I can affirm the thrust of #8 if not what it means for Episcopalians. We too are creedal (#2), but Presbyterians do affirm specific confessional statements. I would also agree with #5, but if we talked about it, we’d realize that we’re miles apart about both “apostolic” and “catholic.”)
Back to the question: can we unite around what unites us? Once in a very great while, the answer “no.” Although Martin Luther had a great deal in common with the medieval church, nevertheless, Protestants ultimately separated from Rome. It’s important to remember, though, that they didn’t start there. They were, as history came to call them, “protest-ants” who wanted to reform the church and not split it. (“Reformed,” for that matter, is the label applied to a family of traditions within Protestantism.)
The Presbyterians of the nineteenth century who split over slavery had a lot in common with each other, too. In the light of hindsight, they should probably have focused on what united them and stayed together.
But this isn’t heaven. “Our church isn’t filled with hypocrites: there’s still room for you.” We are new creatures, but sin still clings to us. After years (or decades) of sincere effort spent trying to hold things together, it might be such a distraction from the church’s mission that splitting up is the right thing to do. But asking about the things that unite us is the best place to start.