CHURCH UNION IS DEAD
by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, December 2005
Some limited successes were celebrated. There was a merger of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations to form The United Church of Canada (1925). But inevitably some refused to join. A Presbyterian elder is reported to have said "If I have to join those wishy-washy Congregationalists or those rip-ranting Methodists, I will quit religion altogether and become an Anglican." The Church of South India (1947) was formed by a union of several Protestant denominations. But this did not include major groups such as the Mar Thoma and Syrian Orthodox denominations.
In England, Anglicans made heroic attempts to merge with the Methodists. There were also innumerable committees trying to find a way for Anglicans to submit to the primacy of the Pope in Rome. But to many, such a union seemed too much like that of Jonah in the Whale.
In the profusion and continual growth of new denominations in the United States, there were some limited agreements to join or rejoin bigger denominations like the Presbyterians and Methodists. But by 2000 AD, the Church Union Movement had exhausted its enthusiasm. It is now time to adopt another model.
In the New Testament there is only one church in each city (Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Salamis, Paphos, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Cenchrea, Ephesus, Smyrna, Sardis, Colossae, Laodicea, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Rome - Galatia had the two city churches of Antioch in Pisidia and Iconium). Paul left Titus behind in Crete to "appoint elders in every polis or city" (Titus 1:5). In a big city like Ephesus there would be numerous meeting places, each with its own emphasis and agenda (as in Romans 16:1-16). There is a oneness with a rich variety of emphases.
How would this model be pictured in my own city of Kingston, Ontario? I meet with a group who call themselves "St. Paul’s." They are loosely linked to other Anglicans with names like St. George, St. James, St. Luke, St. John’s, St. Thomas, St. Mark, and St. Peter’s. St. Andrew’s is connected to the Presbyterian denomination. United congregations choose names like Chalmers, Edith Rankin, and Cooke’s. There is First Baptist, Bay Park Baptist, and others like Bible Baptist. Some Roman Catholics meet in a building called The Church of the Good Thief. Others identify themselves as Holy Name, Sacred Heart, St. Mary’s, and St. Joseph. The Salvation Army meets in citadels. There are also Pentecostals, Alliance, Bethel, Brethren, the Next Church, and numerous unnamed and home gatherings of various kinds.
At first sight it seems difficult to apply such a model in a big city like New York or Toronto. We wonder what is a city? A simple answer is to say that a city elects a mayor, and all citizens vote for and are served by the city council. That gives them a sense of identity, and one facet of that identity is the sense of oneness of Christians in that city.
By insisting that there is only one Church of Kingston or Toronto or New York, it becomes clear that all these groupings are connected in some way with Jesus the Messiah. They do not need to be united by some bureaucratic merger. They began and still are his one body expressing itself in many different ways. In fact it seems that the Messiah delights in a very wide freedom of worship and expression. This does not deny the fact that some of these groupings seem to be closer to the teachings of the Bible, and some might even be lukewarm, misguided, or heretical. We can influence and on occasion need to correct one another. But this was already the case in some of the city churches mentioned by John the Apostle (Revelation 2:4, 6, 14, 20; 3:2, 16).
In this model, denominations are not churches. It is a misnomer to talk and write about the Anglican Church, the United Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. They are convenient means of supporting different kinds of emphasis in the city churches which they serve.
Meanwhile, in many cities all over the world, Christians easily recognize their oneness with their brothers and sisters. Marriages take place across denominational lines, and when danger is threatened, they all stand together. Billy Graham managed to gather those of many denominations and races in the choirs of his city-wide evangelistic meetings. In China, the government recognizes the Three Self denominational groupings in each city, but Christians still pray for and support where possible those who gather in the hundreds of unregistered groupings.
All over the world the Church Union Movement has lost its relevance.