I appreciate Newton Garver’s review of my response to the Vatican, and I am also grateful for being welcomed by the editor of Friends Journal to respond to Garver’s fine treatment. I feel he did an excellent job of highlighting some of the salient points, and I also agree with the questions he raised. Here’s some of the background behind the essay and expansion on some of the main points of the paper—one response after another.
Being invited by the Secretary of the NCCC Faith and Order Commission to respond to the Pope’s letter to the churches is a privilege, but the historic aspect is the fact that such responses were first invited by the Vatican. Has there ever been a day since the east-west division of the Church in 1054 C.E. where Christian leaders and denominations the world over were invited to respond to the Pope’s question of how he should fulfill his charge to shepherd a divided Church? I believe this is a first, and it may prove to be one of the hallmarks of John Paul II’s legacy. It invites particular input as to how Jesus’ prayer that his followers may be one (John 17:21) might be fulfilled, asking also what a "new day" for Church unity might look like.
After the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ had come up with its own response, including statements from each of its three working groups, I still felt more needed to be said. As a New Testament scholar, I had come to the conclusion that the main point of Peter’s receiving the "Keys to the Kingdom" in Matthew 16:17-19 (and in his being portrayed as "returning" them to Jesus in John 6:68-70) was an apostolic emphasis on Christ’s leadership. Given John’s (and Matthew’s and Luke’s) emphases upon relationships and the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s leadership is furthered by charismatic means as well as structural ones. The point is that both modes are apostolic and biblical, not just the structural.
As a Quaker, it also seemed important to sketch a few ways that authority and community could be envisioned. Garver picks up well on these points. Rather than seeing authority as a function of position or status, I wanted to emphasize that authority is a function of responsibility. Responsibility is tied to positional leadership, but it can also come simply from a sense of calling, or concern. That being the case, whether non-Catholics respected papal authority or not, I encouraged the Holy Father to live into his own sense of calling to work with Christ in the shepherding of his sheep. Such is the calling of every pastoral leader, Catholic and otherwise. Authority is also a function of truth and spiritual weight, and that is a healthy reminder to us all. Genuine authority is not a factor of force or coercion; it is ever a function of truth’s convincement and spiritual authenticity (John 16:8-15).
On community, raising up the center of who we want to be and focusing on the mission of the group works best for the furthering of unity. Fellowship is often a discovered reality rather than one achieved by manipulation. If there were a new day for the Church to operate as one, that could indeed come as a renewed emphasis upon following Christ together. One approach to catholicity (universal Christianity) is to think in terms of organizations and structural memberships. While institutional matters are important, another way to envision the "catholic vocation" is to invite together all who aspire to live under the present leadership of Christ and who are committed to living out the redemptive works of Jesus in the world. Especially if such a call would come from Rome, it might indeed produce a new day for the Christian movement and the world beyond.
So far these points simply augment Garver’s descriptions of the essay, but now let me engage his concerns. First, I must say that I agree with all of them; they just are beyond the present task, which involves responding to the Pope’s concern for Christian unity, proper. At over 16,000 words, the response was more than long enough for one piece. Nonetheless, here are some ways his good points might be extended from the heart of the essay itself.
Given a common commitment to follow Jesus as the Christ, Garver’s first concern could well be addressed by inviting a catholic call to radical discipleship. Jesus’ clear teachings on nonviolence and the love of enemies are the only way forward for those prioritizing his lordship above other loyalties, and the first challenge is to convert Christianity back to Jesus and the way of the Kingdom. Tragically, the Crusades show how religious authority can and will be abused—among Christians, Muslims, and even the nonreligious—but making religion a scapegoat is not the way forward, either. What we need is persons of faith in all religions whom Jesus might describe as being wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves. This means challenging all inappropriate yoking of virtuous loyalties and God-given concerns to violent and destructive causes. Healing the sick, clothing the naked, delivering the oppressed, and loving the afflicted—these endeavors are the way of Jesus. If we could just get Christians to follow his teachings and example supremely, the world would be a lot better off!
Likewise, the immediate workings of the present Christ also provide a way forward within interreligious dialogue if understood as a spiritual reality rather than as a religious prescription. As early Friends emphasized walking in the Light, and heeding the Light of Christ as apprehended inwardly (Jn. 1:9), they were not referring to an amorphous, impersonal enlightenment. Rather, they experienced the spiritual presence of the eternal Christ at work in the hearts of humanity, within and beyond particular religious expressions. Therefore, as a way forward regarding religious conflicts, Friends could encourage other Christians to engage persons of other faiths (as well as those claiming not to be believers) as ones who at least potentially have access to the spiritual workings of Christ beyond Christianity. Responding faithfully to the Light, of course, is another matter. This being the case, the effective Christian witness listens as well as speaks. One may learn of Christ’s enlightening work in the world through the other as well as testifying to it from one’s own experience. In all things love is the way forward, and embracing a dynamic Christocentricity might indeed make a new day possible for the Church and the world alike.
On Garver’s second concern, I also agree entirely. A radically Christ-centered approach to global-political concerns would make a huge difference in the world. Rather than pitting one group against another—demonizing the other and heroizing one’s own—the way of Christ is to envision every person as created in the image of God. On this matter, the Catholic Church might actually be doing better than our own government, but the Church could indeed lead the way—politically and otherwise. I would heartily welcome the Vatican’s eldering of governments and religious leaders alike (within Christianity and beyond) toward a more humanizing view of the world. This would not only make the Church more authentically Christian; it would also make the world a better place.
I must also say a hearty "Amen!" to Garver’s third concern, as the authentic workings of God’s reign in the world are always an affront to worldly powers and creaturely fiefdoms. What I define as effective Christian leadership is facilitating the attending, discerning, and obeying of Christ’s leadership. When that happens, whether it be furthered by the Bishop of Rome or a clerk of one of the meetings in Newberg, Truth prospers, and persons who are beloved of God come a bit closer to redemption.
Again, thanks to Newton Garver for calling this essay to the attention of Friends, and also to the editors of Friends Journal for including this response. Whether the content of the essay will make a difference, only time will tell, but even the exercise of thinking about effective Christian leadership and whether there might be a new day for the Church provides a helpful occasion for reflection. Whether or not the Vatican makes any movement, I find myself challenged by the central queries: are we receptive and responsive to the leadings of Christ within and among us? Are we faithful stewards of the truth we have received? And, are we willing to facilitate the attending, discerning, and minding of Christ’s leadership at home and abroad? If that happens, it might at least lead to a "new day" for us as Friends.