In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation. In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States. He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic. Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again. The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division. Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society. If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live? Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities. Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”
More than 100 years later, not much has changed. In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase. Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States. We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter. How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?
Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later. The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study. Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely. For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.
The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders. If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.