Monday, February 4, 2013

Michael Ramsey on Christian Unity (1)

One particular book of great influence in the 20th Century was The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey, published in 1936. It is still worth reading. By means of this book, and from within a truly Catholic vision, Ramsey - who went on to become the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury - enabled Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians to understand more of each other. A theological work, The Gospel and the Catholic Church is utterly Biblical and Patristic, but Ramsey’s typical style, disarmingly simple and therefore accessible to the specialist and non-specialist alike. 

This is the first post from Chapter 4 (“The Meaning of Unity”) of Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church:

In showing us the Christ the New Testament has taken us beyond His historical life and death into a region as hard to define as it is real to Christian experience. This region is described when the writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and when St. Paul says, “Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). 

In this region of thought the word mystical at once suggests itself, and it is a word that has often been used to describe that union of the Christian with his Lord that is as real as was the union of the disciples in the days of His flesh. But in this region there lurks a subtle danger, since in it there is the temptation for a Christian to cling to the immediacy of his own experience of Christ, and so, in the very midst of the Body of Christ, to be ensnared into an individualism and self-satisfaction that belie the truth about the one Body. Against this danger the New Testament asserts two important safeguards: (1) the importance of the historical events of the life and death of Jesus in the flesh, and (2) the importance, to the individual member or group, of realizing that the one Body existed before his own conversion and has one continuous historic life in which he is called to share.

(1) United with Christ as they are, the Christians will not interpret aright their present union with Him unless they constantly look back to the events whence it has sprung, and remember that these events, wrought once for all, are the source of everything that the Christians are and have and know. They are called upon not to advertise their own “experiences” but to praise God for, and to bear witness to, the historical events wherein the Name and the Glory of God were uttered in human flesh. The faithful Christian will not draw attention to himself as an interesting specimen of life in Christ, but dying to all interest in himself and his “experiences” he will focus attention upon the redeeming acts of Christ in history, as the centre of man’s prayers and praises for all time. In other words, the Church is Apostolic; it looks back to the deeds of Jesus in the flesh, and through these deeds it has been “sent” into the world.

(2) From the deeds of Jesus in the flesh there springs a society that is one in its continuous life. Many kinds of fellowship in diverse places and manners are created by the Spirit of Jesus, but they all depend upon the one life. Thus each group of Christians will learn its utter dependence upon the whole Body. It will indeed be aware of its own immediate union with Christ, but it will see this experience as a part of the one life of the one family in every age and place. By its dependence upon the Church of history it will die to self-consciousness and self-satisfaction. And as with the group, so with the individual Christian; he will know his dependence upon the other members of the Body, wherein the relation of member to member and of function to function begets humility and love. The gifts that he possesses belong to the Body, and are useful only in the Body’s common life. Thus through membership he dies to self-sufficing, and knows that his life in Christ exists only as a life in which all the members share.

In these two ways the Christians will forget themselves and bear witness to the redemption wrought once for all and to the society in which men die and rise.# In later language the Church is called “Apostolic” (sent by the one Redeemer in the flesh) and “Catholic” (living one universal life); and both these notes of the Church are essential to its existence as expressing the Lord’s death and resurrection, wherein its “Holiness” consists. By his place in the Body the Christian finds the Gospel of death and resurrection active around and through him. To “believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is to die to self.

# These points are illustrated by St Paul's life and writings. It is impossible to belittle his own special experiences and the independence which he claims in loyalty to them (Galatans 1:1, 16-17; 2:11; 1 Corinthians 9:1-2, etc.). Yet he knows that these things would betray him, were it not for his sense of debt to the older Apostles as witnesses to the Flesh of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-8); and (b) his sense of the Church’s continuity from them (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 14:36; Ephesians 2:20).


Mascall Fan said...

Interesting references to discussions between Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall on the subject of unity at this address :

Ramsey, indeed a great and holy man, was writing in a very different context. One doubts if he could have foreseen the current situation.

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