Before an open fireplace we sat. A convivial evening meal had been eaten and now with friendly logs crackling in the great hearth we chatted amiably with one another as we waited for the discussion to begin.

The mood was relaxed. Pipes were being lit, laughter filled the room, friendly introductions were being made. The young man in the clerical collar next to me put out his hand and said with a smile, “Bob Shaughnessy is my name.” I responded with my own.

Ten young priests of the Roman Catholic Church were meeting with ten young Protestant ministers to talk about mutual concerns of the Christian faith. The young man who had introduced himself to me was a priest of the church of Rome.

It seemed a long way from Luther in Germany, and Calvin in Switzerland, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth. And it is a long way. The movement toward Christian unity is a reality. Romans and Protestants are beginning to talk to each other again. Minds that long have been closed are beginning to be open again. Hearts that long were hard are beginning to be warm again.

A new hope is sweeping the world: that the church of Christ may be One. Within the ranks of Protestantism the drive toward church unity has reached colossal proportions.

And while the great denominations are moving toward unity, the church of Christ in a thousand different places is discovering a renewal of its life. We are living in a period of great ferment.

As a free churchman of the Congregational tradition, and from an unashamedly independent point of view, I would like to ask out loud where free churchmanship stands in relation to this ecumenical movement. What part will my heritage play in the change that is coming? What do Christians of the Pilgrim tradition have to give to this new life of the Church?

The Long Road Back

For 400 years the church of western Christendom has been divided. And nobody wanted it. With heartache each division came. Martin Luther never wanted to break with the church of Rome. The Church of England had no real argument with the Holy See except papal infallibility and the willfulness of Henry VIII. It was a sword in the heart of the Scottish Covenanters and the English Separatists to be driven by conscience to break with the Church of England.

But each new division has been raised by men who cared. Men who loved the Lord and were being true to him according to such light as they had. And always they have gone their way with a yearning of the spirit, a breaking of the heart, and a homeward look toward the brethren who were left behind.

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That yearning of the Spirit and that troubling of the conscience has raised the hope in this century that by some act of God, they might be one again. And so the great ecumenical councils began: Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Evanston, and now New Delhi. The World Council of Churches was formed, and in America, the National Council, and hundreds of local Councils.

Christians have hoped and dreamed—and their greatest hope has been that eventually even Rome would be included; that no more would Rome and Geneva be at swords points; no more would Catholic and Protestant be at war with each other. And the new spirit bodes well for that hope. The barest beginnings of today may fulfill the dearest dreams of yesterday.

But what will the price be for such reunion in the church? What will be the form and the nature of the reunited church? The pattern has already begun to appear and I believe that faithful men should examine it carefully.

Probably the most creative proposal for the form of the Coming Great Church made by either the Roman or Protestant side, is the proposal by the Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church for a “catholic and reformed” church in America. Along with the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the United Church of Christ has been invited to join.

Several important assumptions are made by Dr. Blake in his proposal. One is that the historic apostolic succession of bishops must continue in the reunited church. Episcopacy will be a basic form of its life and ministry. Another is that the reunited church “must clearly confess the historic trinitarian faith received from the apostles and set forth in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.” The Coming Great Church will be creedal in its faith. A third assumption is that the church will be democratic—but in the sense simply of certain elected groups of men having authority under the Spirit, rather than individual men who have personal authority. Dr. Blake recognizes and assumes that in the Catholic and Reformed Church it will be, as he says, “necessary to have certain inequalities in status—as between members and officers, and as among deacons, presbyters, and bishops.” The reunited church will, of necessity, be hierarchial in its government.

What should free churchmen of the Pilgrim tradition say to a future like this? What should men say who also long for unity, but whose fathers died for freedom from the hand of bishops, whose ancestors went to prison rather than accept anything but the Bible as their rule of faith, who believe that in a local, gathered church of faithful men is given all the authority needed for the church of Christ?

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Some ecumenical leaders insist that free churchmen have very little to say. Their day is past, they say. They live in a tradition, and base their life on an assumption which cannot adjust to the new ecumenical thrust. Indeed, these leaders would have it, their very principles and practices of free churchmanship are an obstacle to the ecumenical movement.

The “absolute congregational principle,” writes Charles Clayton Morrison, “is an obstacle that must be surmounted in preparation for a united church.… All parts of the church must be integrated on the broad principle of their ecclesiastical obligation to the whole church. It is quite unthinkable that any part of the church should set itself up as absolutely independent and autonomous. Least of all could local congregations so consider themselves.… Thus it should be plain why the theory of unqualified congregational independence and autonomy is incompatible with the ecumenical ideal” (The Unfinished Reformation, pp. 174 f.).

Have we nothing to say? Are we merely an obstacle to be gotten rid of before the ecumenical advance? Or do we in fact have something very important to say, some proposals of our own to make, and a gift of our own to give to the Great Church that is coming?

We may be free churches, but we are not churches without standards! We may be creedless churches, but we are not churches without faith! We may be churches without a historic episcopacy, but we are not churches without an apostolic succession in our ministry!

The ecumenical movement has badly underestimated the genius of the free churches. It has manifestly failed to see the historic roots of free churchmanship. It has grievously underrated the relevance of our “Way” to the spiritual hungers of a new day.

What is the free church ‘Way”? It is the way of a pilgrim people—of people who make no claim to have all the answers, no claim to be the only true church, no claim to have a more holy ministry or a purer sacrament than all other churches. It is an open way, a seeking way, a humble way—the way of people who have confessed that they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth; travelers on the highroads of life, seekers alter a truth they have not found, who declare plainly that they seek a better country. What could be truer to the best spirit of our time than a tradition free and open as this?

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The Way Of Authority

But the way of the free churches is also the way of authority: the way of the only authority the Apostolic Church ever accepted—the authority of Jesus Christ. Our English brethren speak of the “Crown rights of the Redeemer”! Do some churches insist that the movement of the Spirit is too unpredictable, too fickle; that only the authority of wise men elected for their background, and ability, and prudence, can be trusted? Our tradition insists that the power of Christ, and the wisdom of Christ, and the grace of Christ are great enough for him to rule by himself. We believe him alive, we believe him present, we believe him supreme—and deserving therefore of our utter obedience in the life and government of his Church.

But ours is also the way of independence. We believe in the church universal. We believe in the church militant and the church triumphant. But we also believe that the only authority of the church on earth is the authority given where it is gathered by its Lord regularly, as one people, living week after week in common worship, in sharing of the sacraments, and in faithful life and service as a congregation. If each congregation of God’s people is under direct authority of Christ, then it is part of its birthright that it is independent of any other authority.

A free church, then, is the people’s church. If they are faithful to their Lord, and are trying to follow the leading of his Spirit, then the church belongs to the people. No one can act for them. They must act. They must make decisions. They must call their minister. They must ordain and install him. This is why the authority of our churches is not vested in the church committee, or the board of deacons, or the prudential board—but in the church meeting. These committees simply serve the meeting, they carry out its will. Free churches are meant to be churches of the people, where people are free to obey their only Lord.

What does this mean, then, for the two greatest questions of church order in ecumenical discussion: the order of the ministry, and the Lord’s Supper?

It means that our ministry is an apostolic succession of faith. My credentials to preach the Gospel are not that a bishop laid his hands on me in a physical succession back to the Apostle Peter, but that I stand in the apostolic succession of those believing men in all ages who have confessed to their Lord the same faith as Peter: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” My brethren in the ministry laid hands upon me and the lay people of my church shared in that act. I am ordained by the will of God, and by the gracious calling of the people of my first parish. And I protest that my orders will stand before God along with those of any pope, or any bishop or any presbyter!

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And it means that with us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is offered at a free table to which any man may come. We do not say that only those confirmed in the Episcopal church or the Roman church or indeed a Congregational or other free church may receive the sacrament here. We believe it is not ours to judge what man may sit down at this table, and what man may not. If Christ is the Lord of each church, if he is there with his people when they worship, then it is his table to which men come, and the church asks only that a man come confessing his sins and loving the Lord Jesus.

There is a universalism, a freedom, an openness in the free church way which we beg the Great Church to recognize. It is the gift we bring to the unity of the churches.

The Free Church Heritage

But how will the other churches accept our gifts? What is there, common in the free church tradition and in the tradition of the “higher” churches, that can possibly overcome the deep differences between us?

I believe that the free churches have more in common with the Catholic branches of the Christian church than most of us realize, and that they have more in common with the free churches, than they have ever realized. Not all branches of the Christian church have bishops in a historic episcopate, nor do they all set limitations around the Lord’s Supper. And yet, no matter what their polity, every denomination has local congregations! Every denomination accepts the authority of Christ! Every denomination has people, and most have a communion service, and have baptism! And it is these basic things which the free churches exalt and treasure.

But whereas the Catholic branches have some forms of life which no other denominations have, the free churches have no form of life which is not either present or implied in every other branch of the Christian church. Why should not the Coming Great Church look for its new life in these forms which we all share?

Our fathers believed that what many Congregationalists today practice and know as the “church meeting” was the most completely democratic form of church government. And yet it is not the copyrighted invention of the Congregationalists at all, but was the practice of the Christian church at the very beginning. It is apostolic! Why should it not be basic to the life and authority of the ecumenical church?

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Or take the free church view of authority. We chose to obey Christ, not men. But all churches want to obey Christ. It is just that they do not quite dare to trust him alone. They add bishops and hierarchical systems of authority, to make sure that things are done “decently and in order.” But why should not the Great Church coming take a chance and let Christ alone rule his Church?

Or take the sacraments. There is a widening conviction today that babies should no longer be baptized privately at home, or in an empty church, but in the midst of the gathered congregation where the whole church can welcome them, and share in their Baptism. But this has been a free church view from beginning to end! For generations it has been our ideal and our practice.

Something To Share

In authority, in government, in worship, in the sacraments these are all common grounds—forms of life which already are part of the free church heritage, and which the Catholic side of the church is beginning to reclaim for theirs. We are discovering each other-discovering that we stand as equals in this matter of giving new life to the church of Christ.

The call to all of us on the free church side of Protestantism is, I am sure, to face a new day. It may also be a call to give up some things which are dear to us. But what the rest of the church may not have realized is that it is a call to preserve in our “way” a direct authority, a responsible freedom, and an openness to the Spirit. It is barely possible that the free church tradition has been given something by God that the world did not know we had, and which we are meant in turn to give to the Great Church that is coming.

The Comforter

Holy Spirit, breath of Christ,

Cleanse our beings with Thy fire:

Like the wind, with love’s warm touch

Send Thy joy, our lives inspire.

Come with power, convict of sin,

Come, bring righteousness within.

Yielded to Thy love, we pray.

Come, our Comforter, today!


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