Introduction: What is Doctrine?
The word “doctrine” is derived from the Latin word docta, meaning “things taught.” Doctrines, therefore, are of many kinds and exist in all aspects of our lives. Churches, however, tend to circumscribe the meaning of the word, limiting it to a range of assertions that are more or less held in common by all members of a particular denomination, which often constitute, nonetheless, a sizeable collection of beliefs. Doctrines come into being in a variety of ways, such as declarations of councils or synods and agreed statements derived from ecumenical conversations. A denomination’s doctrinal assertions are not necessarily a “body” of doctrine, because they are not inherently systematic. Doctrines arise in response to particular questions and concerns, as a response to specific historical circumstances. The relations between doctrinal assertions, as well as the degree of significance attached to any particular doctrinal statement, tend to be recognized after the fact.
A number of core doctrinal affirmations are generally held by more than one denomination and, indeed, some of the most recognizable doctrines are held by the great majority of Christians. Both the ACC and the UCC make a formal commitment to the two great ecumenical creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, as declarations of the essentials of Christian belief. Other statements of belief, such as the UCC statement “A Contemporary Expression of Christian Faith” (often called “A New Creed”), are intended to be elucidations of Christian understanding for the contemporary world and, as such, are regarded as consistent with the ancient creeds rather than as changes or replacements.
Tradition and the Development of Doctrine
Since the nineteenth century and John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, most theologians have agreed that doctrine is not static. As Peter Wyatt (UCC) noted, some of the major founding figures of the United Church, such as Nathanael Burwash, regarded doctrinal change as both necessary and a fundamental reason for “church union.” Appeals to scripture, history, reason, and religious experience (the encounter with God that brings about conversion of heart, central to the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition) serve as guideposts as old truths are stated in new language and new insights are accumulated. The process of formulating contemporary statements of belief serves as a framework for doctrinal development.
The pre-modern origins of Anglicanism, its effort to balance Protestant and Catholic priorities, and the international character of the Anglican Communion, are at the root of a strong emphasis upon tradition and communal reason as guiding the reading of scripture and reflection upon contemporary circumstances. The language of the “via media,” or “middle way,” tends to require Anglicans to consider the views of other Christians in the past and present, so that doctrine is understood as developing on a continuous trajectory from decisions of the early church councils. Contemporary statements of belief emerge in ecumenical conversation, so that ecumenical documents generally accepted by Anglican Churches (such as the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the World Council of Churches [BEM]) both enable movement and serve as an indicator of contemporary understanding.
For both the UCC and the ACC, development of doctrine is oriented toward transformation of hearts and societies and the increase of God’s Reign in peace and justice. The work of God’s mission in the world is the overarching priority. In order that this continue to be so, a place must be found at the table for the voice of Indigenous people. It is not enough that people of European and other heritages give what they have to Indigenous people. Indigenous people have been outsiders to most of the history of Christian doctrinal development. An ongoing challenge for all of Christianity, including the UCC and ACC, is to find ways that Indigenous people may act as full participants in the creation of statements of belief, so that others may receive what the Indigenous people have to give.
Doctrine is a Blessing
Precisely because doctrine is a servant of God’s Reign, it is a blessing to the Church. Doctrine is the ground upon which we stand when we proclaim God’s saving grace and call to participation in God’s Reign. Consequently, we assert its value to all the world and to our ongoing life together.
Because doctrine is important to our life together, it serves as a fruitful ground for common support. We find helpful the recognition of the Lutheran/Reformed Dialogue in the U.S.A. that a healthy ecumenical relationship “provides both the complementarity needed for a full and adequate witness to the gospel (mutual affirmation) and the corrective reminder that every theological approach is a partial and incomplete witness to the gospel (mutual admonition)” (A Common Calling; Augsburg, 1993; 66). We accept this as a statement of mutual responsibility, understanding it as a central aspect of “bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).
We note, however, that many of the Indigenous people of Canada have accepted Christian doctrine as a blessing, but have found a curse attached. This presents a serious challenge to the whole Church, as we seek together to understand the relevance of Christian belief to the contemporary world.
The Challenge of Doctrinal Differences
We have found ranges of belief to exist in both the ACC and the UCC. These ranges overlap, such that members of the two denominations have a great degree of commonality. This manifests itself in common action, especially joint ventures such as KAIROS, and common worship, either in permanent shared ministry arrangements or in occasional sharing. Moreover, these ranges are variable and flexible, so that on some issues members of each denomination will find themselves in greater agreement with the formal position taken by the other denomination.
Significantly, many Indigenous people exist in a distinct set of ranges of their own, with little concern for the issues that preoccupy other members of our denominations. They may find greater doctrinal commonality with Indigenous people in different denominations than with others of their own denomination who have another heritage. This gap in understanding and priorities needs serious attention from both denominations.
Nonetheless, there are some notable areas of substantial difference between the ACC and UCC, which provide these denominations with some of their characteristic ethos.
Perhaps the most notable is in the realm of ecclesiology. Consistent with the assertions of Called to Full Communion: The Waterloo Declaration (2001), para. 8, and other ecumenical documents, we find the ministry of episcope (oversight) present in its fullness in both the ACC (especially in the ministry of bishops) and the UCC (especially in the ministry of presbyteries and Conferences).
Challenges emerge, however, in the realm of understandings of ordination. Both the ACC and the UCC employ the term “ordination” with particular theological significance, using almost the same liturgical phrases in ordaining to the office and work of priest/minister. Both include in the work or functions of the priest/minister the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care. In the ACC, only those ordained to the priesthood (which includes all bishops) may preside at the eucharist, while the UCC authorizes others to do so in certain situations. The UCC indicates, in its response to BEM, that ordination is the “normative but not unique way in which individuals are authorized by the church to preach and to preside at the sacraments” and that the “fact of authorization by the wider church” is of greater importance than “the particular authorization of ordination” for eucharistic presidency (The Churches Respond to BEM, II, 282). The UCC has also authorized, in exceptional circumstances, the presbytery and Conference to appoint lay elders for sacramental presidency for a limited period of time in a particular pastoral charge only.
This is an issue worthy of further study. It raises numerous questions about the meaning of ordination, the nature of ordered ministry and the relation of such ministry to the church’s sacramental life, while touching upon broader issues of the meaning of sacraments.
Mediating Doctrinal Differences
Other ecumenical conversations have aided us in the realization that not all points of doctrine must be agreed upon as a condition of breakthroughs in ecumenical relations. As we have noted, any denomination’s collection of beliefs is always in the process of development and is not, necessarily, fully systematic in character. Moreover, not all beliefs possess the same decisive significance. Given this complex situation, expectations of full agreement on all points between ecumenical partners must inevitably be frustrated.
From the Scottish Church Initiative for Union proposal, we draw the notion of “unity in co-ordinated diversity” (sec. 2.7). Diversity is necessary to living out the gospel in a multicultural world. We can expect and applaud differences of belief and practice, suited to local circumstances. However, the Church as a whole can make an effort to co-ordinate the diverse patterns, so that they are mutually supportive of the Church’s witness, rather than being destructive of common life.
From the Lutheran World Federation/Roman Catholic Church conversations on justification, we draw the notion of a “differentiated consensus.” Lutherans and Roman Catholics did not seek to reach full agreement on all aspects of justification; instead, they reached a consensus on basic truths about justification and agreed that the remaining differences were not subject to doctrinal condemnation (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, paras. 5, 14). Differences of belief are not necessarily fatal to relations. Each denomination may recognize that the other denomination holds the beliefs necessary to Christianity and does not hold positions that fundamentally undermine Christian belief, while understanding that (possibly irreconcilable) differences remain.
Differentiated consensus acknowledges that the truth of the Gospel is profound and complex at the same time. In differentiated consensus two churches, through a process of dialogue over historically controversial theological issues, come to some agreement that allows each to recognize the Gospel in the teaching of the other, even though there may not be total agreement about the way a certain teaching is expressed. The effect is to recognize that the unity of the Church is a unity within diversity and not a simple form of uniformity—an organic unity. But the differences that remain are not considered church-dividing and in fact may be seen as complementary. (Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, January 18, 2006)
These perspectives offer hope that the ACC and UCC may move forward together without having to reach absolute unanimity on all matters.
Following from Jürgen Moltmann’s observation that the Church must always be discerning both in its identity and its relevance in the world, we make the following two recommendations:
- The next phase of the Dialogue should move beyond the mostly comparative model, focused on traditional theological themes as points of similarity and difference, to explore what is at the heart of our traditions, the obstacles these self-perceptions have created and create, and the gifts they share with society.
- The next phase of the Dialogue should explore each tradition’s understanding of doctrinal development and how this is related to self-identity.