1. bookVolume 7 (2021): Issue 2 (December 2021)
Journal Details
First Published
20 Sep 2020
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Holiness and Unity

Published Online: 26 Oct 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 7 (2021) - Issue 2 (December 2021)
Page range: 100 - 107
Journal Details
First Published
20 Sep 2020
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

This paper was originally written in 2018 and shared, in a provisional state with my friend, Canon John O’Toole, then the national ecumenical officer for the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. John encouraged me to consider publishing it.


An inextricable link exists between the holiness of God, the holiness that He demands of His people, and the call of Christians to unity. The report of the tenth session of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission makes precisely this point when it states,

The call to holiness is also a call to unity in the Church. ... Holiness and Christian unity belong together as twin aspects of the same relationship with the Trinity such that the pursuit of either involves the pursuit of the other.1

It is the conviction of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as a whole that the holy God, whose mercy is over all His works and who is eternally faithful to his covenant promises, calls human beings into a relationship with Himself in and through which they work with Him as stewards of His creation and towards the fulfilment of His redemptive purposes (Psalms 145:9, 8). Human beings are created in the image of God with the capacity to relate to Him. They are called to reflect His nature in all their doings with Him, with each other and with the rest of the created order. Christ, the eternal Son of God, perfect alike in both divinity and in the human nature that He takes on in His incarnation, teaches this. ‘You shall be all goodness as your Heavenly Father is all goodness’ (Matthew 5:48).2 By God’s grace, creative, redeeming, and sanctifying, they are to be holy, with a holiness deriving from and dependent upon His eternally faithful holiness.

The eastern Christian tradition has always interpreted the use of the two metaphors in Genesis 1:26, ‘image and likeness’, as pointing to the potential for holy love with which human beings are created and likeness as implying the goal, reached in the saints, that is described within the Wesleyan tradition as the ‘spirit of finished holiness.’ The goal is defined in that tradition as a sharing in the mind of Christ, the Christ who ‘emptied Himself of all but love’, a goal in which life is to be, as Charles Wesley sings ‘all praise, all meekness and all love’, the praise being praise of God in his holiness, displayed also in all His saints, the meekness being humility before God and others, the love being the catholic spirit, doing good to all people, but especially to those that are of the household of faith (as commended by St. Paul).3

Governing and controlling everything is the knowledge and worship of the one true God, involving hearty assent and diligent devotion to His holy will which is for the beneficent development of all that He has made in preparation for its consummation in the glory of the New Creation, as described in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation.

I propose now to look at the link between holiness and Christian unity from three angles, that of the holiness of God, that of the holiness of his plan for human salvation, and that of the implications of both for Christian discipleship, both corporate and personal.

The Holiness of God and Christian Unity

From the earliest of times, primitive human beings seem to have had some awareness of the numinous and of a transcendent dimension to their experience of the world as something which they could not define, but before which they were in awe and sometimes even terror. There was a sense that this numinous other was qualitatively different from anything else in their experience, that it had to be acknowledged and, in some sense, placated. Human beings began early to bury their dead, and cave paintings show signs that seem to point to primitive forms of worship. Every human tribe, even those few still at a Stone Age level of culture, appears to have had some form of religious belief and worship, however much it may be mixed up with what might be regarded as superstition and error.

How we account for and explain this development remains a moot question. Perhaps the emphasis within both the Catholic and Wesleyan traditions on prevenient grace, of the grace of God acting upon us from before we can become aware of it—let alone of its precise significance and implications—is relevant here since, if we accept that we are made in the image of God, then some divine preparation for development in that image must have been involved, even though its exact nature and progress cannot be precisely established. It seems to have been the view of several of the early fathers of the Church that the primitive religions of their time contained seeds of the truth later fully revealed in Christ, however imperfectly apprehended prior to his revelation.

Certainly, the sense of awe that characterises much early religion remains important within the later development of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. People became aware of a transcendent and eternal Other that they could not fully understand, yet which demanded homage, worship, and obedience. A sense of awe in the presence of One who can never be fully encompassed by human understanding remains part of the developed Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is witnessed to by the prophets, such as Isaiah and Hosea. It is implicit in the Mosaic prohibition on graven images (the Other can never be adequately or correctly represented by such) and is continued particularly in the eastern Christian tradition with its stress upon apophatic theology and the un-knowability of God outside of those aspects of His nature that He has seen fit to reveal to us.

As far as the revelation of the full implications of the holy will of God and of His nature as holy love are concerned, these begin in the Judaeo-Christian canon with the call of Abraham. As for Christians, they reach their consummation in the paschal events and the subsequent coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, completing the process of the revelation of the triune God in all His self-giving glory.

In the call of Abraham, God confronts an individual with His universally salvific will and calls for a specific response, integral to His plan for His creation. He calls on Abraham to migrate to a new land where he will become the father of a race which will play a particular role in the salvation of the world, ‘in you will all the families of the world be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham is called to holiness in Genesis 17:1, where he is told, ‘Walk before me and be blameless.’ It is from this point that the ethical consequences of holiness for human behaviour begin to be revealed to Abraham and his descendants. Israel was to be a holy nation, set aside for and devoted to God’s purposes. The understanding of this is deepened through the subsequent experience of its liberation from slavery in Egypt. It is there that the link between holiness and justice begins to be appreciated. God is experienced as a liberating and merciful God. He hears the cry of His specially adopted nation in their woes and exerts His power on their behalf. However, this is complemented by the giving of a law that affects the relationship of the chosen people with outsiders and indeed the rest of creation. Thus, they are told that the holy day of rest is sacred not only to them, but to others. The stranger within the gate, the slave, even the farm animals must share in the sabbath rest4 (Exodus 20:10). The God who has given Israel liberating justice wills that justice be shown to others. The God who lays down for their benefit a system of sacrificial worship by which His people may honour Him, wills also that they worship and honour Him through the pursuit of justice in all their relationships. It is also increasingly indicated that true spiritual worship involves more than the repetition of cultic acts. It involves the giving of thanks and the expression of reliance, in every need, upon God. The author of Psalm 50 presents God as saying, ‘Do you think that I eat the flesh of bulls and drink their blood? Offer unto God thanksgiving and call upon me in the time of trouble’.

The holiness of their liberating God reflects the even greater truth, that ‘his mercy is over all His works’ (Psalm 145:9).

The ethical demands of holiness reach their highest level of development before Christ in the teaching of the prophets. They recognise not just the demands of the holy God upon His people, but also the incredible depth of His merciful commitment to His people. The prophets speak of the disasters that were to overcome their people with the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests as just punishment for Israel’s disobedience to the divine covenant and call to corporate holiness of life, but they also speak of God’s forgiving and restoring love, a love that is even more awesome than the demonstrations of divine wrath. Hosea, in particular, develops the theme of the divine love that will not be faithless to the covenant even despite its constant breaches by a faithless people(Hosea 11:8–9). God teaches Hosea that He is God and not man, that His punishment of His people is not to be confused with human revenge, and that it is precisely because He is ‘God and not man’, that ‘His heart recoils within Him and He repents of his fierce anger’. The extraordinary generosity of God is revealed also by Jeremiah and by Joel. Both look forward to the Pentecostal gift, Jeremiah in terms of the new covenant which will be written on the hearts of the people and Joel specifically, in the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Joel 2:28).

Though God remains essentially unknowable, He nevertheless expresses sentiments analogous to those of human pity for others. Isaiah stresses that His thoughts are not ours and Hosea that He is God and not man; nevertheless His heart recoils within Him at the idea of cutting off his disobedient but chosen people. Hosea relates God’s comparison of His own love with a father’s compassion for a toddler, and Isaiah speaks of the walls of Jerusalem as engraved on God’s hands, for Christians a striking anticipation of the Cross, as expressed in Charles Wesley’s line, ‘Jehovah crucified.’

Several of the prophets, Isaiah in particular, present visions of the final coming of God’s kingdom, of the enormous feast that will take place at the end of time as the nations of the world gather at Mount Zion to receive the law of God, the law of harmony and peace by which all nature will live (Isaiah 25:659). To them is granted the knowledge of God’s redemptive purposes which will be achieved across the whole of creation to the very point where the lion and the lamb lie down together. The holiness of God is no longer perceived simply in the awesomeness of creation or even in terms of his salvific work amongst his specially chosen people, but in terms of a holistic plan for the whole created order. What is not vouchsafed to the prophets is the way in which these promises are to be fulfilled; there is left in them that spirit of longing summed up in Isaiah’s plea, ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64:1), a prayer that, for Christians, is answered in the Incarnation.

It is important to note the spirit within which this developing revelation is received by the prophets and the other true Israelites who loyally act according to the requirements of God’s covenant with them. It is a spirit in which both the deepest humility and the most trusting love are united and balanced. They are amazed at God’s regard and love for them. The psalmist sings in wonder at the human vocation. ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him? Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour and made him a little lower than the angels’ (Psalm 8:4). Micah recognises the duty of his people to ‘walk humbly with their God’, being guided in everything by Him. It is their duty to follow God in loving mercy and acting justly (Micah 6:8). Psalmists celebrate the comprehensive benevolence of God in providing for all the physical and spiritual needs of human beings and in asserting His universal benevolence.

It is, however, only in Christ that the full extent of the self-giving love of the triune God is revealed alongside the revelation of His eternal nature as triune communion, utterly sufficient within that communion, yet also reaching out in compassionate love to His creation and most fully to those sinful and wayward human creatures, made in His own image. God remains awesomely transcendent, yet reveals a human face in the incarnate Christ, who responds to the prayer of Isaiah in revealing Himself as the one who is both the Father’s pleasure and is also well pleased to meet human beings where they are in the midst of their distortion, both personal and corporate as a result of sin5. The Father reveals through His Beloved Eternal Son, His holy will to be eternally reconciled with all human beings to the full extent of adopting them into a relationship of grace that corresponds with the relationship that the Son has by nature with Him from all eternity6. He does not hold back from ‘sparing His only Son’, exposed through a true participation in human nature and the possibility of the human body and spirit to all the frailties of human flesh, but does so precisely as a sign that he will also ‘give us all things with Him’ (Romans 8:30).

It is in the paschal events that both the awesome grandeur of God’s holy love and His utter loving patience with human beings are revealed. His holy love and its power are revealed in both Cross and Resurrection with full power to redeem and to sanctify. Charles Wesley sums up the full effect of the paschal mystery on sinners in these lines

Vouchsafe us eyes of faith to see

The man transfixed on Calvary,

To know thee, who thou art,

The one eternal God and true:

And let the sight affect, subdue,

And break my stubborn heart7

It is in these events too that the nature of the triune God is revealed, the Son responding to the Father’s will, the Spirit enabling Christ’s offering on the Cross, the Father raising the Son to glory in the power of the Spirit (Mark 8.31, Romans 1:4; Hebrews 9:14). A new dimension is added to the previous understanding of the holy God, now seen as the God whose own internal communion reveals the nature of the communion that He both demands and makes possible for all humankind, its myriad of hypostases called, in virtue of their nature as created in His image to become one communion with each other In Him8. The pattern for this is revealed at Easter, when the Father raises the Son in the power of the Spirit, the power to enable its realisation is given at Pentecost.

God’s Redemptive Plan and the Unity of the Church

God’s plan for universal redemption and new creation is foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly in the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham and in the prophetic visions of the gathering of the nations referred to above. At the beginning of his epistle to the Ephesians, however, Paul states that the fullness of God’s plan was revealed only in Christ, a plan to unite all things in Him, a plan that can be seen both as a restoration of all things to the unity originally intended by God, but then sundered by human sin, and, also, as a new and glorious transformation, transcending even the glory of the first creation9.

According to the gospel that Paul proclaimed, Christ, through his victory on the cross, has transcended the age-old division between the chosen Jewish people and the Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). God now calls both to unity in the one undivided Christ, a unity which it is the duty of the Church to proclaim and to embody in its fellowship of unity, mutual love, and service.

The Church continues the ministering work of Christ in all aspects save only that of offering His perfect and all-atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice which only He, in His sinless nature, human and divine, could offer, but through which He obtains universal redemption, making unnecessary any further sacrifice10. In the New Testament, the Church is called both the Body of Christ, the agent of the continued action of the risen and ascended Lord amongst those whom He has gathered to Himself, and the Bride of Christ, the later title indicating particularly the close relationship in holiness to which the followers of Christ are called corporately and in which they are promised the ultimate gift of corporate holiness without spot or wrinkle. The members of the apostolic churches are addressed by Paul as saints, the word carrying not the later canonical implications but the original understanding of the term as those who are called and set apart for the specific service of the holy God, equipped with all the means of grace commended to the Church and all the special charisms given to particular individuals for the building up of the whole Body.11

The Church is called to be holy, the holiness being not just that of its individual members but of the entire body in all its inter-relationships. God’s saving intention is not limited to the salvation of particular individuals out of the world but encompasses the vision of the whole of humanity, in all its relationships, being brought into the realm of the new creation. That is why, as George Tavard puts it, the Church is called progressively to image the Kingdom even though, of course, it is only God who can bring it in fully.12

Human beings are inescapably social beings, thus all have been affected in varying ways by the sinful nature of the world into which they have entered, but all are also called to be saved from within that weakened human nature into a nature that will ultimately reflect the glory of God in Christ, as promised in 1 John 3:2. Just as all are affected by the solidarity of the human race in sin, so all in Christ are called to co-operate in the growth in holiness of lives of others within the Christian community. They are called that ‘together they might travel on’ and ‘kindly help each other on.’13 The holiness of the Church must involve not simply the sanctification of its members as individuals, but the sanctification of all their relationships, whether they be those at the most local level of small fellowship group or congregation, those between ordained and lay members, those between churches living according to different styles or typoi of church life which are nevertheless consonant with the one Apostolic Tradition.14

The processes of sanctification, individual and corporate, can be slow, but they are guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit at every level from that of the individual disciple, living out his or her vocation in the situation in which they find themselves through to the life of the gathered congregation and local church through to that of the Universal. The Church is a holy church, and without its holiness it cannot be catholic and apostolic and certainly not one (a point to be developed in the next section).

Entry into the Church involves entry through baptism into the paschal mystery of dying to self, rising to Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit. All such are the adopted children of God, sharing with Christ in His worship of the Father, alike in prayer, in sacramental celebration and in the sacrificial offering of all that they have and are to Him. Within this process, it is necessary to grow. In Romans 8, Paul paradoxically refers to Christians both as already adopted and yet not fully of their final stature and glory as God’s children. He talks of the way in which the whole creation groans as it awaits the revelation of the sons of God, a time that will come when the whole Body, as a result of its incessant meditation upon all the words of God and its faithful use of all the means of grace, finally discovers that all the promises of God have been fulfilled in her.15

The Church is called to grow in that communion and unity that is God’s will for her, in fulfilment of Christ’s prayer that they may all be one, as you, Father, and I are one. The Church is called to reflect the life in communion of the Trinity, a life of faithful trust and confidence between all its members and all its ministers in which each affirms and upholds the particular gifts and calling of the others.16 It is called to enable the light of Christ to shine through each and every member and local congregation. The promise contained in Psalm 34, that the members of the people of God shall ‘look to Him and be radiant’, can be fulfilled. It is called to affirm and respect all differences that contribute to the rich diversity in communion with the whole. The unity to which the Church is called is a unity in legitimate and enriching diversity in which, as Adam Mohler teaches, true individuality is not suppressed but makes its disciplined contribution to the whole.17

In the search for this, each and every Christian is aided by the indwelling Spirit of God. The Spirit enables alike the discernment of God’s will and gifts in fulfilling that will that He bestows. Each congregation is enabled corporately to make that discernment according to the edification it needs for the work of mutual edification, and outward mission and service.

For most Christians, the unity of the Church is lived primarily within the local congregation. It is, as Charles Wesley sings in his celebration of the unity of the early Methodist societies, the unity of those who, being touched by the lodestone of thy love’, ‘ever move towards each other move (in love) and ever move towards Thee’. It is the unity of those who, having the blessed end of perfect love in view, join with mutual care...and kindly help each other on, till all receive the starry crown.18 It is the unity that results from the patiently loyal exercise of all those virtues towards which Christians are called as a result of their being raised with Christ. As Paul puts it in Colossians, they are called to ‘seek the things that are above’, thereby practicing, ‘as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another, and...forgiving one another’ (Colossians 3:1–4).

The responsibility for living in that way extends also beyond the local church or congregation. It lies behind Paul’s famous injunction, ‘do good to all people, but especially towards those that are of the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10). Christians must pay attention to the sensus fidelium, that sense of what is Christianly appropriate in their relationships with others both within the church community and beyond it.19 They must remember that they are called to live a life of fellowship with each other that points towards God’s kingdom and helps people outside to see the Church as the God-given beacon of hope and true community living in a world desperately in need of such a model. They must also, of course, seek to recognise the signs of kingdom values and living in others who do not profess Christ, but nevertheless profess and live by values that are consonant with those of the Christian faith and to which those of other faiths, indeed even some of no faith in a religious sense, may be moved by the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit operative in their ideals and their practical expression of them. Such grace, the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission stresses, is always related to fulfilment within the Church.20

As ‘sign, instrument and first fruits of the Kingdom’, the life of the Church is meant to point towards that life of true community and communion that God wills for all people. Its unity is demanded by God’s gracious saving plan for His creation and particularly for His human creation as called to be a kingdom of priests for all creation.

The unity of the Church is thus an integral part of the holy and eternal will of God. It is at the heart of the eternally unalterable counsel of God.21 The paschal events and their salvific consequences were foreseen and determined since Christ is ‘the lamb slain from the foundations of the world’. Through the Son and the Spirit, all the necessary means of grace have been given to the Church and all the charisms continue to be bestowed upon particular persons, specially called communities and local churches as deemed necessary in His wisdom. To this unfailing generosity of God, the Church, in and through all is members and ministers, must offer a united response since the grace given is always responsible grace, the grace of a faithful God who empowers us to give and requires of us a faithful response.

The unity of the Church is focussed in Christ, the Christ who is not to be divided but to be the source of human unity, a unity expressed in ‘his last and kindest word’, establishing the eucharist as the proclamation and celebration of the saving events, celebrated within each local church but always in communion with each other local church and with the Church above. To fail to maintain unity in the one mutually recognisable eucharist is contrary to the prayer of Christ and the holy will of God.

The Implications for the Life of Churches Today

The search for unity is, sometimes, sadly seen as a sort of add-on for a few enthusiasts who place special emphasis upon it. It is an integral part of Christian daily discipleship, however, a duty incumbent on all Christians and all churches. This is the clear teaching of both Roman Catholics and Methodists. The Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II states it clearly. ‘Concern for unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike’. It stresses the importance of the basic Christian virtues of common life, ‘we should therefore pray to the divine Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others and to have an attitude of generosity towards them’.22 The Methodist Conference of 1820 called on the Methodist people to ‘ever maintain the kind and catholic spirit of primitive Methodism towards all denominations of Christians holding the Head’.23

A key rediscovery in both communions has been the understanding that the assertion of their own catholicity does not thereby deny that of others and that it is the duty of all churches to recognise wherein their catholicity may be wounded, both by separation from others, a point clearly made in the Decree on Ecumenism, and wherein it is their duty to learn from them as a result of that embellishment of the koinonia which has occurred across the ages through God’s ever generous inspiration and despite the objective sin of schism, a point firmly made by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint.24 To generously and graciously affirm these points in no way means disloyalty to the claim of the Methodist people to have been raised up by God to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land nor to the Roman Catholic claim to have preserved the Petrine ministry as vital to the communion and well-being of the Universal Church. It is in the common search for fuller catholicity that Roman Catholics, Methodists, and all other Christian traditions can recognise a common point of convergence confronting them with a challenge both in terms of reception and mutual enrichment within the one koinonia established by the triune Lord.

Humility, generosity of spirit, and praise of the work of God amongst other churches are all at the root of Catholic and Methodist approaches to ecumenism, rightly understood. They depend on a spirituality which stresses that relationships are based on all meekness, love and praise.’ Fr. Hocken, in his excellent book, The Glory and The Shame, Reflections on the Twentieth Century Outpouring of the Holy Spirit,25 stresses the importance of recognising the work of God across the spectrum of the denominations and movements. The contribution of each to the whole must be discerned and received. This was the teaching alike of the Wesleyan ecumenical pioneer, William Shrewsbury and the Roman Catholic pioneer, Abbe Paul Couturier. Shrewsbury remarked that the Wesleyans of his day were the debtors to all the churches, to the Puritans, to the Anglican fathers, to the pietists of the Continent. Couturier1 never ceased to insist that, in certain respects other Christians had developed parts of the Tradition more thoroughly than had the Roman Catholics of his time. Thus, he extolled the sense of the cosmic dimension of salvation so strong amongst the Orthodox and the Protestant devotion to the detailed study of and reflection on Scripture.

Reception, by the entire people of God, is essential to any lasting ecumenical progress. It is never enough for theologians alone to reach accords, a point which was sadly shown in the failure of the reunion accords of 1273 and 1438–9, when the people, particularly in the East failed to accept them. In modern times, important accords on justification and on Christology have been reached, the first involving Catholics, Lutherans and, latterly, Methodists, Anglicans, and Reformed,26 the latter involving Catholics and Oriental Orthodox, but they still need to be more firmly received by the entire communities involved.

For the people of God to be able to receive such agreements, they must attentively and lovingly receive the teaching and vision of Paul as he contemplates the wonder of God’s uniting work across barriers in his time. They must hear him saying to the people of Rome, both Jews and Gentiles, that they must not quarrel over things that are trivial or simply matters where opinion can legitimately vary (Romans 14). They must hear him announce his own great desire to be with the Church of Rome in order that both he and they may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:12). They must hear again his great prayer for the Ephesians that through the indwelling Christ and their resultant grounding in love, they might ‘have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the height and depth, breadth and length’ of that love (Ephesians 3:18).

In particular, churches must be penitent for their past sins and offenses against believers of other traditions. This was a key emphasis of the fathers of Vatican II, who accepted that, in the schisms of the sixteenth century, there had been faults on both sides. The late Pope John-Paul II reinforced this by making visits to countries like the Czech Republic, where he showed repentance for the persecution there of Protestants by Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christians must never forget how far it is possible to fall from grace in the process of showing zeal. I have in my library, a little ‘Petite Histoire des Camisards, issued by the Protestant Museum of Nimes, relating the history of the Protestant guerrillas, who in the early eighteenth century tied down a high proportion of Louis XIV’s forces sent to repress them. In the context of this conflict, atrocities were committed on both sides as vicious as those currently being committed by Isis and other Muslim jihadist groups, a standing reproach to those who remember Christ’s unstinting refusal of force. Faced with Peter’s determination to defend him, he said ‘Do you not know that I could appeal to my Father, and he would send me at least twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scripture be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’ (Matthew 26:53–54). God’s Church must work by God’s methods, those appropriate to human nature as created and recreated in His image.

What is needed above all as the divided churches seek to respond to the Lord’s prayer for unity is that they act in a humble spirit, seeking always to discern what they should be receiving from the other. The ambient atmosphere must be one in which all is meekness, praise, and love, the meekness that prefers the other in honour and seeks to work with the other in deepening a common understanding of the riches of Christ; the praise that rejoices in the gifts given to the partner; and above all the love that seeks to understand, to enter sweetly and more fully into God’s design and into the common doing of His will.

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