In August 1978 Mollie and I arrived in the City of Kingston, Ontario. I had been appointed to be Rector (Minister) of the St. James' Anglican congregation on the Campus of Queen's University, and we served there for eleven very happy years.
When I met other mainline ministers their main concern at that time was church union. How can we end "the scandal of our divisions?" For most of the twentieth century millions of hours of committee work were spent trying to negotiate mergers among churches. And the goal of this huge effort was one united church all over the world. The United Church of Canada was a merger (1925) of Congregationalists, Methodists, and some Presbyterians. In India after twenty-eight years of discussion the Church of South India (1947) was formed. In Canada a merger of the Anglican and United Church denominations failed when the Anglicans got cold feet. I voted against it when I discovered I would have to sit on dozens of committees instead of doing my work.
Later I was appointed to the Kingston committee of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue. We pored over the doctrinal statements which had been agreed. Many good things had happened under John XXIII (Pope 1958-63) As a result of the change from Latin to English in Roman Catholic services, we discovered that our forms of worship were almost identical. But after many hours of frustrating discussion it was not even possible for the Anglican partner in a wedding performed in a Roman Catholic Church in Kingston to receive communion. The sticking point was that intercommunion could not be permitted until the Pope's supreme authority was accepted (see Chapter 8). As far as I can see there has been no appreciable progress in that direction in the past fifteen years.
Finally it dawned on me that in the New Testament there was only one church in each city and the surrounding area that it serves. I noticed that Paul wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, two cities in Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica. There were also churches in Caesarea, Samaria, Damascus, Antioch, Athens, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphis, Laodicea. And in each of these there was only one church. Suddenly my mind switched to thinking about the one church in the city where I live.
Looked at from that point of view I could see that the one church in our city of Kingston has congregations and gatherings meeting in many locations, buildings, rented halls, private homes, jails, hospitals, nursing homes. And these use all sorts of quaint names to identify themselves. One building is called the Church of the Good Thief. The Salvation Army has a Citadel. If you want a building packed with young people and loud rock music you go to the Next Church. I might not want to worship with some of these on a regular basis, but at heart I hope I value them as my brothers and sisters
But if there is only one church in my city, it seemed obvious that no one congregation has the right to call itself St. Paul's Anglican Church, Chalmers United Church, or St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. These are not churches but gatherings of Christians in particular buildings in different parts of the city. Obviously we are not going to change this terminology in a hurry. But at least we could begin explaining how things look from Jesus' point of view.
Picturing the church in this way is also a good answer for those who complain about our so-called divisions. As we will see, no one faults a garden for being divided into a variety of different kinds of flower. I would love to see a sign "The Anglican Congregation of St. James in the One Church of Kingston." That is not likely to happen because each congregation likes to think it is the proper team to join and support.
Having seen that there is only one church in this city, I was freed from concern when people moved away from our congregation to another. You cannot leave the church by gathering with a group of Christians in another part of the city. I could assure people that they had a right to enjoy the Lord's church in whatever place and under whatever denominational (or non-denominational) label that humans chose to give it.