If, when you read Ephraim Radner’s Brutal Unity, you find yourself thinking that the first three chapters were especially difficult, you will be right. They laid much of the theological foundation for what follows, and the third chapter is especially dense. Persevere. It grows easier as Radner moves to a theological situation of the politics of the Church — again, historically and constructively — on the way to the coup de grace of chapter 9.
1. When the Church meets in council (and churches meet in councils), what happens or is otherwise hoped for? And if there is an ideal, what will it look like? Acts 15 presents the classic, “winning picture of open-ended discussion, leading to consensus, through the ‘facilitation’ of a leader and a faith in God’s more primary direction through the Spirit” (p. 172). But this takes place within a particular context with its own character and shape, described in Acts 2 and 4: “all things in common” (p. 173). Unity — communion, agreement — thus grows out of “a certain kind of life and is bound to it” (p. 174), a life modeled on Christ’s own, à la Philippians 2. Sacrifice is the flip side of synod, and both apostolic and later conciliar traditions point toward this normative example (p. 186ff., p. 208ff.).
2. As the example is “structuralized” and “Catholicized” in the pastoral letters, mission itself is “described and lived out as a placement of the self in the midst of rather than as a thrusting out”: as a lingering with others, including enemies, rather than seeking to separate (p. 176; cf. pp. 215-19). Paradigmatically, the bishop serves less as a structural figure of unity than as a personal one, the self-emptying pastor; see John 21 (pp. 178-80). Most of the tradition rightly reflects on episcopal ministry as “the sanctity of dominical self-expenditure, in the service of God’s life and word,” not on questions of jurisdiction or boundaries. Even so, the “internal” and “external” aspects of the bishop’s ministry are inseparable, as the suffering of love and holiness give way to teaching, mission, and discipline (p. 181). Many classic texts, from Gregory the Great to a host of Anglicans, may be mined here (pp. 182-86). And the trajectory leads to a larger “pastoral synodality,” whereby the Church as a whole exercises episcope “as the pastor’s body” (p. 192). If divided churches could renounce their hostility and hermeticism, they might see the “whole world’s” Church, in St. Cyprian’s phrase (totius orbis), as the proper end of all local synods (p. 196). According to the Acts 2:44-47 acid test for the Church’s integrity, this would probably (“but might not necessarily,” Radner emphasizes in italics) require engaging “a unified structural network of leadership according to a single hierarchical model” (p. 195): what, in effect, became the “quantifying accountability” of ecumenical councils in the post-Nicene era (p. 196). In all events, the end will inevitably look like Acts 21, as the common way of Jerusalem leads to Rome — that is, less to persuasion than “a giving in and giving over to God” (p. 217).
3. In fact, as a matter of historical record, proper consensus seems largely unavailable to us, but that does not let us off the conciliar hook. Paradoxes abound and must be faced. As historian Ramsay MacMullen shows, the “cognitive” aspects of council have stood in tension with “emotive” ones — as, for instance, supernatural substance sits uncomfortably alongside demonizing of opponents, and the consent of the “people” turns into “a demand only for (achievable) assent, however produced” (p. 243). An appeal to providence may properly provide part of the solution here, particularly in the Catholic theological tradition (Radner discusses Newman). But such a solution has “everything to do with historical outcomes,” and so amounts to “a rejection of the conciliar theory of consensus altogether, in favor of ‘reception’ understood in terms of final survival” (p. 246). Moreover, such an approach cannot explain changes of relationship, as when Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches reach common agreement, or Lutherans and Roman Catholics make ecumenical progress. Thus, a “Christian corrective to the sin of division” is also missing. In Radner’s striking statement: “A strong providentialism in ecclesiology always threatens Christian hope with either quietism or violence” (p. 247).
4. As ever, the problem concerns a theological accounting of actual history; Radner wants, as he says, to track and define “the divine character of agreement, that is, its pneumatic basis, when just this is, in the nature of the case, empirically elusive” (p. 247). His systematic solution turns, interestingly — in the absence of much theological literature of any practical use (see p. 257) — to contemporary social scientific research on the limitations of agreement and the possibility of “cooperative knowledge.” Synthesizing a vast body of work under the heading “embodied discernment” (p. 248), Radner notes that most researchers — for instance, in the theory of negotiation — agree that something like consensus remains compelling, as a commonsense tool ready to hand; “working agreements” remain “part and parcel of social existence” (p. 257). Such agreements do not yield universal consensus, however, since they start from an accepted pluralism. They facilitate a “convergence of normative frameworks” or traditions, through a disclosure that may seed further advances. In the case of Christian violence and division, such a disclosure itself “binds the Church together … as an engagement of embodied minds and hearts, not as a fusion of ideas.” Here providential council returns, not “as a mask for division and violence” but “as the promise and divine valuation for a series of actions, a ‘narrative,’ as it were, of engagement” between various groups. Precise specification of how minds may be changed is elusive but also is not the point; one is dropped “into the midst of a life with others and left to swim,” much as in marriage. In this way, councils mark “a movement toward Christ or rather an opening to be grasped by his movement toward the Church” (p. 264).
5. Having seen Radner’s constructive solution to the problem of Christian council, we can understand his critique of conciliarism’s “proceduralist turn” in the wake of division. The picture is a familiar one, relying on means rather than ends: the very fact of regular meeting determines “effectiveness” and “agreement,” irrespective of what is decided (p. 272). As in the 14th-century articulation of Marsilius of Padua, protocols and laws — process — stand in for actual unity. Add providence, et voila: “pneumatically governed procedure is itself the form of Christian unity.” That is, councils by definition are led by the Holy Spirit, “hence unerring and authoritative” (p. 273; cf. pp. 285-86). The disappointing end point of this evolution follows: “Procedural self-reflection upon procedure, through constitutional means that are laid out in terms of interacting powers and jurisdictions, legislative orders, and their constraining natures, is itself now understood to be the character of common life” (p. 288).
6. Stepping back, Radner recalls that procedural approaches to unity first emerged in the Middle Ages “out of the articulation of existing communal norms.” Can we preserve the gains of the former, while trying to regain the strengths of the latter (pp. 303-04)? The question depends on the recognition that a diverse civil society, replete with pluralist contestation, marks a significant gain of modern liberalism — not least for the Church, bridling her “complicity in human degradation” — that should still be defended and fought for, as in modern-day Rwanda (pp. 305-06). At the same time, when mere individual conscience (along Ockhamist, Lutheran, Miltonian lines: p. 295) is enshrined in the Church, a kind of “agonistic providence” results, where “dispute itself marks the character of unity” — agreeing to disagree, in the familiar paradox (p. 293). Council, on these terms, must entail a relativizing of truth claims, a sapping of love, and a capitulation to perpetual struggle (pp. 301-03). Indeed, “adjudicating conflicting fundamental values among strangers through the application of value-neutral procedures is more than an odd description of ecclesial existence” (p. 304). More is needed, including leaders of a certain kind, “whose own lives embody some further aspects of Christian truth” (p. 306); leaders like Jan Hus who, confessing their faith in the face of hostility, somehow overcome the incapacity of procedure by the power of the cross (p. 307; see Eph. 2). Christian unity is found here.