It is very clear from John 17 that Jesus intended his church to be one. Indeed, that is also a theme in Paul. There is not to be a Jewish-Christian people of God and a Gentile-Christian people of God, but one people of God, for all barriers have been removed (see, among other places, Eph 2). But Jesus made it clear that this unity is to be observable. In fact, this unity will indicate to “the world” that God really sent Jesus and will lead to the world believing. If they cannot see it, they cannot believe it. Therefore our thousands of denominations are not just a scandal, but an offense against the spreading of the good news. Yet, granted that this is true, what is someone to do about it? Let me suggest three hopeful signs that even when we may feel helpless, God is at work doing himself what we have not managed to do (indeed, what we have often messed up).
First, there is the relatively recent news about Pope Francis’ reaching out to the Orthodox
, taking steps towards bridging a 1000 year division
. This is not new for this pope. He was involved in such bridging before he became pope. But it looks like significant steps forward are being taken. One event spurring these steps on is the persecution of Christians of all types in Syria and Iraq, among other places. Standing together is not a luxury in such a situation.
Second, we are more or less in the middle of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther first arrived in Wittenberg in 1508 and he is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church there in 1517. However, the Reformation soon became the “Schismation” in that rather than leading to the reform of the church (which was indeed needed), as Luther hoped, it led to its splitting, partly because both the reform movement and the church itself were hijacked by the political agendas of that day. In a recent article, “The Reformation at Five Hundred,”
Thomas Howard and Mark Noll note how this reform attempt has been celebrated over the intervening centuries and how the celebration or lack therefore has been controlled by various theological and political agendas. What Howard and Noll point out is that this 500th year anniversary should be celebrated in full historical awareness and in particular in the awareness of how the face of Christianity has changed in the past decades: the shift of Christianity towards the global south, the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint
(1995) and such approaches to ecumenism as Evangelicals and Catholics Together
. Maybe this is a historical situation in which the such ecumenical agendas are no longer as likely to be hijacked by political forces (often because all churches are irrelevant to them) and in which all Christian communities face mutual pressures and problems will lead to a calmer approach to one another and produce real hope of unity.
Third, over the past two days, less than a week after I discovered the article referred to above, the celebration of the dedication of the Chancery of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter
has taken place right here in Houston. What makes this significant is that the Chancery is the headquarters building for a structure set up by Pope Benedict XVI that enables Episcopal/Anglican clergy and laypeople to unify with Rome without giving up
some of the most treasured parts of their patrimony as found in the Book of Common Prayer
. In fact, a new work, Divine Worship: The Missal
, which incorporates that heritage, will be introduced as part of the celebrations. This is by far not the final word in brining the church back together, but in that it recognizes the value of rather than requires the dropping of some of the most valued parts of the heritage of the smaller and younger group (in this case those in the Anglican communion) and in that it creates a path for the unification of worshipping communities along with their leaders it is a bold new approach. That means an Anglican/Episcopal rector/vicar along with those in his congregation who wish to can unify with Rome and be accepted as a new church community with the rector, even though married, ordained as a Roman Catholic priest to serve them as their pastor. This initiative does not by any means solve all the problems of the disunity of the church, but it does set a new tone and make unity possible for many who previously would not have found “a way in.”
I doubt that I will ever see the church fully one. First, there were factions and schisms even in the apostolic era so there probably will remain such until the end of the age. Second, the pace of coming together is likely to be slow enough that I will be long-buried before unity is the dominant characteristic of all Christians. However, the increasing anti-Christian sentiment (or at least anti-orthodox Christian sentiment) in the West and to some degree in the whole northern hemisphere may force us to pick up this pace as the words of Jesus themselves have yet to do. Still, I feel privileged to be living in the age in which I am living, when stereotypes of “the other side” are falling, when hostility is turning into cooperation, and when what were once unbelievable steps are being taken towards realizing what Jesus prayer for and what Paul fought for.