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A focus on Jesus Christ would help Christians find unity.

In one of the Gospels we read “may they all be one” (John 17:21) and this might be used to illustrate the spirit and goal of ecumenism: “the movement aimed at restoring unity to the divided Christian Churches”. St. Paul has also written on Christian unity (Ephesians 4:1–10) and on Christians as being “together” (Ephesians 2:5, 21, 22).

In this essay I shall illustrate how the ecumenical process might be guided and aided by focusing on Jesus Christ. We shall first briefly review the various Christian denominations and what they have in common, evaluated through the lens of Christology. We shall then explore the main divisions in the Christian faith and why and when these have developed. Fourthly we shall observe what the relatively new ecumenical movement has done and achieved so far and, finally, return to consider what further inputs the study of Christology and of the Bible can give to the process of unity among the (main) Christian churches.

In the nearly 2,000-year history of Christianity, the original primitive church has evolved into a number of denominations, i.e., distinct Christian bodies that differ in various ways, including name, type of organization, leadership, canon, doctrine, liturgy, and religious calendar and holidays. Initially Christianity was a branch—some might even use the word “sect “—of Judaism: Christ was a Jew as were his apostles.

Since there is no universally accepted definition of what exactly constitutes a Christian denomination, their number cannot be definitively defined, however we may estimate that there are currently more than 40,000 denominations. This huge number makes one wonder what Jesus’s words might have meant when he said “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life” (John, 8:12), as interpretations may vary as to what exactly should be followed.

While the number of denominations is huge, with Christian believers totalling about 2.5 billion, the majority belong to few specific “families” (the issue in numbering denominations is that the national subdivisions of certain churches are counted as a different denomination): Roman Catholic, by far the largest, with over 50% of world Christians; Eastern Orthodox; Oriental Orthodox; and Protestant-Evangelical. This last group is an umbrella term encompassing a huge number of churches, many of them differing greatly from one another, whilst the first three groups share many things in common as regards liturgy, clergy division, and organisation. The Anglicans belong to the Protestant group but have many things in common with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox; theirs is sometimes referred to as the “middle way” between Catholicism and the Reformation movement.

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants make up the 99 percent of Christians on Earth and they share the belief in the Trinitarian essence of God[1]: one divine Substance and three Persons. Only a very small number of Christians are not Trinitarians, most notably Jehovah’s Witnesses but also Mormons – Latter-day Saints, and other groups, most of them emerging in the United States. Hence, the Trinity doctrine is something shared by almost all Christian denominations and can be the basis of an ecumenical path.Cloud vector created by brgfx - www.freepik.com

We should understand how and when Christianity lost its unity. First of all we must note that Christianity was initially considered a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:5). Leo Baeck, in his long essay The Gospel as a Document of Jewish Religious History (1938) gave “a characterisation of Jesus and his disciples as thoroughly Jewish.”[2] In more contemporary times, the talmudist Daniel Boyarin, in a similarly titled work, The Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, makes the powerful case that the conventional understandings of Jesus and the origins of Christianity are different from current thinking on the subject. He pointed out that Jesus’ core teachings were not a break from Jewish beliefs and that Jesus was embraced by many Jews as the Messiah of the ancient Jewish texts. Until the 5th century there was no clear distinction between being Christian and being Jewish; it is not like nowadays when there is one defined identity.[3]

Leaving aside these very interesting but non-mainstream views of some scholars, we can see that divisions and different interpretations of the Christian religion existed from the start. We also see that the Apostles, such as Simon-Peter and St. Paul, were writing to several areas of the Roman Empire to sort out problems of interpretation and explain the Gospel. In the early days we had Jewish, Gnostic[4], and Pauline Christianity (also called “gentile Christianity”[5]). In 313, the latter was allowed and recognised by the Roman Empire and soon became its official religion.

It is often said that the first split in Christianity came in 1054 AD, when the “Great East-West Schism” between the Catholics on one side and the Eastern Orthodox on the other. However, Christendom had divided earlier than that. In the first six centuries we had the establishment of still extant churches of the East, including the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic. Some of these churches, together with others that split away later after the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), form the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Divisions in Protestantism also emerged earlier than commonly thought. Although fragmentation is often thought to have started in the second decade of the 16th century, splinter churches or denominations are documented in previous centuries. A few still exist today, such as the Waldensians (their origins date back to 1170s) and the Hussites (1419).[6] They are considered Protestant although they preceded Martin Luther; other break-away groups existed, such as the Arnoldists and the Lollard movement, but they disappeared due to persecution, mass-killings, or forced conversions of their followers. After the Reformation, we had the establishment of Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism. Further divisions and new additions have now given us a plethora of Protestant denominations. Strictly speaking, Protestants are considered to be an adherent of any of those Christian bodies that separated from the Church of Rome during the Reformation or of any group descended from them. Protestantism, as said before, is more diverse and divided, theologically and ecclesiastically, than are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or Oriental Orthodoxy.

With the Christian world so divided, the key questions are: “Why is Christian unity important?” and the attendant “Do we need an ecumenical process to bring Christianity together?” To venture an answer to these questions, let us take a look at the origin and causes of the ecumenical process/movement and some of the things achieved so far.

The origins of the modern ecumenical movement can be traced back at least to the first two decades of the 20th century. One important date is the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, bringing together about 1200 delegates from all over the world. One of the issues they discussed was whether lack of Christian unity hindered missionary work. Another important date was in 1920 when the encyclical “To the Churches of Christ Everywhere” was published. Written by the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople, this document advocated a “fellowship of churches” similar to the League of Nations. This desire came to fruition in 1948 when the World Council of Churches was founded and its first meeting took place. The WCC now comprises 350 member churches.[7]

Very significant in opening up the process of ecumenism for the Roman Catholic Church was the Second Vatican Council. “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council[8] we read in the preamble to the document Unitatis Redintegratio, the decree on ecumenism that is still surprising to many Catholic believers fifty-five years later.[9]

As we have seen, the seeds of the ecumenical movement are older, but the Catholic Church needed time to open up to it. Still today, the spirit of Vatican II has not reached every corner of the worldwide church.

In the 1980s the world was fearing a nuclear war with NATO countries on one side and the Warsaw Pact countries on the other. In 1982 two catholic bodies, the USG and the UISG, created a commission called “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC)” that had its roots in the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes.[10] In the mid 1980s the WCC also created a Justice and Peace Commission and this started “an intense collaboration among the Conference of European Churches (CEC)”.[11] Very important was the first Assembly in Basel in 1989, drawing in thousands of people from all over Europe. This European event was followed a year later by a world meeting in Seoul. In 1997 the “Charta Oecumenica” was drafted in Graz with the final text signed in Strasburg on 22 April 2001. The 11th General Assembly of WCC will be held in Karlsruhe in 2021 with the motto: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”.[12]

Towards the end of the 20th Century, with the decline in the number of churchgoers, particularly in Europe, several Christian confessions attempted to merge or at least enter in full communion with others. Mentioning a couple of examples in the part of the world where I live, the Waldensians in Italy united with the Italian Methodists to form the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches. This new church is in full communion with the Italian Baptist Union of Churches and they share a seminary to prepare their pastors.[13]

As for the Catholic Church, the dialogue initiated by Pope Benedict XVI and continued by Pope Francis has had some success in easing relations with and giving some type of recognition to the Society of Saint Pius X. This is a group of deacons and believers who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1970 after rejecting Vatican II because they did not believe in things such as ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.[14] Tensions mounted in 1988: after the consecration of four bishops by this international priestly fraternity, the Vatican issued a declaration of excommunication. To mend relations with the PSSPX, in recent decades the Holy See first removed the excommunication in January 2009 and has then slowly taken other steps, such as recognising the validity of confessions heard by Society priests (20 November 2016) and allowed local ordinaries to grant delegation to priests of the Society to officially witnessing marriages (4 April 2017).

The Holy See has taken steps somewhere between ecumenism and proselytism to welcome and accommodate (at first only) former Anglicans through the establishment of personal ordinariates. These were created by Pope John Paul II to receive entire groups of Anglicans, who were given the chance to have their own rite and their own bishops.[15] So far three ordinariates have been created across the world: one covering England, Wales, and Scotland; the second the United States and Canada; and the third Australia and Japan. Nowadays the Ordinariates not only welcome former Anglicans but also other (protestant) churches. This has permitted to the Catholic Church to gain 114 new parishes and, with these, new priests and believers.

In a more secular world, especially in Europe and America,[16] and with other religions growing at a faster rate than Christianity (particularly the Bahá’í faith but also other new religions and “spiritualities”), it is in the interest of this religion to present a less divided face than now appears. The challenge is great: more and more writers are speaking about the “last or least religious generation.”[17] At present, Christianity is the major world religion but “by 2050 Christians and Muslims will make up nearly equal shares of the world’s population” and “Muslims are the only major religious group projected to increase faster than the world’s population as a whole.”[18] Meanwhile, studies have shown a diminishing importance of religion in the lives of young people.[19]

To face these challenges, the Christians would benefit from presenting themselves to the world in a more cohesive manner. Its various current denominations could share resources and work on building common ground. Early Christians referred to their religion as “the truth” (John 8:32; 2 Peter 2:2; 2 John 4; 3 John 3) but some Christian denominations disagree even on what it means to be a Christian. The Bible teaches that Christians “should all speak in agreement” (1 Corinthians 1:10). It is my belief that focusing on the basic nature of Christianity, such as the figure of Jesus Christ, could help Christians find unity; this in turn would help attract other Christian groups to join and provide for a greater number of priests and missionaries on the ground, working together instead of as competitors.

Short essay by: Volfango Rizzi

Copyreader: Robert Burns (ceresetta@libero.it)

 

Notes:

[1] Figures taken from (among others): learnreligions.com

[2] In Who is Jesus?: History in Perfect Tense by Leander E. Keck, p. 38.

[3] More on this topic can be read in Salvarani (2014) in section 2) IL PROTOSCISMA, PECCATO ORIGINALE and the following 12 pages.

[4] J. N. D. Kelly: page 5 and pages 22-28.

[5] As referred to in the Jewish Virtual Library.

[6] The Hussite traditions are nowadays continued in the Moravian Church (Europe and USA), Unity of the Brethren (in USA), and the refunded Czechoslovak Hussite (Czech Republic).

[7] Figures taken from: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/about-us

[8] Decree on Ecumenism. Unitatis Redintegratio.

[9] Fr. John Crossin. The Ecumenical Movement: A School for Virtue.

[10] http://www.internationalunionsuperiorsgeneral.org/mission/justice-peace-and-creation/

[11] G. Novelli (2019): page 3.

[12] World Council of Churches: WCC planning committee: 11th Assembly in 2021 “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”.

[13] Facoltà Teologica Valdese: http://facoltavaldese.org/it

[14] Priestly Society of Saint Pius X: https://fsspx.org/en/about-landing

[15] Anglicanorum Coetibus: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_ben-xvi_apc_20091104_anglicanorum-coetibus.html

[16] The World Religion Database list Atheism (growth of 6.54% in 100 years) and Agnosticism (growth of 5.45% in 100 years) as the two fastest growing “religions” in the world today.

[17] See for example: Christel J. Manning. Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation. Here’s Why That Could Be a Good Thing. But see also: Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian (27-08-2019). Religion: why faith is becoming more and more popular.

[18] Pew Research Centre. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 Why Muslims Are Rising Fastest and the Unaffiliated Are Shrinking as a Share of the World’s Population.

[19] Pew Research Centre. In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace An update on America’s changing religious landscape [accessed on 17 October 2019].

 

Short essay by: Volfango Rizzi

Copyreader: Robert Burns (ceresetta@libero.it)

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