The Gospel text set before us today gives us one of the most fervent prayers of Christ; he prays ‘that they may all be one.’ It is a prayer that comes to mind whenever we think about the question of Christian Unity. Christ obviously does not want his Church to be disunited, but yet it clearly is.
There were always heresies around; even as early as the times of the Acts of the Apostles there were disagreements about what constituted the true teaching of Christ. Over the years especially in the first five hundred years, when the Church met in councils to decide on what was authentically part of Catholic doctrine and what wasn’t, there were many splits. Heresies grew up such as Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism and so on, but gradually as the Church came to a consensus about what constituted the true teaching of Jesus and the content of Christian doctrine most of these heresies fell away. Today you would have to be a real specialist historian or theologian to know what any of these heresies was even about.
Around the year 1,000 there was another split in the Church but one which could be described as more cultural than doctrinal. In the west which favoured the Latin language the Church was very much centred around the Papacy while in the eastern half of the Empire which favoured the Greek language there was a reluctance to accept Papal jurisdiction. The two halves of the Church while not being separated very much by doctrine gradually grew apart on a cultural and liturgical level with the Catholics in the west and the Orthodox in the east. This split was reinforced by the misguided exercise of violence on the part of the Crusaders towards our Orthodox brothers.
Another important split in the Church came with the Reformation. This development coincided with the rise of printing which made it much easier to widely spread polemical literature. The Catholic Church was slow to see the importance of printing but it was quickly taken up by the reformers. The Reformation rose up as an attempt to purify the Church from excesses but ended up with severe doctrinal splits over the scriptures, the sacraments, the priesthood and the exercise of authority in the Church. Statues, frescos and stained glass were stripped from the Churches and Catholics and Protestants fought wars against each other in defence of their own beliefs. We know about this very well here in England where there were large numbers of martyrs, both Catholic and Protestant.
Up until the Reformation the people were dependent on the priests to explain the scriptures; but with the rise of literacy and the availability of printed translations of the Bible every man could become his own interpreter of the Word of God. This led to a multiplicity of doctrines; so, while Protestantism began with Lutheranism it gradually split into a whole variety of denominations and sects. Nowadays at one end of the spectrum you find High Anglicanism and at the other you find televangelists preaching a so-called Prosperity Gospel.
It seems that despite Christ’s wishes his followers in the world of today are more divided than ever before and can hardly agree with each other about anything. The Catholic approach is to adhere as closely as possible to the original teaching of Christ even if it goes against the grain of modern day thinking. Of course, we take into account developments in science and human understanding but realise that the best way to arrive at Christian unity is through fidelity to Christ's original teaching.
Just to take questions of morality, in recent years most of the Protestant Churches have accepted remarriage after divorce, they have nothing to say about contraception and many of them turn a blind eye to abortion. The Catholic Church, however, sticks as best it can to the teaching of the Apostles and its hope is that in time other Christians may realise that fidelity to the deposit of faith is what unites us all.
Over the years there was much bigotry and sectarianism, but thank God in recent times there is much more toleration between the various Christian denominations. Whether that has been caused by the rise in religious indifferentism is something that can be discussed.
When I was a child, I can remember the Orange Walks which were an important event in the year. They were often occasions during which a lot of anti-Catholic feeling was expressed. I lived in a house in Scotland made up of four flats built by my grandfather for himself and three of his brothers. On 12th July, the Orange Lodge would make a big point of marching up and down outside our house playing their strident music. Thankfully these parades are now a thing of the past.
The unity for which Christ prayed is something deeper than lack of differences between groups of Christians. The unity he desires is a reflection of and a participation in the unity that exists within the Trinity. This is unity at a whole different level; this is a unity that we cannot bring about by ourselves it can only come as a gift from God. But it is something that we can open ourselves up to.
We are imperfect human creatures; our lives are tainted by sin; left to ourselves we squabble and bicker. We give in to selfishness and selective thinking. We are blind to the needs of others and have a tendency to place ourselves above others. If we are to embrace the Christian faith wholeheartedly, we need to rise above our imperfections and we need to reach out to other Christians. We may not be one with them from a doctrinal perspective but we can surely be one with them in Christian charity.
We ought to work together with those of other denominations and do what we can to spread the Good News. We ought also to dialogue with one another and have frank but charitable discussions about our differences and commonalities. Over the last thirty or forty years we have moved on from animosity and we now are progressing in the way of tolerance and understanding. We can learn from each other and while we might not achieve unity in the foreseeable future it is something that we ought to be praying for and working towards.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket