Can today’s church overcome division?

Christian unity

The Week of Christian Unity, the church celebrated this week, supports an unfashionable cause.

It encourages the healing of divisions between churches.

Divisions rule

In culture, politics and religion, however, division provides most of the news of the day.

The religious headlines emphasise fractures within churches.

They tell of discrepancy between the professed values of churches and the bad behaviour of their representatives.

They headline division between church leaders and people in the congregation.

It is understandable that church leaders focus on holding their own churches together than on their relationship to other churches.

Christian Unity movement

The history of the movement for Christian Unity, and particularly of Catholic attitude to it, however, suggests deeper things at stake.

It may also illuminate the broader tension between unity and division in Western societies.

Catholics came relatively slowly to the ecumenical table.

The roots of the movement for unity lay in the late nineteenth century at a time of vigorous missionary activity by European and American churches in the colonies.

Those involved recognised how far their rivalry and exclusive claims for their own churches had weakened efforts of each to win converts.

Non-Christians among whom they worked were also deterred by the contradiction observed in people who fought with one another while they preached a Gospel of peace and unity.

The Week for Christian Unity was one of many initiatives aimed at healing the divisions of the past, at restoring unity among Christians, and at encouraging shared prayer and action.

It was part of what became known as the ecumenical movement.

Attitudes towards the movement among church leaders and members were ambivalent: in favour in theory but cautious in practice.

The Catholic Church

In the Catholic Church the initial attitude to the ecumenical movement was generally suspicious.

It was seen to downplay the vital importance of unity of belief.

It risked giving the impression that all churches were equally valid, so failing to recognise that the true Church already existed in the Catholic Church.

For it, unity meant abandoning error and returning to the Catholic Church.

Differences vs similarities

In the Second Vatican Council, however, disunity among Christians was seen as a scandal.

The many elements shared with other churches were recognised, and the urgency of church unity was stressed.

Catholic leaders and theologians joined their fellows in other churches in seeking common ground on disputed points of doctrine and practice.

Local congregations of different churches prayed together and sought to cooperate on common projects.

For many of us Catholics this was an exhilarating journey of discovery.

It involved moving beyond the emphasis in Catholic identity of being different and superior to other so-called Churches to find unsuspected similarities, and ideas and practices and expressions of the Gospel commendable in their difference.

We began to centre our identity in the faith that we shared with others, and not in the ways in which we differed from them.

Unity, identity, culture

More recently, however, the passion for Christian unity has waned as church congregations have declined.

The place of Churches in society has diminished, and Churches have become more preoccupied with their own identity and questions of governance, including the scandal of sexual abuse of children.

As all churches cope with more limited resources there is less energy or enthusiasm for deepening relationships with other churches.

Among the few young Catholics for whom faith and Church are central to their lives, too, many emphasise its separateness from the secular world and from other Churches.

These changes have affected all churches in the West.

In the Catholic Church, Vatican II was not their cause. It formed part of a distinctive cultural change that affected all Churches.

The identity of the Catholic Church had been defined by its superiority to other Churches and to the secular world in general.

This distinctive identity was expressed in a strong community cohesive in its understanding of faith and its ritual practice.

The changes of Vatican II were designed to foster an identity defined by openness to the world and other religious bodies, expressed in a strong and cohesive community renewed in its faith and its reformed ritual practice.

In practice, however, the move from superiority and difference to hospitality was accompanied by a widespread loss of cohesion and of commitment to a defined faith and ritual.

For an increasing number of Christians church allegiance and belief were seen in terms of personal history and individual choice, not as a commitment to an authoritative tradition.

The movement for Church union then seemed quixotic to people who felt free to move between churches and to make what they wanted of Christian doctrine. The unity of the Church was seen in spiritual and not in institutional terms.

Wider social change

This change is echoed in the political culture.

Once large political parties with a distinctive, shared and often polemical vision of society and a strong allegiance to it, have been replaced by small parties, united by interests more than by convictions.

These in any case are subordinated to the winning of elections.

Candidates for Parliament are drawn from those for whom politics is a career not a calling.

The current hatred that marks politics seems to flow as much from ambition and entitlement as from policy.

In response, voters are correspondingly more detached from political parties.

They favour individuals who appear to be authentic in their principles or who share their interests.

Pope’s challenge

In this situation, Pope Francis’ approach to Christian unity may be of wider interest.

He has challenged an inwards-turned vision of Church that identifies itself either by what it is not or as a collection of loosely bound individuals.

He has encouraged Catholics to go out to the edges of the Catholic Church to engage with disengaged members of the Church.

He’s also encouraged Catholics to go out to Christians in other Churches, people of all Churches and none who suffer from poverty and discrimination, and to all to whom Christ came.

Ecumenical mission

This broad sense of mission draws its energy from and encourages a deep faith in Christ who embodied God’s love in suffering rejection and rising from death.

It invites an ecumenism in which the faith of members and congregations of different Churches leads them to reach out beyond their doors into the world around them and its needs.

Today our public culture appears largely to have given up hoping for a unity of vision that transcends division.

Perhaps the call to go beyond the comfort of like-minded people to those on the margins of our society and to attend to them and their needs might reinvigorate commitment to the common good and to the democratic habits that sustain it.

  • First published in Eureka Street
  • Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.


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