July 7th, 2006


Unity, Ecumenism, History, Church

I am reading Catholicity and the Church by Fr. John Meyendorff, which has directed my attention to Christian unity. Again and again the question is asked of me: What ye think of the Church? The author has elaborated on, in several of his essays, the identity of the Church within the second century, which was an incredibly trying time for those who sought to keep the faith "once delivered to all the saints".

When looking at the writings from the second century churchmen, we see that a time of great transition had come. The apostles were dead, St. John being the last to pass away. And with their death came the loss of living apostolic witness and authority. What is more, a concrete canon of the New Testament was many years away from codification. The orthodox communities themselves differed as to what books were to be considered as Scripture, all the while watching these writings being rather flamboyantly attacked, disregarded or misinterpreted by various gnostic sects. How one could identify the catholic and orthodox Church was of utmost importance. The Church had seen the passing of all those who had seen and touched Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh. How was one to discern the community that adhered to the apostolic deposit? Father Meyendorff explains that the marks of Church were threefold.
Christian communities who were seeking to recognize each other as Church would find this recognition in the discovery of a common faith or creed, a common episcopal structure of a single bishop surrounded by a group of presbyters (priests) and deacons, and most importantly by a common focus on the celebration of the Eucharist, presided over by the bishop himself. The Church, in her various communities, knew a common confession, a common hierarchical structure, and a consumation in the common Eucharist, echoing the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians "You are all one body because you share in one body".
To be sure, as time progressed, the faith and creed was increasingly defended and thus elaborately defined, and the episcopal structure gained more centralization as the ranks of Christianity grew, but the Church continued to come together to celebrate the Eucharist and it did so in a manner conscious of these same three marks of self-recognition (elaborated and sometimes complicated as they might have become). Of course, this uniformity was not absolute. There were variations in liturgy and creedal expression and church leadership, but these were variations on a common theme; not a variation of opposite themes. For Christians whose Scriptures promised that the Spirit of God would lead the Church in all truth, the Church being itself the very "pillar and foundation of truth", as St. Paul wrote, this unity would not have been - and should not be - surprising.
But what of today? It is easy to see how these three marks of the Church’s life can be so easily divisive among Christians today. Christian creed is incredibly varied. Many Christians no longer know anything of bishops. And many Christians do not hold to the traditional teaching and celebrations of the Eucharist. The life of the Spirit in the history of the Church has shown that true unity must be something more than a bare minimum of doctrinal agreement. Reinhold Niebuhr was right in preaching against "cheap grace", one must also be wary of settling for "cheap unity", all the while praying and working for true unity intensively. 

In the light of these criteria, it is easier to see why ecumenism and unity is a difficult topic for Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  Both of these communities claim to have adhered to these marks (in varying ways of course), and thus are looking for other Christians to adhere to them as well in the same way (for example:  The creed must be the Orthodox creed, or the Eucharist must be under the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation).  For orthodox Protestant Christians, these demands are impossible, and for liberal-minded Christians, they just might seem irrelevent.

However, Christianity without history is somewhat of a gnostic Christianity.  It is a Body of Christ that actually has no visible body, no story to be studied.  The Psalmist calls out to the "God of our fathers", the one who has been Israel's refuge "from generation to generation".  Who are our Fathers?  And what have they to say?  We cannot follow the God of the Bible without finding out.