On the Church and Society
January 17, 2006
Many Christians probably do not have a clue that January 18-25 has been a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity since 1908.
That's when Rev. Spencer Jones, a Church of England clergyman, and Rev. Paul James Wattson, an Episcopal Church priest, started this observance. At the time, January 18 was the Feast of St. Peter, and January 25 marks the conversion of St. Paul.
Given the deep divisions within and between Christian denominations today, prayer clearly is needed.
Consider that Revs. Jones and Spencer would find an Anglican community today at war with itself, with the church's liberal faction pulling so far to the left as to verge on unrecognizable from a traditional Christian perspective.
Lutheranism in the U.S. also suffers from fragmentation. That includes the broad split between the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Then within the ELCA, traditionalists try to fend off the left, while the LCMS must deal with squabbles between a traditional/conservative majority and a vocal minority that veers towards isolationism.
The list goes on, as similar liberal-traditional schisms can be found, for example, among Presbyterians and Methodists. The Roman Catholic Church also has its factions. Indeed, Catholic priests and nuns can, and often do, present such differing takes on faith-related issues that one wonders how they could possibly be in the same church.
Just to show how pervasive disunity is, the ecumenical movement is even deeply divided. In fact, there are two distinct ecumenical efforts at work today, with starkly different objectives. The old ecumenical movement, as represented in the U.S. most notably by the National Council of Churches, has drifted far left. What unites this group is adherence to a liberal social and political agenda.
Meanwhile, what's sometimes known as the "new ecumenism" brings together classical Christians from varying denominational backgrounds. This is a theologically substantive effort, built on a unifying respect for Holy Scripture and traditional biblical morality.
This split within the ecumenical movement reveals what promises to be the deeper split within Christianity during the coming century. Traditional Christians across denominations have more in common with each other, than they do with liberals within their own denominations. Likewise, interdenominational liberals feel more at home with each other, than with the traditional wings of their own churches.
Depending on one's outlook, this could mean that the glass is half full or half empty. The half-empty point of view emphasizes that as the left drifts ever farther from traditional Christianity, little hope exists for unity. True enough.
The half-full perspective, though, takes heart in the fact that traditional Christians, while not glossing over their differences, are increasingly coming to realize that they share much that is foundational to the Christian faith. On a wide range of issues, they can offer Christians and the world a far more cohesive Christian voice than could have been imagined not that long ago.
Due in part to an increasingly hostile secular world, and through prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, it is becoming easier to envision in the coming century a more unified, traditional Christian voice. One publicly declaring itself on a wide array of matters, such as life, family and religious freedom issues, as well as on various doctrinal matters.
As people inevitably seek answers beyond materialism and relativism, Christians have a responsibility to offer a clear alternative. Jesus instructed his disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28: 19-20) Christian division hampers this Great Commission.
So even as Christians face division, there is hope, and it is imperative to pursue greater unity firmly rooted in Holy Scripture. Of course, the faith needs much more than a week focused on Christian unity, but every prayer helps.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating