“THERE IS ONE BODY AND ONE SPIRIT, … one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” ([reference-pericope]Ephesians 4:3-6[/reference-pericope]). St Paul insists here on the unity required of Christians because they all share alike in the one Body, the one Spirit, etc. How could there be division when the Body of Christ is one?
This is a question which has plagued the Church since its earliest days. It first surfaced as a problem for Church order in third-century Carthage (near Tunis today), capital of the Roman Exarchate of Africa. After some 40 years of peace a new emperor, Decius, began persecuting Christians anew in AD 250. Most Christians in Carthage offered sacrifices to the gods of the state out of fear for their lives, and others bought fraudulent testimonials that they had offered sacrifices, although they had not done so. When peace returned in AD 251, some sought to reconcile all those who returned immediately; others demanded signs of repentance over a lengthy waiting period.
How Is a Divided Church “One”?
Rival groups, not in communion with each other, were formed over the issue. Then the question arose, “What is that other group? Is it the Church? Do its sacraments have the grace of God?” St Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, said “No” – they are outside the Church. He wrote, “For if they shall see that it is determined and decreed by our judgment and sentence, that the baptism with which they are there baptized is considered just and legitimately in possession of the Church also, and the other gifts of the Church; nor will there be any reason for their coming to us, when, as they have baptism, they seem also to have the rest.” Accordingly St Cyprian insisted that those coming to the Church from one of these splinter groups be rebaptized.
St Stephen, the Pope of Rome, had a different approach. He espoused the teaching of St Augustine that “the Holy and Sanctifying Spirit still breathes in the sects, but in the stubbornness and powerlessness of schism healing is not accomplished.” And so, he insisted, heretics should be reconciled by the laying on of hands, not baptism. At first Stephen insisted that the Roman position was normative; after Stephen’s death, his successor, Pope Sixtus II let the matter drop.
The Church Re-examined
Several events in recent history contributed to the Churches revisiting the question of Church unity. The twentieth century Russian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky, was the first to propose a new middle ground. “It is impossible to state or discern the true limits of the Church simply by canonical signs or marks,” he wrote. “In her sacramental, mysterious existence the Church surpasses canonical measurements. For that reason a canonical cleavage does not immediately signify mystical impoverishment and desolation. All that Saint Cyprian said about the unity of the Church and the sacraments can be and must be accepted. But it is not necessary, as he did, to draw the final boundary around the body of the Church by canonical points alone.”
Vatican II marked a new appreciation of other Christians. In their discussion of the Church the council fathers employed a new term to restate the Augustinian position: “The one Church of Christ … subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium, 1: 12, 13). To “subsist” means to “be,” to “have existence” and so the fathers taught that the Catholic Church is where the one Church of Christ is to be found. Yet, they said, many elements of sanctification and truth” are found outside it.
The chief ecumenical experience of the bishops at Vatican II was with the various Protestant denominations. Clearly the above statement refers to that context. Most Protestants, for example, have baptism. Not all, however, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. All Protestants have marriage but not many consider marriage a sacrament.
When formal dialogs began with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, that explanation proved inadequate. The International Orthodox-Catholic Theological Dialogue issued this statement instead: “Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in their relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches. …On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church – profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops – cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches.
“It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches recognize each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity” (Balamand 12-14).
Thus the mystery of the Church “subsists” in each of the historic, apostolic Churches in relationship to one another in a communion of love. While some “elements or sanctification and truth” are found in Protestant denominations, the mystery of the Church subsists fully in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The reason for the different is that during the Reformation all Protestant groups rejected one or another of the sacramental building blocks of the Church such as the Eucharist, Confession, and the priesthood.
St Paul insisted that we are meant to remain one. The experience of the past century shows us that we must work to restore our fractured unity as well. Fraternal respect, cooperation in confronting secularism, and respectful study of one another’s beliefs have replaced anathemas in Church life.
Currently there are four communions of apostolic Churches: Churches which have existed since the beginnings of Christian history and which share the same basic faith despite a multiplicity of expressions. They are:
- The Catholic Communion – comprising the Roman (Western) Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic Churches.
- The Eastern Orthodox Communion – the various Byzantine Orthodox local Churches (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Russia, Rumania, etc.) They look to the seven ecumenical councils we celebrate in our liturgical year.
- The Oriental Orthodox Communion – the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Indian and Syriac Orthodox Churches. They recognize only the first three ecumenical councils.
- The Church of the East (Assyro-Chaldean) – the Church of the ancient Persian Empire.
In the last 60 years Rome has issued agreed statements with each of these communions to affirm a common faith in the fundamen-tals of Christian belief.