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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - Christian Unity in the First Millennium

Friday, January 20, 2012
When we talk about divisions among Christians, it’s all too easy to suggest that everything was just great until 1054, when there was the schism with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and then there was a further split in the West at the Reformation, and all our problems stem from those two events. Leaving aside the question of whether 1054 is really the date when East and West definitively split, this schema overlooks the struggles to maintain the unity of the Church, some more successful than others, that went on throughout the first millennium.

From the time of the New Testament itself, the Church has been struggling with the imperative of unity: in St John’s Gospel, Jesus prays ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (Jn 17: 21), and the importance of this unity which derives from our baptism into a common faith in Christ is emphasised several times in the letters of St Paul (e.g. Rom 12: 4-5; I Cor 12: 13) in response to quarrels and self-promotion within the Churches to which he was writing. In the quotation from St John’s Gospel, our attention is also drawn to the practical significance of unity – that we might better witness to the truth of the Gospel – and this continued to motivate the Church in the centuries that followed.

Persecution became another source of division, though with a doctrinal element, as some Christians, holding a more rigorist line, refused to be in communion with those bishops who reconciled people who had abandoned the faith under persecution: this lay at the root of the Donatist schism which St Augustine did so much to try and reconcile by all the means he had available, over 100 years after the original persecution which had caused the schism in around 250 AD.

The great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries also led to extensive divisions in the Church, which it was the purpose of the various Ecumenical Councils to resolve by adopting a doctrinal formula which would be acceptable to all. The decisions of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) did eventually win universal acceptance, though it took a long time for the Arianism it condemned to be completely eradicated: the decisions of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), however, though they united most Christians of the time around common formulae still held by Catholics, Orthodox and most Protestants today, also had dissenters whose Churches continue to exist today (the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches respectively).

These Councils also remind us of the place of considerations other than the strictly religious in questions of Christian unity: the Council of Nicaea was called by the Byzantine Emperor, as were subsequent Councils, and some of those Churches that ended up rejecting Chalcedon, for example, did so, at least in part, because they were from outside the Empire and not subject to the Emperor’s authority to impose the decision of the Council.

From the history of the Church’s struggle for unity during the first few hundred years of her existence, we come to see that this difficulty derives ultimately from the conflict of the Church being ‘in the world but not of the world’: she is at the same time the One Body of Christ yet also made up of sinners, failing to live up to the unity to which they are called, acting for personal and political ends rather than the love of God. This truth is a challenge, of course, for all aspects of Christian behaviour in every age, but in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it asks us to look in particular at our motivations and prejudices in our approach to the pursuit of that unity for which Our Lord prayed.

Gregory Pearson OP

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