Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
“THERE IS ONE BODY AND ONE SPIRIT, … one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:3-6). 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.
The Sister Churches
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.
 
EVERY CALLING HAS A CODE of conduct – written or unwritten – which sets out the principles for functioning ethically in that vocation. Some professional standards set limits to govern the practitioner’s exercise of his or her craft while others outline directions or indicate ideals to which the professional should aspire. As Christians we have general standards of behavior, such as the Ten Commandments, and standards of belief, such as the Nicene Creed. We also have particular norms for believers in specific circumstances, such as clergy or spouses. In the Epistle to the Ephesians St Paul indicates a basic norm for a Christian community: the first rule for living as Church. To be “worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Eph 4:1), a Christian group must “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

Mutual Submission

Preserving this unity takes work – we must “endeavor” or strive to attain this goal. It cannot simply be assumed. People are often astonished to find that someone has left their congregation. After all, we stood or knelt together, we lined up for the Eucharist or to kiss the cross together. We were one – weren’t we? Communal practices – ritual gestures, using offering envelopes or pledging in fundraising campaigns do afford us a measure of unity, but while people may be united in these practices they may be divided in other fundamental ways. St Paul (writing before there were pledge cards or parish newsletters) indicates that the quality of the interpersonal relationships in a community is the first basis for its unity. If I sense that you ignore me or look down on me, will I want to exchange signs of communion with you? Kissing an icon or worshipping at the Liturgy express our vertical relationships in the Church – to God or the saints – but living in the Body of Christ involves horizontal relationships as well – to fellow parishioners, those in our eparchy and in the wider Church. Horizontal relationships in a Christian community, Paul writes, should be characterized by two main qualities: humility and long-suffering. Humility in this sense is expressed in “lowliness and gentleness” (Eph 4:2), a virtue continually acclaimed in the New Testament. In the Canticle of the Theotokos (Lk 1:46-56), sung daily at orthros, God is extolled for “regarding the lowliness of His handmaiden” (v. 48) and praised as the One who “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly” (v. 52). Christ Himself confronted the relationships of believers in Israel. He criticized the Pharisees for loving “the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23:6) and counseled guests to take the last place rather than the first before the host gives their place to another. When we are tempted to seek preferential treatment or control of even small things in Church, we might well reflect on these passages. Long term relationships in a parish also demands that we be “long-suffering, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:3). Some people are simply not going to change. They cannot or will not see that their behavior might offend others. We must simply bear with them if we value unity with them, “warts and all.”

Diversity in Unity

Paul goes on to say that those who strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the Church do well to recognize and respect the variety and purpose of the Spirit’s gifts in the Church. In Eph 4: 11 he indicates that there are various levels of leadership such as apostles, pastors and teachers. They have these gifts, not to occupy the best places at feasts, but “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). There have always been a number of ministries in our Church exercised by laypeople: in worship (as chanters and readers), in education (as teachers of children and youth), in the arts (as builders and iconographers) and in administration (on community and administrative councils). In times when the clergy may have been the only literate members of the community they often exercised these ministries as well as those proper to their orders. However in our world today this is no longer appropriate. With sufficient training Church members are capable of exercising all these traditional ministries as well as modern ones such as parish web masters. Ignoring the gifts of parishioners is another way to destroy people’s commitment to their Church. It is the role of the clergy, according to St. Paul, to see that their believers are afforded the training necessary for service. Ministry of one form or another is the calling of all the faithful, but responsible exercise of ministry presumes that the faithful are willing to be trained and that the pastors and teachers provide the necessary training. In some cases local clergy can personally “equip the saints” in their parish for works of ministry. A pastor or deacon, for example, may train young men to serve at the altar. They may engage the services of an experienced chanter to train people in church singing or an effective youth worker to train others in this work. In other cases it is the wider circle of “pastors and teachers” – the bishop and his presbyters – who are called to provide more specialized training, equipping people to be clergy or catechists in local parishes. The emergence of on-line courses from seminaries and diocesan ministries can make distance learning an option for training in these roles. True unity in the local Church as envisioned in this epistle presumes that “the saints” do what is necessary to assume the service to which they are called. It also demands that they respect the gifts and ministries given to others. Higher clergy should not infringe on the roles of one another; rather they should provide the training necessary to improve the quality of their service. Professional teachers build unity, not by boycotting the classes of inexperienced catechists, but by offering their services as master teachers. Twice at each Divine Liturgy the priest prays that the holy gifts be given to us “for the communion of the Holy Spirit.” By coming forward to share in the Eucharist we are expressing our desire to deepen our communion with God, but also with one another. We are echoing the priest’s prayer in the Liturgy of St Basil, “Unite all of us who share the one Bread and the one Cup to one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” By the mutual respect we show one another and by our commitment to serve the Church in ministry we back up our prayer with action.

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