The Future of Christian Unity

In separate diplomatic but stern warnings this month, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches addressed the Archbishop of Canterbury in his own palace and told him that the future of Christianity in Europe will not be a half-hearted, vague sentiment that accommodates itself to the mores of the time, but a vigorous and bold faith that stands for Christ and against the errors and whims of the age.

The first salvo came from Russia, when Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, spoke at the annual dinner meeting of the ironically named Nicean Club.

After reminding the attendees that at the Council of Nicea, East and West stood together in condemning heresies that threatened to tear the Church apart, and have never stopped proclaiming orthodox doctrines, Hilarion warned that the Anglican Communion is on a path that the Orthodox will not follow.

“I can say with certainty that the introduction of the female episcopate excludes even a theoretical possibility for the Orthodox to recognize the apostolic continuity of the Anglican hierarchy,” he said.

That should come as no surprise to anyone, although many have apparently had fond hopes otherwise. But the Metropolitan didn’t stop there. After previously noting that “the abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals,’” he promised actions as well as words.

“Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals,” he affirmed. “Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture.”

Shocking? Not particularly, except for the fact that someone actually said it. But did he mean it? Apparently so – and in this stand, he said, the Orthodox have an ally.

“Our positions are shared by the Roman Catholic Church, with which we have held numerous meetings and conferences,” Hilarion reported. “Together we are considering the possibility of establishing an Orthodox-Catholic alliance in Europe for defending the traditional values of Christianity. The primary aim of this alliance would be to restore a Christian soul to Europe.”

A bombshell, to be sure, especially considering last year’s establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate, a way for Anglicans to join the Catholic Church in groups rather than individually. Seen by some as a direct attack on the Anglican Communion, the Ordinariate was a response to requests from Angllicans groups for a way to leave their increasingly liberal Communion without leaving their liturgy and traditions. But the Pope’s own words in his state visit to the United Kingdom the next week proved that Hilarion was not speaking for himself alone.

Pope Benedict’s entire visit can be seen as an affirmation that the Catholic Church is the true Church, and that the only hope for the Anglican Communion is union with it. From beatifying Anglican convert John Henry Cardinal Newman before tens of thousands, to reminding an assembly at Westminster Abbey that he is “the Successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome,” the Holy Father gently but without compromise bore witness to the fact that Catholicism is the still-vigorous, historical faith of England, while the Anglican Communion is a recent and rapidly disintegrating addition that is increasingly out of touch with the world.

At Lambeth Palace, the Pope spoke directly of ecumenical dialogue, implying a stance on the Anglican Communion’s probable course, and the Church’s response to it, that is the same as Hilarion’s: “In fidelity to the Lord’s will… we recognize that the Church is called to be inclusive, yet never at the expense of Christian truth,” he said. “Herein lies the dilemma facing all who are genuinely committed to the ecumenical journey.”

Those genuinely committed to that journey, he said, understand that its goal is Christian unity. At Westminster Abbey,

he told an ecumenical audience that “The Church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ during the rite of Baptism.” Fidelity to God requires “a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age. This is the word of encouragement which I wish to leave with you this evening, and I do so in fidelity to my ministry as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Saint Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ’s flock.”

He who has ears, let him hear.

So far, few seem to have noted the implications of these speeches, although English blogger Damien Thompson declared that the world has misunderstood the Anglican Ordinariate, and that its real purpose is to bypass both the Anglican Communion and the dispirited Catholic Church in British countries, building a revitalized English Catholic Church from the ground up and ushering in “the next stage in the route to Christian unity.”

Meanwhile, this week the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has been holding a plenary session in Vienna, paying particular attention to the role of the papacy in the early Church. At his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict said that “obedience to the will of the Lord Jesus and consideration for the great challenges facing Christianity today, oblige us to commit ourselves seriously to the cause of re-establishing full communion among the Churches.”

If the talks go well, we may have witnessed the beginnings of the reunification of the Church. The Eastern and Western Churches uniting on anything would be a revolutionary step. But whether the agreement is formal or informal, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have spoken clearly: The future of Christianity is orthodox, faithful to Scripture, and morally rigorous. Whatever the cultural whims of the West, these are already the norms throughout the rest of the Christian world, and the Eastern and Western Churches intend to keep it that way. Canterbury’s choice is clear: Join up, or be left behind.

Gail Finke


Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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