“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”
-Hebrews 10:25, CEB
Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation. In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:
“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)
It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either). But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.
It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly. The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus. When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts. Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
We could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention. But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide. In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.
I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities. The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement. Whether this raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.
In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience. He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other. To love each other, we must first know each other. We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other. I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist. Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.
This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.
It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters. At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.
This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith. The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest. That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ. As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.
P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.