In one town: thirteen Christian denominations for 4,100 people

July 6 1963


In one town: thirteen Christian denominations for 4,100 people

July 6 1963


continued from page 14

In one town: thirteen Christian denominations for 4,100 people

eighty regional groups of theologians have been studying these questions. They have brought to their deliberations a genuine sense of urgency, for ecumenicity is now backed by a new morality among Christians. The 'ecumaniacs’ — as hostile religious separatists like to call them — have come to believe that it is their religious duty to break down the barriers between denominations. The most obvious results so far have been the slow' melting of barriers between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the grow'th of church union movements around the world (there are a score of them in progress now), and the much greater interest shown everywhere in the World Council of Churches.

The divisions among Christians are, of course, still profound, as the New Delhi meeting of the World Council, in 1961, demonstrated. Delegates to that council held four communion services. At two of them, the Anglican and the Lutheran, all other baptized Christians at the assembly were invited to communicate ( no one was nasty enough to raise questions about the Salvation Army delegates and the organized non-church Christians of Japan who are not baptized). The other two services were Orthodox, at which communion was closed to others. Such w'ere the still obvious divisions, even at a World Council meeting, where the forces of ecumenicity were gathered. And yet, the w'hole assembly did join in a solemn service of penitence — penitence for displaying such shocking disunity at the Lord’s table.

This penitence springs partly from the knowledge that Christianity disunited cannot properly do its work in the contemporary world, that disunity is inept as well as historically scandalous. The morality is simple: rich nations must help poor nations, people with plenty to eat must share with people who are starving, and Christians cannot do their part in this work while they are wasting their time and money on maintaining their separateness.

Both Christians and non-Christians may find it ludicrous that Listowel, Ont., which had twelve churches serving its forty-one hundred citizens, recently acqtiired a thirteenth. It had Anglican, Baptist, Christian Reform, Evangelical United Brethren, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, United Missionary, United ChLirch of Canada, Roman Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness — now it has Mennonite as well. But far more serious than this is the division among Christians in the poor countries. One symbol is the African mining area in which the mining company, planning its company town, decided to be fair to all churches. Following its own principles of town planning, the company insisted that the churches be built in one section and made them architecturally uniform. Now the town has seventeen identical Christian

chapels, all in a row'. In one area, four miles square, of Kerala State, India, there are eighteen different denominations. For Christian missionaries this is far more embarrassing than the situation in Listowel. The Rev. Gordon Schieck, a Canadian missionary of the Church of God, began to change his views on ecumenicity when he arrived in Kerala. His cfuirch had been prejudiced against the World Council (too liberal, too friendly to communists, too friendly to Rome) but he was so frustrated by the competition and division in Kerala that he had himself accredited to the World Council meeting in New' Delhi and went there as a reporter to find out for himself. This is how ‘ecumaniacs’ are born.

Ecumenicity best expresses itself in the poor countries through such things as the co-operative efforts in Hong Kong and the Congo, where scores of rich Western denominations efficiently funnel food, medicine and personnel through the Good Samaritan activities of the World Council of Churches. In the rich countries of the West it expresses itself most efficiently in the church union movement and in the custom of establishing a community church at which members of a dozen or more competing denominations find a common home. But in the West the most exciting of all the new developments is the undoubtedly changed attitude of the Roman Catholic ChLirch to the other Christian denominations.

Someone to let down the barriers

The new rapport between Catholics and other Christians has produced spectacular mass meetings — like the one last month in San Antonio, Tex., where Catholic and Protestant leaders agreed to conduct a joint service of worship in the seven thousand-seat municipal auditorium. But more important, perhaps, are the friendly small gatherings, like the regular meetings held for discussion — they like to call it dialogue — by leading theologians of the Anglican, Protestant and Roman Catholic theological colleges on the University of Toronto campus.

A typical figure in this movement is Father E. L. Bader of the Catholic Information Centre in Toronto. During the past eighteen months Father Bader has been involved in more than a hiindred and fifty Catholic-Protestant confrontations. He has spoken to members of most of Toronto's major Protestant denominations, and he has brought together, on dozens of occasions, groups of Protestant and Catholic young people, along with their priests and ministers. At these gatherings the young people and the clergymen fire questions at each other. By now. Father Bader says, he doesn't have to answer more than a third of the questions: the young people know the answers themselves. Catholic young people, he reports, are surprised at how much they have in common with Protestants; Protestants, on the other hand, are surprised to find disagreements among the Catholics. “They often have the idea we’ve been brainwashed,” Father Bader says.

These gatherings, once major news

in the religious press, have now almost ceased to arouse comment. Father Gregory Baum of Toronto recently preached a sermon in a Toronto Baptist church; the Rt. Rev. J. R. Mutchmor, United Church Moderator, was invited last w'inter to speak to a Roman Catholic congregation in Montreal. When these things happen it becomes apparent that Catholics of goodwill have long recognized that their Protestant neighbors are decent Christians, too, and have been waiting

for someone to let down the interfaith barriers.

That someone was Pope John XX11I. The Christmas following his elevation to the throne of St. Peter in 1958, Pope John said: “They, too bear the name of Christ on their foreheads. They read His holy and blessed Gospels. and they are not unreceptive to the stirrings of religious devotion.” "They” were non-Roman Christians: Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and all the others who had long been call-

ed “heretics." Pope John began to call them “separated brethren.”

When he called the Ecumenical Council which began last year, the first since 1870, the Pope announced that its purpose was to "bring the church up to date” and “help remove the barriers to Christian unity.” He set up a Secretariat on Christian Unity at Rome, invited Protestant churches to send observers to the Council, and later — on the advice of the new secretariat — stopped referring to

“separated brethren” and started to speak of "all others who believe in Christ.”

Some Protestants sniffed suspiciously and asked whether it was the beginning of a new “Home to Rome” trick, but others accepted Pope John's leadership and said he was "the best Pope Protestants ever had.” Immediately. the rush to unity was on. and the work that John XXI11 started could not end with his death.

The new movement did not by any means come only from Pope John. For a century there have been stirrings within the Roman Catholic church which have resulted in enlarging the ground held in common by Catholics and other Christians. A typical pressure was the Catechetical Movement of recent decades which has emphasized the Bible among Roman Catholics; at the same time Catholic laymen have been slowly pressing for a larger role in the church.

Before Pope John summoned the Vatican Council he wrote to Catholic leaders around the world, asking for suggestions. The 8,l>72 replies included such ideas as liberal changes in the regulations governing mixed marriages. The bishops of northern Europe were especially insistent on this point, a major problem in many of their dioceses, and the advice they sent back to Rome sounded remarkably like Protestant reasoning: If we recognize that the Protestant father in a mixed marriage is a Christian, they asked in effect, then how can we deny him the right to participate in the spiritual nurture of his child? Such were the liberal breezes blowing down on conservative Rome from the north.

“Violence is no help whatsoever”

Protestants hope for much more from Rome, and so do liberal Catholics. Father Bader says that one of the difficult questions often asked by young Protestants in their discussions — especially by Baptists — is about persecution of religious minorities in Catholic countries. Father Bader and the laymen who agree w ith him frankly admit that this is wrong. But Protestants. particularly those (like the Baptists) whose missionaries have suffered in Spain and South American countries, are aware that there are most authoritative Catholic documents which state that where Catholics are in a minority they must demand religious liberty for themselves, but where they are in authority they must deny it to others. The Catholics' reasoning is that truth and error cannot be given the same privileges. There is an elaborate background for this idea in Roman Catholic thought, but there is also a great deal of support for the principle of liberty. Today many Catholic liberals are demanding the latter. The German Jesuit Albert Hartmann has said: "We must abandon, once and for all. the principle of imposing state restrictions on another's freedom . . . We cannot expect others to be tolerant if we are not tolerant ourselves.”

What the liberal Catholics and the pro-ecumenical Protestants now hope for is a firm statement from Rome on the side of liberty. Pope John seemed to lean this way in his opening address to the council last year, when he said

that though the church had always opposed error, sometimes with great severity, she preferred now to use the medicine of mercy: “For experience has taught men that violence inflicted on others, the might of arms and political domination, are no help whatsoever ...” Protestant observers at the Vatican Council have been assured, informally, that the council will not end without a statement on religious liberty. If it comes it will be the first such statement from Rome in history, and will greatly strengthen the ecumenical movement; if it does not come its lack may damage the movement severely.

The Catholic-Protestant dialogue is one-half of the ecumenical movement. The other half — less striking, perhaps, but no less significant — is the gradual coming together of the nonC’atholic churches, marked by such major events as the faith and order conference at Lausanne in 1927 (the Montreal meeting is Lausanne’s third successor) and the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948. That first meeting ended with a vow that the churches which had come together would stay together, but the difficulties the council has experienced since then demonstrate clearly the problems which plague the ecumenical movement in any form. The Protestant Church of China, for instance, stopped sending representatives when the World Council’s central committee approved the UN police action in Korea in 1950. The Dutch Reformed Churches of South Africa withdrew after the council spoke out sharply against apartheid. There arc two hundred and one churches now' in the council, but they do not include two major American churches — the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, and the ten-millionmember Southern Baptist Church, in which fundamentalism is strong, segregation still prevails, and anti-communism seems almost a part of the Gospel.

Even in the poor countries, disunity grows in some places as fast as ecumenicity. In recent decades the younger evangelical churches of North America — Pentecostals, Adventists have so expanded their activities that they now have more missionaries in the field than the older denominations. In Africa, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and some Baptists have come together to form the Free Church of Central Africa, but at the same time the new churches have remained separate and there is as much disunity as there ever w'as.

If these things work against ecumenicity, then it is the faith and order deliberations exemplified by the Montreal meeting which have created the most impressive degree of unity among Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches. When the bearded thirty-two-year-old Archbishop Nikodim from the Russian Orthodox Church w'as welcomed at New Delhi he pointed out that his church expected to make its major contributions to ecumenicity through faith and order: and, indeed, the Russian

Orthodox theologians, and Russian Baptists, too, will attend a faith and order conference for the first time at Montreal.

Everyone at New' Delhi und Archbishop Nikodim’s promis Russian Orthodox position is d It has never regarded itself « phetic in social questions; it the czars, and it lives with chov, and it cannot become ir in such things as World Counc lutions on freedom. It has grov in recent years — a contribu the church is used by some citizens as a protest against tb eminent — but it cannot pari in the World Council’s philar ( aid to refugees, assistance to i areas, medical missions) becau forbidden to send money out c sia. In fact, the church is ni mitted to engage in good w'ork inside Russia.

What is left to it is faith anc — the reconciliation of the cb through theology —and tha Archbishop Nikodim, is w'herc work. No one should look to M this summer for pronounceme the great modern moral isst peace and disarmament, overj tion, starvation, freedom. The ments from Montreal will likei w'ith such matters as ordaining en, church organization, worsh the ways in which these things Christian unity.

“Missionaries go home”

But the urgency which bring: great men to Montreal, and put together in one solemn religiou ice, goes beyond such question beyond even the most ominoi facing Christianity today: that most certainly, a declining r in relation to the world's popu There are challenges to Chril on all sides: Islam, Biiddhisni duism arc all reviving. Chril may die out in some parts world, such as China, and in p; Asia it faces severe hostility — gates to New Delhi in 1961 astonished to find themselves fronted by pickets bearing sign ing “Missionaries go home.” Ir dhist Nepal the law' provides a year prison sentence for anyon ing instruction leading to Ch baptism.

But even if these threats to tianity were not so obvious, tians around the world would s yearning and working for unit cause they know that the task them is too great to be perfi in competition with each other, poor countries, Christians todc complish a great deal. In Afric spite the spread of other reli Christians still provided eight percent of the elementary educ in Hong Kong a unified movern one hundred churches and w agencies has produced an eng| welfare and education prograjj haps the most dramatic of all operative movements is the 1 Council’s vast effort to empt refugee camps of the world anc homeless people a new chance, things are being done, and dot creasingly by Christians unite their faith and their common pm The fact that they need to be more, and done better, and faster, is the greatest impulse b the drive for Christian unity. ^