At one of the noon Eucharists last week at Bexley Seabury, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Rev. John Dally remarked that there are now some 33,582 Christian denominations in the world.
While it is commonplace to mark the first “unhappy division” of the church to 400 CE (the Nestorians and the “Oriental” Churches) or to the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054 CE, I wonder if we don’t actually see hints of the first division much earlier.
There’s some evidence in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:7-10)
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is bracketed by two feasts — the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul — celebrating two men who became convinced that the good news of the kingdom of God announced by Jesus applied to both Jews and Gentiles, that is, to everyone.
But listen to what Paul describes in his letter: “we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” Peter and Paul are, in effect, dividing the mission of the new church between them, creating two apostolates, carving out overlapping jurisdictions, however you want to describe it. They have one goal, but will pursue it in two different ways with two different populations.
Certainly Paul sees this as a happy division characterized by the “right hand of fellowship,” but I wonder if this isn’t how the whole ball got rolling. Two thousand fourteen years and 33,582 denominations later, we have gotten good at division.
Many of the divisions in Christianity are being healed by time — I just sang the same hymn “Christ, Be Our Light” with Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics this past week — so I wonder if in our time we could become equally good at “only one thing, that we remember the poor.”
Imagine 33,582 denominations laying aside rancor and remembering only one thing. Imagine one billion Roman Catholics and one billion of the rest of us in Christ’s Body the Church (two out of five people in the world) uniting in service for, with, and alongside the poor.
What if we extended the right hand of fellowship not only to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also to our neighbors and all who suffer in poverty?
For the Unity of the Church
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 818)