DENOMINATIONS ARE ABOMINATIONS
I find the word “denominations” abominable. In an era of competition between different churches, the term was used to distinguish between them. In today’s ecumenical era, the term becomes redundant. I would rather call them “Sister Churches”. Did not St Paul write to the churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus etc? Does not the Book of Revelation talk of the Spirit speaking to the churches (in plural) not in the singular. So shouldn’t we too be comfortable with the plurality of churches, rather than insisting on the singularity or superiority of one’s own particular church?
History is replete with instances of churches being critical, hostile to and in open competition with each other. If in 1302 the 189th pope, Boniface VIII, summarily declared that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church; there are even today, several churches, mostly from the Evangelical stream, that are merrily sending all unbaptised “pagans” to hell. I do not believe in a God that is hell-bent on packing “sinners” off to hell.
As a Catholic myself, I will restrict myself to the current teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in the post-Vatican II era. It was a watershed moment in the life of the Church. With its changed self-understanding, it also brought about a tectonic change in its relationship with other churches, religions, the natural and behavioural sciences and the world at large.
This change is most evident in the events of 1054 and 1965. The first was the “Great Schism of the East”, when the western churches based in Rome and the eastern ones based in Constantinople (Istanbul today) ex-communicated each other. It took 911 long years for those ex-communications to be lifted by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus, when they met, warmly embraced and lifted the sanctions in 1965.
The Catholic Church, in the post Vatican II era has come a long way from the sad events of 1054 and 1302. Before that the Catholic Church was like the cat’s whiskers, steeped in its own pride and exclusivity, a head and shoulders above other “lesser” mortals. Now it very humbly calls itself “an initial budding forth of God’s kingdom” (LG No 5), not a full bloom basking in the sun. She “embraces sinners in her bosom” (LG No 8), not a rarefied puritan, and admits that it is still “a pilgrim”, not one that has arrived at its destination. From absolutism it has moved to relativity. This is a crucial change reflected in its attitude to others, including the Sister Churches. Of them it says, “”The church recognizes that in many ways she is linked to those who, being baptised, are honoured with the name of Christian” (LG No 15). This is the official dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, there is a yawning gap between precept and practice.
There are many Catholic priests and bishops in India who are uncomfortable with the relativism and inclusiveness of Vatican II ecclesiology. They are more at ease with the fundamentalist, absolute, binary pre-Vatican ecclesiology of Me or You; not Us. That black or white binary refuses to recognize the various shades of grey.
Jesus’ last prayer included an impassioned one for unity. “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me” (Jn 17:21). Jesus is linking unity with witness value. Conversely, Christian disunity or division is the greatest stumbling block to Christian witness and evangelization. This is evident in colonial India, where each western church came with its own theological baggage, confusing those who had never heard of Jesus. In contrast, the apostle Thomas in Kerala and St Francis Xavier in Goa were successful, partly because of a unified message. There was no counter witness. We will revert to the Indian church later.
For now let us return to apostolic times. Those who oppose organized religion, derogatorily referred to as churchianity, point to the early Christian community. “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). This was too good to last. Shortly after, there was a division among Hebrew speaking Christians and the Greek speaking ones (cf Acts 6:1). The second dispute arose between circumcised Jews and proselytes (circumcised Gentile converts to Judaism) and non-circumcised converts on the other. St Peter had to step in to breach the divide (cf Acts 11:1-18). There are several other instances of both Sts Peter and Paul admonishing the neo-converts for their ethnic divisions and personal loyalties.
If in the first flush of apostolic times, when the Holy Spirit was powerfully manifest, unity was at a premium, then how much more difficult is it for us today; bombarded as we are by multiple messages and factors in both history and the present all-pervasive media? It requires both prayer and humility.
The history of Christianity in India is different from that of the west that suffered persecution for 300 years till Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 312 CE, effectively making it a State religion. It was also spared the ignominy of being subjected to Roman, Byzantine, French, German and Spanish emperors, as also the scars of the Crusades. The infamous Inquisition was limited to a section of Goa.
However, with colonialisation came missionary expansion and various white missionaries toeing the line of the churches of their native lands. It was this conflict that greatly contributed to the failure of Christianity to make its presence felt in India. When I was in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly, we had an ecumenical meeting. I recall the words of Rev Kenneth Sharp of the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ, an Anglican order. He said that we may be divided in thought or belief, but we can always be united in service where there is no room for dispute. Some years later when I had organized an ecumenical meeting under the aegis of the Kanpur Catholic Association, the main speaker, Dr A.B.K. Sebastian of Christ Church College said that in India there was no need to perpetuate the divisions of European Christianity. Words of wisdom.
It is for this reason that Pope Francis refuses to get sucked into theological hair splitting. He prefers to directly reach out to people, saying that we should leave the debates to the theologians. In a joint gathering of Catholics and Lutherans somebody asked him a tricky question – “Whom do you prefer – Catholics or Lutherans?” Pat came the reply, “I equally dislike lukewarm Catholics and Lutherans”. It reminds one of how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him if it was proper to pay taxes to Caesar? (cf Mat 22:21).
Pope Francis has repeatedly adopted a pastoral, rather than a dogmatic approach to complex issues. He gave the telling example of the field hospital in battle. You don’t stop to check the injured soldier’s cholesterol or sugar levels. You first bandage his wounds. In his latest encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” he talks at length about the Good Samaritan, a detested “other”. Jesus upholds him as a paragon of virtue (cf Lk 10:25 ff).
This doesn’t mean that Christian churches may do as they please, often pulling in opposite directions. St Paul gave us two beautiful analogies of the church as a body and as a bride (cf I Cor 12:12-30, Eph 5:23). Both indicate some kind of organic unity and bonding, if not exactly organizational. Interestingly, Jesus himself never used the word “church”; though some English translations use it (cf Mat 16:18 & 18:17). The actual Hebrew word used by Jesus was “qahal” that meant a community or assembly of believers. The Greek word “ekklesia” from which the English word “church” is derived, also has the same meaning.
However, there is an evolution discernible in the New Testament itself. In the Acts of the Apostles the word “church” is used 23 times, and in the Pauline letters 65 times! So obviously, as the community grew, it needed to be better identified. For those critics of churchianity that say that Jesus never founded a church and personal discipleship would suffice, I give the example of a human embryo. It is just a few cells, with no head, hands or feet. Yet it bears all the intrinsic qualities of a baby and later an adult. So too with the church. It grows and evolves and sometimes mutates because of external influences. This should not detract from the reality that Jesus wanted his disciples to have some form of spiritual, organic and organizational unity.
This can never be fully achieved. If the apostles failed with small numbers and no excess baggage, then we have a slim chance of getting there. This should not deter us from moving forward as pilgrims seeking to convert the bud into a full bloom, while embracing sinners in its bosom.
Management gurus teach us about areas of concern and areas of control. I may be concerned about the world economy, over which I have little control. But I do have control over my own domestic budget. Instead of bemoaning my inability to transform the world, let me first address what is within my control. Many Christians may feel that they are facing insurmountable odds in climbing the treacherous mountain of Christian unity. They then despair. Let alone the Evil One, even sociologists, psychologists and political pundits tell us that despair is the easiest way to accept the inevitable (like a Trump or Modi) and be resigned to one’s fate. However, the Holy Spirit spurs us to action. That is why I reiterate that humility and prayer are pre-requisites for Christian unity.
Like Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus let us begin by warmly embracing each other and stop seeing each other as antagonists. There are two steps that we can adopt immediately. The first is to stop criticising each other. The second is stop “sheep stealing”, grabbing disgruntled or dissatisfied members from sister churches, especially from what are described as the “mainline” churches like Catholics, CNI/CSI and Methodist. They are soft targets for preying evangelical churches. Not that they are the only culprits. Catholics do the same with their superior organisation and financial resources. This has been widespread in the Punjab, Uttarakhand and North East regions. It must stop. If at all some of us are determined to increase the number of Christians through conversions, then let them go out and share the message with those who have not heard it, rather than sheep stealing.
I became starkly aware of the divisions among Christians when I visited the Holy Land in 1980. Not only were there divisions among Christians, Jews and Muslims; there were scores of them among Christians themselves. The worst example of this was the Holy Sepulchre. The six feet slab has three altars; one belonging to the Catholics and the other two to different Orthodox churches, possibly Greek and Armenian. When celebrating the Holy Eucharist at these altars the respective priests must ensure that their hands do not extend beyond their allotted two feet. It is scandalous.
Nevertheless I would like to end on a positive note, again from Jerusalem. I had been invited there by the Anglican archbishop, at the behest of Rev Murray Rogers, the founder of our ashram in Bareilly, who had since relocated to Jerusalem. It was during Holy Week itself. On Holy Thursday we attended a Catholic service. It was presided over by a bishop of the Melchite (Greek) Rite. The choir was led by French speaking Vietnamese nuns. Rev Rogers was an Englishman, a pastor of the Anglican Church, who wore ochre robes and lived like an Indian. He was vegetarian and regularly used Hindu texts in his own liturgy. And there I was, an English speaking Indian of the Latin Rite! Could that congregation have been more catholic (universal)?
For the Easter vigil we again attended a Catholic service presided over by an African cardinal. Later during coffee there was a blackboard on which people from different countries wrote Easter greetings in their native languages, mostly in the Roman script. I wrote in Devanagari script in Hindi at the top of the board “Jai Sri Yesu”. It caught the eye of the cardinal. He immediately asked me where I was from and was thrilled to know that I was Indian.
After coffee we proceeded to the Russian Orthodox Church presided over by the Patriarch himself. At that time Christianity was still banned in the communist Soviet Union. A ninety-year-old retired army general was playing the organ. It was about 3.00 a.m. but the service was still warming up for the few elderly people there. I could not but wonder at some churches’ inability to adapt to the times. Many of us fossilised Christians are in urgent need of perestroika, glasnost and aggiornamento (opening up and updating to change).
In this season of Advent let us prayerfully and humbly listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Rev 3:22), for denominations are an abomination for the disciples of Christ today.
- Much of this information is contained in the writer’s forthcoming book “The Jerusalem Code”.