Saturday, July 19, 2008
Even before Christianity was institutionalized, there were churches — local Christian communities within the far-flung Roman Empire connected only by the faith they shared.
We know some of their names from the letters that St. Paul wrote to them — Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and Rome itself. In each case, Paul instructed the Gentiles in the Christian faith and was not above admonishing them to put an end to their quarreling.
From the first there was the church at Jerusalem, of whose members the pagan Romans remarked, “See how these Christians love one another!”
Early on, these Jerusalem Christians agreed that they could not legitimately impose their Jewish standards of diet and discipline on the Gentile Christians elsewhere. Nevertheless, the early centuries of Church life were consumed with disagreements. It would take four centuries for Christendom even to concur in a common Creed and agree about which books belonged in the Bible.
Despite bickering, heresies and schisms, such has been the vigor of Christianity that the Church has endured.
But quarrels continue. This month, just as the leaders of the 80 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion assemble in England for the Lambeth Conference, the denomination risks self-destruction.
About a third of the 38 African primates have not only threatened to boycott the meeting but to create an alternative to the U.S. Episcopal Church as a protest against the ordination of gays and women. Already, 14 U.S. congregations have divorced themselves from the Episcopal Church and are battling its leaders in court to keep control of their church property. More than 200 conservative bishops are boycotting Lambeth because Episcopal leaders who consecrated New Hampshire’s gay Bishop Eugene Robison will be in attendance.
The Anglican dispute sharpened this month when the Church of England agreed to the future appointment of women as bishops. Traditionalists claiming to represent 1,300 English clergy threaten to abandon the church altogether rather than accept women as leaders. It is not an idle threat. Years ago, when the Church of England approved opening the priesthood to women, 500 clergymen broke away to join the Roman Catholic Church.
The current presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church happens to be a woman. Katherine Jefferts Schon says the quarrel is “another chapter in a centuries-old struggle for dominance by those who consider themselves the only true believers.”
The genius of Christianity consists of its refusal to make distinctions between male and female, free and slave, educated and illiterate, welcoming all races and nationalities.
If St. Paul were still around, he might repeat what he wrote to the Corinthians: “I do beg you ... by all that our Lord Jesus Christ means to you, to speak with one voice and not allow yourselves to be split up into parties. All together you should be achieving a unity in thought and judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
XDavid Yount’s latest book is “America’s Spiritual Utopias: The Quest for Heaven on Earth” (Praeger). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and email@example.com.
Scripps Howard News Service