CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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The 12 sins of division in Christian Churches

HONG KONG (SE): The 12 sins at the base of the divisions that fracture the visible body of Christ by splitting the Christian Church into hundreds of denominations in the world were documented on large blocks and assembled as a wall before the altar at a small gathering of around 60 people expressing the desire to see Christians worldwide work to overcome the abuse of power, the isolationist complex, pride, intolerance, hate and contempt, as well as discrimination that has pushed them apart.

To this list, division, persecution, splintered communities and communion, lack of love, false accusations and religious wars were added before the wall that hides the presence of Christ from world view was gradually dismantled and rearranged into the sign of the cross to the words of the hymn, Walls that Divide.

“One stone in our wall is a broken communion,” the host of the of ecumenical prayer evening, Reverend Phyllis Wong, the local pastor at the Union Church in Jordan, said in describing the cross as a sign of hope for an ecumenical Church centred on the grace of redemption and reconciliation.

She encouraged the gathering to ask forgiveness for their part in perpetuating division, banishing their brothers and sisters from their home and for the part they have played in the persecution of others.

Marking the beginning of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on January 18 at the Union Church in Jordan Road, Kowloon, Reverend Wong described the evening as a visible symbol of the unity of Christians from the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Congregational Churches in Hong Kong today.

Organised by the Catholic Diocesan Ecumenical Commission and the Hong Kong Christian Council, the 60 or so people gathered around the theme for this year, Reconciliation: The love of Christ compels us.

Reverend Wong explained that the Churches decided to come together as a visible sign of the ecumenical Church of Christ centred on the grace of redemption and reconciliation in the spirit of the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which has been taken as the central theme for this year.

In marking the anniversary of the Reformation, we rejoice in the reform while regretting the division in Christianity that it caused, but Reverend Wong said that it also presents us with a challenge to be reconciled and, in calling on the gathering to involve themselves in the work of reconciliation in their lives, she cited St. Paul, saying, “God has reconciled us through Christ and we are empowered to be ministers of reconciliation.”

To celebrate the 500 years since Martin Luther signalled the beginning of the Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the liturgy used worldwide for this year’s unity week was prepared by the Lutheran Church in Germany.

The text is jointly published by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

It is marked in the northern hemisphere from January 18, the feast of St. Peter, to January 25, the feast of St. Paul.

It was in the context of the anniversary of the Reformation that the Council of Churches in Germany took up the challenge of creating resources for this year’s week of prayer.

They are composed around the theme of the celebration of God’s love and grace, and the justification of humanity through grace alone, reflecting the main concern of the Churches marked by Martin Luther’s Reformation.

The resources for the occasion recognise the pain of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the Church, name the guilt and offer an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation.

They are built around the words of Pope Francis from his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, “The love of Christ compels us.”

Originally known as the Church Unity Octave, the week of prayer was first observed in January 1908 in the chapel of a small Atonement Franciscan Convent of the Protestant Episcopal Church near New York City.

Two Episcopalians from the United States of America, Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White, who were committed to the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Catholic Church, started a prayer movement that explicitly prayed for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy See.

Predictably, it attracted few followers, but a small number of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics did take up the challenge in the belief that prayer with faith could move mountains.

The idea for an annual period of prayer for Christian unity began when Father Wattson, together with an Englishman, Reverend Spencer Jones, became Catholic in 1907.

The movement caught on and become an energetic dynamic that gradually blossomed into a worldwide observance involving many nations and millions of people.

However, they were not the first to express their concern over the splintered nature of the Christian Churches.

The Lambeth Conferences promoted prayer for Christian unity in 1878 expressing the concern of Anglicans for reunion. Bishops spoke of their desire for the conference to support the observance of a season of prayer for the unity of Christendom.

A further development came in 1913 when the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church published a leaflet promoting prayer for unity on Whitsunday and in 1915 produced a Manual of Prayer for Unity. The preparatory Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for a special week of prayer for Christian unity ending with Whitsunday.

Reverend Michele Bland, from the Union Church in Hong Kong, reinforced this imperative in her sermon at the prayer gathering in Kowloon, beginning by telling what is listed as one of the best jokes of all time.

Eliciting a slight giggle, she admitted that she did not find it that funny either, as its humour comes from the small-minded petty prejudice of the story. Nevertheless, the guest speaker for the occasion pointed out that there is some truth buried in its absurdity.

She highlighted that it points to the need for reconciliation, saying that as Christians, we are divided by our theology, biblical translations and liturgies, all of which point to the extreme need for reconciliation in the Church of Christ, not only among organisational bodies, but among the people of God as well.

“There is always conflict,” she noted, adding that the inability of the Christian Church to be united leads to the alienating attitude of, “If that is what the Church is on about, I don’t want anything to do with it.”

She then spoke of the importance of unity in order to allow Christianity to give a coherent and compelling witness to the saving grace of God.

In saying that this is not something new, she pointed to what she called the I-syndrome, which St. Paul spoke of in his letter to the divided Church in Corinth where members of the fledgling community were choosing their own stars to follow.

She quoted St. Paul questioning the fledging community at Corinth as saying, “I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?”

But St. Paul then issues a challenge to the Church to love and to use its gifts to build each other up, not to divide or drag each other down.

Reverend Bland said that St. Paul had a desire to be reconciled, as he had an experience of it in his own life and became a new man in the process.

She said that the Reformation brought about changes too and sharpened the focus on salvation by faith, but pointed out that this is not an easy process to be part of, either for individuals or organised Churches, as it can be difficult to let go of destructive behaviour.

“Christ died that we will not live for ourselves, but for others,” the Canadian pastor said, adding that Reformation requires us to make the move and look for the homogeneity in our Churches.

She added that this requires self-sacrifice, as we feel comfortable in the company of those who have the same likes as ourselves, but this is also what separates us and one of the big and difficult calls of reformation for us is to get out of our comfort zones.

In stressing that this is possible, she quoted the founder of the Union Church in Hong Kong, Reverend James Legge, as saying in 1849, “We differ in small matters. We can agree in large realities.”

Reverend Wong then invited all present to respond in faith in the words of the Apostles Creed and pray in the way of all Christians in the Lord’s Prayer, before going out into the dark of the world as an ambassador of reconciliation carrying the light of reform for the 12 sins of division among Christian Churches.

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