Christian Unity is Imperative

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Christian Unity is Imperative

Let me shoot from the hip. Efforts for Christian unity, or ecumenism, are imperative, not an optional extra. We have just concluded the Christian Unity Octave that is held annually from 18th to 25th January, concluding on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. 

The Octave was celebrated with both solemnity and sincerity in my hometown, Kanpur; an experience that I shall presently share with you. Before that, I shall share some thoughts on the broader issue of ecumenism itself.


The word is derived from the Greek word Oikoumene, meaning “the whole inhabited world”. By implication that means embracing all, including those in the periphery, to use the language of Pope Francis.

It is no secret that Christianity has had a sad history of division. In the early centuries, when the church’s thought and practice were still evolving, most divisions were on theological lines and termed heresies, like the Arian and Nestorian ones. The first major break came in the 11th century in what is described as the Great Schism of the East. This is when the Eastern Churches, called Orthodox Churches today, that were based in the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople (Modern day Istanbul) broke away from the Western or Latin Churches based in the Roman Empire. 

Dispassionate historians would have us believe that this was more of a power struggle having little to do with Christian teaching or belief. The Easterners felt that they had the Sophia (wisdom and knowledge) while the Westerners had the Lucre (power and wealth). Their mutual ex-communications in 1054 were lifted only in 1965 (911 years later) when Pope Paul VI embraced Patriarch Athenagorus of the Greek Orthodox Church. Can we afford to wait another nine centuries for the next major rapprochement?

Martin Luther’s protests against the worldly excesses of the then-Catholic Church coincided with the invention of the printing press in his native Germany. That led to the Reformation and the first knowledge explosion.

There are two words that I am allergic to – Protestant and Denominations. I feel that to call someone a Protestant is insulting and demeaning. Its usage should be stopped. In like manner, the British rulers introduced the term denomination to differentiate between various Christians in their colonies, for administrative purposes. Is there a need to perpetuate such archaic colonial lingo? In the New Testament, we find that the word church is mostly found in the plural form – Churches. That is why I prefer to use the term “Sister Churches”. It is respectful, meaningful and non-discriminatory. It is high time that we began to think and act “out of the box” to chart a new narrative.

In the wake of colonialism, several “national” churches got established very often as competitive as their colonial rulers. A century ago saw the advent of Pentecostal and smaller churches often linked to an individual. Finger-pointing will get us nowhere. We need to address the realities of today. Firstly, a fragmented and divided Christian community is the biggest stumbling block, scandal and counter-witness to our Lord Jesus. Secondly, in Europe, which was once synonymous with Christendom, Christianity has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. 

Thirdly, today Christianity is the most persecuted religion worldwide; from China and Myanmar in the East to several Middle East countries where it has been obliterated, to sub-Saharan and western Africa where there are ongoing massacres of Christians. Here in India too we are facing an increasing wave of religious nationalism and its intolerance of the other. The bogey of forced and fraudulent conversions has become a part of the national narrative, to browbeat the Christian community. I also see it as a back door entry into our cash-rich educational institutions. 

I will now quote from some documents of Vatican II to put ecumenism in its correct perspective. The “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (Lumen Gentium) inter alia states: “The Church recognises that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptised, are honoured with the name of Christian … Likewise in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit … In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united” (LG No 15).

The Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) states “Promoting the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the chief concerns of the Second Vatican Council” (UR No 1). “The Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers” (UR No 9). Worship in common is not merely possible, but is recommended” (UR No 15).

We may also draw inspiration from these words of Psalm 133: “How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers all together. It is like fine oil, on the head running down Aaron’s beard onto the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the heights of Zion, for there Yahweh bestows his blessings, everlasting life” (Ps 133:1-3).

Inspired by these texts and the ground reality of today, the Christians of Kanpur celebrated the Octave with prayer services in three churches. It began on 18th January in All Souls’ Church coming under the Church of North India (CNI). This service was conducted by Rev Nitin Cutting with choirs from Christ Church and Wetscott School. In an exchange of pulpits, the homily was given by Fr Walter D’silva, Principal, St Aloysius’ Inter College. Rev Cutting appealed to the congregation to sustain this movement with the cautionary note that unity does not mean uniformity. 

The second service was held at the Methodist English Church on the 21st. It was hosted by Pastors Abhishek Lyall and Nitin Lal and the homily was preached by Rev Fazal Masih, the Dean of the CNI in Kanpur. The coordinator of the Octave, Chhotebhai, gave a lucid history of the ecumenical spirit of the Christians of Kanpur that had included a three-day flood relief camp and a donation drive for the Kargil War. 

The third and final service was held at St Patrick’s Church, organised by Fr Antony K.K. Here the homily was preached by Rev Abhishek Lyall of the Methodist Church. Clergy and members from these three major churches, the Presbyterian Church and about 15 other smaller churches, participated in the Octave with great enthusiasm and resolved to carry the movement forward. 

In the previous two services, Unity Candles were lit, but the last one had a Unity Tree being planted. It was a sycamore (Goolar) sapling. Its significance was drawn from the experience of Zaccheus climbing up one to see and experience Jesus (cf Lk 19:1-10). In like manner all of us need to move away from the crowd of worldly divisions to enhance our stature (image) and rise to another level, to experience Jesus ourselves and to share his Gospel of love and service with others. 

Youth from various churches were chosen to plant the sapling because the elders would have faded away by the time the tree came to fruition. But these youth would bear testimony to future generations about the Tree of Unity that was still bearing fruit in its old age (cf Ps 92:12-15).

Other than those mentioned above, the following also actively participated in the Octave: Frs Stephen D’Mello, Francis Xavier, Deepak D’Souza, Pastors E.J. Singh, J.J. Oliver, Wilson Victor, Diamond Yusuf, Jitendra Singh, Xavier Ignatius, Johnny Stephen, Srs Prabha CJ, Shanti UMI and Sonia UMI, lay leaders Dr Kuruvilla Thomas IFS, Maj Gregory Gonsalves, John Elias, Sunny Verghese, Shashi Luther, Romilla Edgar, Cornelius Kujur and Manoj McCurtis, and youth leaders Praveen Dungdung, Shalini Ekka, Aaron Michael, Anushka Luther, Abhishek Wilkinson, Sakshi and Stephania Tirkey.

Indeed, when it comes to Ecumenism, there are no soft options. It has become imperative.

  • The writer was the coordinator of the Christian Unity Octave.

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