The idea of unity underlies all the figures by which the Church is described in the New Testament. The Church is there spoken of as - the kingdom of heaven, the body of Christ, the temple of God, the bride, the branches of the vine. There is but one kingdom, one body, one temple, one bride, one vine. This 'oneness' or unity, exists in reference to Jesus Christ; He is the king of the kingdom, the head of the body, the builder of the temple, the bridegroom, the vine. The great thought running through all the New Testament descriptions of the Church, is that of the Church's unity in itself through its union with Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament, the word Church is used in two senses. It is used, as it has been used so far in this book, of the one divine society founded by Jesus Christ. Again, the word is used of lesser parts of the one Church, as, for instance, when we read in the Revelation of St. John the Divine of the seven Churches of Asia. (1. 11.) But we are not to suppose that such Churches were independent or rival bodies of Christians; they were merely portions of the one world-wide society which Christ described as 'my Church.' (Matthew 16:18)
The unity of the Church rests upon Jesus Christ, its divine founder and head. The Church is one in itself, because it is one with him. The Church is one in him, and one with him. Of this unity the episcopate, or order of bishops, is the pledge. This is the view taken by St. Cyprian in his great work 'on the Unity of the Church.' In commenting on St. Paul's words - 'There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all ...,' (Eph. 4. 4-6) St. Cyprian writes - 'This unity firmly should we hold and maintain, especially our bishops, presiding in the Church, in order that we may approve the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. ... The episcopate is one; it is a whole, in which each enjoys full possession. The Church is likewise one, though she be spread abroad and multiplies with the increase of her progeny.''
St. Cyprian teaches that the unity of the Church depends upon the unity of the order of bishops sent by Christ, and upon the sacraments which they minister. He teaches that the episcopate forms but one undivided body, each bishop being in direct communication with Jesus Christ, and the minister of his grace, which is the life of the Church. Thus the unity of the Church is not destroyed by death, for death cannot sever union with Christ. The greater part of the Church is not now on earth: only the lower limbs of the body of Christ are upon earth. The great majority of Christians are in the next world, where they are still in the unity of the Church; for they are one with Christ, who is the center of unity. The center of unity is not on earth, but in heaven.
But what about the sad divisions in the Church on earth, which are only too painfully visible! These divisions are, to everyone who realizes what Christ meant his Church to be, a cause of sorrow and shame. From the first, such divisions were not uncommon. St. Paul speaks of them in his Epistles more than once. These early divisions were generally of brief duration, affecting, whilst they lasted, but small portions of the Church. But as time went on, greater and more serious disunion took place which has lasted for centuries, and still continues. First and foremost, there is the division between East and West, which dates from the twelfth century; and later, there is that further division which took place in the West between the Church of Rome and that of England, a large part of Germany, and other European countries, which has already lasted for 400 years.
Let us briefly consider the causes which led to these lamentable divisions in the Church.
First, we will speak of the great and disastrous division between East and West; we can trace the working out of this great rent in the Church to various causes. Amongst these we may instance the use of different languages. The theological language of the East was Creek, that of the West was Latin. As fresh heresies arose, new words had to be coined to state the truths assailed. It is not hard to see what grave difficulties would arise in selecting terms which, while they shut out error, conveyed the same meaning to persons of different languages. Dr. Newman says - 'The difficulties of forming a theological phraseology for the whole of Christendom were obviously so great ... not only had the words to be adjusted and explained which were peculiar to different schools or traditional in different places, but there was the formidable necessity of creating a common measure between two, or three languages Latin, Greek, and Syriac. The intellect had to be satisfied, error had to be successfully excluded, parties the most contrary to each other, and the most obstinate had to be convinced."
A second and more serious cause of separation between East and West, arose in reference to what is known as the 'filioque clause' in the Nicene Creed. This Creed, as its name shows was first drawn up by the General Council held at Nicaea AD 325.
As the Creed left the Council, it concluded with the words -'And I believe in the Holy Ghost.' On the rise of a new and dangerous heresy which denied the Godhead of the Holy Ghost, a second General Council was called. One hundred and fifty bishops assembled at Constantinople, AD 381, and proceeded to enlarge upon the Creed of Nicaea. In its completed form, the conclusion of the Creed ran thus - 'And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and the Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. And I believe One Catholic and Apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the Life of the world to come.
It will be observed that the words 'and the Son' (in Latin 'filioque'), to which we are accustomed, coming after 'Who proceedeth from the Father,' are here omitted. As the Creed was accepted by the Council, ‘the filioque clause' was not yet added.
How did the words 'and the Son' find their way into the Nicene Creed, as we now know it in the West? It was first introduced in reciting the Creed in Spain, apparently from ardent zeal in resisting the Arian heresy which had spread there in great force. The use extended from thence into France and Italy, and after a while the Roman see accepted and sanctioned it. This occurred in “Charlemagne's time." it is certain that no difference of doctrine was intended, but the Easterns at once objected to the addition on the ground that it was unauthorized. They held that no change could be made in a Creed which was received from a General Council, without the consent of a Council of equal authority. We are in justice bound to admit that their objection was a good one. A great dispute was raised, in which the Bishop of Rome supported the unauthorized addition. The Eastern Church has consistently maintained the objection all along, and maintains it still.
A third cause of division between East and West, lay in a long series of disputes between the bishops or patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople. Of these it is most painful to speak. They can only be described in the words of the Gospel - “there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.”
The early councils allowed the first place among the five patriarchs of the Church to the Bishop of Rome. But it was a primacy of honour, and not of authority - a primacy of leadership, and not of lordship. His position in regard to the other chief bishops of the Church, was somewhat similar to that of the foreman in regard to other members of a jury. The patriarch or pope of Rome was regarded as 'primus inter pares,' i.e., first among equals; bur no grant of lordship over his brother-bishops was allowed him. In the disputes of which we are speaking this was forgotten, the bishops of Rome claiming unlawful superiority over the bishops of Constantinople. There were doubtless grave faults in a lack of love and humility on both sides; but in truth it must be admitted that the bulk of the blame of the division lay with the bishops of Rome. A study of history leads to the conclusion that the Roman claims lay at the root of the schism between East and West - a schism which has already lasted for more than 800 years, and still remains unhealed.
The second great rift in the Catholic body is that which took place in the West, chiefly between the Roman and Anglican Churches in the sixteenth century. Of this sad division, and the causes which led to it, we shall have occasion to speak more fully in the second part of this work.
A third rift in the Catholic body occurred in the nineteenth century when the historic Dutch Church was excommunicated by Rome, and became what is now known as the Old Catholic Church, with which the Church of England is in full sacramental fellowship,
The divisions may be described in St. Paul's language a schism in the body,' rather than schism from it. No one of these portions of the Catholic body lost any of the essentials of Church unity --the possession of the apostolic succession, the divinely-appointed sacraments, the creeds, and the moral law. There is good reason to believe that the divisions in the Church are of such a nature, that her organic unity through union with Christ and the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, has not been broken. There is such a thing as internal unity, as well as external unity, We believe that external unity may be broken, while internal unity remains undisturbed; or as Dr. Pusey puts it, that suspended inter-communion alone does not destroy unity.
These divisions in the body are of the nature of serious wounds, rather than of amputation of limbs. We may regard the divisions in the Church under the figure of a serious quarrel amongst brothers, by which the natural bond of a common parentage is not broken. Brothers may be disunited, but they remain brothers still.
The only thing which can mortally affect the unity of the Church, is the loss of any of the essential links ordained by our Lord to keep us united to himself. We may believe that nothing was done in any of the cases we are considering, to cut off any of the portions of the Catholic Church from Jesus Christ.
At present the Eastern, the Roman, the Old Catholic, and the Anglican portions of the Church, make up the Catholic body - the Universal Church. 'The Church is to be regarded as the divinely ordained organ and keeper of doctrine and the means of grace, and as standing or falling by the apostolic succession. And as this can only be found in the Western, Eastern, Old Catholic, and Anglican Communions - these four together make up the historic universal Church. No one of these communions forms the whole Church, but is only a part. If a mirror was broken into three pieces, and the largest of these, having had its edges cut straight, was separately framed, this newly-framed portion would have a unity of its own, but not the unity of the original mirror; it would represent such an unity as is exhibited by the Roman Catholic Church at the present time.
These divisions of which we have been speaking are exceedingly sad - they are sad, as being contrary to the mind of our blessed Lord, expressed in his great eucharistic intercession the night before He died - they are sad, as hindering the spread of the gospel, and the conversion of the world to Christ - they are sad as a ground of perpetual reproach.
It is our duty to possess a spirit desirous of re-union, and to keep up such a spirit by earnest prayer, and in all ways of speech and feeling as ever ready for re-union when the path shall be opened to us. The touching words at the conclusion of Dr. Pusey's third and last Eirenicon are worthy of record, and with them we will bring this sorrowful chapter to a close.
But we are children of common fathers, of those who, after having shone with the light of God within them upon earth . now shine like stars in the kingdom of their Father. Sons of the same fathers, we must in time come to understand each other's language. Evil days and trial-times seem to be coming upon the earth. Faith deepens, but unbelief too becomes more thorough. Yet what might not God do to check it, if those who own one Lord and one faith were again at one, and united Christendom should go forth bound in one by love - the full flow of God’s Holy Spirit unhemmed by any of those breaks, or jars, or manglings - to win all to his love whom we all desire to love, to serve, to obey. To have removed one stumbling block would be worth the labour of a life But He alone, the author of peace and the lover of concord, can turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers. "O Lord, in the midst of the years revive thy work; in the midst of the years make known: in wrath remember mercy." '
(A manual of instruction for members of the Anglican Communion)
Reprinted from “The Catholic Religion," by Vernon Stanley
A reprint of a book first published in 1876
Currently Published by: Morehouse Publishing
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.