The signs of times seem to be that we are the last generation to live in a culture formed and marked by the Christian faith. Having closed its mind to Christianity, the European culture is itself imploding as the Christian faith was the common basis. The parallel collapse of faith and culture forces us to ask what the future will be like.
Relevant as the question is, we must have in mind that we are not the first to to fear the future. To take one example, St. Basil the Great in the fourth century wrote: “A darkness full of gloom and misery has descended on the churches… The terror of universal destruction already hangs over us, yet they (i.e. the faithful with the church leaders) continue to enjoy their rivalries, ignoring the sense of danger.” (On the Holy Spirit, 77)
The Church survived the crisis of his time, but it is interesting that St. Basil pointed to the internal state of the churches as the real danger in the situation. We recognize a similar challenge in our predicament. Now, as then, party spirit and pride undermine a unified response to the challenge. The present “darkness full of gloom” must be met in two ways, first by a reconciliation between the churches and second by the renewal of the individual.
The ecumenical imperative
When Jesus prayed for his disciples “that they all be one” (Joh 17:21), he gave an ecumenical imperative. In order to bear fruit, unity among Christians is required (15:4f). The question is how we are to fulfill his wish. In well meant ecumenism there is, a danger of “indifferentism” – the willful neglect of real issues – but inversely, there is also the parallel danger in denominational “integralism” – arrogance on behalf of one’s own consuming traditions.
Interestingly, the dialogue between the Old Catholics and the Orthodox in the 1980s concludes that eucharistic fellowship does not require the subjection of one church with its tradition to the other church. In order to establish fellowship, it is necessary not only to check carefully whether they are close enough to each other, but also whether the differences are so significant that separation must continue to exist. With this “matter of fact” attitude the document concludes that churches united in full communion will fulfill their responsibilities to the world not isolated from each other, but on principle together. (Koinonia auf altkirchlicher Basis, 1989: 228. For the text in English, see The Road to Unity, VII,7f)
Clearly the common ground between Old Catholicism and Orthodoxy is the faith of the undivided church of the first millennium However, this platform opens up a way for broader reconciliation as in 1995 Pope John Paul II similarly proposed that the unity in the first millennium between the East and the West can serve as the model for restoring full communion (Ut unum sint, 1995, 55). Moreover, the patristic patrimony of Anglicanism also embraces this model for unity. Likewise, as is shown by the explicit commitment of Lutheran orthodoxy to the Church Fathers, confessional Lutheranism understands itself as based upon the Nicene Creed.
The renewal of the individual
Confronted with an uncertain future, a mood of gloom has descended on the crumbling churches. The rapid decline in church attendance everywhere makes the churchgoer bewildered and disoriented. In order to find a way forward, we must return to basics and listen to the Apostolic exhortations to the young churches in the New Testament letters. Strengthening the faithful, St. Paul and St. Peter admonish them to trample down despair under the hope of the cross.
Among the many New Testament texts which encourage us to stand firm in the faith, I have found particular consolation in St. Paul’s admonitions to the church in Rome: “Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4f)
Clearly, St. Paul understands the tribulations of Christians as a purification process. By placing hope in God the patience matures the mind into a “proven character”. Thus, the more we recognize our weakness, the more our hearts are purified by the Holy Spirit so that we can find peace in God through Jesus Christ.
Fellowship with other disciples, living and dead
In addressing the congregation in Rome, it is striking that the Apostle encourages the individual as a member of the faith community. The proven character and the hopeful heart follow from the discipline learned in the Christian fellowship. St. Peter’s admonition is no different: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 6:.6ff)