St Andrew, Glencairn

Glencairn Methodist Church

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May 2016

Late again! Sorry, "must do better."

Towards the end of May we have the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Exciting times for the church! But there are dark clouds all around!

On the night before Jesus' crucifixion, in the upper room where they all had celebrated the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for his disciples, including all disciples to come (that includes us today). His prayer was that "all of them may be one; that they may be brought to complete unity so that the world may believe..." (John 17)

In the Nicene Creed, we say, "we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church." These four adjectives - one, holy, catholic, apostolic - are often called the "marks" of the church, the attributes that the church should display. But Jesus must have foreseen that the church would for most of its history, be divided, not "one", not united. Even in New Testament times, there was not complete unity in the church.

There were ongoing differences and debates between the Celtic and the Roman churches in the early centuries, but the first really big division came in 1054 when the western and eastern churches split. The western Pope, Leo IX, and the eastern Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, excommunicated one another, and the churches went their separate ways, until some reconciliation and mutual recognition was achieved in 1964.

The row was about one phrase in the Nicene Creed "We believe in the Holy Spirit... who proceeds from the Father and the Son." It would take too long to go into the detail of that debate. It may seem trivial to us, but it was important in the 11th century. Today, though, we can express the theology of the Holy Trinity succinctly. John 17 is good at that. We believe that the Trinity of Persons has been "from the beginning" although the concept of time breaks down when considering God "before" the creation. In the Old Testament, Jesus was unknown and we see the "Spirit of God" at work. In the New Testament post Easter, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. Jesus and the Father are one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are therefore one.

Four hundred years later (15th C) we get the next big split, which affected only the western church. This was the Protestant  Reformation, which was both theological and political. In particular there was a power struggle between the King of England and the Pope, with the theological reformation going on in the background. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (16th C), the Church in England split into Puritans and Anglo - Catholics and the Puritans who could no longer accept the ministry of Bishops and other things, broke away to form a Presbyterian Church in the 17th C.

In the 18th C. out of the Church of England sprang John and Charles Wesley, and the Methodist Church emerged.

And so on and so on and today we have, someone has counted, over 30,000 different Protestant Churches across the world.  Every time there is disagreement within a church there is a division, a split, which is often acrimonious and has occasionally been violent.

Yet most of us say in the Nicean Creed that - “we believe in one ... church.”  

So how can Orthodox, Roman Catholics (now self styled as Catholics), Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, etc, etc, all say we are “one"?

Well, all the Christian churches, of whatever tradition or denomination, hold in common these fundamental Christian beliefs: "God exists; Jesus is the Son of God; he died for our salvation on a cross; he was resurrected by God; he is alive now with the Father; we experience him through the Holy Spirit."

We are all united in these beliefs even though we hold diverging views on almost everything else. Even within one denomination there are different "traditions". However in holding these common beliefs we are following the original teaching of the Twelve Apostles and the faithful teachers who followed them, and so we can all claim to be "apostolic".

Furthermore we all believe that we are each called to be "people set apart" or "holy"; and we all belong to the universal church - everywhere and at every time, and so each church is part of the "catholic", meaning universal, church. Hence we are indeed "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

I don't think we shall ever be united organically, nor shall we have uniformity in governance or liturgy. But, recognising our unity in fundamental beliefs, we can surely be more tolerant of our differences. Sadly I don't think we can ever completely achieve that either; we have ploughed our separate furrows for too long; we have reached the stage were we believe we are "right" in everything, and therefore "you" are "wrong" and, as in 1054 we excommunicate or de-church one another. Help!

Come Holy Spirit, help us to "do better!"

Ken (18 May 2016)

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