by Robert Easter
This may be best left with the reader to decide.
Nearly five years ago I arrived at Seminary to discover, having been out of country, that my own church was in the process of flying apart like a hot grenade.
My attempts to hold on to a friendly fragment of the remnants resulted in severe professional loss and a near loss of life.
During this time I had always believed a kind of Branch Theory, that all Christendom could be seen as so many limbs from the same Stock, with Orthodox, Roman, Reformed, and Anglican branches from which all these lovely green limbs grew. Recently, as I had been praying about my continued involvement in the Episcopal Church, I woke with a dream in which there were five trains on a straight piece of track, heading up a slope toward a mountain range. The trains were linked to share the work, and they were making respectable progress toward their goal. One engine, the last in the line, was moving erratically, as if to move itself to the head of the greater train. Suddenly it jumped the track and headed off across a wide plain. In short order, different cars began breaking loose and rolling and tumbling in various directions. Amazingly, the engine swerved back toward the track, but not to get back on the track so much as to slam into the other cars which were still making their way to the mountain.
As the wreckage continued to roll, veer, and tumble, there was death and destruction spread far and wide. A traveler coming up on the scene would see burning wreckage and injured people; some sitting in pain and nursing their injuries, others, in shock and confusion either sitting in a daze or wandering aimlessly. Others preyed on the helpless, and a few were offering what assistance they had to offer. Over time, the injuries did not heal, but came to be seen as normal Memory of the train faded, though some still tried to urge people to look to the mountains to which they had been called.
The greatest “progress,” however, was that the people continued moving apart, and settling into smaller and more disparate camps before moving on yet farther. It is not hard to say, in fact, that this Great Train Wreck of 1054 is the greatest human disaster in the history of mankind, and the victims need the people from the continuing trains to bring them healing, as they have the means to do.
Today a Baptist, a Pentecostal, a Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman-Catholic, Lutheran, and what-have-you can be in a discussion. One might say something they all believe, but at least three will take exception. Why? The dialects differ so much from one tradition to the other that the very concept of salvation has to be meticulously translated by scholars from one dialect to the other before both of them will be able to understand the discussion!
It is in many ways worse than if they spoke completely different languages: To spend time in other “English-speaking” countries is to realise the pitfalls of being “divided by a common language,” thinking one is speaking the language, only to find out that what was said was never heard, and what was heard was highly offensive! In Germany an English speaker will find it easier because there is a dictionary, at least, to confirm that “this” indeed does mean “that.”
It is as if God has again, “confused the languages!” It is common today to follow a, “Branch Theory,” of movements and denominations growing naturally out of a “trunk” of the Early Church, rooted in Christ. We can picture this as children out on the swaying branches of a great oak tree, trying each to either reach the other across the expanse or give up and find a way to prove theirs to be the best, or even the “real,” or, “original” branch where everybody else should be.
It shouldn’t take the careful observer long to realise that each one of these children is out on a limb, and often with as little inclination, as knowledge how, to climb back down!
But, back to the language problem: Can it be that the Lord who prayed,
“That they all will be one”
is less than pleased at the separation? Ecumenism is nothing more than the children trying to reach the others from one swaying limb to the other. The limbs are too far apart, are swaying too wildly, and their bases from which they grow are also too far apart. Such efforts in the past have only resulted in falls, broken limbs, and the occasional monstrosity of grafted branches with no real purpose but “togetherness.” Are the United Church of Canada, or America’s United Methodist Church, showing great progress in new conversions, or authentic holiness? Most of what they have now is what they inherited from more vibrant churches, in the generations before their mergers!
Before we begin to take the language picture seriously, can this plethora of denominations be, not a divine evangelism strategy but a judgment? Before considering that question, though, let’s look more closely at the “branches.”
“I am the vine, and you are the branches,”
speaking a the time, of course, to his Disciples. Each disciple, as Jesus was saying, is like a vine branch, clinging for its very survival to the trunk of the vine, and through that clinging receiving the life-flow of nourishing moisture, and bearing the kind of fruit which proves it is a true branch and not a wild vine grown up into the arbor.
To apply this model, then, to the various churches we need to ask: Does this (given) denomination exist in loving inter-dependence on its parent “branch?” Was it begun in mutual love and cooperation, as a way to better bring honor to the Lord? Even in such a case, we need to ask a third question, in various forms: Is the overall landscape of churches in the West one of common purpose and interdependence, or rivalry? Meekness and mutual love, or anger and pride? Are the relationships best described as oneness, or brokenness?
If we can honestly say that Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman-Catholics, et al. are all consciously and intentionally of one same heart, mind, and purpose in Christ, then we can say we’re all just branches to the Vine. If not, then we need to look farther.
To depart for a moment from the present tension, let us take a fresh look at the original “confusion of languages” scenario. The people of the earth had a leader, and the people of the earth had communication one with another. What we don’t see is any of them communicating with God, but only to one another, and looking to their leader – the “cult of personality” trend had an early start, didn’t it? So, what do we see in that story? A proud man with the means to lead, a large following dedicated to making a name for themselves, and a unified plan for achieving it.
Much could be said of the “brick and slime” construction of their tower (and the writer’s device of suggesting their achievement was so minuscule that God had to get closer to see it!), and their ambition to “reach Heaven” with it, but then it’s the heart that God looks at, isn’t it? So God “looked down,” and it is safe to say that he saw pride-of place and of association (“lest we be scattered”), and he saw a sense of independence from him, that they were content with their own counsel, without asking his. So, their work was scattered, and their languages confused, so they could never get back together!
Now if we, for a moment, consider that God might choose to sign his work, so that we would know it was his message and not mere happenstance, then we might want to ask our church historians some questions. Was the advent of our “faith group” a matter of faith and self-giving love, or of anger and self-will? And what real connection does it have with its forebears in the Faith? Does God author confusion, or is confusion a sign of his judgment?
If we follow the history of the Church from the beginning, we see a lot of mission work with Christians traveling out from the centers of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and later from Constantinople. Western Christians were reluctant to venture out, and so most of the evangelism in Europe was done through monks from Ireland and then Iona, who were apparently taught by monks from Egypt, Asia Minor, and Palestine.
As Christianity became established in the British Isles, Gregory I, Bishop of Rome, sent bishops to administrate the new churches for him. The evangelism and church planting were well underway, but Bp. Gregory felt they needed Roman oversight, rather than Alexandrian, to qualify as proper churches.
The synod of Whitby, a generation later, reveals that the Primacy issue was never about dogma, but dominance, as the Roman representatives insisted the Celts conform their haircuts (tonsures), dates for Easter celebration, and their allegiance, to the see of Rome. As a microcosm of the situation in the wider Church, repercussions of this controversy was to continue until this present day.
Space prohibits an exhaustive look at this story, but such milestones as the “Donation of Constantine,” a forged document by which generations of Roman popes would claim eminence over the broader Church, a Petro-centric theology, the Norman invasion of England and Ireland, and the siege of Constantinople are but a few which show an ongoing drive for prominence over the churches despite Jesus’ words that
“the greatest among you shall be the slave of all.”
The Church, from the beginning with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, had always governed herself by the agreement of the bishops. Rome, however, had from early on striven to be the monarch over them all, as can be seen in the way in which Rome’s bishops approached the various Councils and the administrative incursions into British and Gallic churches. If we see these incidents as typical of Roman polity then it becomes evident that the Great Schism of 1054 was neither an anomaly limited to Leo IX’s idiosyncrasies nor a “mutual disagreement” between two equally stubborn bishops, but one more, predictable, step in the drive for Roman dominance. Michael, patriarch of Constantinople, refused to acknowledge Leo as the supreme head over all the Church, Leo reacted by issuing an “excommunication bull” against all the Church not under his own jurisdiction (that is, against all over whom he had no say!), and so establishing a Roman, “Catholic Church.”
An interesting point to this is that the word, “catholic,” means whole, or universal, as if including everyone, and acknowledged by all. Leo’s jurisdiction was neither, whatever the claim. Also, it had been Church dogma from the beginning that, from Jesus’ prayer quoted above, the Church cannot be divided. As John had written (1 John 2:19),
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”
So, from the Scriptural understanding of that day, in the terms of which all parties were aware, Leo was either from that point “not, of us,” or else he was right in say the same of all the rest of the Church.
Was the whole Eastern Church in such gross sin or heresy so as to be no longer Christian? What was the issue, but whether they would all bow the knee to Leo? How, in such a case, was Leo any more than another Nimrod? I would offer for consideration that his grand enterprise was not built up in the
“living stones” of the saints (I Peter 2:15),
but the mud brick of human making. Do we see evidence that
“there is no foundation but that which is laid, even Christ Jesus,”
or was it built in
“the grandeur, which was Rome?”
If the latter choices, then there is a reason we might see a parallel. Just as, at the first, God said within himself,
“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech,”
“scattered them abroad ..upon the face of all the earth;”
even so a confusion began to spread through the churches ruled by Rome. One cause, or evidence, of this was that the body of doctrine, the work of the greatest theologians, was found in the Churches which Leo had, in his mind, consigned to Hell. The portion retained by Rome would prove to need constant repair to cover up the questions her theology couldn’t answer. Doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, Transubstantiation, and Purgatory.
Pope Leo died soon after this action. Popes died, one after another. Cementing power in his own realm became as big a challenge for each pope now as imposing it onto other churches had been before.
Rome would continue its quest by calling on the loyal Norman French to invade their British neighbors to “regularise” them as “good Catholics.” England, already somewhat Romanised, fell easily enough, but the Irish did not have armies to conquer, and were too rural to dominate, but legend says they welcomed their invaders as merely so many immigrants, so that soon they had become
“..more Irish than the Irish!”
It would be over seven hundred years yet before Ireland could be called authentically “Catholic” in a Roman sense, and even then one might say that owes more to English Protestantism than any Roman efforts. But that is fodder for another story.
Almost immediately, we begin to see, names like Hus, Wycliffe, Savanorola, and Francis of Assisi recorded as standing in the Orthodox religion which Rome saw as a challenge. Some, like Hus and Wycliffe, were dealt with directly. The Franciscans were officially accepted, then upon Francis’ death the Pope violated the Order’s Charter by appointing them a General of his own choosing; and the followers of the Gentle Mystic would become the dedicated torturers in the Inquisition. Other mystics, like John of the Cross, were imprisoned and cruelly persecuted during their lives, then canonised as great examples of Roman spirituality and even saints of the Church after their deaths.
This period ended when another Leo, Leo X, excommunicated an Augustinian monk for teaching an approved Roman doctrine which interfered with the Pope’s finances, and this monk happened to find a royal champion in his native Germany. Nationalism, Humanism, and various popular heresies combined to spark a movement across the Continent against Roman control, which would eventually break apart into a multitude of factions, variously drowning, burning, exiling, or meeting each other in open combat. It is those factions, or their spiritual descendants, who comprise the various groups who are separated today by this confusion of languages, and who claim, each one, to be a modern expression of the New Testament Church. I would suggest that the only way to get off the horns of this dilemma is not to try to weave the “branches” together, but to get back to the roots!
In my own “journey,” I have found, as detailed above, that from a historical / ecclesiological standpoint or from the pragmatic and pastoral, the situation in Christendom is very much that of the train wreck. If it is pollyannish to presume that “all is well” among the wreckage, and that every overturned car or pile of cars is a perfectly sound train; then also is it utter cruelty for others to gather in their own, more ancient, temples and congratulate themselves for having “found” the “true church.”
There is wreckage out on the plain, and there are people suffering even now from the results of that disaster.
It would be hard to disprove that the current problem with “multiple truths” originated with the problem of accepting the Christianity of so many divergent factions, or the broad immorality (and its repercussions) in Western culture with popular interpretations of Augustine’s view of Grace.
People go, week after week, to gatherings where the Doctrine of Christ has been distilled to a two-line “statement” at the head of a five-page constitution, and where the only role the congregation plays in worship is to provide a comfort zone for the individual to have his or her own “worship experience” which has little or no effect on the inner person. Yes,
“the fields are white,”
and the needs are far greater than we realise.
 Technically speaking, Nimrod’s involvement in this has always been more speculative than substantiated, and one respected Genesis scholar has actually spanked my knuckles on this, but human nature is such that little happens without a Chief Instigator, so for lack of another suspect or a substantial alibi for Nimrod, for the sake of simplicity we’ll presume “guilt.”
 St. Vincent of Lerins (c. 445) had written of the catholic faith as, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”