About 11 years ago, I got up early one Saturday morning and drove from West Point, Mississippi, to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis. The day had finally come. After much study, prayer, and spiritual counsel, my brother received the sacrament of Holy Chrismation as the outward and visible sign of his conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

It was a powerful moment in my brother’s life, and in my own. For years I doubted that he would ever return to the Christian faith in any tradition. We had shared many conversations about his journey, and in ways that only hindsight reveals, my own fascination with facets of Orthodox spirituality and theology connected with his search. In the mystery of God’s providence, I played a role in my brother’s conversion.

Mixed with my joy, however, was a deep and abiding sadness. For my brother’s conversion to Orthodoxy means that he and I are now spiritually separated. We are not wholly in communion with each other. Indeed, from what my brother has told me, if he were to take the sacrament of Holy Communion from me — or from any priest or pastor in any non-Orthodox church — he would thereby excommunicate himself from his church. That’s how real and how serious the separation between us is.

I hasten to say that I do not mean to suggest anything negative about my brother’s faith or his church. I remain profoundly grateful that he has discovered a renewed faith in Christ in a tradition that, at its best, is deeply mystical, beautiful, doctrinally sound, and life-changing. Instead, I share all of this simply to say that I know from personal experience that our Lord’s prayer remains painfully unfulfilled: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

Many experience the reality of Christian disunity as something painful. For those within and outside of the Church, it can be a stumbling block to faith and an impediment to mission. C.S. Lewis put it about as forcefully as anyone. “Divisions between Christians,” he wrote, “are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards reunion.”[1]

Speaking before 200,000 people at a Mass in India, the late Pope John Paul II said: “The past and present divisions are a scandal to non-Christians, a glaring contradiction of the will of Christ, a serious obstacle to the church’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel.”[2] Pope Francis has also decried Christian disunity as a scandal, noting that “divisions … weaken the credibility and effectiveness of our commitment to evangelization.”[3] And William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who lived in the late 19th century, put it even more succinctly when he wrote: “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work.”[4]

It is undoubtedly true that the unity of his followers was something near and dear to Jesus’ heart. And so it no doubt breaks his heart to see the many ways in which we who claim to follow him are divided from each other.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that divisions among Christians all too often mirror the divisions that rock our world. Liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, FOX vs. CNN, rich vs. poor, public vs. private, Arab vs. Jew, white vs. black — the list could go on and on. The division of the Church into mutually exclusive denominations — and perhaps even more distressing, the extent to which individual denominations are torn by internal strife and dissension — also compromises and, at times, undermines the credibility of our witness to the gospel. “How,” a skeptic might ask, “can anyone take this Christianity stuff seriously when Christians can’t even get along with each other? Why should we believe what they have to say when they act just like everybody else?”

One proposal for achieving greater unity is to affirm a biblical Christianity freed from the accretions of later tradition. But a “lowest common denominator” approach doesn’t really work, or surely it would have done so by now and our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” would be fulfilled. Reducing important theological matters to the status of non-essentials simply won’t do.

Take, for example, something as foundational as baptism. Does the practice of baptizing infants say something profoundly true about grace and the meaning of the gospel, or should baptism be administered only to those who are old enough to make a profession of faith in Christ?

Or what about the Eucharist? Is it an ordinance or a sacrament, a memorial meal or a means by which we receive the Real Presence of the risen Christ?

Or what about Church governance? Are bishops ordained in apostolic succession essential to what it means to be the Church? Some Christian traditions say “yes, absolutely,” while others don’t even have the office of bishop and can’t understand why there could be any fuss about it (although they often have informal structures that mirror episcopal polity).

Then there’s the Bible. Is it the literal, inerrant, infallible Word of God, or should it be understood in other ways? Is it admissible to use scholarly approaches to interpret the Bible, or does that somehow betray its sacred character by treating it as just another collection of merely human texts?

How we answer these and other questions matters; they define things as basic as the meaning of the gospel and what it means to be the Church. As history shows, different answers can lead to schism. And so our Lord’s prayer for the unity of his followers collides head-on with the reality that the Church is broken and divided, and oftentimes over sincerely and passionately held convictions.

It’s tempting simply to give up on unity and retreat to the comfort and safety of fellowship with Christians who think and worship like us. But we cannot so easily dismiss our Lord’s fervent prayer “that they may be one.” For, as one biblical scholar rightly notes, “Unity is not an extra; it is the essence of what it means to be Christian.”[5] If unity matters so much to Jesus that it’s one of the last things he asks for before his death on the Cross, it should matter to us, too.

Each time we gather for the Eucharist on Sundays or feastdays, we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

We believe in one Church. In the face of overwhelming evidence for a divided Church, that is a bold and even defiant claim to make. Each time we say it, we are saying No! to the status quo of a divided Christendom. And we are affirming that the Church — broken and divided, comprising frail, sinful human beings — nonetheless remains “the triune God’s chosen instrument for the work of transforming the world.”[6]

Full, visible unity may not happen in my lifetime. And quite frankly, it may not happen before the life of the world to come. But our Lord’s prayer will be answered. The unity of Christ’s Church will be revealed. And when all people are restored to unity with God and each other in Christ, the pain of separation will be lifted just as surely as the sting of death will be eradicated. In Christ, there is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Anglican nor Orthodox, Baptist nor Methodist, Presbyterian nor Lutheran, or any other denominational or sectarian identity. For as St. Paul notes in his letter to the Ephesians, the promise of the gospel is that, when the time is right, “everything in heaven and on earth … [will] be brought into a unity in Christ” (Eph. 1:10 REV).

When that time comes, all of us will gather around the table with our Lord. And on that day, I hope to share the feast with everyone who loves Jesus in the joy of full communion — with all the saints of God, including my brother.

The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His other posts are here. He also blogs at Creedal Christian.

The featured image is a stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P, and it is licensed under Creative Commons.


[1] Quoted by Wayne Martindale, “C.S. Lewis, Reluctant Churchman,” Touchstone (Summer-Fall 1988).

[2] “Pope Calls Disunity a ‘Scandal,’” The Dispatch (Feb. 6, 1986).

[3] “Christian disunity is a scandal; Pope Francis during the weekly general audience on Wednesday,” Radio Vaticana (Jan. 22, 2014).

[4] William Reed Huntington, The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870, repr. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928), p. 2.

[5] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary.”

[6] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 255.

About The Author

Originally from Tunica, Mississippi, Fr. Bryan Owen was baptized and raised in the United Methodist Church. A hunger for liturgical worship and the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist led him into the Episcopal Church, where he was confirmed on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fr. Bryan earned an M.T.S. from Vanderbilt Divinity School, a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Society from Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion, and a certificate in Anglican Studies from the School of Theology at the University of the South. After ordination, he served as rector of the Church of the Incarnation in West Point, Mississippi and as Canon for Parish Ministry at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi. He is currently rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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1 Comment on "‘That they may be one’: Longing for Christian unity"

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A great call to put Christian unity back on the top of our thinking.

I wish you had said more about the perspective that says, “the Church is one – all who are “true” believers *are* the Church – and Jesus’ prayer *has* been answered.” Why does visible, even institutional unity matter? This of course represents a basic difference between a Catholic and a Protestant ecclesiology. But even as I have moved away from the later towards the former, I find it hard to explain why.