Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Peter Espeut | That alll may be one

Published:Friday | January 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

On October 31, 2017, the world marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that deep split within Western Christianity that began with Roman Catholic theologian and monk, Martin Luther. It was preceded in the year 1054 by a deeper split of Christianity (called the Great Schism) into the Eastern (Orthodox) Catholic Churches and the Western (Roman) Catholic Church. And there have been minor splits along the way.

Outlining one stream of split-offs may be instructive. The Anglican Church split off from the Catholic Church in 1536, and English Anglican priest John Smythe founded the Baptist Church in 1609; William Miller, an American Baptist lay-preacher, founded Millerism in 1832, and American Millerites Ellen G. White and her husband James Springer White founded Seventh-day Adventism in the 1840s; but before the church was formally established in 1863.

One of Seventh-Day activism's early leaders, Gilbert Cranmer, broke away and founded the Seventh-day Baptist Church in 1858. In 1968, Seventh-Day Baptist pastor Herbert W. Armstrong founded the Worldwide Church of God; its local branch in Jamaica was led by the late Ian Boyne, who formed his own affiliated denomination, which he led until his death.

In chemistry, there is a concept called 'entropy', a measure of the degree of disorder in a system. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states, "The entropy of the world is increasing, and is irreversible," as we head towards a steady state of universal equilibrium, where entropy is constant.

Over centuries, the breakup of the one Christian Church formed by Jesus into thousands of denominations seems to be evidence that the entropy of the world is increasing; and Jamaica - alleged to have more Christian denominations per square mile and per capita then anywhere else in the world - would rank globally as one of the most disorderly places for that reason.

There may be sociological connections with other types of disorder!

Yet we learn from evolutionary biology that - over millennia - as species evolve in response to genetic variation and natural selection, the complexity of life is constantly increasing (i.e., disorder seems to be decreasing).

Over the last few hundred years, several Eastern churches have rejoined the Catholic Church, while retaining their special liturgical rites.

The Methodist Church which split from the Church of England (the Anglican Church) shortly after John Wesley's death in 1791 is currently working towards full communion with the Church of England and the United Reform Church.

In Jamaica in 1965, the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches merged to form the United Church of Jamaica and Grand Cayman; and in 1992, the Disciples of Christ joined them to form the United Church of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Clearly, both entropic forces and movements towards Christian unity are at work, sometimes in the same space.


Consensus still under way


When the Jamaica Council of Churches was formed in 1941, the intention was to bring all Christian denominations together under one umbrella "to promote unity, fellowship and ecumenism among Christian churches and agencies, through consultation and cooperation". The Roman Catholics and the mainline Protestant churches joined, but the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, and the Adventists declined, preferring their own splinter groupings.

But with the strengthening of anti-Christian sentiment in Jamaica, more recently all the above have been forced to come together to form the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches.

Every year, at this time, the majority of the Christian world (the Roman Catholic Church and the member churches of the World Council of Churches) mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It runs for eight days each year, from January 18 (the old Feast of the Chair of St Peter at Antioch, or the Feast of the Confession of Peter) to January 24 (the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul).

As necessary as splintering may have seemed at the time, the intention of the founder of the Christian Church was "that they all be one, Father, as you are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21). The splintering into tens of thousands of denominations came from somewhere else.

It is my prayer that sincere and open dialogue on doctrinal matters in Jamaica and elsewhere will lead to consensus and more mergers.

- Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon and theologian, and is one of the representatives of his denomination on the Jamaica Council of Churches.