That’s a fitting question for the Advent season.
A friend and I recently learned we’ve been asking the same question: How will the church ever be one? In High Priestly Prayer Jesus prayed that we may be one so that the world may believe. For most of my adult life I haven’t given “oneness” much thought. I sort of assumed, yeah, sure, the church is one. But then I noticed a little verb Jesus used in his prayer.
He prayed that we may be one. May is a modal verb indicating something might possibly happen in the future, but it’s not guaranteed. Might not happen. For example, oneness might not happen in the Western segment of the church. A little church history might tell us why.
Irenaeus described the early church as “having a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth.” Oneness. The creeds solidified oneness, settling debates over Jesus’ nature for example so that Christians could confess there is “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” (catholic means universal, one). Oneness is why King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled in 644 that his church with its Irish monks would adopt the customs of Rome.
But we can’t overlook the Great Schism of 1054. The church split between the East (Constantinople) and the West (Rome). Both however strive for oneness, evident in efforts since 2004 to reconcile East and West so that (as Pope John Paul II put it) Christianity could once again “breathe with both lungs.” His image of two lungs reflects how both East and West hold to a sacramental view of reality based on the Word became flesh. God in the flesh means the heavens and earth are a “sacrament,” a revelation of the presence on God including the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine at the Eucharist.
Fast forward to 1517. Martin Luther posts his 95 theses. He seeks oneness with the Roman church (it’s why Lutheran services look like Catholic services). But Luther opened a Pandora’s box for while early church debates were over God’s nature, Luther raised a debate over human nature. He felt individuals can judge what’s right in their own cases. He established that I can read scripture and judge for myself what I believe to be true.
Kaboom! This set off a nova affect, an exploding star of individualized takes on what’s true. This blew up oneness, leading one scholar to write that Western Christianity is “not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core.” Another concludes: “the ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel.” This is particularly true of evangelicals. They score highest on “expressive individualism.” How in heaven’s name will this yield oneness?
What it actually yields is E Unum Pluribus. You read that correctly. The Great Seal of the United States features the motto E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One. The motto of the Western segment of the church perhaps should be E Unum Pluribus—Out of One, Many.
I say this without malice. I love how evangelicals have great zeal for the entire world coming to believe that God sent Jesus. The irony is that Jesus prayed that we may be one so that the world may believe. We’re undermining the very way Jesus said the world might believe.
Which brings us to Advent. The word is from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. Preparing involves repenting. Should we, the Western segment of the church, repent of undermining oneness?
I’m not suggesting two-thirds of the worldwide church has no flaws. In this Advent season, sacramental churches would do well to ask: where’s our zeal for seeing the world come to faith in Christ? The Western segment of the church on the other hand would do well to ask: how in heaven’s name will we ever be one with the rest of the worldwide church?
One scenario is we won’t. We’ll be Humpty-Dumpty. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put us back together again with the worldwide church.
A second scenario is a supernova. That could be a good thing. Tell you why next week.
 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
 Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 299-313.
 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, 18-20.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.
 c.f. Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985).