Church membership is one of the mysteries of Grace. One reason why Christ gave the disciples the Great Commission was that He wanted everyone to have the chance to hear the Good News. We but rarely see the history of the spread of the Faith as it was and has been, preferring, instead, to view it through the lenses of our own perspective. Very few Christians in the West know anything about the history of the spread of Christianity outside the Roman Empire in the post-Apostolic times, and I have lost count of the number of times I have had to point out to people who talk about Christianity arriving in India in the eighteenth century, or in China with the Jesuits, that is not so. Christianity arrived in southern India in Apostolic times, and may well have been brought thither by St Thomas himself; the Christians of Kerala call themselves ‘St Thomas Christians’ to this day. Long before the Jesuits were thought of, Christians we chose to call ‘Nestorians’, brought Christianity to China some time around 635 – the same year St Aidan went to preach the Gospel in Northumbria. Even in England, the story that the faith came here with Augustine is not true, it was here long before that, and at Whitby we know St Wilfrid faced opposition to changing the date of Easter from those following the Ionan tradition – the exact date Christianity came to these islands is, in fact, unknown, but it could have been as early as the first century via travelling merchants.
This, for me, and for many, is where there is a problem trying to see Christianity as the preserve of one Church. The Ionan Christians in England certainly were not in communion with Rome – it is plain St Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine, had no idea there were Christians in these islands; the Christians of the Church of the East were not in communion with Rome; the Kerala, St Thomas Christians, were not in communion with Rome. To take the view that being out of Communion with Rome is to be, at best, imperfectly Christian, is, to me, as to all these Christian traditions, an act of cultural arrogance; it is to assert that one point of view is the only proper one. Naturally, if one is persuaded of that point of view, then one will be a Roman Catholic, but then, as I say, I have found few in that Church, or my own, for that matter, who know anything about these ancient and glorious traditions. What is known is that both the Roman Catholic and the Anglicans, failed to regard these organic and historic communions with the respect they deserved when they encountered them in the period after the sixteenth century. If you follow this link you will find a Franciscan reflection on a tragic episode in Christian history.
The existence of so many Christian traditions is a reminder to us that God’s Grace has no need of us and our structures, or even of our conception of what structures we think God wants. The Good News has spread as it has because it touches the need we all have to repent of our sins and to be made whole. The heart is indeed, restless, until it finds God. But for all of us the pilgrimage is different. Some find that restlessness stilled by the church into which we were born; others either had no faith to be born into, or it sat loose with them and they moved away – many going on long journeys of spiritual enlightenment – and disillusionment – before finding a safe harbour where peace descends; yet others stay within Christianity but move until they find that elusive place for which they have been searching.
Much is spoken about the ‘fullness of the faith’, and there may, perhaps be, a blessed individual who through Grace can embrace all the insights offered by all these traditions; there may – and alas may more likely be – the individual who, knowing nothing of the richness of these other traditions, thinks their own Church contains it all. To me it seems we find that fullness in Christ, Jesus. Some will say that only in their own liturgical practice can He be truly found; others will say he cannot be conjured up by special words and magic signs; yet others will find both these positions objectionable because they are offended – and yet some who adopt one of them will not, perhaps, see that those who hold the other view will be offended too. In the real fullness of theosis, we may attain the humility to know we cannot see the world as God sees it, and accept the mystery that He has come to us where we have met him.
Here endeth Jessica’s sermonette.