The threat of nuclear annihilation is prompting religious bodies and their leaders to cooperate as never before in search of an elusive world at peace.
Look back on the important events of this year. What do we see? Fear of war dominated the front page of newspapers. Fighting in the Middle East and the South Atlantic grabbed headlines for weeks on end. But another event occurred — not at all divorced from the crucial issue of war and peace — which was of immense importance. That was the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain in late May and early June. Many in Britain are still reflecting upon the events surrounding that unique occasion. And with good reason: Its greatest impact is yet to be felt.
Furthering Ecumenical Drive
The first day of his precedent-shattering visit to Britain, John Paul II declared in London's Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, "Today for the first time in history, a Bishop of Rome sets foot on English soil." A moment or two later, the Pope stated a major — if not the principal — reason for his journey: "My deep desire, my ardent hope and my prayer is that my visit may serve the cause of Christian unity." Thus, John Paul's excursion to Britain closely paralleled his historic three-day visit to Turkey in November, 1979. At that time the Pope held a three-day religious summit with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Demetrios I. On that trip — "My first ecumenical visit" he called it — the Pope showed he was determined to put an end to what he has called the "intolerable scandal" of the divisions within the Christian-professing world.
The highlight of the Pope's six-day visit to Britain (he visited Scotland and Wales, as well as England) occurred the second day. It involved the visit of the Pope to Canterbury Cathedral, the very headquarters of the Church of England, which broke off from Rome four and a half centuries ago. Joining the Pope was his host, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, and leaders of a dozen Orthodox and Protestant churches. The Archbishop, in his opening remarks, emphasized that the service was "a celebration of a common vision." What followed shortly afterward was another first for an Anglican church — a sermon by a Pope. In his message, the Pope appealed to those present as well as the millions watching on television to accept the commitment "of praying and working for reconciliation and ecclesiastical unity." The Pontiff told the large congregation in the cathedral that church unity "transcends all political divisions and frontiers." He said that his visit to the cathedral was a day "that centuries and generations have awaited." After the service a Common Declaration was signed by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury which proclaimed: "We commit ourselves anew to the task of working for unity with firm faith, renewed hope and ever deeper love." They announced a new joint commission to explore ways to foster further cooperation between the two churches.
Time Ripe for Papal Visit
It is unlikely that a visit by a Pope to predominantly non-Catholic (and somewhat nonreligious, though Protestant) Britain could have been arranged even as recently as 10 years ago. Down through the centuries of division, feelings against the papacy in parts of Britain have run very deep. Observers agreed that it was not the institution of the papacy, still held suspect by many non-Catholics, but the personality of this particular Pope that made the trip possible. Displays of public intolerance were remarkably few. Newspapers of all political persuasion unanimously welcomed John Paul II. They particularly praised his courage in coming to Britain at a time when the nation was at war in the Falkland Islands with Argentina, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Some journalists and editorial writers seemed almost stunned by the Pope's participation in ecumenical events in Canterbury and, two days later, in Liverpool. At Liverpool's gigantic Anglican cathedral, the Pope said that "the restoration of unity among Christians is one of the main concerns of the church in the last part of the 20th century. And the task is for all of us. No one can claim exemption." An editorial in the Times of London, on May 31, reported: "The Visit — no need to say whose — seems to be going remarkably well... For the Roman Catholic population of England he has provided that sense of joy, courage and spiritual uplift that they were hoping for. The rest of us have been given much to respond to, and much to think about. The combination of the power of the man's personality and the majesty of his office is almost troubling... The common declaration with Archbishop Runcie [at Canterbury] may seem almost prosaic. When the feeling of unity in Christ is so strong, what need we any further international commissions, one is tempted to ask..." The Sunday Telegraph, May 30, commented on the Pope's performance at Canterbury in this manner: "Despite the stoop in his shoulders, there is in this man great power and majesty. Amid a dozen archbishops and 50 bishops he stood out preeminent, the bishop of Rome himself, come to perform [an] historic act of reconciliation in the cradle of Anglican Christianity." Other writers, though Anglican, praised the Pope for not wavering from Catholic doctrines and traditions, just for the sake of unity. In the Sunday Telegraph of June 6, author T.E. Utley praised the Pope for speaking out, in sermons before his own Catholic audiences, against "the predominantly pagan culture in which we live." Mr. Utley then inferred that the question of "papal authority" — an age-old stumbling block to church unity — may not be as big an obstacle as many think. He continued: "The Pope has given us an example of 'authority' which must have made many Protestant pastors green with envy. He has spoken as a shepherd of a flock; he has done so in unwavering language; he has delivered sermons of a length which would have delighted the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century... What a contrast to the timorous, five-minute exercises (a couple of jokes and a brief exhortation...) which is now the fare casually flung before the hungry sheep from most Anglican pulpits!"
Pope as Peacemaker?
In centuries past, nearly every major point of division within the Christian-professing world loomed large, virtually insurmountable. This may no longer be the case in an age fraught with the specter of nuclear annihilation. The awesome dangers confronting humanity have awakened a desire on the part of many to overlook doctrinal differences in order to present a "common Christian front" to the world. In other words, there is an imperative for church unity today. Not unity for unity's sake, but unity for the sake of an elusive world peace. In this light, the Pope in Rome assumes center stage position, as he is by far the leading religious personality worldwide — "very much a Pope of the world" as one London newspaper called him. In the English city of Coventry, whose Anglican cathedral was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War II, the Pope made a stirring appeal for world peace. "The ruins of the old cathedral remind our society of its capacity to destroy," said John Paul."Today the scale and the horror of modern warfare, whether nuclear or not, makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. War should belong to the tragic past, to history." The Pope's remarks caused one of the editors of the British newspaper The Guardian to remark: "If that is to be a central doctrine of the ecumenism of our times, the Pope has a more universal church behind him than even he knew."
Attainable Union Sought
Some experts believe now that, in view of rapidly deteriorating world conditions, time simply does not permit the luxury of years of waiting for scholarly reports arrived at by snail-paced ecumenical commissions. Complete, structured church unity may be unattainable, they say, except perhaps for those bodies closest to the Roman Catholic center — the Orthodox, the Anglicans and the Lutherans. Ranging out from this possible core, the looser goal of religious union, or close cooperation, may suffice. This is how the Religious Affairs correspondent of the Times of London, Clifford Longley, expressed his view of a less structured union: "Unity so far has been debated as the search for common intellectual opinions on abstract details of faith; or as an organizational reform... [neither] of those go to the heart of the matter. The Christian unity being sought is not social or structural unity, but religious unity. Religiously rather than organizationally, the proper word for it is union rather than unity." However the unity — or looser union — is arrived at, a top official on the staff of Archbishop Runcie admitted that the Pope would enjoy a unique role as a front-line spokes man-like personality: "We Christians need to see a personal figure of unity. We see the value of one man.... So we are beginning to see the point of a Pope for the worldwide Christian churches — just so long as their traditions are not swallowed up in Roman Catholic traditions." A reunified church, however constituted, could eventually move in concert with other great religions of the world — and human governments as well — in a last-ditch effort to achieve world peace. Bible prophecy indicates the emergence of just such a future church-state effort in Europe, the continent most threatened with nuclear devastation. This effort might even be presented as the prophesied fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth. But will it be? The prophet Daniel, in interpreting under God's inspiration, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, clearly explained that at the very end of this age, "the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed" (Dan. 2:44, RSV). It will be a kingdom "cut from a mountain by no human hand" — meaning it will be a divine government. Its rulers, members of the Family of God, will be immortal.
True Gospel of Peace — What Is It?
Will the churches of this world be able to bring about the peace so obviously needed? Tragically, the history of religion and Christianity in particular is as rent with division, strife and warfare as is the history of the secular nations of this world. What is little understood is that Jesus came into the world nearly 2,000 years ago proclaiming the gospel of "the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:15). The gospel is the "good news" of world peace that can only be brought about by the restoration of the government of God that was taken away from this earth almost 6,000 years ago. That Kingdom is not yet here. It therefore is not a church government or union. Jesus was put to death for his message, under pressure from the religious authorities of his day. But he rose from the dead. He will return the second time as the ruler of the Kingdom of God of which he prophesied, this time to be its supreme "King of kings" (Rev. 19:16). Jesus was, in parable form, the young "nobleman [who] went into a far country [heaven] to receive kingly power and then return" (Luke 19:12, RSV). Others, called by God, trained — educated — by God's word, and overcoming the pulls of this godless society, will rule with Christ in the divine government to be established over the nations of the world (Rev. 2:26 and 5:10). The Kingdom of God, a government ruled over by individuals changed from mortal to immortal, united into the family of God, will bring this world the peace that people today so long for. This is the unity that will produce the desired result.