O Come, All Ye Faithful
From the early 1930s, Herbert Armstrong spoke out about a coming unity between Catholics and Protestants. Notice this excerpt from the Plain Truth: “The pope will step in as the supreme unifying authority—the only one that can finally unite the differing nations of Europe. The iron jurisdiction over both schools and religion will be turned over to the Roman Catholic Church. Europe will go Roman Catholic! Protestantism will be absorbed into the ‘Mother’ Church—and totally abolished” (October 1961).
Through the pages of the Plain Truth, Herbert W. Armstrong was sending a warning to the world of a coming church unity. Notice, again: “The final—albeit short-lived—triumph of Catholicism is recorded in literally dozens of Bible prophecies. Right now—whether we want to believe it or not—the stage is being set for the greatest revolution in religion the world has witnessed. … The mighty problem of achieving unity is two-fold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox Schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East. … Second, it involves restoration to the Roman Communion all Protestantism which developed from 1517 onward” (November 1963).
The Catholic aim of unity has been stated to be the forefront of their endeavors since as early as 1896. Pope Leo xiii stated it in the opening comment of his encyclical to the church: “It is sufficiently well known unto you that no small share of our thoughts and of our care is devoted to our endeavor to bring back to the fold, placed under the guardianship of Jesus Christ, the Chief Pastor of souls, sheep that have strayed. Bent upon this, we have thought it most conducive to this salutary end and purpose to describe the exemplar and, as it were, the lineaments of the church. Amongst these the most worthy of our chief consideration is unity. We earnestly pray that He (‘the Father of Lights’) will graciously grant us the power of bringing conviction home to the minds of men” (Satis Cognitum [On the Unity of the Church], June 29, 1896; emphasis mine).
In the 1930s, when a future church unity was being prophesied, nothing was farther from the Protestant mind. They would have said, “Unity? Never!“ But what are we seeing today, over 60 years after Mr. Armstrong first broke that news to the world? The hope of church unity!
Steps Toward Unity
Many steps toward church unity have occurred. Interfaith ecumenical prayer services had been held in practically every major city of the United States by the end of the 1960s. “Pulpit switches” by priests and ministers were becoming widespread.
Anglicans and Catholics carried on private meetings with Lutherans throughout 1966. The Methodist Church also encouraged holding study groups together with Catholics in order to reach interfaith understanding.
On Jan. 18, 1967, a precedent-shattering Roman Catholic-Anglican service was held in Madrid at the British Embassy’s Church of St. George. As reported by the Plain Truth, the ceremony consisted of hymns and prayers for unity. Spanish Protestants said the service was an indication of growing religious tolerance in Spain.
Again, as reported in the February 1967 Plain Truth, leading Protestant theologians began to seriously question any need for a future Protestant movement. Lutheran Bishop of Berlin Otto Dibelius said, “If the Catholic Church of 450 years ago had looked as it does today, there never would have been a Reformation.” Dr. Carl E. Braaten of Chicago’s Lutheran Theological Seminary concluded that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify “a need for Protestantism as an independent movement.” Dr. Robert Brown of Stanford University, a Presbyterian, said that “the Roman Catholic Reformation” was now a fact, and “Protestants cannot indefinitely justify a situation of continued separation.”
A Traveling Pope
Pope John Paul ii made a historic three-day visit to Turkey in November 1979. There he held a religious summit with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Demetrios i, stating a determination to bring to a close what he called the “intolerable scandal” of the divisions within the Christian-professing world.
In 1982, Pope John Paul ii made a historic visit to Britain, Scotland and Wales. On the first day of that visit, he declared in London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, “Today, for the first time in history, a bishop of Rome sets foot on English soil.” He went on to say, “My deep desire, my ardent hope and my prayer is that my visit may serve the cause of Christian unity.”
On his second day there, the pope visited Canterbury Cathedral, headquarters of the Church of England, which had rejected Rome 4½ centuries earlier. 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, vocalized the hope of a “celebration of a common vision.” Then followed what was another first for an Anglican church—a sermon by a pope!
The pope appealed to his audience, which included millions of people watching on television, to be “praying and working for reconciliation and ecclesiastical unity.”
He told the large congregation in the cathedral that church unity “transcends all political divisions and frontiers.” He later said that this was a day “that centuries and generations have awaited.”
“The most dramatic moment on the pope’s itinerary occurred on Saturday, Oct. 6, 1979. Over 200 years of estrangement between the Vatican and the government of the United States came to an unofficial end. For the first time in history a pope visited the White House, an event unthinkable just two decades ago” (Plain Truth, December 1979).
During that visit, the pope embraced the theme which would be the future direction of reconciliation—forgiveness. “As members with the Roman Catholic family in the one body of Christ, we remember the words of St. Paul, ‘If one member is honored, all rejoice together.’ We therefore are asking all Christians—Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox—to transcend our present and past differences on this occasion, and to mark the papal visit as a sign and stimulus for reconciliation … and to pray for the unity we seek.”
The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East met in August 1997. Out of that meeting came the “Joint Synodal Decree for Promoting Unity” between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church.
That decree states, “In the service of our Lord and the people of God, we, the bishops of the two branches of the ancient ‘Church of the East,’ declare that the noble quest for restoring Christian unity remains, for us and for our churches, a profound Christian obligation. … We, in our respective churches, realize that the actual meaning of Jesus’s prayer ‘that all may be one’ (John 17:21-23) can be fulfilled factually as we strive to restore the unity of the Church of the East, as known by our common forefathers.
“The basic theological agreement between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, as articulated in the ‘Common Christological Declaration,’ signed at the Vatican, on Nov. 11, 1994, by Their Holinesses Pope John Paul ii and Patriarch Mar Dinkha iv, has cleared the way for the Chaldean and the Assyrian churches to initiate a process of dialogue and collaboration toward the goal of unity.”
Out of the Many—One
Let’s bring this more up to date. Entering quietly onto the world scene of late, the Vatican has continued to offer the olive branch to its daughter churches, the dissident Protestants. In an article in the New York Times, Gustav Niebuhr wrote, “In a decision intended to resolve an issue that split the Western Christian world nearly 500 years ago, the Vatican said yesterday that it would sign a declaration with most of the world’s Lutherans affirming that Roman Catholics and Lutherans share a basic understanding” (“Vatican Settles a Historic Issue With Lutherans,” June 26, 1998).
Mr. Niebuhr stressed that the acceptance of issues by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (lwf) “represents a triumph for supporters of the ecumenical movement, which has urged closer cooperation among churches.” The federation represents a majority of Lutherans worldwide, some 7.6 million believers.
Meanwhile, church unity has been progressing on other fronts. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (elcu), a Lutheran organization separate from the lwf, with a membership of 5.2 million members, has voted overwhelmingly to breach the gaps between the elcu and the Episcopal Church. Lutheran Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson said in special remarks to episcopal observers, “You have experienced the urgent and heartfelt desire of this assembly to move into full communion with the Episcopal Church.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, likewise, entered into “full communion” with three other Protestant denominations in 1999 when they agreed to share ministry with the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America.
When we add the amazing number of journeys by Pope John Paul to all parts of the globe, we begin to get a glimpse of the enormous effort being made toward unity. This was the most traveled pope in modern history—perhaps all time. From March 1983 to July 1998, he visited no fewer than 116 separate nations—many of which received multiple visits, such as Poland, which was visited five times.
Speaking from a podium in Vienna, he mentioned the construction of Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean”—a reference to European integration planned in the years ahead. He lauded Austria, a neutral country, as “a mirror and model for a united Europe, which does not marginalize but has room for all.”
Catholics, by the Vatican’s count, comprise 77 percent of Austria’s 8 million people. Clearly, this pope extended the hand of unity to all who would listen.
In 1999, the Daily Telegraph printed the following report concerning a global summit between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church: “A ‘design group’ which has nothing to do with the Millennium Dome is due to meet in Canada next week. The structure they are designing is millennial but metaphysical: a global summit of Roman Catholic and Anglican regional leaders, plus Vatican officials, to be held in Toronto in May 2000. … It will bring together all the Anglican primates (almost all of them archbishops) from the 40 or so provinces of the Anglican Communion, and the presidents of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences (most of whom are cardinals) from every country where both churches have a significant presence. Nothing like it has ever happened before. They will review ‘the whole range of Anglican-Catholic relations,’ Dr. Carey has said, which includes where the shoe pinches most.
“Some members of the Catholic and Anglican preparatory group in Canada next week will have in their briefcases an extremely hot document—the as-yet-unpublished joint statement on authority which has just been agreed by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (arcic). It is the third such statement to tackle the authority issue, and it is said to be ‘convergent’—the two sides have moved significantly closer together ….” (Daily Telegraph, Feb. 19, 1999).
This coming church unity will not bring the peace mankind desires: Just the opposite! It will bring an enforced way of life upon all mankind—whether they like it or not! It will bring what prophecy calls “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 13:17). It will tell you when to work and when not to work. Mankind will then be in slavery to the beast power which Mr. Armstrong warned about.
Herbert W. Armstrong said it was coming, and it is almost here. Church unity will soon move from being a prophecy to a reality. But just as surely as his warning of a prophesied church unity and the emergence of a beast power are coming to pass, so will his announcement of the wonderful Kingdom of God also come to pass. That kingdom will destroy all others. Then, we will have true unity—God’s way!