When I visited the Holy Land, one of the prime destinations was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to tradition going back to at least the fourth century, the church contains the two holiest sites in Christendom: the site where Jesus was crucified and Jesus' empty tomb.
Constantine built a church on this site in 326. Helena, his mother, discovered the True Cross here at the time.
Unfortunately, the church reflects the division among Christians. Above the church entrance, for instance, stands a ladder which has not been moved for more than 160 years. The Christian denominations who control the church can't agree on moving it. This includes the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches who were given rights over different parts of the church in the Status Quo agreement put in place by the Ottoman rulers in 1852. To a lesser degree, the Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and Ethiopians also have some responsibility over the church.
However, there are signs of hope. For the first time in 200 years, experts have begun a restoration of the Edicule of the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The project began in early June and is expected to take a year to complete; it will include sorely needed damage repair and reinforcement of the structure.
The project came together when the three principal churches overseeing the tomb under the 19th-century Status Quo agreement overcame their differences which gave them rights to protect their portion of the church.
The Edicule of the Tomb was built by the Greek Orthodox community in 1810. It has been encased in metal scaffolding since the British Mandate period in the mid-20th century because of concern for its stability. Repair of the Edicule has been under discussion since 2000 and it is a sign of hope and changing attitudes that a new era of co-operation is beginning.
It is, after all, the place where Jesus prayed that all believers be one. And it's time for the ladder to be taken down.
In the West, ecumenical talks generally focus on relations between Protestants and Catholics. They are trying to heal a division that goes back five centuries, to the time of Martin Luther.
More recently, Catholics have become more aware of another sore division - that with the Orthodox churches of the east. This goes back a thousand years, to 1054. The initial step was taken in 1965 by Pope Paul VI who met Athenagoras I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople; they declared invalid the anathemas of 1054. St. John Paul II initiated steps to bring about reconciliation with the Orthodox churches - so that the church could breathe “with both lungs.”
An historic Pan-Orthodox Holy and Great Council is taking place in Crete June 16 - 27. Leaders of 14 independent Orthodox churches are meeting to promote unity among the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians. Orthodox church leaders haven't held such a meeting since the year 787, when the last of the seven councils recognized by both Orthodox and Catholics was held.
However, this push for unity has revealed deep divisions among the Orthodox. Four of the 14 churches decided to withdraw from the meeting at the last minute. This included the Orthodox churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Russia. The 10 Orthodox leaders attending are: Archbishop Sawa of Warsaw and all of Poland; Archbishop Chrysostomos of Nova Justiniana and all of Cyprus; Patriarch Irinej of Serbia; Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople; Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem; Patriarch Daniel of Romania; Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all of Greece; Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durres, and all of Albania; and Archbishop Rastislav of Presov, metropolitan of the Czech lands and Slovakia.
These 14 independent Orthodox churches belong to the so-called Eastern Orthodox family.
There is a second grouping called the Oriental Orthodox family. It includes the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Indian Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Together, they represent some 84 million faithful and are among the oldest Christian bodies in the world.
Because of the Christological disputes that arose in the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon, there is no eucharistic communion between these two Orthodox families. The Oriental Orthodox churches are only attending the Eastern Orthodox council as observers - the same as other Christian observers, including Roman Catholics.
Ukrainian Catholics share the same faith, liturgy and spirituality as their Orthodox cousins. Some Orthodox churches use the pejorative term “uniate” to describe Ukrainian Catholics - because they broke with the Eastern Orthodox Church family at the Union of Brest in 1596 and entered into communion with Rome. This remains a sore point with Orthodox believers to this day.
Any family has its difficulties and misunderstandings. The better we get to know one another and the more open we are to one another in our Christian families, the greater opportunity the Spirit has to heal old wounds and create new visions. May the Spirit be abundantly present at the Holy and Great Council.