It's been nearly 500 years since Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses on a Wittenberg door. Nearly five centuries of Christian schism -- of discussions on indulgence and fallibility, of the Thirty Years War and the Irish Troubles, of the demise of the Holy Roman Empire and the rise of the Ku Klax Klan -- have followed. Only now, as secularism swaths Europe and creeps upon America, has there been anything approaching rapprochement between the sects of Western Christianity.
On Tuesday, that détente comes to a head, at least within the U.S. In Austin, an ad-hoc gathering of individuals and organizations representing the leaders of the assorted Christian congregations will come together. Their purpose? Finishing a discussion nearly a half of a millennium in the making.
Representatives from five of the major Christian faiths -- the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the Christian Reformed Church in North America; the Reformed Church in America; and the United Church of Christ -- will gather to sign a document asserting the validity of the others' respective baptismal rites.
The five denominations originally gathered in 2001 under the mantle of Christian Churches Together in the USA, which represents an additional 31 denominations. Now, twelve years on -- after nearly five centuries, what's another dozen years? -- the organization is ready to come together to recognize that the water, liturgy and other assorted tools involved in their baptisms are just as valid as the others'.
Now, one would think that such on occasion would call for a bit of festivity. After all, for the entirety of the Enlightenment, colonial, and digital ages, Catholics have mourned Protestants who'd foregone necessary invocations of the Trinity, while Presbyterians have laid a keening upon those who've not received the proper baptismal oils. All of that -- of the Old World, of the New -- changes tomorrow. Here, in Texas.
As Joe Vásquez of the Catholic Diocese in Austin told the American-Statesman, "This ecumenical effort, this mutual recognition of baptism, is part of our response to Jesus' prayer that 'we may all be one.'" There's a reason it's set as the opening act of a week's worth of festivities within Austin, after all. A Christian unity -- perhaps another step within the Catholic Church's recent rightward lurch; perhaps a victory for evangelicals hoping to consolidate the myriad Christian sects within America -- moves one step closer to reality, even as the organizations continue to lose share of the American electorate.
And yet, if you milled about the attendant religious denominations within Houston, you wouldn't have any idea that this historic moment was just around the corner and just down the road.
"I'm not really sure if anyone's aware of that," Lisa Psillas, the executive assistant to the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, told Hair Balls. "Nobody here's really aware of that document."
Catherine Rogan, media relations director with the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, was just as befuddled. Pausing for five, eight, ten seconds, she replied, "Hm. I haven't heard of it. I'm out of the loop on it presently."
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So, with one of the largest religious settlements but hours away -- I'm sure Pope Leo X's rolling over in his grave -- the major religious institutions within Houston seem to have little idea that their records, rhetoric and catechism are all set for a shift centuries in the making.
It seems there are only two possible reasons for such confessed ignorance about tomorrow's proceedings. Either these denominations are so swamped and muddled in communication issues to properly convey the details of the actual occasion -- which is entirely possible, considering that the Protestant schism originally began with something approximating a communications issue, anyway. That, or the representatives from the local denominations are far more indicative of the growing secularism within Texas than they'd like to admit.
Either way, Texas is providing a testing ground for one of the more remarkable religious rapprochements seen since Luther first emptied his local nail supply a half a millennium ago.