Bleak Prospects for Christian Unity?

There are times when unity seems almost within our grasp; at others it appears an impossible dream. In my own lifetime I have seen popes and patriarchs embrace, Catholics and Protestants work and worship together — and the opposite. More and more I am convinced that unity is not optional, that it is willed by our Saviour, but the principal obstacle lies in our understanding of the word ‘Church’. A patchy and inadequate grasp of theology, allied to a patchy and inadequate knowledge of history, is a piquant mix, particularly if there is little real charity to connect the two.

Another problem, surely, is that we all think about unity in different ways and have different goals in view. For example, as a Catholic, I look more to reunion with the Orthodox East than with Anglicanism or western Protestantism, because our schism is older and, to me, both more shameful and simultaneously easier yet more difficult to overcome. (I trust my Anglican and Protestant friends won’t misunderstand the point I am making and huffily conclude I don’t love them any more/value them less.) Here in Britain, the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and developments within the Anglican Church have led to further complications in the ecumenical story.

So, where are we, on this snowy Sunday of the Christian Unity Octave, 2013? I think we are being powerfully reminded that unity is a gift willed and given by God, but always in his way and on his terms. Unity will only be attained if we work and pray for it, and I believe prayer to be the most important part of that. To be truly open to the Holy Spirit, to be truly learned in scripture and theology, to be truly charitable is not something we can do by our own efforts. We have a way of distorting all these good things for our own ends and our own idea of what should be. We have to let go of all that and let God set the agenda. Ultimately, it is a question of trust and believing in Him. Are we willing to take the risk?

Note: the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18 January to 25 January, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul.


9 thoughts on “Bleak Prospects for Christian Unity?”

  1. Was just discussing this with a retired priest in the congregtion. He said, “we are just going through the motions. We don’t really believe in it any more”. We will have 4 joint services over the next week, and the same few will attend, but there is no real energy for it, at local or national or international level.

    But you are right. Unity is not an option. The Lord commanded it.

  2. I often wonder who is more frustrated with our disunity; us or God.

    I read that all schism is based ultimately in pride. Not sure if that’s true, but food for thought.

    It strikes me (purely intuitively) that schism breeds schism. I’m not entirely sure of the mechanics.

    Just thinking out loud, but I live in hope that one day Jesus’ “Cry to Unify” will come to pass.

    God knows how….

  3. I’m not sure that we are striving the the type of unity that God envisages? We seem to be trying to agree theologically and perhaps politically on very difficult areas where we differ, and as others have pointed out, there seems to be little energy in that.

    My vision is of a church universal united in prayer and good works – unified by selfless service and love, unified by purpose and prayer, unified by what we share in our common life with grace and the peace. Leadership contests, politics and theological arguments have little place in my vision, they are discussed and debated in the light of what unifies us, not in what divides us.

    • I think my response would be ‘yes and no’ — precisely because of the point I raised early on: the way in which we all differ in our understanding of what the Church is. I don’t see theology as a barrier but, rather, as an enrichment of that understanding. However, that would require a lengthy essay, and I don’t intend to inflict one on you — or myself!

  4. I would have to disagree with the classification of the Ordinariate as a ‘further complication’ in ecumenical relations with Anglicans. It might be seen by some as unhelpful, but that is really only because it seeks to clarify the essence of Catholic hopes for ecumenical dialogue – the restoration of full ecclesial communion with the See of Peter – and this is uncomfortable for those (not all Anglicans, either) who wish the Catholic Church to move towards the acceptance of the Anglican way of thinking and doing. It is in fact a helpful clarification about the reality of the situation. If conversations – local or otherwise – dry up as a result of it, then frankly those were conversations that were never intended (truthfully, at least) to reach the only conclusion for which the Catholic Church hopes. The message from the Holy See for the past thirty years or so has been unswerving and precise. That such a message has been widely ignored (or at best, rejected) is not only a sign of the lack of desire to see the teaching authority of the Church as just that, but also a clear indication that the terms of the dialogue have not actually been all that honest or frank.

    • If I may say so, I think the tone of your response underlines the justice of my remark. I certainly am not happy with some of your implied accusations — although you may mean them to be general rather than personal. I’d say one of the challenges members of the Ordinariate face is to discover how Catholics have managed to remain true to all that the Church teaches without accusing others of bad faith or dishonesty. As you probably know, I myself come from a recusant family. We survived as Catholics through Penal Times and subsequently not by accommodating ourselves to current fashions, nor by watering down what we believed, but by agreeing to differ with our neighbours and simply showing, by our words and actions, what we ourselves believed to be true. One of the lovely things about this blog is it has many readers who are not Catholic but who, over the course of the years, have learned much about Catholicism; while I, in my turn, have learned much from them. Ignorance and fear often go hand in hand. Dispelling the one, as kindly and courteously as possible, often dispells the other, too.

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