A Horror of Hell and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The title of this post is deliberately ambiguous. I am in fact referring to two separate but related things: one of the tools of good works cited in today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 4.45, and this week of the year when we Christians devoutly pray for unity. Let me explain.

Today’s section of the Rule is concerned with judgement — how we shall be judged on the Last Day, how we are to motivate ourselves to keep guard over the actions of our life, how we are to understand God’s watchful presence in our lives, and so on and so forth. For me it is a powerful reminder that Christian unity is not an optional extra but an obligatory part of being a Christian. The trouble is we all understand different things by unity, and therein lies the challenge.

As a Catholic, I subscribe to the teachings of the Catholic Church without reservation.  I don’t find all of them easy, and there are certainly some that I consider to be more important than others (a hierarchy of truths in operation, if you like). But the essential thing is that I try to understand the Church as the Church understands herself because I believe that to be key to understanding Christ. Therefore, the first kind of unity I seek and aim at is the unity of the Church to which I belong. I am always trying to improve my own knowledge and understanding so become uncomfortable when self-appointed guardians of the Faith hurl accusations at those they consider to be less ‘orthodox’ or less ‘compassionate’ than themselves. I am inclined to follow Benedict’s lead in believing that correction should only be given by those with authority to do so, i.e. those appointed. Sadly, I find many of those wanting to set others right online are themselves ill-informed. This makes for a disunity that is like a slow poison in the system — not helped by the fact that Google is not able to distinguish between truth, half-truth and fiction!

Another kind of unity I aim at is unity with all my fellow Christians, not at the institutional level, but at the practical level of prayer and charity. Many readers of this blog will recognize themselves in my designation of ‘online friends’ and know, I trust, how highly I value them and their insights. iBenedictines is evidence of the way in which we can share ideas, concerns and prayer for one another in a spirit of mutual respect and honest engagement.

It is when we come to the question of institutional unity between the Churches that we face the biggest gulfs in understanding. I naturally look to Orthodoxy first, but I know that for many of my fellow countrymen, Orthodox Christianity is something of an exotic of which they have no first-hand experience. Then there are all the infinite varieties of Anglicanism and Protestantism. Very often we assume that because we say the same (or similar) words, and do the same (or similar) actions, we believe the same things, yet that is patently not so. Again, I think ecclesiology is fundamental to understanding these differences and their importance, but ecclesiology is hard work and most of us, if we are honest, are inclined to avoid hard work if we can. So, we settle for something less arduous although still demanding in its own way. At the back of our minds, however, is that nagging imperative, the prayer of Christ himself for the unity of his Body, the Church, and the need to understand and attain that unity in the way that Christ intends rather than as we ourselves might choose.

As we work to maintain the unity of the Church to which we belong, as we work to deepen the practical unity of all Christians, let us not forget the need also to work towards that third kind of unity. It is not a light matter that we undertake. We may prefer not to think about heaven and hell, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor that our conduct will not one day be weighed by our loving and merciful God.

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12 thoughts on “A Horror of Hell and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity”

  1. Your wonderful post today stirs up a great deal in me. I could write an essay but will refrain, I am glad that in my lifetime so many barriers have been broken down. Sad that others have been erected that prove a barrier to institutional union.
    I love the Orthodox Church. I first experienced the utter splendour of their worship back in 1977.

    How sad that we cannot share communion with them. I know we welcome them.

    Their rules on fasting show how lightly we escape in the West.

    • Thank you, Stuart. I think people do not always appreciate how much of a challenge the third kind of unity is to ALL Christians, irrespective of denomination. To seek the mind of Christ puts us all on the spot. I am not as well-read in Orthodox theology as I’d like to be, but what I have read convinces me what a hard task we have ahead of us. There is so much to learn.

  2. As ever, your words are thought provoking. I thought I would share with you that I come at the question of Christian unity from a different direction. I don’t try to understand Christ through understanding the church….. Christ is God and God is unchangeable, so I start with Christ’s life and teachings as my inspiration and try to understand how we should change the church to achieve more unity.
    On Sunday I took my communion with Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, and members of both the Church of Christ and the Uniting Church. It moved me to tears. Our unity, I believe, begins and ends at the Lord’s table. Let’s use that as our starting point.

    • Thank you, Helen. I appreciate your honesty and sincerity, but I have to disagree. To oppose Christ and the Church is, in my view, to misunderstand the nature of the Church — one of the reasons I am constantly going on about the importance of ecclesiology. Without the Church we would not have the scriptures or the sacraments that help us to know and love Christ. Indeed, one could say there is no Christ apart from the Church. For me, as a Catholic, and I know for many others who would not describe themselves as such, Holy Communion is a sign of unity attained and it matters what we believe about what we are doing/receiving in the sacrament of the altar, not in the subjective sense of Elizabeth I (‘Christ’s was the word that spake it/So I believe and take it’) but in the objective sense of what the Church says of it. Not sure if that is clear or makes sense. I was trying to be brief.

      • It is sad, is it not, that we even disagree on whether the Lord’s Supper is a starting point for unity or the sign of unity attained. I was once present at an Anglican monastic discussion with Cardinal Kurt Koch and Archbishop Rowan Williams where this very question arose and there was deep sadness and visceral pain throughout the room at the (gentle but firm) position of the Cardinal on the subject. Some Catholic institutions however seem to take a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ position on the matter and are overjoyed to share the Eucharist with other Christians so long as one doesn’t actually ask for permission. In a sense though this can feel more painful than outright refusal. So near and yet so far. It is so hard for those not in the Catholic Church to understand its approach to this. Yet as I understand it, Catholics do allow the Orthodox to receive Communion even though they are not united, yet the Orthodox to not permit Catholics to receive. So perhaps we all understand the pain very well.

        • Thank you, Clare. I think we all agree that our divisions are painful, and I trust every Christian of goodwill will pray very hard during this week to overcome whatever is of our own making.

          I think the Eucharistic discipline of the Catholic Church is often misunderstood as a ‘keeping people from’ rather than recognition of the immense Sacrament it actually is and the reverence with which we desire to surround it. (I don’t mean by that other Churches aren’t reverent!) It pains me whenever anyone takes it upon him/herself to set aside the Church’s rules in this matter because that is to introduce disunity at the very moment when our unity should be most complete. It is saying, ‘I know better than the rest of the Church, including the pope and bishops who have responsibility for this.’

          The rules for reception are not particularly complex, and there are a number of ‘exceptional cases’ where members of other Churches may be admitted to the Sacrament (see Canon 844 for the details). In brief, ‘Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those Churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provision of canon law.’ (Canon #844.4; canon 671 in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches).

          In practice, Orthodox Christians are permitted to receive Communion at Catholic Masses, provided the Catholic bishop has give permission, but I have only ever heard of one occasion when an Orthodox asked permission to receive. It would not be acceptable from an Orthodox perspective. From the Catholic perspective, a Catholic may receive Communion in an Orthodox church only if there is no available Catholic parish, etc. This is because the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments and the preservation of the apostolic succession in Orthodoxy. Having said that, I cannot imagine that any Orthodox priest would knowingly give Communion to any non-Orthodox person. In fact, I’d say the Orthodox position on inter-Communion is much less nuanced than that of the Catholic Church, but the division between us is older and runs so very deep.

  3. A blog to inspire prayer and action over the next days, thank you.
    May I shamelessly request prayer for Tantur, the ecumenical study centre in Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem. It’s an institute at which the hard work of ecumenical thought and discussion takes place and also the joyous work of people of all faiths coming together to live in community and meet the diversity of faith.
    I would also like to thank you for opening up the prayer intentions to us all on the FBI page last week. I found it profoundly moving and also challenging. Having read the invitation first thing, I couldn’t settle on a single petition of my own to place on the site, but found myself praying through the day in a new, expansive way for those around me in the virtual and everyday world. It surely was a new step in ecumenical praying together for many.

    • Thank you, Patricia. I’m sure we will all pray for Tantur and for any other ecumenical initiatives we may have come across. We had been wanting to open up the prayer intentions for some time, but whenever we intended to do so found that someone had either abused the page by posting a porn link or written something that was abusive of another. In itself that was a reminder that God’s time and God’s ways are what we must seek rather than what we think is best.

  4. Am I alone in thinking that unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. I am an Anglican Protestant and I celebrate the diversity of approaches of worship even within my own tradition and in the tradition of other ecclesia. For example I have in the past been on retreat at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and enjoyed fellowship with the Benedictine brothers there and I have enjoyed fellowship with Catholics ( Even within parts of my extended family).
    For me the starting point is the Lords command: A new commandment I give you to love one another as I have loved you. This is significantly different from the other commandments since we are to love one another with the same self sacrificing love as The Lord Jesus himself and to be prepared to lay down our lives if necessary for one another. If we must strive for unity it is in response to this commandment. It is a costly love and sacrifices have to be made.
    As for the doctrines of faith that divide the church let us return to the fundamentals of the early creeds and amend our own traditions rather than expecting others to conform to the way we do things.
    These are my opinions and I don’t insist that I’m right. Persuade me in love to another point of view.

    • Thank you, Clifford. As I said above, we probably understand unity differently. For example, in my own Church we have both Latin Rite Catholics (such as I am) and Eastern Rite Catholics. We are united in our Catholic faith (our beliefs) and our union with the See of Peter (authority) and form one Church although we have distinctive liturgical rites. Our liturgical pluralism doesn’t signify any difference in belief or sacraments, as it may do in other ecclesial traditions. I believe we must strive for all three kinds of unity mentioned in the blog post, but I have no interest in trying to persuade others to my point of view. I want to know the truth, even if it means sacrificing much that is dear. It is unity as Christ wills that we need to seek, not our own idea of it.

  5. Thank you for taking time to respond to my comment. A little more light has entered into my mind as a result of your helpful remarks . I also regard you as my on line friend as you say in your blog 🙂

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