Christian Unity 2016

The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity began on Sunday and will end with the feast of St Paul on Monday, 25 January. During the course of these eight days there will be numerous attempts to celebrate the unity we already have and pray for the unity that still eludes us. Like many others, I don’t see Christian unity as an optional extra but as something Christ wills for his Church, but I must admit to becoming rather more doubtful about the way in which we are proceeeding.

The fact that many Churches now celebrate similar-sounding or similar-looking liturgies does not necessarily mean that we believe the same things. The differences may be small, but they can be significant; and many of us, alas, have lost our sensitivity to symbolic meanings. We think we mean more or less the same by what we say or do, but we don’t. We have forgotten the underlying theology expressed through the liturgy. Our understanding of priesthood, for example, affects our understanding of what happens during the celebration of the Eucharist or Mass. Our understanding of hierarchy affects our understanding of popes, patriarchs and bishops and the way in which their authority operates. In other words, our understanding of the Church herself — ecclesiology — is fundamental to our quest for Christian unity and should give it both impetus and direction. So why am I less sanguine than hitherto?

Part of the reason is that here in the UK I see Catholicism taking on a much less catholic identity than it has had in the past. There are many more divisions. Often those who like to see themselves as ‘traditionalists’ or ‘liberals’ seem to rely on feeling rather than thought. I am not much of a theologian or Church historian, but I do read quite a lot of theology and history and am sometimes embarrassed to read or hear confidently-expressed opinions about what the Church believes or teaches that are actually wrong. (It can even happen in the pulpit!) There are also some notable differences developing in the way in which the Christian Churches in the UK understand some of the major social issues of our day. Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life, its opposition to abortion and the death penalty, its social teaching about economics and justice, are part of a seamless robe (which, let’s be honest, not all Catholics are prepared to accept) but it is not always seen as  such from ‘outside’. On the other hand, despite some admirable public utterances, the Catholic Church’s attitude to women and their role in the Church is definitely still at the handmaiden-only stage, and in some places is becoming even more restrictive.

For me, as for many others, the great dream of Christian unity is the ending of the schism betwen Catholics and Orthodox. There are comparatively few Orthodox in the UK, so we tend to concentrate on achieving greater unity between Catholics and all the different varieties of Protestant and Reformed Churches. I am certainly very keen to do whatever I can to help in that, but part of me remains wistful about that older, greater dream. Ultimately, I remind myself, it is all God’s work. We just have to take care not to get in his way with ideas of our own; and that includes not trying to time-table the Almighty or insist that he do things our way.

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Ignorance Is Not Bliss

‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise’— I think not. Anyone with a desire for truth will know that powerful feeling that makes one want truth at any cost. I remember tearing up several chapters of my Ph.D. thesis when I realised that the publication of a book I hadn’t known was in the offing made part of my own work redundant and some of it, to my mind, just plain wrong. I could have persisted in arguing my case, but I was no longer convinced of its truth.

We are nearing the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity and I have been reflecting on the way in which the desire for truth leads some people to embrace Christianity for the first time, and others to move from one expression of it to another. Quite a lot has been written about the psychology of conversion. I don’t want to get into arguments about whether converts to Catholicism are made to feel inferior, as some claim, or are better informed than ‘cradle Catholics’, as others claim. We probably all have a store of anecdotes to prove or disprove both views! What interests me is the role knowledge plays in the conversion process and in the mutual understanding and respect that I believe to be an important element in seeking unity within one’s own Church and the Christian body as a whole.

I have ceased to be shocked by the ignorance some Catholics display of their own Church’s teaching. All newcomers to the monastery are now given a foundation course in Christian doctrine, and we are not alone in that. One can no longer take for granted familiarity with the scriptures or the ancient formulations of faith, let alone the historical and theological insights of more recent centuries. How much less can one assume any deep knowledge of the teaching and practice of other Churches to which one has never belonged. For instance, even though I would say my own knowledege of Anglicanism is sketchy and theoretical, despite my having read a lot of Anglican theology over the years and having many good Anglican friends, I wince when I hear some of my peers pronounce on what Anglicans do and do not believe. When it comes to some of the numerically smaller Churches, I admit defeat. I only get similarly worked up when I hear people pronouncing on what Catholics believe and getting it wrong!

All of which brings me to my point. I think we often approach the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity with a certain degree of minimalism. Our expectations are low, and although we dutifully pray and join together in meetings and colloquia which usually conclude with an act of joint worship, our desire to know and understand the other’s faith and practice is often perfunctory. We do not want to put the hard work in; or we are a little insecure and do not want our own sometimes wobbly faith to be challenged in a way we feel we can’t handle; or the cares and worries of this life get in the way and we simply never get around to it. I think that if we are genuinely praying for unity, that won’t do. We have to make some effort to understand, and the only way to do that is to inform ourselves.

The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity provides a useful focus but is really meant as a spring-board for a much larger and longer enterprise. Whether we are talking about the Church to which we belong or the wider Christian body, unity isn’t an optional extra, as though we could somehow decide for ourselves whether to seek it or not. Nor is it attained by pretence or ignoring differences, as though our version of charity somehow scuppered truth. On the contrary, truth is a very important form of real charity. As we come towards the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer, therefore, perhaps we could all search our own hearts and see if we oughtn’t to make more of an effort to inform ourselves about our own faith and the faith of others. To encourage us we have the prayer of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, that we may be one, as he and the Father are one. With him praying for us, can the task be so very arduous?

PostScript
I forgot to say that reflecting on the life and work of St Francis de Sales, whose feast is today, is very apt for the topic of this post: see the Wikipedia summary if you don’t know him http://bit.ly/1CzJYAS

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The Conversion of St Paul

The Octave of Prayer for Christian unity ends with this feast of the Conversion of St Paul. That is in itself an encouragement to hope. Who would have thought that Saul, relentless persecutor of The Way, would undergo a conversion of heart so complete that he would be named an Apostle of Jesus Christ, would live and die for him, and be remembered today as a towering figure of the early Church, a saint, a man no one can easily ignore? Today we need the kind of hope St Paul inspires, not only in our quest for Christian unity but also in our prayer for peace in Syria. One reader of this blog is a Catholic Sister living and working in Straight Street, Damascus. I find myself moved by the knowledge that even today, amidst all the dangers of the war in Syria, there are Christians patiently living out the Gospel in the very place where Paul first saw the Light and came to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. May that same Light enlighten the hearts and minds of those taking part in the Geneva peace talks today. Amen.

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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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Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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