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.