The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity 2015

Last year I wrote about the three kinds of unity for which we strive as Christians. Both the post itself (which you can read here) and the discussion in the comments section strike me as still valid. A recent experience on Facebook has convinced me, however, that we have a long way to go before we all attain to the kind of theological and historical fluency we need in order to be able to think about any kind of institutional unity. That leaves us with the need to work for unity within the Church to which we belong, and the everyday, pragmatic unity of working and praying alongside each other even if we cannot share the same sacraments or institutional structures.

Of these two, I think working for the unity of the Church to which we belong is the bigger challenge. Family quarrels are always more passionate than any other. We know each other too well, and, au fond, love each other too deeply,  to retreat into polite disagreement. We care; and because we care, we are ready to fight tooth and nail. There is just one little problem with this nowadays. The digital revolution means that nothing can be kept private for very long, and when outsiders eavesdrop on the quarrelling, they are apt to draw the wrong conclusions. One could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that the Catholic Church is divided into two camps: Benedict XVI v. Francis, Tridentine v. Novus Ordo, Europe v. the rest of the world. It all smacks of ‘I am for Paul; I am for Apollos,’ doesn’t it? It matters, because only from the unity of the Church can the quest for further unity among Christians proceed. We can try to kid ourselves that we are working for unity by attending all kinds of prayer groups and meetings and making all sorts of ecumenical gestures, but unless we are united in the heart of the Church to which we belong, we are chasing a chimera.

So, on this first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, may I propose a little soul-searching? I suggest we each spend a moment or two thinking about the Church to which we belong and our membership of it. Do we contribute to its unity or detract from it? Does our unity impell us to seek unity with other Christians, or do we use ecumenism as a way of hiding from ourselves our own lack of commitment? The answers we give may not be what we would like, but unless we are honest with ourselves and others, how can we truly seek the unity for which Christ prayed?

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John Henry Newman and Ecumenism

When it was announced that the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman would be celebrated on 9 October, the day of his reception into Full Communion with the Catholic Church, rather than the day of his death (his entry into eternal life), some Anglicans, who honour Newman as much as Catholics do, were disappointed, seeing it as a slight on them and on the ecumenical endeavours of both Churches. Was it just another instance of tactlessness on the part of Rome, or was there some deep, sinister meaning behind it all?

It is sheer guesswork on my part, but I suspect Rome chose the date of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism because it marks the chief event of his life: the moment he laid aside his doubts and questionings and embraced the demands of his intellectual and moral certainty that the Catholic Church was the true Church. It was an act of integrity, entered upon after a long, painful and searching journey of faith. He is therefore an apt patron for those with what we used to call religious difficulties, who seek to know the truth whatever the cost. It does not imply any slight on the Church which first nurtured his faith. Newman himself was well aware how much he owed to the Anglican tradition.

Where ecumenism is concerned, however, I think we often confuse wanting to highlight the things we share with wanting to gloss over the things that still divide us. The ARCIC statements have indicated areas of agreement between Catholics and Anglicans, but areas of agreement are not enough, in and of themselves. We seek truth; and although we rejoice in the mutual charity and understanding we now enjoy, we know we still have a long way to go. It is something we have to work at, not just assume has already happened or doesn’t much matter. From a Catholic perspective, the schism between East and West is the most important breach in the unity of the Church and the one that most needs healing. Here in England that may not be so obvious because we tend to think solely in terms of Anglicanism, Non-Conformity, and Roman Catholicism (though the Eastern Catholic Churches are here, too).

Newman’s feast day is a good day for thinking and praying about these things. How we understand unity; what we mean by authority; the sacramental tradition; the role of Scripture and Tradition; these are all important questions, to be approached with humility. Important though they are, there is something we need to remember even more. It is not clever arguments but love which makes one holy. It is also, incidentally, what wins the hearts and minds of others.

Personal note
I trust my Anglican friends know how much I love and value them. I am a Catholic by conviction, as they are Anglicans by conviction; but we know we are not yet one in faith and practice.

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