Is Ecumenism No Longer a Burning Issue?

Sometimes, I think the fire has gone out of our quest for Christian unity. To some people, it will always matter a great deal. The married couples who long to share Communion together, for example, or those who have been involved in ecumenical endeavours all their adult lives, will probably be more urgent in their desire to see some form of unity given official recognition than those who are happy being Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Free Church or whatever and make a point of concentrating on the commonalities of our Christian faith rather than what divides us. On the whole, I agree; what already unites us is amazing. Our baptism, our sharing of the scriptures, our life in Christ — these are not small things. But being an English Catholic does make one acutely aware of some of the differences and I am wondering whether we need to reconsider them if we are to advance towards a greater degree of unity than we enjoy at present.

An English Catholic Perspective
In England, Catholics are a minority; some still suggest that there is an element of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about us, or that we are socially and educationally an inferior breed. Partly that is a consequence of the Church of England being the Established Church and the indigenous Catholic population having been swelled over the years by successive waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa, India and so on. I think it also reflects the fact that, from an English perspective, ecumenism is predominantly about Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, whereas Rome’s eyes are focused on Orthodoxy. It is easy to conclude that because the Churches in England use many of the same words and ceremonies, we believe the same things. The fact is, we don’t; but we aren’t always honest about it. I was thinking this morning of one dear friend — an Anglican priest — who will tell you quite openly that theologically we are sometimes miles apart, but that does not get in the way of our friendship or our essential unity in Christ. It does, however, mean that there must be a constant effort to understand the other’s position. That requires honesty and trust and the willingness to give the process time. Both she and I have learned a lot from each other over the years, and I think that is how ecumenism grows: through seeking understanding, mutual trust, and the conviction that it is worthwhile.

Parallels Between Politics and Ecumenism
I think there is an interesting parallel between what has been happening in the U.S.A. recently and the way we often approach ecumenism. Some Catholics believe the best way of promoting pro-life policies in the U.S.A. is to condemn President Biden and demand his excommunication, to force him to change his public policy on abortion. As far as I can see, the same Catholics are not always so vocal about the need to convince others of the truth of their position, that all life is sacred, nor are they always so ready to provide the material and emotional support people need if they are to reject abortion (I write this as someone opposed to abortion and, before I became a nun, deeply involved in the Life movement). We never convince by condemning. We never spread the gospel by hatred. We can never force people to believe. Just as I think a pro-life stance requires thinking deeply, often painfully, about capital punishment, healthcare, gun control, social welfare and the like, so I think Christian unity can only be achieved if we are ready to have our own truths examined and to approach others in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By that I don’t mean some theatrical apology for the sins of our fathers in which we had no share but forgiveness for the little pockets of resentment and distrust most of us will uncover in ourselves if we look hard enough. It is only when we can be honest about how our own beliefs have been shaped that we can get down to the serious business of exploring what we believe and why, of being truly open to the other. Ecumenism doesn’t mean watering down: it means taking fire of the Holy Spirit. And that can lead to some surprising upsets and transformations.

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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?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Immaculate Conception and Ecumenism

Last year, in this blog post, I tried to explain, as simply as I could, what this feast is about. For days afterwards the monastery inbox was filled with questions about Catholic devotion to Our Lady and the scriptural basis of the various doctrines attached to her name. What struck me was the amount of sheer ignorance about Marian doctrine even among those who were theologically well-read. It was not malicious ignorance, it wasn’t intentional in any way; it just was; and it reminded me that there is often a huge gulf in perception between, say, Catholics and Orthodox on the one hand, and ‘everyone else’ — a gross simplification, for which I apologize, but I don’t know how else to express it.

I wonder whether it is this kind of gulf that, practically speaking, that makes ecumenical understanding quite arduous at times. Despite the ancient division between us, Catholics and Orthodox have an understanding that goes beyond words. We’re like old cousins who share the same family history and can be comfortable with each other, even though we have gone along divergent paths. If pressed, we’ll stand together, even if at other times we have the most unholy scraps. There is not always the same ease with members of other Churches. It isn’t liturgical custom or ritual which matters so much as that shared belief which underpins and shapes the liturgy itself.

I know I have not put this very well, and speed readers in particular may take great offence at what they think I am saying, but this feast of Our Lady is a good one on which to ask a fundamental question about Christian unity. I think we often have different understandings and different expectations. Because we already share so much we can be inclined to minimalize the differences. Early in the new year we shall again be dedicating an octave of prayer to attaining the unity for which Christ prayed. It is not too early to start asking ourselves whether we are praying for what Christ prayed, or something else.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail