What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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/1CzJYASFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Would You Have Liked St Paul?

Would you have liked St Paul? I’m not sure that I would have. He is much easier to cope with as a saint (and therefore dead) and great Christian thinker and writer (whose corpus is now closed, so we can argue over it endlessly) than I think he might have been ‘in the flesh’. He had a mind like a razor, and a tongue almost as sharp when he chose (read Romans 1 again, if you think I exaggerate). His theology is dazzling; his protestations of affection endearing; but his use of self as an example is embarrassing to those of us who were brought up to avoid use of the personal pronoun (there are some things one simply doesn’t do, you see). And yet, when all’s said and done, the one thing we can all agree on is that St Paul cannot be ignored. He is a Colossus of the early Church, and his love for Christ so urgent and passionate that we are caught up into it.

Today, as we celebrate the feast of St Paul’s conversion and mark the close of the octave of prayer for Christian unity, that is the thought we need to hold onto. The conversion of one man changed the world. He didn’t have to be likable; he certainly didn’t court popularity; but his love for Christ and his Church made his whole life one great act of prayer and thanksgiving. All earlier failures were redeemed by his whole-hearted discipleship. I may not like St Paul, but I am very happy to ask the help of his prayers and learn from him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Bleak Prospects for Christian Unity?

There are times when unity seems almost within our grasp; at others it appears an impossible dream. In my own lifetime I have seen popes and patriarchs embrace, Catholics and Protestants work and worship together — and the opposite. More and more I am convinced that unity is not optional, that it is willed by our Saviour, but the principal obstacle lies in our understanding of the word ‘Church’. A patchy and inadequate grasp of theology, allied to a patchy and inadequate knowledge of history, is a piquant mix, particularly if there is little real charity to connect the two.

Another problem, surely, is that we all think about unity in different ways and have different goals in view. For example, as a Catholic, I look more to reunion with the Orthodox East than with Anglicanism or western Protestantism, because our schism is older and, to me, both more shameful and simultaneously easier yet more difficult to overcome. (I trust my Anglican and Protestant friends won’t misunderstand the point I am making and huffily conclude I don’t love them any more/value them less.) Here in Britain, the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and developments within the Anglican Church have led to further complications in the ecumenical story.

So, where are we, on this snowy Sunday of the Christian Unity Octave, 2013? I think we are being powerfully reminded that unity is a gift willed and given by God, but always in his way and on his terms. Unity will only be attained if we work and pray for it, and I believe prayer to be the most important part of that. To be truly open to the Holy Spirit, to be truly learned in scripture and theology, to be truly charitable is not something we can do by our own efforts. We have a way of distorting all these good things for our own ends and our own idea of what should be. We have to let go of all that and let God set the agenda. Ultimately, it is a question of trust and believing in Him. Are we willing to take the risk?

Note: the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18 January to 25 January, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail