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.

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Obedience, Ordinariate and Beatification

I should like to say something about the Ordinariate, though that is to invite another brow-bashing, and something about the beatification of John Paul II, though others may well have said it better, but today is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, disciples of St Benedict, and I cannot pass them by, though I hope to discover a link between all three. Bear with me.

In Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory presents Maurus and Placid as types of the perfect disciple, the obedience of the one complementing the innocence of the other. Both were offered to St Benedict as child oblates, to be brought up in monastic life. One story tells how Placid fell into a lake and was carried away by the current. Benedict became aware of the impending tragedy and ordered Maurus to save his fellow monk. In obedience to his abbot’s command, therefore, Maurus walked upon the water as though upon dry ground and dragged Placid to the shore. Benedict attributed the miraculous rescue to his disciple’s obedience, Maurus to his abbot’s holiness.

As any medievalist worth her salt will tell you, this little story is charged with meaning. It shows us a kind of trinity of listening. Benedict was praying when he learned of his disciple’s distress. It was how he became aware of the danger Placid was in and why he was able to act, in obedience to the voice of the Spirit. Maurus had no such supernatural aid, but he obeyed the voice of his abbot, in whom he saw the person of Christ commanding him (cfr RB 5). Placid, plucked from the water, said he saw the abbot’s cowl about him, bearing him up so that he could be saved: the good of obedience flowing back to him from whom it issued.

So how does this link up with either the beatification of John Paul II or the Ordinariate? Let’s take the pope first. In life, John Paul II bore the proudest of all earthly titles, Servant of the Servants of God. What is a servant if not one who obeys, who listens attentively? The Servant of the Servants of God must listen through a clamour of human voices to what he hopes and trusts is the voice of God. In death John Paul has become simply the Servant of God. No human voice can now disturb the clarity of his hearing. That is why we can invoke his prayers with confidence that they will be heard.

And the Ordinariate? Today three former bishops of the Church of England are to be ordained as Catholic priests. The way in which this is being presented in the media as an act of disaffection or, worse, defection, is disturbing. No one can really know the heart of another. Colophon has said many a time that to act for a negative reason is to act for no reason at all. Now iBenedictines echoes that stream of thought. There is only one reason for being a Catholic, for being ordained: because one believes heart and soul that it is the right thing to do, that nothing and no one matters as much as that voice of the Lord urging and insisting, “This is the way. Follow it!” Anything less will not do.

Let us pray today for all Benedictines, for all who are being ordained and for all who find obedience a struggle, which is to say every man-jack (or woman-jill) of us.

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The Good, the True and the Beautiful

Yesterday we had our own mini-WikiLeaks experience. I posted what I thought was a fairly measured and, I hope, charitable, comment on the news from the Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham, drawing attention to the absence, as I saw it, of any concrete provision for religious in what we know of the plans for the Ordinariate.

Within an hour of posting we were besieged. Emails, telephone calls and Twitter DMs flooded in, all offering to put us right on this detail or that, urging us to take sides, telling us “what really happened” (the accounts don’t tally), and so on and so forth. I was left wondering whether anyone had read what I actually wrote, so anxious were some of our correspondents to urge their own view.

Debate is a very good thing , and when it is conducted in the open with civility and good humour, can add greatly to understanding; but I don’t much care for attempts to apply pressure behind the scenes, nor will I tolerate attempts to blacken the reputation of others. As I said yesterday, we don’t know any of the people concerned but “they deserve our prayers and at least a suspension of judgement”. I mean that. I don’t think anyone outside the community, not in possession of the full facts, is in a position to judge either those who have gone or those who have remained. You may disagree, but we can surely agree to disagree agreeably?

If you are inclined to argue the point, please look at the title of this post again. It is there to remind others as well as myself why the community bothers to blog. The good, the true and the beautiful reflect more of God than do rivalry, contention and point-scoring. Yes, of course, we fly a few kites in our blog posts and I daresay the imp of mischievous humour will never be entirely absent, but our aim is to build up rather than knock down, to stimulate thought rather than temper. I should be very sorry if anyone were to think that the the views expressed in iBenedictines were anything other than what they are: the world seen from the cloister, sometimes a little quirkily, often imperfectly, but always, I hope, with compassion. It is not a bad ideal for a blog, is it?

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News from Walsingham

Yesterday a press release announced that Sr Wendy Renate, Sr Jane Louise and Sr Carolyne Joseph had left the (Anglican) Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham “for a period of discernment with the intention of joining the Ordinariate when established”. Except to those who know the community concerned (we don’t), the announcement probably meant little. Indeed, if you look at the comments on certain blogs, you will find the matter treated with a levity and lack of charity that gets blogging a bad name.

It is worth thinking about the story behind this announcement. Both those who have left and those who remain deserve our prayers and at least a suspension of judgement. It is not easy for anyone to abandon that which is familiar, still less that which is greatly loved and has been the subject of a vow. The first Cistercians were abused as renegades and vow-breakers because they saw fidelity to what they had professed as obliging them to move away from the monastery of their profession. Their doing so greatly enriched the Church, but it was not obvious at the time. I’m sure many of their old community felt the loss of their brethren deeply; and in a curious way, their going does seem to have had a beneficial effect on Molesmes which was shaken out its complacency into a reform of its own.

Can we hope for the same at Walsingham? I don’t know, but I admit to feeling uneasy. As far as I can see, none of the provisions announced for the Ordinariate concerns religious. If you look at the Ordinariate web site, there is a link for clergy and a mention of future details for the laity. That reflects pretty accurately the “invisibility” of religious in most people’s thinking and the fact that there are comparatively few religious in the Church of England. There is no suggestion that the three Sisters who have left are thinking of applying to join an existing Catholic community so the path ahead is far from clear.

We have discussed the Ordinariate  in community many times and it is interesting that whatever our personal background, Catholic or Anglican, we are having difficulty in seeing what the Ordinariate offers that the Church as a whole does not. So, prayers for the Sisters who have left Walsingham, prayers for the Sisters who remain; and prayers for all of us, Catholic and Anglican, who must get to grips with what the Ordinariate is meant to be.

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