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.