The Unity of the Church

Last year’s post on SS John Fisher and Thomas More, which you can read here, looked at the way in which both men came to understand the choices they needed to make. The question posed by the King’s matter was complex, but ultimately it was the saints’ sense of the unity of the Church which won out. I wonder whether we today are as clear, or brave, as they.

We talk a great deal about Church unity, but it doesn’t stop us sniping at one another. The only difference is that, whereas in Reformation times it tended to be Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants of various kinds taking pop shots at one another, nowadays the fighting is just as likely to be going on within our denominations. For me, one of the saddest things is to see the vitriolic infighting among Catholics. It even affects us here in the monastery. We are accused by some traditionalists of being too liberal, and by some liberals of being too traditionalist. If we value the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI we cannot be wholly ‘for’ Pope Francis; if we welcome Pope Francis as the man God has chosen to lead his Church now, we cannot be wholly ‘for’ Pope Benedict. Sometimes I am tempted to reply, ‘A pox on both your houses!’ Or at any rate to quote St Paul, ‘I am for Christ!’ For, of course, the Church is bigger than any party or division within it. I suspect the problem for many is that we don’t necessarily share their views, which must make us suspect, mustn’t it? The fact that those views are formed after much reading and prayer is irrelevant. The fact that I make a profession of faith as religious superior is irrelevant. Sentire cum ecclesia is what matters; and I hope and pray that the community here will always do that.

So, as we celebrate today’s feast, I have a question I address principally to my Catholic readers.  SS John and Thomas died for the unity of the Church. Are we prepared to live for it?

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St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?

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