The theme for this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today, is Acts of Kindness. It was set by the people of Malta, who famously treated the shipwrecked Paul with exemplary kindness. As I mentioned in my post of 16 January, there are a range of resources that can be downloaded from Churches Together. I don’t want to duplicate anything said there, but I think it is always helpful to ask ourselves what we mean by being kind, really kind. Too often we seem to limit it to not deliberately giving pain, rather like Newman’s definition of a gentleman, but the word itself should provide a clue, particularly if we look at its origins. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another, to be of the same lineage, the same family. We don’t often use the word in that sense these days, but perhaps we should. To acknowledge our common humanity and the unity we already have by virtue of our baptism into Christ is, for Christians, an excellent starting-point for what we are about this week. Random acts of kindness may be popular in some circles, but there is nothing random about those practised by Jesus’ disciples. We are his Body; we have a purpose, and He is with us always until it is fulfilled.
I wonder how many church-going readers have dutifully downloaded the various resources for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity and groaned a little groan. The theme for this year, ‘Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in its power’ is about freedom, and the Caribbean churches which have organized the readings and reflections for each day have done so out of their own history of oppression and slavery. The results are moving and sometimes painful, but what of the underlying purpose of all these words, the attainment of Christian Unity? There we have a problem, for the Churches do not agree on what form Unity should take or how it should be expressed. At one level, we share so much; at another, we seem to be poles apart.
I think myself that once we have grasped that Unity is not optional, that it is willed by Christ and therefore something we must both desire and work towards, we are faced with a different question — not, how do we attain Unity but, much more fundamentally, what is Unity? Our old certainties tend to crumble in the light of this question because it is much more searching than at first appears. Is Unity to be identified with doctrinal agreement, liturgical and sacramental expression, institutional accords or what? We are sometimes tempted to pick and choose what we wish to believe and assert that whatever mix we come up with is Catholicism or any other -ism we choose to name. Praying for Christian Unity should not make us want to water down or minimalise what we believe but lead us deeper into appreciation of its truth and beauty. As a Catholic, I believe that the Church offers us the fullest expression of Christian truth, but that does not mean I am closed to, still less opposed to, the riches of other Christian traditions.
As we pray for Christian Unity in the next few days, let us ask the Lord to enlighten our hearts and minds and make us truly free to accept his truth and his vision. Christian Unity isn’t what we want it to be; it is what the Lord wills.