Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
23 January 2014
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London
Address to Churches Together in Mayfair
Exodus 19. 3-8
We love to describe ourselves as what the Lord meant us to be for him, as his own people – a Kingdom of priests, a holy nation. But we are less keen on the other side of the covenant we entered, when we said, “Whatever the Lord has said, we will do”.
What did the Lord say? On the night before he died, he said, “Father, as you and I are one, may they all be one, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” Well, he said it; and we say we will do it.
The trouble is that we have been saying we will do it for hundreds of years. What we have meant is that we will bring about unity when other people come round to our ways, and when we can prevail as they submit. Each of us belongs to a Church body that we think is, in some ways, the right one; each of us thinks our take on the Truth is truer, at least for us and our way of thinking; each one of us thinks our Church body is better organised for the task in hand, or is a more faithful embodiment of the Gospel. Yes; we must be faithful to the vision we have each been given and the call that each Church body has received. But it is not the end of the story for any of us. The principle and integrity, to which we cleave and which appear to keep us divided now, should be seen only in the light of the unity of the Church from which all derives and to which all returns. Thus the times when a Church exhorted others to give in, and to come round to its position ought to be long gone (though some people still try it on). Apart from anything else, it is futile. For example, we live in an age where people are loyal to the banks, the shops, the TV stations and the clothing brands they know; but they feel quite at liberty to change, and not to be defined by anyone other than what they choose. The more we try to force an identity on people, the more people will suit themselves, especially if it is over against others. People will feel they can take this from here and that from there, making up a Church to their taste, and retuning Gospel message only to the frequency they want to hear. So, forcing an identity on a Church body that is not natural to it would undermine what each of us, in our different Church bodies, is witnessing to as the Truth that we possess: that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father, and one Church in the life of the Spirit. We are right, each of us, to say we have the Truth and that we are the true Church – but only if we remember that this will only make complete sense when we are utterly united and can be seen to be at one. In the meantime, to be partisan and competitive about our Church is not to be faithful to the integrity of the faith that we have received and follow in conscience, but to make it just one more competing choice among many.
The famous 1910 Edinburgh Mission Conference - the start of the modern ecumenical movement - was a concerted effort to end rivalry between European and North American Churches in world missionary endeavours. It had been realised that Churches’ self-interest was an obstacle to presenting the Gospel. The penny had dropped – the Churches were not one, but many: and people who had begun to listen about Christ would hear no more, because the noisy messages of a Presbyterian Christ, a Lutheran Christ, a Catholic Christ were unbelievable.
When Pope Benedict came to visit us three and a half years ago, he reminded us in the magnificent Anglican Evensong in the Abbey that, however far we have come in love and friendship, however closely we work together on addressing the ills and injustices of the world side by side, however great our solidarity in spirit is, nonetheless our disunity in living together the Church’s and sharing in the risen Christ’s own Body at worship means that, to the world, we fail to give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us.
Yesterday, Pope Francis said much the same thing, but in his usual direct way. He said,
It is good to recognise the grace with which God blesses us and, moreover, to find in other Christians something which we need, something we can receive as a gift from our brothers and sisters. The Canadian group which has prepared this Prayer Week has not invited the communities to think about what they might give to their Christian neighbours, but rather … to understand what all communities can receive from time to time from the others. This requires something more. It requires humility, reflection and continual conversion. Let us follow this path, praying for Christian unity and an end to this scandal.
106 years ago in 1908, the Anglican rector of Moreton-in-Marsh, Spencer Jones, and a Roman Catholic Franciscan friar in New York, Paul Wattson, after six years of correspondence, became so thoroughly convinced in their own minds of the scandal of disunity that they set up a Church Unity Octave - a whole week of prayer from 18 to 25 January. The Anglican believed that his Church, even though it was a towering presence in English Church and Society as a whole, was nonetheless cut off from the universal Church of which it saw itself as a part. He was penetratingly clear of the need for the Church of England and the Catholic Church to reunite, not to change the Church of England into something it was not, but so that together - and in the harness of the same faith - they could strengthen each other’s proclamation of the Gospel - and be believed. At the same time, the Catholic in New York realised that his Roman Catholic Church, for all that he saw it to be possessed of everything needed for the Church to be fully the Church of Jesus Christ, is nonetheless lacking in something: those who do not belong to it! He saw too that it lacked the many blessings in faith and holiness that had clearly been bestowed on others in abundance. Surely God did not give spiritual treasure to his People, so that only some could benefit to the exclusion of others? He longed for unity and to receive and grow through the same holy gifts. By the same token, he longed for other Christians to see what he loved in the Catholic Church and come to love it as a gift for them to long for too. But he refused to pray against other Churches, or their beliefs. He and his English Anglican friend desired the Church and the Christians who belong to it to be drawn together in one Church.
Twenty five years later, a French priest, the beloved Paul Couturier, was taken up with the same idea. But he saw that Christian Unity, and the sharing of God’s spiritual riches that we have received while we are apart, can never be enjoyed by offloading them onto others unbidden, by imposing them because we think we know better or think we ARE better, teaching other people what we think they need to learn. No; in the divided Church as it is in the world, we can only share in these divine gifts, by asking to receive them, not as little commodities to suit our individual tastes, but as part of what make the whole Church universal. Couturier had this idea that we could take on each other’s gifts of God’s blessings and then outdo each other in growing in them. We could thus vie with each other in advancing in holiness, drawing closer to Christ from where we started out in isolation, until we were united in him and found ourselves united to each other. Thus he thought our parallel lives would converge as we grew in love, and faith and spiritual knowledge.
Nevertheless, here we are, 106 years after Spencer Jones and Paul Wattson first became impatient, still disunited. Here we are, a Kingdom of priests, saying we will do what the Lord says, but not obeying his prayer - addressed as much to us as to his Father – that we be one, so that the world might believe. Here we are finding ever new reasons to back up our separations and to continue to go on in our preferable own way. As Pope Francis says, it is a scandal. And as the world tells us, with its deeply unanswered questioning, we are unconvincing.
Yet to lose heart after all these years of prayer together is to forget what we have seen. The Lord reminds is of “how I carried you away on eagles’ wings and brought you to me”. We have come so far.
We understand that we do not need all to be the same, in order to be Christian. The Pope, like his predecessors, reminds us that other Christians teach us the things we still need. We can attend each other’s worship and combine our efforts to meet the needs of the world. We draw on each others’ traditions and are constantly enriched as we do so. This service tonight is in its way a small miracle. The Ukrainian Church this week is facing a deep crisis in the country that is its homeland; nonetheless it desires to play its part as an integral part of the Christian Church here in England. It brings with it the tradition of ancient Christian Byzantium, in its fusion of monastic psalms and hymns, with the drama of the light, the incense and the icons that are at the heart of Eastern Christian devotion to our Lord, as somehow we pass into the courts of heaven as we worship in the Church below. (Hymns were not only invented in recent English history - tonight’s come from the first millennium!) And after Vespers there will be more recent Christmas and Epiphany carols from Ukraine. Thus English-language Christianity, the liturgy of the Christian Roman emperors and the music of Ukrainians all come together, as do we, joined by beauty in worship and hope.
In this giving and receiving, it is as though there is something in our Christianity - when it is truly the faith of Christ - that is restless for as long as it is not the faith that can be shared with and embraced by all who love and follow Jesus our Lord. We have been learning for years, almost without noticing, to go beyond ourselves, so as to find how to be more truly the Church that is Universal, with the whole faith, in the whole Christ, for the whole of humanity. We have all looked at our Churches and asked ourselves, “Can we imagine what more can be added, what new space can be opened up in our Church, so that it can also be the home that others can recognise as their own?” All of our Churches have acted on this questioning in the past, and it has made us what we are today. For instance, the Catholic Church has learned not to be a monolithic institution but a communion of Churches, movements, and new ideas that can embrace people in the way that God has called them to hear his gospel. We have our parishes, priest, bishops, dioceses and religious orders, but we also have our new lay-led renewal and evangelical mission movements, offering and exploring new ways of being the Church for England’s people.
The Catholic Church does not wish simply to be a Roman Catholic denomination, but to be more and more like the universal Church, honouring and embracing the Church of others on their own terms but in complete communion of united life and faith. I like to hope that the Ordinariate, for instance, will one day come to be seen as a way for the Catholic Church to embrace a religious tradition from which it was once estranged and live out in a prophetic way that Anglicans and Catholics can live as one in communion, united not absorbed, not amalgamated and assimilated, but in the lively, diverse, abundant communion of all the People of God in the one Body of Christ His Son. There is great ecumenical potential to be tapped and it should bring us close in respect, understanding and conscientious faith.
Likewise the Salvation Army, which every Christian in this land loves and rejoices in, represents a movement that was organised to meet the needs of the poor and destitute, and to bring them to the love of Christ on his Cross, in a way that no other Church could at the time. It still meets those that not all of us can. We have all gained so much from the gift of confidence in each other and trust from God that means we can do this work alongside each other, with mutual encouragement and mutual reliance. The Church of England, too, with its cultural-spiritual heritage, its liturgical and musical tradition, as well as its pastoral mission visible and active into every corner of the country, is a resource for the whole Church that is never static. For instance, it has sought to be imaginative in fresh expressions of Christianity that can meet the religious awareness of contemporary people but still take root in the wider Church. Even the Grosvenor Chapel began as a “fresh expression,” addressing unmet needs, and to this day creating distinctive Christian community. From all this, in a bewildering world of beliefs to choose, both sacred and secular, we learn that none of us can make it separately. We rely on each other, not only for aid and support, but for learning more about how Christ’s is the pattern we live as His Body, the pattern for the whole of humanity that stands in His image.
Thus the prayers of 106 weeks of prayer have been richly answered. The miracle of unity, when it is achieved will be God’s. We can take down our sinful man-made barriers and persist on the journey whose destination was determined at the outset. We should not fail to see how the Lord has taught us to turn to each other in our need to learn, and moreover planted that seed of imagination of how it could be - what it would be like - if we in our currently separate Churches could live as one, solid Church, a rock that the world could rely on and believe when they see it.