Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Christian Unity

So here we are.  The end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012, we have come from the feast of the Chair of St Peter at Rome on the 18th to today's feast of the Conversion of St Paul.  The Holy Father will mark this by celebrating Solemn Vespers this afternoon (perhaps one year, when Rome and Canterbury finally reunite, it will be Solemn Evensong and Benediction).

The Ordinariate is, at its heart, about heeding the call to Unity that is expressed in the prayer of Our Lord on the night that he was betrayed that all might be one.  That is why Ordinariate blogs go on and on (and on) about how important Unity is.  Those of us who follow Ordinariate news on Facebook or Twitter have been kept very efficiently up to date with events in Rome this week for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (if you haven't signed up to follow Ordinariate news, then you can do so at #UKOrdinariate or  Unity is a topic that Ordinariate members most definitely follow.

Pope Benedict XVI truly is, as we argued in a post last October, the Pope of Christian Unity.  In that blogpost, you can see a picture of the Holy Father walking side by side with Bartholomew the Ecumenical Patriarch, which surely points to progress in healing the greatest of the rifts in Christianity, something about which Blessed John Paul II was particularly passionate.  While we on these shores focus on the Ordinariate in certain circles, and while many of us, perhaps more so in Ireland and Scotland, focus on a Protestant vs Catholic divide, all this, even if desperately important (not least on a personal level to us Ordinariate members), is small in scale compared to the need to work for resolution to the millenium old divide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

It is sometimes tempting to think that if we in England had a wider of sense of international perspective, the Church of England's General Synod would not consider matters of Unity as being of so little importance.  It's too easy to say "We don't care what those awful Romans say, they'll come round in the end once they've understood that we are right, and anyway we prefer Orthodox spirituality".  Add a little bit of the English cultural undercurrent of suspicion towards Catholicism into the mix, and Synod's alacrity in forgetting about Unity is easily explained.

We have talked recently about the views of Metropolitan Hilarion (of the Russian Orthodox Church) on some of the developments in the Church of England.  Everything that General Synod does to move away from Unity, it does not only against Unity with Rome and the Church in the West, but also against Unity with the Orthodox.  The sole moves that General Synod seems to want to take towards Unity seem to be towards unity with a small band of like-minded national churches (the Porvoo Communion, for example), a process that bizarrely seems to be evolving into overtures from some connected to the US-based Polish National Catholic Church to disaffected members of the Church of England who cannot yet accept the idea of reunion with Rome (the PNCC has recently established a small presence in Norway and smaller ones in Germany and Italy).

Some people who in one breath will dismiss Mormonism will with the next happily state, without a hint of irony, that yes indeed the truth, the right way forward (in total contradiction to what has gone before) is being revealed to them and to them alone, leaving hundreds and hundreds of millions of other Christians (mostly the non-English speaking ones) in the dark.  Francis Wagstaffe is alive and well, and God is an Englishman.

Even if someone hates everything that Rome says and does (which is certainly not the attitude of faithful Anglo-Catholics remaining in the Church of England), they must surely concede that there can, quite simply, be no Christian Unity without Rome.   Through history, through tradition, through the Gospel appointment of St Peter and through his successors, Rome is at the heart of Christianity : it is the "rock from which we were hewn", as Anglo-Catholics have been so fond of saying.

Unity is important, vitally so.  Christianity should not be seeking new and exciting ways in which to hack itself apart: it should be seeking ways to increase mutual understanding and co-operation with a definite goal of reunion.  Ecumenism, in its now somewhat tarnished sense of everyone having a nice cup of tea and talking pleasantly to each other while pretending not to disagree, is not a bad thing of itself as long as all involved are well-intentioned, realistic and sincere : however, if it leads nowhere, and if it becomes less and less likely that it ever will lead anywhere, then serious thought needs to be given to whether it is in fact more of a distraction than something that serves any useful purpose.  True ecumenism, true moves towards unity, are always useful and are most certainly vital.  We must never abandon our attempts to work together and to reunite, but we must always ensure that our efforts are appropriately focused and directed.

As ever, Fr Colven's parish notes at St James's this week included a very apposite and interesting reflection on the theme of Unity and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Here it is :
Maria Gabriella Sagheddu was born on the island of Sardinia in 1914: though brought up in a Catholic atmosphere, she had no great desire for God until, at the age of eighteen, the death of a sister brought her a moment of conversion: life was literally turned around, and Maria began an intense life of prayer which led her to enter the Cistercian monastery at Grottoferrata just south of Rome in 1935. Around that time – mainly inspired by the efforts of Abbe Paul Couturier – religious houses throughout Europe were inspired with a new impetus to pray for the unity of Christians, and the community at Grottoferrata offered a novena for that intention. Sister Maria Gabriella felt called to offer her life for the cause of Christian unity and asked permission of her superiors to do so: on the very night that permission was granted, the young Cistercian (who until this moment had been vitally healthy) felt the first pains which indicated the onset of the tuberculosis from which she would die just eighteen months later. We hear much today about spiritual ecumenism – and here is an example of what his can mean. It is right that theologians and church leaders should talk and study together to find common ground and understand the history of our disunity, but all this effort is as nothing without praying hearts that really share the pain of Christ in his fractured Body.
The Cistercian community of which Blessed Maria Gabriella (so designated by Pope John Paul in 1983) was a member had forged strong links with a number of Anglican Benedictine houses in England, and this enclosed nun from Sardinia, who in all probability never met a Christian from another tradition, consecrated her life in a very definite way to draw Anglicans into the full unity of the Church. Perhaps the recent establishment of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham for former Anglicans is, at least in part, due to Blessed Maria Gabriella’s intercession – it must certainly have rejoiced her heart to see the four hundred people who were here in Spanish Place last weekend to celebrate Solemn Evensong arranged by local members of the Ordinariate.
As Roman Catholics, during this annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18th-24th January), we do have particular insights to offer. On the one hand, an older model of re-union (a sort of ecclesial federation based on an extended European Community model – famously satirised by Monsignor Ronald Knox) seems less and less viable, while our vision remains that of the Catechism when it says: “all are called to this Catholic unity of the People of God, and to it in different ways, belong, or are ordered, the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation”.  Our understanding is that: “this Church constituted and organised as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the Successor of St Peter and by the bishops in communion with him”: If we sincerely believe that the fullness of Christianity "subsists" (is to be found existing) and the means to salvation – orthodox belief, nurtured by the sacraments, expressed in a life of charity – are offered  in a unique way within Catholic communion, then (and this in no way, denies their existence, to varying degrees, in other expressions of the Christian tradition) to borrow some words of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan: “of course we desire to convert all – especially our own countrymen – to the Catholic religion. Could it be otherwise?”
Unity means the Unity of all Christians, including Rome.  This is the cause of Catholic Unity that is celebrated on the Halifax Memorial on the wall at St Mary's Bourne Street, and it is this Unity that the Ordinariate is working to build.

Two final comments. 

First, apologies that I have completely failed to post a piece of music today.  I had tried to find a setting of Magnus Sanctus Paulus (perhaps the Palestrina), but I could not find a suitable youtube link.  I then intended to post Mendelssohn's How Lovely are the Messengers from Paulus but again drew a blank in both the English and the original German (Wie Lieblich sind die Boten) versions : the recordings I could find were either of not especially good performances, or were technically of poor quality.  There will be more music some time soon.

Second, we believe we have some more photos of last week's celebrations at St James's, marking the first anniversary of the Ordinariate's existence.  If we manage to track them down, we will post them on Flickr.  These photos include shots of the church but also of the reception afterwards.  In the meantime, if you go to this blogpost, you will find some links to other photos. 
O thou, who at thy Eucharist didst pray
that all thy Church might be for ever one,
grant us at every Eucharist to say
with longing heart and soul, "thy will be done."
O may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

For all thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;
make thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace;
thus may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

We pray thee too for wanderers from thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
back to the faith which saints believed of old,
back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
soon may we all one Bread, one Body be,
through this blest Sacrament of unity.

So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
may we be one with all thy Church above,
one with thy saints in one unbroken peace,
one with thy saints in one unbounded love;
more blessèd still, in peace and love to be
one with the Trinity in Unity.

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