“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12.13)
Today falls as the Sunday within the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. 45 years ago, the second Vatican Council had a particular concern for promoting Christian Unity and addressed the question in a special Decree on Ecumenism. The Council did not in any way contradict the traditional teaching of the Church: indeed it said that the fullness of unity subsists in the Catholic Church. In one place, the decree says:
“Jesus Christ, then, willed that the apostles and their successors - the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head - should preach the Gospel faithfully, administer the sacraments, and rule the Church in love. It is thus, under the action of the Holy Spirit, that Christ wills His people to increase, and He perfects His people's fellowship in unity: in their confessing the one faith, celebrating divine worship in common, and keeping the fraternal harmony of the family of God.” (n.2)Unfortunately, as the Council also observed, rifts arose in the Church from the beginning, and out of those rifts grew communities that are not blessed with the gift of the fullness of unity. Such would be the Nestorian and Monophysite Churches of the East in places such as Syria and Egypt, the schism by which the Orthodox Church broke away from Communion with Rome, and the Reformation which gave rise to the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches denying the priesthood, the sacrifice of the Mass, the invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, indulgences, and most importantly the authority of the Church’s magisterium.
In England we had our own particular tragedy with the reformation of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I which gave rise to the Anglican Church. In the late sixties and early seventies, there was great optimism about the prospect of complete reunion with the Anglican Church. Sadly, events since then within the Anglican Communion, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood, have rendered that most unlikely – if indeed it was ever a real possibility.
Nevertheless, the work of ecumenism with the Anglican Church and other communities of the West continues in a spirit of mutual charity. The Church seeks to extend the hand of friendship to those belonging to the other Christian communities, to enter dialogue with the purpose of greater understanding, and to pray together where this is appropriate.
Locally, through “Churches Together in Sidcup”, there are many activities organised, and regular shared prayer so that we can co-operate with other good Christians where possible in giving witness to Christ. At a national level, I have been delighted to work together with other Christians, often evangelicals, who share our concern at legislation which seeks to limit the freedom of Christians to express their faith in public or in the workplace. Many also share our advocacy for the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.
More recently, Pope Benedict has offered a concrete possibility for Anglicans wishing to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has issued a Constitution called Anglicanorum Coetibus which will enable them to be received as communities, with their own Bishop or senior priest in charge, and even using some of their own rites, provided, of course, that they are modified to reflect the fullness of Catholic faith. I have personally been in touch with some Anglicans who wish to make use of this generous provision and we may be sure that the Church will be enriched as a result.
In our prayers and work for Christian unity, we should not limit ourselves to the now traditional concern of unity with the Anglican and Protestant communities. Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict have worked very hard to improve relations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Overcoming prejudice and ingrained anti-Roman attitudes can be a task requiring patience and perseverance but both Popes have made considerable headway and some of the smaller Eastern Churches have been brought into full communion. Pope John Paul II said that if the Orthodox Churches were once again to be in full communion with Rome, the Church could again “breathe with both lungs”. We should pray to the Holy Spirit, to St Andrew, St Basil, St John Chrysostom and the other great saints of the East for this intention.
Finally there are others whose unity with the Catholic Church is a concern of the Holy Father, most notably the traditionalist Society of St Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefevbre in the midst of the aberrations that followed the second Vatican Council in the late sixties and early seventies. His consecration of four bishops without the permission of the Holy See was a schismatic act but the Holy See has tried very hard to overcome this division. Recently, the excommunications of the Bishops were lifted, an event unfortunately overshadowed by the disgraceful remarks of Bishop Williamson minimising the Nazi holocaust. His remarks have been repudiated by the Holy Father and by the Society of St Pius X but caused considerable damage to the cause of unity.
Currently there are earnest and sincere discussions taking place in Rome to overcome any theological differences and essentially to agree on interpreting the second Vatican Council in accord with the whole tradition of the Church, as indeed has been a major theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate.
There is therefore much to pray for and to work for in terms of Christian Unity. In our own lives, the Holy Father’s approach can set an example. We should be prepared to give way in charity to others in matters that are merely custom or non-essential (such as, for example the use of leavened bread for the Eucharist, or the use of local liturgical rites) while firmly preserving the fullness of the Catholic faith entrusted by Christ to the apostles. And if our desire for unity is to be compelling in its effects, we must live that Catholic faith generously so that the attraction of the truth of Christ is shown in practice and itself invites others into communion with the one Church which Christ founded on the rock of Peter.