What is unity? What isn’t unity?

John OTooleUnity is both a gift from God and a task. The task is to welcome that gift and to make it visible to others. 

Three snapshots from my own experience show how far we have moved on the ecumenical journey.

  • In 1958, when I was eight years old, my dad lost his job as a bus conductor so my family moved from Dublin to Chatham to look for work and find a place for my mum and us five kids to live. There were no places in the local Catholic primary school so my two brothers and I went to the local state school. There RCs stood outside the hall during assembly prayers and were marched in for the notices. I remember having to pretend not to like the hymns that attracted me as I heard them from a distance and which as Catholics we never sang. In those days, Protestants sang hymns, Catholics didn’t; Protestants read the Bible Catholics didn’t! Now thank God, we read the Scriptures together and sing each other’s hymns – literally singing from the same hymn-sheet. Someone remarked recently that over the last fifty years we have learnt to sing in unison and now we are beginning to learn to sing in harmony.
     

  • 1966, fifty years ago, just a year after the ending of the Second Vatican Council saw the first formal visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to a Pope since the Reformation. Archbishop Michael Ramsey met Blessed Pope Paul VI who famously took off his episcopal ring and gave it to him as a gesture of friendship.
     

    That same year, in September,  I moved to a sixth-form in Rochester for my A levels and was privileged to make friends fairly quickly with Paul Hatt who was and is a devout Anglican evangelical. He, his family and his church taught me much about the importance of reading, praying and living the Scriptures – long before the term “receptive ecumenism” came into use. I remember that Paul used to carry a Gideon version of the New Testament and Psalms in the top pocket of his blazer and during the lunchbreak he would unobtrusively slip away to a corner of the room and spend ten or minutes or so quietly reading and pondering God’s Word – while the rest of us continued chatting and playing cards! His example taught me a love of the Scriptures and how they nourish and sustain my faith.
     

  • The third snapshot is from 1990 when I was appointed as the Catholic Parish Priest to St Paul’s Ecumenical Church, Thamesmead, in south-east London. I had, I think, always been keen on ecumenism ‘in my head’ but my experience at Thamesmead taught me to be ecumenical ‘in my heart’ too. St Paul’s was a modern church building opened in 1978 and shared by four denominations – Anglican, Methodist, United Reformed and Roman Catholic. I was there for six years. There were two chapels (an RC chapel and a United Congregation chapel) separated by a corridor which was known by the parishioners as Reformation corridor – a wooden construction that in case of unity can easily be dismantled! We shared the same building and we shared the collection – a real case of literally putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.

    Most distinctively at that time, once a month we had a celebration of what were called ‘Simultaneous Eucharists’ when both congregations joined together with two altars on the sanctuary and the lectern in between. The liturgy of the Word was completely shared (with the homily being given by one of the ecumenical Team) and then we moved to our respective altars but then said the same Eucharistic Prayer simultaneously – praying for the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as our own respective diocesan bishops and other Church leaders. People would then go to their own minister for Holy Communion and the service would end with the sign of peace followed by refreshments.

    In 1993 a new Vatican document outlining Principles and Norms on Ecumenism effectively brought this bold ecumenical experiment to an end. Although it did not permit prayers to be said for other Christian leaders during the Eucharistic Prayer itself, it did permit and indeed encourage prayers for them to be said during the Intercessions or Bidding Prayers –although in my experience this sadly rarely happens. Perhaps we could all make a simple start there and pray for the leaders of all our churches as a reminder that the origin and heart of this Unity Week was and is to encourage prayer for the unity of the church so that the world may believe.

 
A lot has happened in the Church and in the world since the 1990s. Let me now look forward. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and this is the first time in history that a centenary anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation is being commemorated in an ecumenical age. It is easier to be an historian than a prophet, but what might glimpses of the ecumenical future look like?
 
I was very struck by some words of Pope Francis recently.[1] He referred to the important ecumenical meetings he had attended in 2016, including both the Anglican-Catholic Dialogue meeting in Rome and the October Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue at Lund in Sweden. He stressed that it is by growing closer to the person of Christ and conforming ourselves to him – personally and as a community – that we grow closer to others. This is the soul and the heart of ecumenical talking and walking.
 
Pope Francis went on importantly to list three ‘false models’ of communion, three things that full communion is not:

  • Unity is not the fruit of our human effort but is instead ‘a gift that comes from on high’ – a gift of the Spirit. It is something for us to receive rather than to achieve.
     
  • Unity is not uniformity. Our different traditions are a wealth for and not a threat to the unity of the Church. Seeking to suppress this diversity is to counter the Holy Spirit who acts by enriching the community of believers with a variety of gifts.
     
  • Unity is not absorption. No one would have to deny their own history of faith. Unity is not ‘being swallowed up into one big blob’, as someone said to me recently. Before seeing what separates us, it is necessary to perceive the wealth of what we have in common, especially the Scriptures and the Creeds. In this way we Christians are able to acknowledge that we are brothers and sisters who are called not to compete with one another but to collaborate in joint witness and mission to the part of the world in which we live.
     

I am interested that Pope Francis doesn’t offer a ‘true’ model of communion. He is happy to leave the destination in God’s hands and in God’s time. Our gift and our task is to walk the journey together. ‘Remember’, Pope Francis has said, ‘when we work, pray and serve the needy together, we are already united.’
 
 
John O’Toole
National Ecumenical Officer
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
 
Homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
St Mary’s Anglican Church, Barnes, 22 January 2017 (edited)


[1] November 2016 audience to participants in a plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity on the theme: Christian Unity: what model for full communion?ty unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unty unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity u unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity ty unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity unity 

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