Chris McDonnell CT February 05 2021
The week of prayer for Christian Unity spanned the days of late January. I would suggest that this year it came and went largely unnoticed. With parish life in disarray the possibility of inter- church activity was severely limited. Other issues of unity were in the air, not the least being the unity of national identity in the US following the inauguration.
There has been a long history of division within the Christian Church from the earliest times. It was a difference of opinion that gave rise to the first Council of the Church held in Jerusalem around AD50. It was called to resolve issues relating to expectations of gentile converts, a practical issue where agreement was sought for a real problem.
Other Councils were to follow over the centuries, usually as a means of conflict resolution, seeking a common way forward, disputing views considered suspect.
The European Reformation of the 16th Century left a great scar in its wake. It was a time of persecution and bloodshed that disparaged the Gospel as first one group, then another persecuted those they could not agree with. It was a time of shame, a time of discord, a time when unity seemed little more than a dream.
We would be fooling ourselves if we considered the story over, yet we have travelled a long way down a rough and ready road in subsequent years. The days when Catholics were discouraged from praying the ‘Our Father’ with Protestants were part of my childhood. Thank goodness for a change in the cultural climate that has encouraged us to come together in prayer. The late Gerard Hughes SJ told a lovely story of Sunday evening mass in the chaplaincy of Glasgow University. Always full to the doors, he asked a student how the problem might be resolved. The reply was succinct: ‘Father you could ask the Catholics not to come!’
He told another story of a post Vatican II Old Firm game when the Celtic supporters were heard to shout their encouragement ‘Get stuck into your separated brethren!’
Amusing tales maybe but reflective of significant change. As we have learnt to have greater social contact with each other so has our understanding of alternative perspectives grown. In the public forum, political disagreement very often arises from an unwillingness to listen and so understand and appreciate another point of view.
Such an understanding came from the words of the US Youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, when she delivered her piece ‘The Hill We Climb’ during the recent Presidential Inauguration. The words it contained will resonate with people the world over: “I really wanted to use my words to be a point of unity and collaboration and togetherness”.
Just as words can divide us, the choice of the right word can forge strong ties of appreciation and understanding, especially when they come from unexpected quarters.
When two people of different persuasions come together, it is often the small signs and gestures that we remember. During the visit of Michael Ramsey with Paul VI in a symbolic exchange of gifts, Pope Paul presented Archbishop Michael with a ring. It’s a ring which all Archbishops of Canterbury have since worn when in Rome for it sealed a joint effort for the two Churches to find their way back together.
Unity is encouraged through working side by side in common cause – getting your hands dirty together can help overcome differences and lead to a greater understanding.
Unity starts with accountability. The break-through in the cause of Christian unity has come with the growing realization that blame is not one sided. The complex politics of 16th Century Europe produced a ‘them and us’ conflict that has clouded our discussion over so many subsequent years. It is rare in any difference of opinion that one side has all the credibility. It is only when this is honestly acknowledged that real progress can be made and accommodation reached.
We understand each other through lived circumstance and nowhere is that more true when two married people come from differing faith traditions. In sharing their life together, they have to make compromises, until that is when they go to church and compromise becomes barrier. It is bizarre that we can offer the Eucharist on their wedding day and then say no on further occasions as they live through the experience of their married life, with all its joys and sorrows.
Maybe it is good that these few words are being written outside the traditional week of prayer for Christian Unity. We too easily put issues into tidy boxes. They are easier to manage that way. What should be happening is a continuous untidy mess of open discussion in our attempt to repair a broken story, for a journey taken together offers many occasions to assist each other on the way.
The 2021 Christian Unity theme – Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit – calls us to pray and to work for reconciliation and unity in the church, with our human family, and with all of creation. Drawing on the Gospel image of vine and branches, it invites us to nourish unity with God and with one another through contemplative silence, prayer, and common action. Grafted into Christ the vine as many diverse branches, may we bear rich fruit and create new ways of living, with respect for and communion with all of creation.
There is recognition in those words that all have something to offer, all should bring honesty, principle and love to the table. Too often the Church of the Latin Western Rite has adopted the position of patient waiting for others to make the first move, waiting for others to come home. Such a position challenges the honesty and integrity of others who hold a Christian Faith. Recognition of where others stand is the first step to reconciliation and renewal.
Older than the split brought about by the European Reformation was the great East – West divide of 1054 – The Great Schism. This was the culmination of a leadership dispute following the Second Council of Nicea in 787 which attempted to resolve issues relating to the use of icons in Christian prayer.
Orthodox observers were invited at attend the Second Council of the Vatican and Athenagoras became a familiar figure in Rome.
The Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration was read out on 7 December 1965 simultaneously at a public meeting of the Vatican Council in Rome and at a special ceremony in Istanbul. It withdrew the exchange of excommunication between prominent ecclesiastics in the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the substance of the Great Schism of 1054. It did not end the schism but showed a desire for greater reconciliation between the two Churches, represented by Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. A first step had been taken.
It is important that we take the wide perspective when we speak of Christian Unity, whilst at the same time think locally in our actions. ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ Each one of us can take that single step, even with a friend over a cup of coffee in the local coffee house.