Sunday, 23 January 2011

Homily in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

I appeal to you […] that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Father and I have a little standing joke. Each Sunday we stand in the sacristy a little before the Mass and ask “Is this an ordinary Sunday?” Inevitably the answer is always ‘no’. There’s either a baptism, or a feast, or a window to bless, or a new shrine to dedicate: the list goes on. It’s never very ordinary.

Well today there’s no baptism, we’re in simplest green, and there’s nothing to bless or dedicate. But fear not, pedestrian mediocrity is not quite upon us, because, in fact, this Sunday falls during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has its’ origins in what was called the Octave of Christian Unity. This was established at the turn of the last century in order to promote prayer for the visible unity of the Church. Between two influential priests and a Sardinian nun, Blessed Maria Gabriella, the devotion spread and became popular across the denominations.

Amongst the great Anglo-Catholics of the early twentieth century, the Chair of Unity Octave, as it became known, had a very special meaning and intention and was to be championed by the likes of Dom Gregory Dix, the great Anglican Papalist liturgical scholar, and Fr Fynnes-Clinton, sometime Vicar of S. Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, and a significant figure in the refounding of the Shrine at Walsingham. It was their prayer, and the prayer of many, that the great wounds of the Protestant Reformation would be healed, bringing all Western Christians together in one body in union with the Holy See.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, these days, is somewhat less prominent. It’s less popular amongst those Anglicans of a catholic flavour, not least because it usually consists of some feeble hand-holding liturgy in which some vague reference is made to ‘unity in diversity’, followed by a lunch comprising bad cheddar, tinned soup and a stale bread roll.

A few years ago I was at a roundtable discussion about Christian Unity. At it, a very nice gentleman stood up and stated that his Anglican parish had very good relations with the local Roman Catholic church, and that all the big debates in the Church of England were, in fact, meaningless at a local level. When asked what ‘good relations’ meant, it turned out that they shared a community meals-on-wheels rota.

I believe the phrase is ‘Close, but no cigar’.

That example—one of many—is neither the unity we seek nor the unity we need, it’s just being Christian and nice. The unity for which we long is something a great deal more.

During his General Audience address this week, Pope Benedict made reference to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and, I think, pointed us back towards the true sense of unity, which brought about by this week of prayer. The Holy Father referred explicitly to ‘four pillars of unity’: fidelity to the gospel, fraternal communion, communion through prayer, and Eucharistic communion.

In other words, true unity—more than being nice and doing things together—requires a common faith in the gospel of Christ, a common sense of being united to Christ through the Church, a common purpose in prayer, and the ability to receive Holy Communion from each other. Like a chair with four legs, if one of these is broken, the whole chair is weakened and undermined.

In this morning’s reading from S. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that, in some sense, such a unity already exists within the Church through our baptism. S. Paul insists that it is Christ into which we are baptized, a fact that is true of all those who share the sign of faith through the waters of rebirth.

Our baptism into Christ is, literally, our incorporation into his body, the Church. Christian baptism ‘constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians’. It is the ‘sacramental bond of unity’ which links all who are reborn through it. In other words, it’s the bottom line, the thing which undergirds everything else.

But whilst baptism is, indeed, deep and integral to the overall picture, the unity which it brings about is still marred by our sinfulness: that which keeps us distant from our brother and sister Christians.

How, then, are we to achieve that elusive fullness of communion, that true sense of unity, which brings us into the fullness of human relationship with the Church, and with Christ himself?

Well, unity has to be based on commonality. In other words, everyone around the table has to have a common understanding of Christian teaching, and the ability to share that belief unhindered. We have to be in ‘communion’ over what the Church believes, and in ‘communion’ with the ways in which those truths are communicated, namely the sacraments.

For many years parishes such as ours hoped that the Church of England would become convinced of her Catholic roots, and be drawn closer to sharing that common faith and practice with the rest of the western Church. That hope was, and is, expressed through our common liturgy, teaching, and faith.

Despite such hopes and efforts, in more recent times such progress has been drastically and indefinitely halted. Seemingly endless innovations within Anglicanism have rendered the work to achieve full, visible unity—that kernel at the heart of everything that our Movement has stood for—as worthless. For that fullness of unity to come about now, requires some 'magnanimous gestures' on all sides, and a genuine, urgent desire for reconciliation.

It is more difficult than ever to imagine a visibly unified Church, but that should not stop us from doing everything within our power—both as individuals and a community—to furthering its cause, and bringing that day closer, however far off it might seem. It is a gospel imperative to do so.

This bringing about of unity, despite the current impasse, is the purpose of the newly formed Ordinariate—it would have seemed petty not to mention it at this stage. This new body—appropriately under the title of Our Lady of Walsingham; a place where disunity seems wonderfully distant—should be seen, first and foremost, as a ‘prophetic gesture’ which seeks to fulfil the unity of the Church, in some discrete but significant way—‘a small bridge on the long road to unity’.

Because what was once hoped for at a denominational level is now impossible, the Ordinariate will seek to achieve it in smaller groups. That this project may bring about a more urgent sense of the need for unity, at the very least, is indeed a great blessing.

As we come here today, then, we do so in penitence and sorrow for the divisions of the Church. As we approach the altar to receive the very body and blood of Christ, we have an opportunity, here and now, to pledge ourselves afresh to the cause of unity with Christ, and to the fulfilment of that unity between all who profess his truth.

The call which brought us to the font, where we were shown a glimpse of the fullness of unity with Christ, is the same call which brings us here today to recommit ourselves to the fulfilment of that unity in the visible unity of the Church. Let us pray God for the strength to do it.

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