Monday, 27 February 2012

What do we pray for when we pray for Christian unity?

Fr Mark Woodruff writes:

After the November 2011 Council Meeting of Churches Together in South London, we discussed the different visions of unity we have in mind when we pray for it - do we mean the same thing when we pray for unity, do we unconsciously want our vision to be the one that prevails while others come round to us, or do we want to go beyond where each of us is at the moment and, as Pope Benendict once wrote in 1992 as Cardinal Ratzinger, "enter more deeply into the mystery of the Church where we are and find that it is none other than one"?

Here follows the thoughtful presentation from the Bishop of Southwark of the Anglicans, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun:

On my first visit to Africa in the summer of 1981, while training for the priesthood at Westcott House, part of the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges, there was a moment of revelation for me about the journey towards Christian Unity.  The legendary Fr Robin Lamburn (who had been sent out as a young missionary priest by UMCA in the 1930s) came to meet me in Dar-es-Salaam and we journeyed together by bus to the River Rufiji in Masasi Diocese.  We boarded canoes, with a decoy sent on ahead of us to divert and distract the Hippos, crossing a vast expanse of water to reach the village settlement of Kindwitwi where in retirement Fr Lamburn cared for a community of Muslim men and women living with Leprosy, administering medical supplies, having agreed not to proselytise them in any way.  Nevertheless his very evident prayerful and faithful love of the Lord won souls for Christ. 

On my first Sunday we walked several miles to the nearby town of Utete where Fr Lamburn regularly celebrated the Eucharist.  At one point I asked a little naively about sacramental ministry for other denominations.  The old missionary priest with a rather reproachful and exasperated tone in his voice said: ‘don’t you realise, we cannot afford the luxury of division here’.  Those words have reverberated through nearly 30 years of ordained ministry and continue to challenge me in very different ecumenical territory and contexts.  I often reflect whether the search for unity would be advanced for us if our mindset enabled us also to recognise the truth of those prophetic words: ‘we cannot afford the luxury of division here’.

At that stage of my journey of faith I had a strong sense that I would live to see structural reunion among the ecclesial communities of the Western Church – Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant.  Our Gospel reading for the Third Sunday before Advent was the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids from Matthew 25 (vv 1-13), five foolish and five wise having prepared themselves for a long wait with enough oil for their lamps to greet the bridegroom when he came.  When reflecting over the weekend on this passage, for the first time I made a connection between those disciples of the early centuries having to wait longer than they had anticipated for the coming again of the Lord in Glory and our waiting, also longer than expected, for Christ’s will that we should be one to be fulfilled.  Thirty years on from my walk with Fr Robin Lamburn I realise that I continue to pray with strong hope that this will indeed come to pass but also acknowledge with what I trust is a good dose of realism and a deepened understanding about the journey to unity, which I now realise is likely to continue beyond my life time. 

Two years ago John Richardson, whom we are very blessed to have as the Ecumenical Officer serving Churches Together in South London, asked Bishop Paul Hendricks to give a paper on Receptive Ecumenism followed by one from me on Spiritual Ecumenism.  Two years on I continue, in terms of prayer and commitment, to be aided and helped by the thinking behind spiritual ecumenism, which makes ours the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion, that ‘they all may be one’. ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me’ (John 17, 21). During a visit to participate in a summer course at the Anglican Centre in Rome in 2009, I came to appreciate more deeply insights into Spiritual Ecumenism and realised that it lies at the heart of understandings of the ecumenical journey from the perspective of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and its then President, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a devoted servant of recent fruitful ecumenical dialogues between the Churches.  It lies at the heart of recent Papal teaching on ecumenism and indeed of efforts to unite divided Christians. 

Canon David Richardson, the current Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, directs us to consider the early days of the ecumenical movement:  It is winter now for our ideas; probably we shall not see the new spring.”  A familiar phrase?  Perhaps so, yet it dates not from the present scene at all but rather from 1912 and was written by the R.C. AbbĂ© Fernand Portal in a letter to his friend Viscount Halifax.  The years since he penned those words have seen an unprecedented, unpredictable and unimaginable series of ecumenical springs and summers.  No doubt there are innumerable difficulties in the way, but with God everything is possible.  Have a little imagination, a little faith.  We must be daring if we expect great results.”  So wrote Halifax in the same series of letters.  Halifax also saw that ecumenism needs conversations and meetings – “For all this we must get to know each other” he wrote, “people are led much more by their hearts than their heads.”

“Getting to know each other” and being led by the heart draw us to look beyond where we are at the moment; they form part of what is an accompanied journey and characterise all fruitful ecumenical interactions. Indeed, they are part of the pilgrimage towards unity in which we are fellow travellers and companions. It is a journey of hope and promise, already bearing fruit.  This is evident in a number of ways. I give just a few examples:

  • Words spoken by Cardinal Basil Hume at Wesley’s Chapel in the early 1990s during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Our journey towards unity must be accompanied by friendship and supported by prayer’
  • Cardinal Kasper at the end of his time as President of the Pontifical Commission for Promoting Christian Unity in publishing ‘Harvesting the Fruits’ which looks back on 40 years of ecumenical dialogues between the Churches and challenges us implicitly not to forget all that has been achieved, not to lose heart, but to persevere.
  • The warm embrace between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Abbey during the Papal Visit to the United Kingdom a year ago, reminding us that signs and symbols are often able to speak louder than words.
  • For the Church of England, the Porvoo Agreement of 1992 with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches (The Lutheran Church of Denmark the latest to join), which has established communion and mutual recognition of orders with these churches, thus helping to overcome some of the divisions in the Western Church brought about by the Reformation.  In the Diocese of Southwark we are especially thankful for the blessings of the Porvoo Agreement with the great blessing  of three Porvoo Churches – Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish – in Rotherhithe.
  • For the Church of England, claiming to be ‘part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’, living with the tensions and opportunities of an inheritance and identity which is both Catholic and Reformed, itself seemingly at times its own ecumenical movement!
  • Our capacity to unite in common purpose when we are Christ centred and outward focused on the needs of others, something very evident for example in the Robes Project which brings together local churches across the denominations in the Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark to reach out with Christ’s love in engagement with homeless people during the winter months.
  • The work of Street Pastors extending a ministry of care at night to people on the streets of each of our South London Boroughs, again an expression of ecumenical common purpose serving the common good in Christ like ways.
  • The inspiration and encouragement we find when brothers and sisters in Christ dwell together in unity, something which I experience annually when accompanying groups of young people to the Ecumenical Community at Taize.

Each of you will have your own additions to these, for which I give special thanks, not least in focusing my own prayers and journey on the hope and promise of Christian unity. ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me’.    (John 17, 21)

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