The continuing assaults on Christians in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Syria reveal both the basic solidarity of all the baptised in a time of crisis, as well as our urgent need of the visible, organic unity of Christ’s Church. Towards the end of 2014, Pope Francis went to Istanbul to say to the Ecumenical Patriarch that, above all ecumenical objectives, he seeks communion with the Orthodox Church. The corporate reunion of East and West in communion with the Successor of Peter at Rome has been an objective of the League since its inception. In the mind of its leading founder, Father Henry Fynes-Clinton, reunion with the East forms the context for his immediate concern about the West: to end the detachment of the two provinces of York and Canterbury, and the Church of England’s reintegration as an entity in its own right with the Roman Catholic Church – “united, not absorbed”, as Dom Lambert Beauduin observed at the Malines Conversations.
During the year that has followed the papal pilgrimage to Constantinople, the necessity of the voice and leadership of Peter for all the Churches has been obvious. Ecumenists are accustomed to cast the role of the Pope as a “Petrine ministry”: a focus of unity in such remnants of the faith that Christians hold in common; an exhorter and encourager; an indispensable servant of communion and its most persuasive advocate of the binding nature of the truth; an authority to appeal to, rather than one to take action. These tasks are already part of the Pope’s role; but Catholics also have a lively sense of the local immediacy of the Universal Church of which he is pastor “with a care for all the churches.” It is not just because their bishop is in communion with him, or even across Church divisions a common faith identifies them: it is because the office of Pope, together with the teaching and acts of each successive Bishop of Rome, is part of our life and identity as Catholic Christians, when we articulate the faith of the Church in witness to the truth of Christ. Our Catholic straining for unity in one Body in Him, is not for streamlined administration, central control, or corporate take-over. It is “so that the world may believe”, when the Church speaks with one voice, credibly giving a single account of the hope that lies within us and the bearing of our Faith on the world of humanity. Thus we, and other Christians too, rely on the Pope to speak when others are not heeded – to speak “not as the scribes, but with authority”.
We are all one to those who hate Jesus
So, when Coptic migrant workers were murdered on the shore of the Libyan Mediterranean Pope Francis called the Coptic Pope Tawadros to say, “Your martyrs are our martyrs too”. Again, when last April the Armenian Catholicos at Holy Etchmiadzin canonised saints for the first time in 500 years – the 1.5 million Armenian Christians killed with many Greeks and Assyrians under the dying Ottoman Empire in 1915 - the Holy Father’s message was that, when the persecutor comes, he does not ask if you are Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian or Syrian, or Anglican, Evangelical, or Protestant. He just wants to know that you are a follower of Jesus.
He has spoken vividly of an “ecumenism of blood”, because martyrdom unites us completely with the Lord in His sacrifice on the Cross. In England, we have come to see the martyrs of our different traditions as part of each other’s stories. They are signs no longer of bloody division, but of the pains taken to reach our hoped for reconciliation in Christ. Yet Pope Francis is not merely talking about our mutual coming to terms. He is describing how the Church is “all one” to those who hate it, and yet our solidarity together in all kinds of ways stands as a massive response to those who hate the words of the Beatitudes, those who long for nothing more than that the Kingdom will not come on earth as it is in heaven.
In his autumn visit to Africa, Pope Francis visited the Catholic Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs of 1885-1887.At the pilgrimage basilica, he honoured the 22 Roman Catholic martyrs; but he also went with Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Anglican Church to the museum and shrine of the 23 Anglican martyrs, in the footsteps of Blessed Paul VI and St John Paul before him. “The blood of the martyrs makes us one,” he said. He knelt at the “torture tree”, where Catholic and Anglican Christians had been made to suffer without discrimination.
In his address to the Pope, Archbishop Stanley re-worked a local proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The principle of the Catholic League throughout has been to insist on unity in Catholic faith in communion with Peter not as the last piece of the jigsaw, but as the driving, prime objective from the outset. Thus keeping to the path towards Catholic unity has been no fast track. In recent times it has become drawn out, delayed, and even halted. The League’s founders and active members have “gone alone”, but not fast, in seeking unity with integrity – not just by holding to orthodox Catholic faith and order but by making the point, in season and out of season, that there can be no reunion, Christian unity, or ecumenism in the meantime, unless the reality is squarely faced that, for the Church to be completely the Church, it needs the pastoral care, spiritual authority and dogmatic teaching of Peter.
One Church’s one faith in the one Lord
No Church organisation is an end in itself. No tradition that is really Christian can rely on a separate Church to preserve it, if it cannot survive and actually flourish by finding its fulfilment in the communion of the Universal Church. Even the Catholic Church teaches that “the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her … Furthermore, the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings.” (Decree on Ecumenism 4, Vatican II, 1964). More or less the same wording would fit all the other Churches in their separation from one another too. Hence the need not only for unity of spirit - starkly emphasised by the experience of our ecumenism of blood; not only for unity of body, in which we may share our distinctive religious traditions, organisations and patrimonies, in the common life of one Church; but also for a unity of mind - a single-minded conviction of the Truth of Christ and declaring in many ways our one faith.
In October, Rachel Treweek, the new Anglican bishop of Gloucester, declared that she would not refer to God as “he” or “she”. She went on to object to the writ of summons to the House of Lords for referring to her as a “right reverend father in God” and also to the suggestion that it be amended to “mother”. She believes that both terms indicate dependency and hierarchy, rather than the true pattern of Christian leadership, which is to be “among you as one who serves” (see The Guardian, 24 October 2015). Of course, the ordained ministry and hierarchy in the Church are always to be understood in the context of Christ’s sacrificial service as the self-giving Good Shepherd; and, to quote the Westminster Confession, God is “a most pure spirit … without body, parts, or passions”. But Mrs Treweek seems to be dispensing with a fundamental insight from the revelation of Christ, and our faith in Him that holds Christians in one: God is made known in Jesus Christ, who reveals unequivocally and repeatedly that He is Son to a Father. Thus to behold this Father-Son relationship, revealed at critical events in our salvation, like the Annunciation, the Baptism, the Prayer in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension, is the given way to approach the mystery of God and embrace the Faith of the Trinity. It is not enough to say, “Creator, Redeemer, Guide”. Nor is it other than crude to present God as “a male”. But the idea of Father-Son in relation says something that no other analogy can; and each of the Three are those made known to us in the Old Testament as “The Lord”. Into the life of this Trinity, Mary is drawn, filled with “the Holy Spirit the Lord” and becomes Mother of God. She is not a model of dependency, but the first realisation of theosis, the process by which we too, following after her, share the life of God as the grace of Christ’s salvation fills our entire being, in return for His sharing our life and taking away its sin.
Roman Catholics together with orthodox Anglican believers have been dismayed at the Bishop of Gloucester’s reflections. This is not because of being “against women” or reinforcing a “defunct” patriarchal view of the Church and humanity that oppresses women, but because her thinking shifts Christian religion away from its central focus – the Son of God. Christ is the incarnation of the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He did take human flesh in general, but as a person who is a man; He does not cease to be this man after His Ascension, or else He would have ceased to be human. The incarnation would have dissolved and our union with God like His with us along with it. He was not a man by coincidence, but so He could make God known as His and “Our Father”. As the beloved and holy Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to put it, “God is Christlike, and in Him is no unChristlikeness at all”. Like Father, like Son – on the Throne of heaven, in the manger, on the Cross, on the Altar, the Lord.
When I served at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in the late 1980s, I once preached on Romans 10.9, observing that those who were so vigorously promoting the ordination of women to the presbyterate were finding themselves unable to refer to God as Father and Jesus as “Lord”, and that this seemed to me risk their salvation because they could not assert one of the Church’s earliest credal formulae: “If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I was firmly rebuked for this, while the canons supporting the new theology of ministry were left unrestricted. It confirmed my conviction from that day to this, that there can be no unity in the Church and among Christians without an unequivocal declaration of faith in Jesus as Lord, who reveals the faith of the Trinity as Son to the Father; and that this Truth is not only believed by the Church, but manifested in its life, liturgy, ministry, hierarchy, pastoral care, proclamation and sacramental living “on earth as it is in heaven”. This declaration the Bishop of Gloucester seems unable to make her own. Without a unity of mind on this, from where and when will come our unity of body and spirit?
Taking up the Cross together
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been scorned in the press for “having doubts” after the terrorist attacks in Paris. What he actually said was that, in his prayers, he had asked God where He was in all this, and received the answer, “In the middle of it”. He recalled Psalm 56’s words, “He stores up our tears in a bottle, none of our sufferings are lost”. It is at moments like this that, whatever our differences and persistent disunity, Christian leaders give the world the hint that Christ truly is one and that He is nowhere other than in the world that is His: Paris, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Middle East all the same. Cardinal Nichols of Westminster added to Archbishop Justin’s words, “We really should be solid in our commitment to each other - to stand in the face of this evil”. So, after all, we are “going together”, not going alone, and prepared to “go far” because, when the persecutor comes, it is one faith in the one Lord that we declare. He asked us not to take up separate crosses, but “the Cross” telling us it would be “your Cross”. Whether we prefer it is like this or not, we press forward on His way together.
Peter said to Jesus, “To Whom else shall we go? It is You that have the words of eternal life”. So it was significant that on the Sunday evening after the Paris attacks, it was to Christ that the most prominent representatives of the secularist, anti-Catholic French Republic turned. Standing before Christ’s Altar at the special Mass in Notre Dame, were the Mayor of Paris, the President of the Senate, the President of the National Assembly, the delegate of the President of the Republic and the past President Giscard d’Estaing, because in that moment of horror only the Prince of Peace will do, only the Sacrifice of his flesh and blood for the life of the world. This is why the cause of Christian unity and the fullness of communion in one Church with the successor of Peter, who realised there was no other way to go, remains urgent: our priority as much as it that of the office of Pope.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2016
As we approach the observance of the 108th Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is clear that we to “go together”, we have had to go far. It is our duty, as members of the League and as Catholic-believing Christians all together, to convince others that going far must not involve going far away – away from Catholic faith, away from Catholic order, away from the splintering life of human society that is entitled to look to the Church to be one more than any other body, the force above all that unites humanity in justice and peace, in goodness, and the reign of blessedness extolled in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
So, I invite you to use the usual leaflet accompanying this Newsletter (see sidebar for link) to pray more urgently than ever, however impossible and unrealistic it seems, for the unity of all the Christians, so that, in the heartfelt words of Father Paul Couturier, all humanity may seek to tread the path that Christ trod, grow with an ever greater holiness, and find union in God through the love and truth about humanity that is Christ Himself. We are sending you three copies of the leaflet. Please share the prayer by giving one to a friend, and pass the other to your priest. If you are a priest, please share it with your congregation at church.