Some observers date the Catholic Church's involvement with the ecumenical movement to the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960s. Others discern the roots of this breakthrough in contacts earlier in the century between Catholics and their counterparts in other churches in the local setting; this is particularly true of Catholic-Lutheran relations in nineteenth century Germany and of Anglican hopes for 'reunion' through the later nineteenth century, famously culminating in the Malines Conversations in the 1920s. There is also, of course, the foundation of the Church Unity Octave in 1908 as an unofficial and then official joint Anglican and Roman Catholic initiative, which transformed in 1993 at the hands of a French Catholic priest, Paul Couturier, into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the centenary of which the Churches celebrated in January 2008.
Some are under the impression that, whatever the interest of Catholics from time to time, nevertheless the history of hopes for Christian unity is actually a movement which originates in the various national and distinctive confessions that arose in the post-Reformation period. As the history of the founding of the Catholic League indicates, the true picture is very different. The 'faith instinct' for reconciliation among Christians and the 're-integration' of the Church in unity is integral to the nature of Catholicism. Over the centuries the sharp divisions between different groups of Christians have led to polemics and rivalry, mutual persecution and proselytism, and a tendency to 'un-Church' the others, by excommunication, anathema, or condemnation of people's very Christianity. This approach has been completely discarded as both untrue and unworthy of the name of Christian. Without compromising on any principle essential to one tradition's or another's belief in the truth, and or its belief in themselves as the true and faithful Church of Christ, it has nevertheless been possible through dialogue to discover more and more our essential unity through the sacrament of Baptism and that this participation in Christ is none other than our communion, or koinonia, our fellowship in the one Universal Church of Christ. As Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky of Kiev famously remarked, 'The walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven.' In other words, our scandalous divisions are all to apparent an impediment to the life and work of the Church in this world, but from the perspective of the Father, the Church is one in Christ. Its divisions here are harmful and disobedient towards the express will of Christ and the providence of God. So, for instance, the Catholic Church at Vatican II was able to discern that while this Universal Church of Christ perfectly 'subsists in' the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church's juridical boundaries are not all that is to be said of the life of the baptised, also members of the one Church, in other traditions and communities.
The aspirations for the unity of Christians and the various moves at times to realise it cannot properly be defined as either Protestant or Catholics - they arise from something intrinsic to the character of Christianity that constantly emerges in the life of the Church. Many Christian churches and communities recognise within themselves the essential marks of the universal Church of Christ, its holiness, its catholicity, its apostolicity. The ecumenical journey of dialogue and friendship has brought to the fore a considerable amount of agreement on these essentials, as well as revealing how very different they are interpreted and evidenced in the distinctive traditions. But it is the other essential mark of the Church, its unity, which returns again and again both as a rebuke to contemporary Christians in sinful separation and as a spur forward on the quest to render that unity visible before the world and corporate in the experience of all Christians and their churches and traditions, reconciled in Christ, 'according to his will, according to his means', as Paul Couturier envisaged it would eventually present itself.
But Christians find themselves in fact united in determination to discover this unity beyond the untruth of our present divisions. In the pages that follow, some of the story from an English perspective is traced, and especially the dynamic part taken by Catholics along the way and the essential role the Catholic faith, including the fullness of communion with the Bishop of Rome as successor in St Peter's unique ministry, mini will play in achieving an authentic ecumenism on the road to the visible and corporate unity of Christians in the one Church of Christ.
The Martyrs: Symbols of Separation, or Ecumenical Witnesses?
The breakthrough for the cause of Christian unity and ecumenical progress within the Catholic Church in the twentieth century can trace its origins in the seventeenth century, as England grew out of the mutual recriminations between Protestants and Catholics that had caused blood to flow through most of the Tudor years.
Since the 1530s, for over 70 years, successive monarchs had sent fellow Christians to be hanged, drawn and quartered or burned to death, Catholics and Protestants in almost equal number. From Thomas Bilney in 1531 under Henry VIII to William Richardson in 1603 under Elizabeth I, in or from London alone 105 Protestants and 110 Catholics lost their lives.
Virtually all of these people died in innocence, strongly convinced of their commitment to the truth of Christ and all believing, in different ways, in the need for the Church to be pure in its following of Christ and above all to be absolutely at one. The memory of Christians inflicting these cruelties on each other is a cause for shame, and a penitent promise that we will never allow these things to happen again. We are also moved by the heroism and obedience to Christ that the martyrs on both sides displayed. Nowadays we acknowledge the history to be neither Catholic nor Reformed, owning the story and the people on all sides as truly part of our own. Pope John Paul II has reminded us that, in the moment of martyrdom, those who shed their blood on account of Christ's name are most perfectly united with Jesus' own sacrifice on the Cross. In other words, from the world's perspective these martyrdoms signify our worst points of strife and division. But from the perspective of God our Father, they reveal our point of closest union with his Son.
King James VI & I: The Oath of Allegiance
The mutual martyrdoms continued until 1681, beyond the Civil War. But from the accession of James I different attitudes began to make their mark from time to time. King James I & VI regarded the Pope as the leading bishop of Christendom. But he believed that separations within Christendom did not so much signify disunity between Christians, as the independent power of the princes of sovereign nations. He believed that his Kingdom of Scotland could have one form of Protestantism, Calvinist Presbyterianism, while his Kingdom of England had another form of Church life, with an Anglican polity. The Stuart monarchs partly permitted Catholicism to be observed by members of the Court and in Ireland; and none saw reason for other countries to follow Britain's forms of Christianity, if that was what they determined. King James had no desire to extend the Reformation for its own sake, or to increase the extent of separation from Rome. Indeed he resisted the desire of Puritans and Presbyterians to distance the Church of England from the Catholic Church further, because he was aware that there were actually many areas of agreement.
Furthermore, James I's desire for a degree of peaceful co-existence among his subjects of different nations and religions led to a proposed oath for separating civil and ecclesiastical loyalties - it deliberately did not deny the Pope's spiritual authority - which he hoped would be uncontroversial. The Holy See forbade Catholics from signing the Oath of Allegiance, on the grounds that there could be no such distinction. After all, both Catholics and Protestants had laid down their lives because such civil oaths had gone to the heart of faith in previous generations, and penalties were applied to Catholics not signing.
Andrewes and Bellarmine: A First Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue
Remarkably, a dialogue ensued, with King James hoping that both sides could come to terms. He appointed the saintly and learnèd Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to put forward his proposals in an eirenic spirit. The Holy See appointed Cardinal (later Saint) Robert Bellarmine, the great scholar on Protestant thinking and the leading theologian at the Council of Trent. It was an extraordinary match, as both disputants were alike in mind and temperament, yet their participation, indeed leadership, in controversy they felt went fully against the grain. It is well known, however, that this dialogue, robust and academically polemical as it was (something in which King James revelled), it created considerable mutual respect. It ensured previously closed channels were now to be kept open. It represented two separate bodies of Christians frankly and in a Christian spirit facing their differences, advocating their beliefs and listening to those of others. Of course, each side intended to prevail, but this was out of loyalty to truth as the only reliable foundation for genuine mutual recognition. Instead of looking back to the past and the mutual persecutions of the sixteenth centuries, they broke new ground in looking forward to visible unity.
King Charles I and Pope Urban VIII
With the coming of King Charles I and his Catholic queen Henrietta Maria in 1625, contacts with Rome were increased. The king sent a resident representative to Rome in the hope of a coming to a better understanding. In exchange, the Barberini Pope Urban VIII sent representatives to the Court of St James. In 1634, Dom Leander Jones, who had been a contemporary at Oxford with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, observed that Rome was actually poorly informed about the Church of England and how it was a different case from the continental Protestant and Reformed churches. He suggested that an 'assembly of moderate men' should be brought together 'out of a sincere regard for Christian union'. But he was soon replaced. His successor, Gregorio Panzani, proposed that King Charles' admiration for Pope Urban meant that an opportunity could be found for a deal on the form of Oath of Allegiance, to make it possible for Roman Catholics to sign it. This too was ruled out in Rome. Again in 1634, the Franciscan Fr Christopher Davenport published a work to establish the compatibility of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion with the decrees of the Council of Trent. It proved highly influential in the long term, and eventually inspired Newman's Tract 90 of 1841, which aimed to establish the Church of England's ecclesiological identity as essentially Catholic, and not Protestant.
But Charles I's hopes to move closer to Rome were held in check by Puritans in the ascendant in parliament. Suspected of trying to undo Reformed Christianity, and to reintroduce the Roman religion as in the reign of Queen Mary I, his religious policies raised fears of foreign domination and the abolition of spiritual traditions and patterns of belief, which had by now taken root for over a century. The matter of the Oath would remain unresolved for two more centuries. And the time for penitence for the sins of division, reparation for the suffering all had inflicted, and prayer to see once more the overarching unity of the Church beyond national - and what would come to be seen as denominational - interests was yet to come.
Charles I lost his crown and his life in the midst of this. Antipathy towards European Catholicism once again became politicised, Catholics and Anglicans were persecuted alike during the Civil War and the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, and contacts between the Catholic Church abroad and British Christians asserting their self-determination at the dawn of their Empire and the Industrial Revolution which fired it, receded.
But the first foundations had been laid:
- Genuine dialogue
- A desire for the end to disunity and all the harm it causes
- The realisation that unity can be found in the truth of Christ
Eighteenth Century Developments
In the seventeenth century, a Civil War and the removal of two kings suspected of attempting to reimpose Catholicism and foreign power decided England on an independent course in religion. Anglicanism's image of itself was as the reasonable middle way between the extremes of Protestantism (such as the Puritanism which had felt so oppressive during the Commonwealth) and Catholicism (which was seen to involve subjecting English sovereignty to foreign power). The conditions were not favourable for promoting the visible unity of Christians, as long as this was seen to have political consequences. In the eighteenth century, with the German Lutheran Hanoverians establishing their hold on the United Kingdom, Catholics were still seen as a threat for as long as the exiled Stuarts sought to recover the throne. Relations between British Anglicans and Protestants and the Catholic Church became a matter of how to handle foreign affairs and foreign people.
This was the age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the British Empire's maritime and trading superiority. Self-sufficient, industrious, prosperous and extending its power across the globe, Britain needed Europe less, still less the Catholic religion. Its faith described as 'somnolent', Britain was pious, found its native Churches congenial, and tried to avoid the enthusiasm for religion it blamed for the conflicts of the past. Indeed, Anglicanism saw itself as superior to the Catholic Church abroad, purified of error by Reformation, tolerating Dissent. It would not tolerate Catholics in the same way, because it still felt them to represent a political threat. The scholars of the time set aside the tradition of dialogue from the reign of James I in a previous age and argued instead the inadequacy, superstition and irrelevancy of Catholicism as more suited to climes and conditions beyond British realms.
Archbishop William Wake: Sorbonne Dialogue and 'Points of Convergence'
Yet in 1718, Archbishop William Wake of Canterbury spoke forcefully of the Anglican desire for reunion with Rome, to be based on an identification of beliefs that Anglicans and Roman Catholics actually held in common. To this end he conducted a dialogue with doctors at the Sorbonne in Paris (Ellies du Pin and Piers Girardin), on the strength of his contacts in Paris when he had been chaplain to the ambassador there 1682-85. This explored, however, a union between the Church of England and a French 'Gallican' Church, detached from Rome. Far from a reconciliation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, it would have increased the schism within Christendom and came to nothing. With 'Dissenters' in England too, Archbishop Wake wanted to get beyond received views of others and their positions, allay fears and reservations and find points of convergence. Although he may have failed to discern the essential ecclesiological questions to be settled first, it is interesting how his generosity of heart and thinking prefigures that of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey when they set up the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission in 1966. Rather than a discussion where persuausion of the other was the main objective, he believe strongly that closer unity would come through rediscovering the thinking and will of Christ. This strongly prefigures, too, the desire of Paul Couturier in the mid 20th century for convergence through 'spiritual ecumenism'. But in the early 18th century in Britain, the time had not yet come for Anglican-Catholic dialogue, any more than it had for Anglican-'Dissenter' reunion in this spirit.
Spiritual Renewal in Europe
But a new spirit was in the air. Catholic Europe, despite political upheaval and religious controversies, had been experiencing religious renewal. In many ways, the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church as distinct from the various Protestant movements and national churches which separated from it, led to a Reform far more thorough and comprehensive than that of the Church of England. At the very moment of Henry VIII's breach with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, great spiritual movements were beginning in the rest of the Church, especially that of St Ignatius of Loyola and his Society of Jesus and St Teresa of Avila and the Carmelite Reform. Succeeding generations saw St John of the Cross and his influence on contemplative prayer; St Vincent de Paul with his call to serve the poor and needy (which continues to this day), to education and the spiritual life; St Francis de Sales whose gentle holiness brought many back to Christ and unity in the Catholic faith; and St Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose devotion to the mercy of the Saviour's sacred Heart and passion led to widespread missionary work, bringing people back to their faith and those who had never before encountered Christ to the Gospel for the first time. None of this quiet spiritual revolution can have failed to have an effect on the Christians of Britain.
Spiritual Renewal in England: John Wesley and 'Catholic Spirit'
So it was in England that an Evangelical movement, which had first taken root among Independents and Congregationalists, began to affect people within the Church of England. With John Wesley as its principal figure, it emphasised preaching and mission; conversion of life; trust in the merits of Christ as Saviour; the hope of salvation for all; devotional life based on the study of the Bible; disciplined examination of conscience; works of charity; the relief and improvement of the poor; and a systematic programme of religious education and formation in faith. Wesley furnished those who followed his 'Method' with a wealth of spiritual direction in sermons, letters and treatises. With his brother Charles he also left to Christian posterity a vast treasury of hymns to sustain and extend this renewal of spiritual life. The spiritual affinity with movements in the Catholic Church is obvious and it has often been remarked that, had there never been a separation between Rome and England, the Wesley brothers would certainly have been founders of a great religious order in the undivided Universal Church.
An important principle to John Wesley was that of 'Catholic spirit', the idea that the body of Christians was one Church, united to the Lord not by way of adherence to separate ecclesiastical confessions, but through faith in the core essentials of belief set out in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. This has been called 'transconfessional Evangelicalism' because, loyal as he expected his followers to be to the churches to which they were subject, Wesley had no time for 'party spirit', that is, setting any consideration or loyalty above belief and trust in Christ, the Lamb of God, slain for all, for the redemption of all from sin, and the union of all in the New Man, the Second Adam, the new Creation.
Even though Wesley shared the prejudices of his day concerning Roman Catholicism, the breadth of his conception of the Body of Christ, the Church, can genuinely be said to be ecumenical, and thus it laid vital foundations for the future coming of the modern movement for the Unity of Christians:
- The call to repentance as the first step towards union with Christ
- The idea that belonging to Christ through faith and baptism transcends allegiance to separate groups and traditions within the one Church of God
- The belief that life in the fellowship of the Church is a journey of constant conversion and desire for the union of the saints in Christ.
Jonathan Edwards: A Concert of Prayer
Meanwhile, in 1744, Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist pastor in Connecticut, preached a sermon that set Protestants in America alight with spiritual fervour. A Concert of Prayer, or A humble attempt to promote the agreement and union of God's people throughout the world in extraordinary prayer for a revival of religion and the advancement of God's kingdom on earth foretold the glorious state of the Church, its people united in seeking the Lord. Observing unity in prayer, they were exhorted to ask the Lord to show mercy to mankind, pour out his Spirit, revive his work and advance his kingdom in the world as he promised. Scottish ministers agreed to set aside the first Tuesday of every quarter for uniting in prayer in this way in 1746, as well as every Saturday evening and Sunday morning; and these 'concerts of prayer' had also begun to take off in North America. Pentecostalists look to this time of unity in prayer for spiritual renewal as the "Great Awakening". Christian history looks back on this movement of prayer as the beginning of spiritual ecumenism, the Week of Prayer, the recovery of the Church's vision of itself as one Body, and the sanctification of all the faithful in the unity and humanity of Christ.
Shute Barrington: 'Catholic Union'
In 1810, the Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, in the extraordinary Charge to the Clergy wrote of his hopes for 'catholic union' between Roman Catholics and 'the Catholics of the Church of England'. Of course, he meant for Roman Catholics to adapt to an Anglican perspective, but his motivation was deeper: a search in a spirit of truth and charity to overcome prejudice, roused passions, bias and anything contrary to the Gospel. It is not surprising that he was in favour of lifting the civil disabilities Catholics had faced for centuries, although he felt political power should be denied them as long as the Pope maintained opposition to the legitimacy of the British state. This idea of 'Catholic' in a broad sense to describe the Anglican polity in relation to the rest of Christianity echoes the thinking of John Jewel and Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes and William Laud. But it also looks forward to the inspiration behind Archbishop Michael Ramsey's and Pope Paul VI's Common Declaration in 1966. In some ways it is also the precursor of Cardinal Walter Kasper's great idea, as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, of 'Receptive Ecumenism'. Thus the Catholic Church not only learns from other Christian traditions, but moves to overcome the disunity whereby it has not been able to enjoy the gifts and workings God has provided for them, and to receive them into her life and make them her own.
James Haldane Stewart: New Year Prayer for Unity
In 1821, the Rector of St Bride's Church in Liverpool, the Revd James Haldane Stewart, published Hints for the General Union of Christians for the Outpouring of the Spirit, calling for the first Monday of each New Year to be set aside for prayer for unity. The proposal combined for the first time the Scottish-American movement for a 'Concert of Prayer' at a regular, given time with the Wesleyan Evangelical expectation that people from all Christians could rise above the confession to which they belonged and unite in common faith and prayer.
At the time, no one thought that this included Catholics, but 150 years later, looking back, this was seen as a vital part of the foundations of what was to become the Week of Prayer and the whole edifice of spiritual ecumenism. It was, after all, only a few years ahead of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the general relaxation of attitudes to Catholics, not least in the light of the persecution of Catholic clergy, religious and lay people under the French Revolution, the growing assault of secular liberalism on Christianity in France and elsewhere in Europe, and the greater familiarity of British people with the many Catholic refugees in their midst. It was becoming clearer to some in Britain that Christianity not only had a Protestant dimension, it had a legacy from the past, in which Christendom had been united and strong in company with Rome, and that there was a contemporary Catholic dimension which, increasingly, it made no sense to ignore.
Nevertheless, this initiative occasioned the first time that Christians of different denominations were brought together to pray together in public. It was thus a visible sign of unity.
Bishop James Warren Doyle: 'Overcome Misunderstanding'
In 1824, James Warren Doyle, Catholic bishop of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland, observed that on most matters - the Canon of Scripture, the faith, justification, the mass, the sacraments - there were actually few essential differences between Catholics and Protestants, the present diversity arising from historic forms of terminology. He called for both sids to shake off the old prejudices and ill will, and to overcome ignorance and misunderstanding. Pride and scoring points ought to be foreign to a discussion of such subjects, he insisted, and only a love of Christian humility, charity and truth could be of benefit. Paul Couturier was to speak in almost exactly the same terms over a hundred years later, when he launched the renewed Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Cathedral of Lyon in 1933.
Johann Adam Möhler: Unity in the Church
Germany since the Reformation had lived with being a collection of states, some Catholic, some Protestant, within the loose structure of the Holy Roman Empire and then its successors after 1805. The realities of living with religious pluralism meant there was a much stronger tradition of dialogue and disputation on religious ideas between Catholic and Protestant university theology faculties than in Britain, significantly distanced from European studies through its isolation by the English Channel and preoccupied with global imperial concerns. In 1825, a young lecturer in the Catholic theology faculty of the University of Tübingen, Father Johann Adam Möhler, in the course of dialogue with Protestant counterparts, produced his book, Unity in the Church, which many see as the foundation of modern Catholic ecclesiology. Möhler saw the gap in Protestant movements in favour of unity: that they failed to take account of the visible reality of the Church and its structure as the expression and instrument of the Gospel and faith they proclaim. Unity is not therefore just a matter of spiritual kinship and prayer, or even agreement on doctrine; by the same token, neither is it a single monolithic institution, imposing unanimity from above, demanding assent from below. Möhler identified the reality of life and faith in the Catholic Church as communio:
- The communion of the bishop with each of his people in the Church, his local diocese
- The communion of neighbouring bishops with each other regionally and in the entire episcopate worldwide
- The communion of the entire episcopate with the Pope as successor to Peter, strengthening his brothers, and with them the Pope's communion with the entire body of the faithful.
Möhler was thus the first to put forward the idea of unity in diversity, not to sanction the existence of separate groups of Christians (however closely they might be associated in prayer and common faith), but to explain how only communio in the one visible Body of Christ can hold together and sanctify the belief and life of so many individual Christians in the Church. He saw Catholic unity as a threefold process, or network:
- unity of spirit, characterised by prayer and mutual spiritual affinity
- unity of mind, or mental unity, characterised by doctrinal accord and mutual agreement in faith and belief
- unity of body, in which Christians at one in prayer and faith are visibly united in the same fellowship and the life of the one Church of God.
In more recent times, Pope John Paul II, surveying all the gifts in the different groups and traditions by which the Church as a whole is enriched, described communio as the special gift that uniquely the Catholic Church can offer, as Peter strengthens his brothers and sisters with the very structure and organisation that embody the Gospel it proclaims. He has also, in his search for new models by which the office of Pope can be of service to other Christians, proposed a prior ‘affective collegiality’ of friendship, common witness to faith, and pastoral and evangelistic service to the world, leading steadily to the 'effective collegiality’ of reconciliation, complete communio and visible unity.
Ignatius Spencer: The Plan of Prayer for Union
In 1845, the Passionist Fr Ignatius Spencer CP, Edward Pusey, the leader of the Anglican Tractarians, and the future Cardinal Newman won a measure of official approval for a scheme of parallel prayer for unity between Anglicans and Catholics, based on a similar scheme of Spencer's in France and Germany. It was based on the Rosary; and where Catholics recited the Hail, Mary Anglicans offered the Our Father. Remarkably, this scheme attracted the support of the future Cardinal Manning and came to be sanctioned by the English Catholic bishops. Of course, in those days the underlying assumption was that Anglicans would abandon their separation and seek reconciliation with the Catholic Church. But this still marked the beginning of the idea that the reconciliation of Christians is corporate as well as personal and that prayer is the first point in which Christians of separate communions can begin to meet. It is the ground-breaking first occasion on which prayer for unity and reconciliation in common with other Christians was commended by the Catholic Church.
The Evangelical Alliance: New Year Prayers for Unity
In a spiritual parallel, from 1846 the Evangelical Alliance, too, was suggesting the first Sunday of the New Year as a day of prayer for Christian Unity. This built on foundations in the preceding century laid by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, urging prayer for unity in Christ above all confessional divisions as the aim of all who embrace the Gospel, and the 'concerts of prayer' for the outpouring of the Spirit proposed by Jonathan Edwards and, later, James Haldane Stewart. This call to prayer for unity, from 52 separate Protestant denominations from across the world, had a considerable psychological effect for promoting consciousness of the need for unity among Christians.
While plans for reunion were not developed, it is interesting that standards of doctrine for membership of the Alliance were, and remain, rigid. There was a unity of spirit and, to some degree, of mind; but there was lacking a unity of body, signified by a lack of central leadership and organisation. Despite this need for deeper communio, it paved the way for ecumenical organisations, such as the YMCA, YWCA and the Student Christian Movement which, in the twentieth century, would lead directly to the formation of the World Council of Churches itself.
Cardinal Wiseman and Ambrose de Lisle: Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom
In 1857, with the encouragement of Cardinal Wiseman, a small group of Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox founded the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, to work and pray for the corporate reunion of churches and church bodies in East and West. They were led by Ambrose Philips de Lisle, a distinguished Anglican layman who as a Roman Catholic founded Mount St Bernard's Abbey. Wiseman had been influenced by fresh thinking on the nature of the Church by Fr Johann Adam Möhler, the first to propose the notion of unity in diversity as a possible pathway for reconstructing communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches to the East, as well as with the historic Churches arising out of the Reformation period in the West. Grounded in deep scholarship of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, this approach in turn influenced Cardinal Newman amd subsequently, through Fr Yves Congar OP, the formulation of Lumen Gentium at Vatican III. Wiseman's Letter to Lord Shrewsbury, a leading Victorian Catholic peer, explored these ideas and resulted in a pamphlet by de Lisle, The Future Unity of Christendom. Its constructive and eirenic proposal hoping to create the conditions and the will for corporate reunion saw de Lisle, Augustus Welby Pugin (the famous Catholic architect) and the Anglicans, Dr Frederick Lee and Bishop Forbes of Brechin found the Association with the express approval of Cardinal Wiseman. This was the first organisation to be established expressly to work and pray for Christian unity according to Catholic ecumenical principles.
Its ideas would have been very much in tune with modern Catholicism's ecumenical movement since Vatican II, but in the 1860s it was too far ahead of its time. Because of imprudent letters in APUC's periodical, The Union Review, from Roman Catholic priests at odds with their bishops, as well as misleading translation of the Basis of the Association into Latin and French, which seemed to compromise on Cactholic teaching, the Association was condemned. In 1864 Manning secured a letter from the Holy Office, Ad omnes episcopos Angliae, forbidding Catholics to continue as members. It was left to Anglicans and Orthodox to carry forward the Association and its ideals, one of the fruits being the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, founded in 1928 as a society encouraging encounter and unity between Anglicans and Orthodox.
For a Reflection on Catholic Ecumenical Caution and the Long Term Effects for Anglicanism, press here
Vatican I: Different Priorities for Roman Catholics and other Christians
The declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870, at the moment the Papacy lost temporal power to the newly united Italy, symbolised still further the distance between the Catholic Church and other Christians at the time. Evangelical ecumenical movements continued to develop and, in the Anglican world, people who had looked out to the universal Church for the fulfilment of their consciousness of Catholicism turned to their own resources in search of communio. Thus, with a confident Roman Catholic hierarchy, newly restored in 1851, and a Church of England invigorated with a recovered sense of its Catholic origins and its place in the Universal Church, two rival Churches made exclusive claims to be 'the Catholic Church of this land'. Even those who continued to entertain hopes for reunion envisaged little progress in these circumstances.
William Reed Huntington: The Church Idea: an Essay toward Unity
Nevertheless, also in 1870, in Massachusetts a priest of the Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church, William Reed Huntington, published an essay on the nature of the Church and the urgent need for the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican-Episcopal 'branches' to come together.
The trouble with the 'branch theory' of Christendom's evolution into a collection of separate bodies is, first, that it assumes that divisions between Christians are somehow the result of the growth of the Church. But clearly a correct understanding of the Church's growth, in obedience to the will and prayer of Jesus in John 17 on the night before he died, is that it becomes ever more one with him and within itself. Secondly, branches never can grow organically back into each other.
The theory may partially account for origins; and it has been used to advance the claim, especially within the Anglican Communion, to be inseparable from the same trunk as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and to share the same roots. It tends however to exclude Christians of Reformed and other Protestant traditions and also fails to recognise that far from there being a division into several branches, the Church is to be visibly one: to press the analogy, the Church is to be identified in the one trunk, the single vine. Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox Churches conceive of themselves as 'part of' the Universal Church of Christ, or a branch of it. Famously the Catholic Church understands itself to be that within which the Universal Church 'subsists' in fulness - not to deny other Christians a place within the Church, but to assert that the Catholic Church will be found lacking in nothing of that which belongs to the Universal Church.
The inadequacy of the 'branch theory' as an account of the wide variety of Christian ecclesiologies lies in its not being really scriptural, whereas the understanding of the Church as the communion of the baptised in union with Christ and in union (however imperfectly in this world) with each other richly sets forth the teaching of Jesus himself and of the letters of the apostles Paul and Peter.
Reed Huntington partly discerned this and, rather than examining distinctive but comparable features in the Churches, he took up William Wake's and Shute Barrington's suggestion of converging on points of faith and order that all held in common and which could serve as the basis for discussions leading to unity with other Christians. He listed four: the Old and New Testaments, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, the 'dominical' sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, and the 'historic' episcopate. By 1886 the American Episcopal Bishops meeting in Chicago had come to elaborate on the proposal and orient it firmly toward the reunion of 'Catholic Christendom' in organic unity. The third Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1888 pragmatically adopted the 'Quadrilateral' in Reed Huntington's less ambitious form. As the Lambeth Quadrilateral it has become the basis of union between the different Churches and provinces of the Anglican Communion, as well as a simple definition of its understanding of its catholicity and apostolicity. But it is worth remembering that it was not devised as a summary of Anglican ecclesiology, but as a starting point for dialogue with non-Anglican Christians towards bringing about Christian unity. It is interesting how it is a point to which dialogues return, whereas it more truly represents part of a process from which, like the stages of ARCIC and even the Decree on Ecumenism, there has been a movement forward.
Ascension Day Prayer for Unity
Despite the way in which the Holy Office and Cardinal Manning in Westminster had distanced Rome from officially sponsored and individual initiatives on union between Anglicans, Catholics and others, in 1878 the second Lambeth Conference recommended the observance of a special season of prayer for reunion on or near Ascension Day.
Lord Halifax and Fernand Portal: The Ecumenical Question of Anglican Orders
In 1889 Charles Lindley Wood, Viscount Halifax, haunted by the earlier disappointed hopes of Anglican-Roman reunion, met Fernand Portal, a French priest interested in overcoming the obstacles preventing it. Portal identified the root problem as the Roman Catholic position that Anglican orders were invalid. The discussions excited the interest of scholars on both sides and Halifax became hopeful that the matter could be resolved in favour of the Anglicans, pressing for a re-examination of the issue and a positive outcome.
Henry Lunn: Grindelwald Conferences and Whitsunday Prayer for Unity
In 1894, the Catholic-spirited Methodist layman, Sir Henry Lunn, promoted 'Home Reunion Conferences' at Grindelwald in Switzerland, proposing to Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury the Whitsunday (Pentecost) be kept as a day of prayer for Unity between the great Christian traditions. Benson's response was warm and thus promoted Whitsunday prayers for Unity in 1894 and 1895.
Halifax, Portal and Pope Leo XIII - The Ascensiontide Novena
In 1895, with the commission to examine Anglican Orders was under way, Pope Leo XIII, with whom Halifax and Portal had had two cordial and encouraging audiences, called for an octave of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, promoting patient study of the possibility of Christian unity through a conciliatory letter, Ad Anglos (Amantissimae Voluntatis). The Archbishop of York, William Maclagan famously declared, 'Unity is in the air.'
But a number of English Catholics, led by Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster, and influential figures in Rome such as Merry del Val, did not share Leo's interest in other Christian bodies and his desire to examine difficulties on as open and positive a spirit as possible. They opposed moves that could lead to corporate reunion, not least as they believed no scheme could in the end command the support of Anglicans in general. And Cardinal Manning had earlier written, 'Rather than being a rampart against irreligion, the Church of England must be recognized as the mother of all intellectual and spiritual aberrations which today cover the face of England.'
Rome and Canterbury: Apostolicae Curae, Saepius Officio and Divinum Illud Munus
The Commission established by Pope Leo was inconclusive, with opinion divided. In the end, the Pope accepted the view that the case for affirming the validity of Anglican orders had not been made and that reunion could thus not find a basis, to use Möhler's principles, in an existing unity of spirit, mental unity of doctrine and rite, or unity of body in terms of the two Churches' respective structure and organisation. In 1896 he published the famous letter, Apostolicae Curae, to determine the issue. Some have seen this as a devastating rebuff; others as one foundation on which the future could build an authentic unity from first principles. The Anglican Archbishops answered with a Letter, Saepius in Officio, contesting the judgment and the arguments on which it rested. This appears to have been highly regarded by Leo. Arguably the absence of a response signals respect for its argument; and certainly Leo did not wish the controversy to be sustained with an inconclusive and increasingly pained disputation. Perhaps it can be said that there was a tacit agreement to disagree Furthermore, Cardinal Rampolla, who had presided over the commission of investigation, encouraged Portal to continue with his private contacts and encounters with the Anglicans. That he was shortly afterwards appointed rector of the seminary in Nice and then to leadership at the University Seminary of St Vincent de Paul in Paris, which thus became a propitious place for informal ecumenical contacts, indicates the continued confidence of Rome and the French hierarchy in his endeavours. He continued to meet Lord Halifax. Both were disappointed with the outcome of the Rome commission, but not discouraged. Halifax went on to be a leading figure in the Malines Conversations in Belgium under the auspices of Cardinal Mercier twenty-five years later.
But meanwhile, after the investing of such deep prayer and high hopes in imminent mutual recognition and reunion by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the shock of so negative an outcome to the examination of Anglican faith and order, official Anglican interest looked instead for more positive contact with the Eastern Churches. it also began to look more positively at reunion with Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England.
Anglicanism nurtured a growing and resurgent sense of itself as being a legitimate non-Roman form of Catholicism, a sense given definition by F.D. Maurice's increasingly authoritative 1838 examination on the Church of England's catholicity and apostolicity, The Kingdom of Christ. To some extent, this distinctively Catholic-Anglican take on ecclesiology continues to shape Anglicanism's attitudes to its ecumenical dialogues and especially the very terms and categories in its discussions with the Roman Catholic Church. The continuing significance of this book and its nuances to meanings of words used in common, but often with subtly different senses, should not be overlooked or underestimated, when assessing Anglican-Roman Catholic relations and the history of the dialogues.
And as for the Roman Catholic Church, even after Pope Leo's concluding judgment on the Anglican question at the time, the cause of Catholic unity as the ecumenical path for English Christians was not entirely extinguished at the close of the nineteenth century. In 1897, in the encyclical Divinum illud munus, Leo XIII formally established the novena from Ascension Day to Pentecost as a season of prayer for the Unity of Christians - arguably a signal of hope in response to Saepius Officio - in perpetuity.
Wattson and Spencer Jones: The Church Unity Octave
In 1908, Father Paul Wattson SA, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (while still an Anglican) and his friend the Reverend Spencer Jones, Anglican vicar of St David's, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, began the Church Unity Octave. Spencer Jones had accepted in 1900 an invitation to address one of a series of meetings organised by the now declining Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, at St Matthew's Church in Westminster. He was encouraged by Lord Halifax to work the thesis into a book, which was published in 1902 as England and the Holy See. It was a lucid exposition of the Anglican pro-Roman Catholic position, asserting the indispensability of the visible unity of Christ's Church and of an ecumenism to which Catholicism as it is was integral - and this included facing the question of the role and authority of the Bishop of Rome if the Church of England was to recover its communion with him.
The book caused a sensation and led to correspondence and friendship between Wattson and Jones. In 1907 they jointly published a work on the Petrine office, The Prince of the Apostles, and later in the year made preparations for their octave to be set between the feasts of the great apostles of the Church in Rome - St Paul's Conversion and St Peter's Chair, marking the establishment of his episcopal ministry. It was to prove the foundation of what would later become the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Their intention was the reunion of Christendom around the See of Peter. The devotion received the approval of Pope Pius X the following year, alongside Leo XIII's Ascensiontide Novena, not long after Fr Wattson and his community became Roman Catholics themselves. But why was reunion with the See of Rome so important to a significant body of Anglicans?
Despite the setbacks of the later part of the 19th century, historically, as well as theologically, they saw the Catholic Church as the most likely means of bringing unity to the world, in an age facing its breaking point with the past. With so much of the surrounding social and cultural world in a swift moving process in search of new directions, they sensed that upheaval in the world was calling for Christ's Church to be united and strong. British Christians of all traditions had been horrified by the persecution and martyrdoms of Catholic lay people, religious and priests under France's Third Republic from 1905 onwards. Their steadfastness in their Catholic faith and their loyalty to the See of Peter made a profound impression. It evoked within ecumenically minded Anglicans a strong sense of solidarity with universal Christendom, and the limitations endured by a Christian faith divided on national and confessional lines. While Christians call for reconciliation and unity in the world in the world in the the name of the love of Christ and the peace and justice of his Gospel, yet are unable or unwilling to realise it visibly in their own life and organisation, the Church that remains divided before the world is a scandal to the proclamation of the gospel before the world. Perhaps this was felt the more urgently as the Christian powers of Europe were about to tear themselves apart in war.
The observance of the Church Unity Octave was extended to the whole Roman Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. Pope Benedict devoted his pontificate to persuading the powers of Christian Europe not to tear each other apart in the First World War, and to promoting peace and reconciliation as the antidote to the world's ills. He saw the Octave, and the potential of its emphasis on unity and prayer, as a vital tool in getting this job done. The world leaders who had scoffed at his calls to peace recognised he was right when they came to deal with the war's aftermath at Versailles in 1919, not least as the spectre of atheist communism now loomed over Europe from the East in Russia. The Holy See, most notably in the pontificate of John Paul II, has ever since striven for human unity as the path to peace and justice in the world, promoting Christian prayer for Christian unity as the principal means by which it can become a reality.
Thus began the modern ecumenical movement. Its first steps were those of prayer, shaped by the dialogues and devotions of a previous age, but now grounded in the realities and urgent needs of a very different and fast changing new world.
The Edinburgh Missionary Conference
With a different kind of vision, the Edinburgh Mission Conference in 1910 saw Anglicans and Protestants addressing a very practical concern to prevent various Christian communities from fighting over the 'unchurched' in the African and Asian regions. This brought together 121 different denominations and was accompanied by two exciting new movements, Life and Work and Faith and Order. Of course, while the initiatives are seen in Protestant and Anglican circles, inaccurately, as the start of the modern ecumenical movement, the equation leaves out the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of the Christian East. Out of this would one day grow the World Council of Churches after the Second World War, and in time Faith and Order became an integral part of it. The Roman Catholic Church never joined the WCC, unlike the Eastern Churches; but has been an active collaborator with it and, indeed a full member of the Faith and Order Commission since the 1960s.
Light from the East
With Rome decided on a policy of 'the ecumenism of return' to the Holy See, rather than corporate reunion, Anglicans and the Orthodox looked to each other more closely, an affinity which had partly grown through Britain's imperial interests in the Middle East in the later nineteenth century, partly through contacts with refugees following the Russian Revolution and partly because of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had governed many of the Christian Churches of the East, after the First World War and the hopes of Greek Christians to recover territory, including Constantinople, from Turkey and restore a contemporary Byzantium. Religious links with Anglicans were as important as political links with Britain and the Allies. Thus in 1920 the Lambeth Conference of all Anglican Bishops and the Metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate both issued letters calling for the union of the Christian Churches (the Patriarchate called in a 'koinonia of churches'), in a spirit of prayer and mutual recognition of worship. In 1921 the new Patriarch Meletius, who had earlier visited England to foster ideas of union with Anglicans, sent delegates to the Faith and Order Conference in Geneva; and in 1922 affirmed Anglican orders, spiritual and sacramental life, calling for prayer for union between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. This drew a formal complaint from the Vatican.
Max Joseph Metzger and Una Sancta
In 1919, again out of the devastation of World War, Max Joesph Metzger, a priest from Germany founded two communities, one for women and one for men, at Graz in Austria, known as the League of the White Cross. Not long afterwards it moved to Germany and became known as the Society of Christ the King; the men's community ceased to exist, but the women's congregation led to the establishment in 1928 of the House of Christ the King at Meitingen near Augsburg, the object of which was to be a centre of work and prayer for unity. In 1927 Metzger had attended the Faith and Order Conference in a private capacity, one of few Roman Catholics to do so, and worked for the ecumenical cause across Europe all his life. In time the Christ the King movement became the current Una Sancta movement and ecumenical journal, all in collaboration with the Benedictine abbey at Niederaltaich in Bavaria.
Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier of Malines-Bruxelles
During a visit to the United States in 1919, after he had led and held the Belgian people together during German occupation and the raging in his country of the First World War, Cardinal Mercier of Belgium experienced his imaginative horizons concerning the world and Christianity widen, in sympathy with his generous and deeply spiritual temperament. He visited a number of Protestant theology faculties and addressed the Convention of the Episcopal Church. On his return he wrote to Pope Benedict XV to outline his intentions for healing the wounds of a humanity injured by war through healing the injuries to Christianity caused by its divisions. Pope Benedict had pleaded for peace during the war and, in the midst of it, established the Church Unity Octave throughout the Church as another means to bring humanity together in peace in one Church. Mercier received no response, but concluded, 'Qui tacet consentit - those who say nothing consent.' So he began in earnest his ecumenical ministry. This is his well known 'Testament':
In order to unite with one another, we must love one another;Mercier and Metropolitan Andreas Szeptycki
in order to love one another, we must know one another;
in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.
A rising concern in the 'Latin' West was the question of Eastern Churches in communion with the See of Rome and how this affected relations with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. In previous centuries politics and Western triumphalism had played their part, causing historic Churches to be divided in loyalty and even weakening all the Christian communities in usually Muslim-ruled lands. There was a good deal of bitterness and mutual recrimination and suspicion, some of which continues to this day, despite strenuos efforts at friendship and understanding on all sides. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches were the groups which had remained in communion with Rome when most of their Church had abandoned this union in favour of Eastern Orthodoxy (the Melchite Greek Catholic Church for instance). Others resulted from existence in a Roman Catholic state (such as the Greek Catholics of the Western Ukraine, whereas the Orthodox of the Easter Ukraine remained in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church - this is a particularly controversial separation). Others arose from attempts to bring Oriental rite Christians, believed to be 'heretics' by the Rome authorities in past centuries, into union with Western Catholicism as a 'corrective' to their error (the relations between the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Churches, also between the Syrian Catholic and Syriac Orthodox illustrate this history, much transformed into friendship in recent years). After the First World War, France and Belgium witnessed the presence of many refugees from the Eastern Churches and this inspired a desire to heal divisions in the name of Christ's peace and charity.
Difficulties for Eastern Catholics under Polish jurisdiction after the First World War, in Belarus and Ukrainian areas, as well as strained relations between Eastern Catholics and Roman Catholics in Belarus and the Ukraine, not to mention the painful division between Ukrainian Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox in communion with the suffering Russian Orthodox Church, inspired the Greek Catholic Metrolitan of Lviv in Ukraine, Cardinal Andreas Szeptycki, to enlist the support of Mercier in raising awareness in the West and in overcoming problems in the East, following sympathetic comments on the problems from Pope Benedict XV at a consistory in 1919. This in turn led to a presentation by Szeptycki in Rome, to which the French and Belgian bishops responded generously. Although Mercier died in 1926, the enduring contacts in Belgium and France proved greatly encouraging in the dark years ahead. In 1925 Pope Pius XI established the Pro Russia Ecclesiae Uniendi Commission (for the Union of Russia with the Church) to have responsibility for relations with Greek Catholics in the former territory of the Russian Empire, to offer assistance to all Christians in Russia and to work for the unity of the Orthodox with the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, this work was confided to a French Jesuit bishop, Michel d'Herbigny who understood his mission as the expansion of Roman Catholicism eastwards, regardless of the Eastern Catholic rites and the Orthodox Churches. Some Eastern rite provision was made, but energy was also devoted to setting up a Russian Catholic structure, using Eastern forms to persuade Russians away from Orthodoxy to union with Rome. Hardly even an 'ecumenism of return', it was a policy of conversion. As such, it was entirely counter-productive and d'Herbigny was removed from office in 1934. Szeptycki worked around the Commission and was able to guard the autonomy of his own Church as well as establish episcopal oversight for the Eastern Catholics of Belarus. He also strongly resisted the Pro Russia policy with regard to Orthodox of the Ukraine and Russia. With the departure of the Soviets and the arrival of the Nazis, Szeptycki continued to tread a perillous path, most notably protecting 150 Jewish people, mostly children. Arguably, his leadership and pastoral instinct, supported by significant friends like Mercier in the West, helped to bring about lasting change in attitudes in Rome to relations with the Christian East, especially the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe.
Mercier and the Malines Conversations
In a completely different direction, from 1921 to 1926 Cardinal Mercier led the famous Malines Conversations aimed at a rapprochement between Anglicans and Catholics, involving Lord Halifax and the Abbé Fernand Portal. In some ways, the Malines Conversations were a taking stock after the judgement of Leo XIII; but their tentative, unofficial status arguable promoted a meeting of spirit, heart and mind without the pressure of a specific objective other than greater understanding and affinity. It can rightly be said to be an early fruit of the Church Unity Octave of Prayer.
The Conversations have often been criticised as failing to take into account more than one ‘Anglo-Catholic’ viewpoint from among the full range of doctrinal and ecclesiological positions within the Anglican community, as well as for disregarding the relevance to Anglican-Roman Catholic discussions of English Roman Catholicism (although they enjoyed the interested good will of Cardinal Bourne, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time). But this misses several new conditions. The first was the experience of all-consuming war which had brought down the Christian status quo across Europe: to match the secular and political League of Nations, Christians looked for a spiritual and ecclesial union of Churches. The second was the gentle but insistent call of Benedict XV to peace and reconciliation. The third was the experience at first hand of tens of thousands of Eastern Christian refugees in the West. It was beginning to dawn on Christians on all sides that no one church exhausts all that there is to say of Christ and that, increasingly, all relied on each other to bring strength to each other and hope to the world. A fourth new condition was the Liturgical Movement.
Malines: Dom Lambert Beauduin and the Monks of Unity
This was a movement to restore the celebration of the liturgy to enrich the spirituality and mission of both clergy and lay people. It inspired a rediscovery of the traditions of Eastern Christianity and the treasures of the West as well. Pioneered in the monasteries, Dom Lambert Beauduin became a leading figure. Another great centre was the famous Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany, where Dom Odo Casels and Ildefons Herwegen brilliantly led the liturgical renewal, with its vigorous after-effects for ecclesiology and ecumenism. It was no accident that the Monks of Unity which Beauduin founded at the request of Cardinal Mercier were asked to work and pray for unity between Catholics in the West with all the Christians of the Eastern Churches, resulting in a Benedictine monastery in which were twinned monks of the Roman and the Byzantine rites at Amay-sur-Meuse in Belgium (nowadays at Chevetogne). In 1924, Beauduin convinced Pope Pius XI to write the Letter Equidem Verba to the Abbot General of the Benedictines, asking the Order to work in a special way for unity. This enabled the foundation of Amay in 1925, as well as the Vita et Pax Foundation within the Olivetan congregation of the Order of St Benedict at Schotenhof, also in Belgium, in 1926 under the leadership of Dom Constantine Bosschaerts. Ever since the 1920s Vita et Pax has worked to encourage East-West Christian dialogue and its longstanding support for Christian-Jewish encounter has broadened out into important Interreligious Dialogue and Interreligious Monastic exchange and retreats. In England this work is continued by the communities at Turvey in Bedfordshire and Cockfosters in North London. Again in Belgium, the last of the Beguines in Bruges became the foundress of a new Benedictine Community, the Daughters of the Church, especially given to the service of pastoral and liturgical renewal and to Christian unity.
Beauduin’s links with the Malines Conversations and Cardinal Mercier had brought a characteristic ‘liturgical’, that is to say spiritual, light to bear on the question of reconciling Anglicans and Catholics (Mercier saw the dialogue as standing for Catholic unity with regard to Lutherans and other ‘severed’ Christians as well).
Beauduin, surveying Anglicanism’s liturgical, sacramental and spiritual life, as well as its threefold ministry, envisaged a reunion for Anglicans as a distinctive body within the wider Catholic Church in his provocative and somewhat idealised proposal of 1925, The Anglican Church, United not Absorbed. Sadly this approach led to his exile from Amay, and to the termination of the Conversations after Mercier’s and Portal’s deaths in 1926. Bishop b'Herbigny moved against him and the Monks of Unity, and secured a decision banishing him from the monastery he had founded and restricting the community from further work with Anglicans and Protestants: from now on they were to concentrate on the 'union of Russia with the Church'. This of course was entirely contrary to the Monastery's founding charism. But even without Beauduin's leadership the monastery persevered as it could in continuing with the ethos inspired by Cardinal Mercier from the beginning. It was this persistence as a liturgical centre for the spiritual and pastoral life as a means towards the re-invigoration of the Church, in some ways a precursor to Pope John XXIII's opening of the windows to let some air in for his famous aggiornamento, that drew Yves Congar, the great Dominican theologian, prime architect of Lumen Gentium and possibly the greatest of the Catholic Church's ecumenical theorists and advocates in the twentieth century, together with Paul Couturier, the schoolmaster priest from Lyon and future re-founder of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the 'apostle of unity' and spiritual ecumenism, together by providence for an encounter on retreat, to discover Amay's greatest treasure - the ecumenical vocation of the Catholic Church in the decades to come.
Beauduin was not to return to his Monastery until after it moved to Chevetogne in 1939, but although much had moved on, it had still managed to remain faithful to his ideals and kept his vision alive - not only in the encounter between East and West which remains a delay experience in the life of the community to this day, but also in its work and hope for reconciliaton among the Christians of the West.
Although in 1926 the Malines Conversations were officially discontinued and those who participated were dead, silenced or kept at a distance in the years that followed, there can be no doubt that their international and interchurch character revived the memory of dialogue mostly forgotten since the 17th century and proved to be the foundation stone for the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission following Vatican II in 1965, as well as for so many other dialogues and conversations between Catholics and other Christians. In other words, they encouraged the Catholic Church to rise to its vocation to offer unity, communio, to all Christians. Moreover, the Liturgical Movement had a profound influence in reforming the patterns of worship and spirituality in churches far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic world, not least in the widespread recovery in the Anglican Communion of the ‘Parish Communion’, once more restoring the Eucharist as the central feature of its devotion and mission. Perhaps more than anything, this has been the point at which a sense of affinity (the 'affective ecumenism' to which Pope John Paul II has referred) and spiritual unity – and thus the acute suffering occasioned by the absence of complete communion – between Catholics and other Christians has revealed itself.
Paul Couturier: A renewed Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
In 1933, Paul Couturier, a Catholic schoolmaster priest from Lyon in France, had returned from Amay, having become on oblate of the Monks of Unity. He was deeply inspired by the new direction given to his priestly life by seeing the liturgy as prayer, and not just recitation; their work for unity, opening up a new world of including the Eastern Churches and the Anglicans, came as a complete revelation. The influence of Cardinal Mercier's work and vision had a profound effect on him as did the towering influence, although absent, of Dom Lambert Beauduin. He had previously been moved by the tens of thousands of Eastern Christian refugees who had been sheltered around Lyon after the First World War and the Russian Revolution; it had been his first encounter with Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholics and, like many Church people in the city, he had done what he could to help, feed and befriend them. This vivid memory and the transformation that he had undergone through the encounters associated with Amay, gave him the idea that to heal humanity's injuries, the sin of Christian division had to be overcome through unity made visible and active in the Church by a profound change of heart and direction. He resolved on nothing less than shifting the entire emphasis of the old Church Unity Octave.
Instead of prayer for others to become Roman Catholics, he proposed that all Christians could unite in prayer to grow in holiness and union with Christ and the Father, in the spirit of John 17: 'Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they all be one, that the world may believe it was you who sent me'. As all could thus converge on Christ, they could achieve unity through the richness of prayer and belief expressed in different parts of Christianity, for the moment divided, yet already truly one through Baptism: 'The walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven' (Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky of Kiev).
At the heart of this process of ever closer union with Christ, was what Couturier called ‘spiritual emulation’. The idea of ‘emulation’ was partly borrowed from leisure activity, in which people could take up new skills, hobbies or knowledge by learning from one another: Couturier saw that different Christian traditions, Reformed and Catholic, Eastern and Western, possessed so many treasures in separation, that in embracing each other’s ways and traditions and making them one’s own could draw different groups of Christians very closely together, expanding their life as they received new gifts without diminishing it as they passed their own riches to someone else. But spiritual emulation was also an idea of Blessed Columba Marmion, the famous abbot of Maredsous, also in Belgium. His was the idea that in ‘pious competition’, the faithful could out-do one another in pursuit of holiness and the discernment of Christ’s will. Profoundly influenced by the letters of St Paul, Abbot Marmion called upon Christians to run the race for the unfading crown of glory. Couturier instinctively saw that Christians in different communions and traditions need not be separate or live as rivals, but unite in spurring each other on in the exhilarating race which Christ has run before.
The Unity of all Humanity in the peace and charity of Christ
The reason Couturier saw this exercise as so urgent is twofold. In John 17.21, first Christ prays for the unity of Christians to be like the unity of the Father and the Son. Nothing could be more sacred and indivisible than this union; nothing more ungodly and damaging than to assault its integrity, contrary to nature. Secondly, Christ appeals for a divine unity for the disciples, so that the world will recognise that the Son was sent by his Father. So the purpose of the unity of Christians is the peace and unity of all humanity in Christ. Just as the incarnation, the passion, the resurrection and the ascension were all worked within all human nature through the life of Christ, so the growth of all human nature in holiness towards God is progressed as the visible unity of Christians is realised before its eyes. But for as long as the Church maintains its earthly separations, it impedes the journey of all humanity to God.
The Invisible Monastery
This ground-breaking approach encouraged Christians throughout the world to join together in January for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which he had refounded, and every Thursday evening in a common 'Invisible Monastery', where all could be at one in prayer and praise with Jesus, as if beyond the world’s divisions, to ask for unity not to fit in with our plans, negotiations, delays and schedules, but as and when God decides, 'according to his will, according to his means'. This spiritual ecumenism was in due course written in to the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.
Couturier and the Groupe des Dombes
Another of the fruits of Couturier's endeavours was the Groupe des Dombes, which he first gathered together in 1936. This was a regular spiritual and study meeting, bringing together Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic clergy at the Cistercian Abbey of Les Dombes (another instance of Benedictine hospitality towards the work of ecumenism). The group has been extremely influential, publishing regular and penetrating papers, as an informal body contributing to the work of the official agencies of the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church in Europe. It meets to this day and has for a long time included the voices of women and young lay people. Today the Abbaye des Dombes is in the custody of the Communauté du Chemin Neuf, a new religious community with an ecumenical vocation and membership, founded in Lyon and very much continuing the vision of Couturier.
Couturier and England
Couturier made two visits to England, in 1937 and 1938. These took place with the knowledge of the English Catholic hierarchy, but without much encouragement. It was a condition that they were private and did not give the impression of formal conversations or official contacts with the Roman Catholic Church, or with the hierarchy of France. The visits were organised by the Revd Henry Fynes-Clinton, a friend of the late Lord Halifax and leader of the pro-Catholic movement in the Church of England, the 'Anglo-Papalists', most of whom were members of the Catholic League. They were designed to give Couturier a first hand experience of the Church so admired by Mercier, Portal and Beauduin. So he was shown a number of the most active parish churches in the Anglican Catholic tradition, and visited a number of the then vigorous Anglican religious communities in the Benedictine and Vincentian traditions. An important encounter was with the Community of the Resurrection, whose Father Geoffrey Curtis CR became Couturier's biographer, an advocate of Couturier's spiritual ecumenism and a promoter of the renewed Week of Prayer.
But Couturier was aware that he was not seeing the whole of the Church of England and soon realised that a corporate reunion that could not take account of the Evangelicals, the Broad Churchmen and the High Churchmen whose sympathies were not with Rome, would not be feasible and that efforts to achieve it would increase division rather than mend it. But his visits made a deep impression and re-inspired the movement that hoped for unity with the Roman Catholic Church to be less concerned with its role as an interest group within Anglicanism and more aware of its influence for keeping Anglicanism to an ecumenical conception that aspired to the unity of the whole Church.
Couturier won many friends in all churches and indeed other religions for his ecumenism of prayer, spiritual friendship, humanity and humility. In 1940 he encouraged Roger Schutz to found a monastery in the Reformed Church in France, at Taizé, to pray and live its life for unity. It would not be long before a women's retreat movement in the Reformed Church in Switzerland would likewise form itself into a monastic community at Grandchamp, again with the keen interest and encouragement of Couturier. His annual letter announcing the themes of the forthcoming Week of Prayer was sent to tens of thousands of people across the world, who included Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and all kinds of Christians. Indeed in the very last year of his life in 1953 his friend and follower, Maurice Villain, a Jesuit priest, took the Week of Prayer for Unity to be kept for the first among Muslims, because above all (and this was the point of the appeal to people of other faiths) the Week was primarily about sanctification, a change of heart and soul, not merely the mind. To Couturier, Christian unity was about the unity of humanity, of which the 'icon' was the very person of Christ. It is not often realised that Couturier's Week of Prayer pioneered today's concerns in the Catholic Church for dialogue and encounter with people of other religions, especially in their spiritual lives, their cultural milieux and their beliefs and values. Couturier saw unity in Christ as the point at which all this converged and the point from which it all emanated, even ways that could not be understood or finally realised in human terms for the present. Hence, again, his famous prayer for unity 'according to your will, according to your means', that is regardless of our plans and attempts. Each year in praying for the sanctification and unity of Christians - 'that the world might believe' - he also encouraged prayer for the sanctification of Jews, and Muslims and people of other faiths, much in the spirit of the current prayers in the Liturgy of the Passion each Good Friday. All this was in the context of prayer for 'the unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ'.
Acclaimed at his funeral by Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon as the ‘Apostle of Christian Unity’, his influence was keenly felt when after World War II his friend Dr Willem Visser t'Hooft convened the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. Thus Couturier’s dearest prayer came to be fulfilled: that Christians begin to learn once more to say the Lord’s Prayer together.
For more on the work and significance of Paul Couturier visit the Paul Couturier website
Nashdom Abbey and friends: Blessed Maria Gabriella, Maurice Bévenot, Heythrop
Another important connection made by Couturier was with Nashdom Abbey (the community is now at Elmore), where Dom Benedict Ley worked hard to establish sustained contacts with Roman Catholics at home and abroad. Thanks to Couturier, Ley was put in touch with Mother Pia of the Cistercians at Grottaferrata just south of Rome, a community (now living in Vitorchiano near Viterbo) which Couturier had asked to devote itself to 'vertical ecumenism', a spiritual living in the cause and hope of unity. One of the young sisters to respond with her life's oblation to this call in 1938 was Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity. She died only a year later in 1939 but her sanctity in prayer and offering her terminal illness for Christian Unity deeply inspired the Anglican religious communities and has led, especially since the Second Vatican Council, to the foundation of a number of new religious houses and congregations expressly to advance the unity of Christians. To this day, too, the Cistercians of Vitorchiano's work includes their prayer and living for unity.
Another member of the Nashdom community, the distinguished and influential liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix was invited by some French Catholics to visit them in 1936, to meet the Trappists of Les Dombes and Paul Couturier. Thus he was witness to the beginnings of what was to become the famous Groupe des Dombes. The meeting with Couturier and the circle of intellectual and spiritual interest for which he was the catalyst so vividly affected Dix that in 1937 he wrote to Maurice Bévenot, a Jesuit priest whose work he had read and admired, inviting him to come to Nashdom and take part in a series of meetings between Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians to discuss Church unity, taking as their first reference point the newly published book by the rising theological star of the Dominican Order, Yves Congar, Chrétiens Désunis, Divided Christendom: a Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion. Bévenot accepted and in June 1938 the first Catholic-Anglican meeting since the Malines Conversations successfully took place at Nashdom Abbey, with five Jesuits from Heythrop meeting five Anglicans.
Cardinal Hinsley and the Sword of the Spirit
Immediately upon his election in 1939, Pope Pius XII called for a conference of Italy, Germany, France, Poland and Britain, in a last minute bid to avert war. His public appeals, his diplomacy behind the scenes and his offer to act as a neutral go-between in building a principled peace - despite the Vatican's weak and perillous position - were to no avail. The month after the invasion of Poland, his first encyclical Summi Pontificatus, based on first hand evidence from the German Cardinals of the deeds of Nazism, condemned totalitarianism and the 'deification' of the state in place of God and Christian ethics. His energetic appeals on behalf of the occupied nations and his condemnations on behalf of the Jews, for whose protection he ordered monasteries and convents to be opened up not only in Rome but wherever possible, demonstrate the five points he set out as principles for peace on the eve of the war: the defence of the small nations; the right to life; disarmament; a new and more effective version of the League of Nations; and observance of the moral principles of justice and love.
It is not always realised nowadays how Pius' personal spiritual authority and unswerving commitment to achieving a principled peace, put into practice by the relief of those in danger, emboldened Christians of all kinds across Europe and set the moral compass points for the conduct of the war of liberation. In England the role of the Anglican Bishop Bell of Chichester as an trans-national, ecumenical ally of the 'Confessing' Lutheran Church in its stand against Nazism, as well as his condemnation of 'area bombing' of German cities and their populations by the Allies, is well known. The mutual strength afforded to different Churches across the divisions of Christianity at the time when, as Winston Churchill said, the survival of Christian civilisation itself was at stake cannot be underestimated.
Inevitably, mutual strength led to meeting and co-operation. On December 21 1940, the Anglican Archbishops, Cosmo Gordon Lang of Canterbury and William Temple of York, joined Cardinal Hinsley, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, and Dr George Armstrong, Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, in a letter to The Times which set out and supported the foundations for recovering world peace on the basis of Pope Pius' five principles. This had arisen out of a radio address by the Cardinal, called The Sword of the Spirit, and a meeting at Archbishop's House in Westminster on 1 August 1940 suggested by prominent highly educated lay people of the same name. This widened out into an organisation open to Catholics and other Christians alike. Although other churches and the government were keen supporters, the Cardinal was hardly supported by his brother bishops in other Catholic dioceses. The Sword of the Spirit was after all lay-led, ecumenical, intellectual, possibly too progressive for them, and decidedly English in feel.
Nevertheless, a great meeting took place at the Albert Hall on the 10th and 11th May 1942. On the night of the 10th, the blitz had been unleashed and there was considerable bomb damage to London, including Parliament, where the House of Commons had been destroyed. People overcame considerable obstacles to be present for the second day to hear Cardinal Hinsley deliver the closing speech. At the end, it was an extraordinary moment of solidarity. Instinctively, Bishop George Bell asked the Cardinal whether all could say the Lord's Prayer. The Cardinal led the whole assembly in the Our Father.
Hinsley was rebuked by his fellow bishops for praying with heretics. There had been calls for Catholics to be forbidden to belong to The Sword of the Spirit, for the reason that it was impossible for Catholics and non-Catholics to work together as there was no common Christian ground (as an article in the April Clergy Review had stated. Such calls intensified. But Maurice Bévenot, the French Jesuit, was stirred by these very words and retorted that war had brought about the demand for co-operation and that baptism, which leads to the life of supernatural grace, is what provides the 'common Christian ground' - 'in the ontological order as God sees it, there is ... a real common basis between us, over and above our common humanity.' Although this thinking would take decades to be received in the Catholic Church in England more widely, it is at the heart of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council only just over twenty years away - in Lumen Gentium, Guadium et Spes and the Decree on Ecumenism.
Even though the Sword died with the passing of Cardinal Hinsley in 1943, his leadership and the lay ecumenical movement which he facilitated for the purpose of promoting a just peace lived on in people's memories and aspirations. The saying of the Lord's Prayer in such a way and at such a point was a milestone in ecumenical progress: not only would it be a potent and unforgettable symbol, it was a prayer which was to bear rich fruit in the decades to come.
The World Council of Churches and the Coming of the Second Vatican Council
In the aftermath of the second World War in forty years, Christians were immersed in the needs of a broken world for reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and regeneration. During this period took place the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the worldwide spread of Couturier's Week of Prayer (adopted by the Catholic Church in 1959 under Pope John XXIII), and the immense renewal felt in all churches as a result of the Second Vatican Council, not least at the WCC's fourth general assembly at Uppsala in 1968 which followed it. It has been said that this period seemed to distil the prayers and hopes for unity among Christians by looking beyond its internal concerns to the world beyond and asking, 'What is the church for?' For all churches this led to unparalleled transition. In the early 1960s the Orthodox Churches, which had not previously taken part, joined the WCC. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, emphatically placing the Catholic Church at the heart of the ecumenical movement's progress, and enshrining ecumenism in its very constitution, especially with the resulting Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. But first there is need to step back and look at another towering figure in the story of Catholic Ecumenism, who brings together everything that has gone before and shapes everything that will come thereafter.
The following is adapted with thanks from the article 'Yves Congar: Apostle of Patience' by Robert Nugent SDS, which appeared in the Australian E-Journal of Theology, February 2005Yves Congar was born in 1904 in Sedan and in 1925 entered a novitiate of the French Dominicans at Amiens. He soon discerned his call to work in the cause of ecumenism.
Following ordination in 1930, Congar taught theology at Le Saulchoir, the Dominacan seminary which in the mid 1950s was a centre of theological controversy that resulted in the dismissal of several prominent professors, including one of Congar’s mentors, the Dominican theologian, Marie-Dominique Chenu. It was Chenu who introduced Congar to the work of the Faith and Order Conference at Lausanne in 1927 and the thought of Johann Adam Möhler, whose ground-breaking book, Unity in the Church, Congar translated in 1938.
Early in his career he studied the reformer Luther and the Russian mystic Berdyaev. He also made contact with the leading Protestant theologian, Karl Barth. In spring 1932 he befriended Dom Lambert Beauduin, whose monastery at Amay was founded to be a place of encounter and unity between the Eastern and Western rites of the Church. By the time Congar met him, Beauduin was living in exile because of Rome’s displeasure with his work and thought on Anglicans and the Orthodox. Congar was aware of the Church’s tendency to condemn innovation quickly and with no explanation. He realised that anyone promoting the cause of Christian unity would be more or less disowned by Church authorities.
Congar and Chrétiens Désunis
In 1932 he met Paul Couturier at Amay. Couturier’s first impression was that Congar was not serious about the spiritual dimension of unity; Congar thought Couturier had no great grasp of the theology issues. But they soon decided that they were more of a mind than they had realized; and in 1936 Congar was invited to preach a series of sermons at Sacré Coeur, Montmartre, for the first Week of Prayer to be observed in Paris in the spirit established by Couturier at Lyon three years earlier. These talks later formed the foundation for the book, Chrétiens Désunis, or Divided Christendom: a Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion, published in 1937. It argued that other Christian denominations had at times preserved elements of Christianity better than the Catholic Church. The work of preaching for Christian unity became a focal point of his life and ministry. Every year thereafter he was asked to preach in some part of the world each January during the annual celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Congar's Work Inhibited by the Roman Authorities
The book brought him to the attention of the Roman authorities. In 1937 he was forbidden by the then Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, to be an official observer at an ecumenical conference which Congar himself had helped organize in Oxford, although he was allowed to attend it. In 1939 Chenu and Congar were both called to Paris by the Master General of the Dominican Order and warned that the Holy Office had difficulties with their writings, although it was not made clear to him precisely what the problem was. In that same year Congar was drafted as a military chaplain and spent 1940-1945 as a prisoner of war. In March 1942 during his internment he was publicly criticised by a high-ranking, but unnamed, Vatican official in the pages of L’Osservatore Romano. More bad news arrived in letter from friends in the spring of 1942, when he learned that Chenu had been dismissed as rector of Le Saulchoir and his book on the theological tradition at the seminary had been put on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Congar shared Chenu’s theological vision, especially in the realm of rediscovering the role of the laity and a proper understanding of priesthood and ministry in the Church. So he felt that it was only his being held prisoner outside the country that preserved him from the same fate.
At the end of the war in 1946 there were rumors of an impending change in the direction of the Church. The new Pope Pius XII insisted that the emphasis of the Week of Prayer was wrong and that the Church Unity Octave, upon which it was and ought to be based, required prayer for the return of all Christians to the Roman Church as the only authentic basis for ecumenical prayer and action. Concern in Rome about Congar’s Divided Christendom still lingered and new objections arose to some of his other publications. In December 1947 he was refused permission to write an article on Catholic ecumenism, requested in preparation for a meeting to establish the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam the following year. Meanwhile his highly popular book Divided Christendom went out of print, but was still very much in demand. His publishers asked him to prepare a new edition. His religious superiors required him to submit any revision for prior censorship to prevent further problems with Rome. This took Congar six months to complete and in October 1948 the manuscript was taken to Rome. Nothing more was heard of it until August 1950 when he was told that in light of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical (Humani Generis) certain additional changes were demanded, although he was not told precisely what they were. But since so much had changed in the world of ecumenism in the meantime between the work’s first publication and the proposed revision Congar abandoned the project entirely.
Congar and Catholic Relations with the World Council of Churches
In 1947 Congar was asked by the organisers of the forthcoming inaugural Amsterdam assembly of the World Council of Churches to submit a list of ten suitable persons to represent the Catholic Church. Congar approached Cardinal Emanuel Suhard of Paris for advice and was authorized by him to write to the Archbishop of Utrecht, recommending ten or twelve official Catholic observers. Suhard was under the impression that Congar had received permission from Rome to name four observers, which was certainly not the case. The Assistant Secretary General of the World Council of Churches simply wanted to deal directly with Catholics who were well informed and sympathetic to the ecumenical movement, which is why Congar was asked to suggest names.
Rome was eventually informed of these negotiations and on June 6th 1948 issued a monitum (a warning), reserving to itself the right to appoint observers to the Amsterdam meeting. This gave Congar reason to hope that at least there would be some Catholic presence at the ecumenical gathering. His hopes were dashed, however, when on June 28th the Archbishop of Utrecht told Congar that the Holy Office would not grant authorisation for any Catholic participation in the Amsterdam meeting. As it happened, Catholic experts were in the city during the meeting, but not as official observers; nor did they take part in any of the meetings. The whole experience taught Congar a painful lesson. It was also a major turning point in his life. He was, he said, not made for any kind of negotiations that demanded ‘prudence, tact and circumspection … … I may have one of these gifts, but certainly not all of them. In addition, I was irremediably suspect and under surveillance; my actions, real or supposed, were interpreted in advance in a reprehensible sense.’
On December 20, 1949, apparently as a result of this incident, the Holy Office published guidelines for official Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement, which actually legalised, but with careful restrictions, what was already being done in many places. Congar did not chafe at the restrictions and made it clear that he himself had never ‘either before or since, taken part in a meeting without the usual authorization, any more than I have ever published a line in contravention of the rule imposed upon me.’ The rules and restrictions became even more stringent after the 1950 publication of Humani Generis. But Congar still managed to publish his ground-breaking and popular True and False Reform in the Church at the end of the same year.
Congar's Patience at Further Setbacks to Catholic Ecumenical Involvement
The ecumenical movement received another shock, in the opinion of many, when in 1950 Pius XII defined as infallible the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary. Congar’s strategy was a renewed determination to be as discreet as possible in ecumenical matters, especially in his public writing: ‘I felt that the condemnation or formal disavowal of a book like Chrétiens désunis would set the ecumenical movement back thirty years. At this particular juncture I could serve the cause best by keeping silent and by publishing nothing.’
In February of the following year the Holy Office barred an Italian edition of True and False Reform in the Church, including all translations in any other languages. He was also ordered to submit all future writings, even small reviews, directly to Rome. He readily complied, but commented privately that such actions show the incredible narrowness of censorship.
Meanwhile, on May 13, 1952 Congar joined other Catholic ecumenists to convene the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions, with support from the Jesuit theologian, ecumenist and future Cardinal, Augustine Bea. Bea later became the first President of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity, established by Pope John XXIII, and spearheaded the cause of ecumenism during the Second Vatican Council. The gathering took place in August 1952, with Congar providing theological treatises which were read at the meeting. He also drafted reports to be shared with the World Council of Churches; but since no official contact with this organisation was permitted to him his reports were sent unsigned.
But the storm broke on February 6 1954, when the Master General of the Dominican Order in Rome, the Spanish Emanuel Suarez, appeared in Paris at the command of the Holy Office. Three Jesuit Provincials from Paris, Lyon and Toulouse were removed from office and four prominent and influential theologians (Boisselet, Feret, Chenu and Congar) were banished from Paris. Congar was banned from teaching and ordered to obtain prior permission from Rome for any future writings. His response was immediate and blunt, calling the action absurd and simply inconceivable. At his own suggestion Congar was assigned to Jerusalem’s prestigious École Biblique, where he wrote Mystery of the Temple, which had seven censors and took three years to publish. On February 9th he confided to his journal: ‘The bishops have bent over backwards in passiveness and servility: they have an honest and childlike reverence for Rome, even a childish and infantile reverence. …for them this is ‘the Church’… In concrete Rome is the Pope, the whole system of congregations which appear as if they are this church…The 'Holy Office' in practice rules the church and makes everyone bow down to it through fear or through interventions. It is the supreme Gestapo, unyielding, whose decisions cannot be discussed …’ ‘ … I am afraid that the absoluteness and simplicity of obedience is drawing me into a complicity with this abhorrent system of secret denunciations … It is …the lies inherent in it which one must utterly reject.’
In September he was called to Rome by the Holy Office but never actually interviewed. During his stay he was not allowed to preach or lecture, nor even meet with students in his residence. In February 1955 he was assigned to Blackfriars, the Dominican house of studies in Cambridge where he was still forbidden any public talks and all publications. Later he recalled his time in England as a very hard eleven months of language difficulties, odious restrictions on his ministry, his movements and contacts with Anglicans and Protestants.
Finally, in December 1955, Congar was assigned to the Dominican house in Strasbourg where the community, as a way of showing their respect and support in the face of Rome’s disciplinary action, promptly elected him as Prior. At that time the Roman authorities had no direct supervision over the election of religious superiors. In this position he certainly had more personal freedom in preaching, lecturing and communal support; but the cloud of suspicion still hung over him. Eventually, with the help of Archbishop Weber of Strasbourg, he returned to Paris, where he was able to resume his pastoral ministry and theological work.
Congar vindicated at the Second Vatican Council
With the advent of Pope John XXIII in 1959 the climate of the Church changed. As a teacher of church history at the diocesan seminary, Roncalli had himself been denounced anonymously by a priest of the diocese of Bergamo for his sympathy for certain authors.
Congar’s personal influence on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was far-reaching - from lecturing international groups of bishops, to helping draft conciliar documents. In July 1960 he was appointed as a theological consultant to preparatory commissions, national hierarchies and individual bishops, and was later made an official Council peritus (expert). Congar’s hand can be discerned in almost every major document produced by the Council Fathers. Among those that bear his stamp are those on Divine Revelation, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Decree on Ecumenism, the documents on missionary activity, life and ministry, priests and religious freedom. Vatican II vindicated Congar and many other theologians, including his friend Chenu, who had been silenced or disciplined by Rome in former days. The truths to which they witnessed in their theological explorations and reflections gradually became assimilated into mainstream Church teaching. Congar himself was made a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994 and died the following year.
Congar had a great appreciation for the virtue of patience and the role of the cross in the life of the would-be reformer which rings true even today: The cross is the condition of every holy work. God himself is at work in what to us seems a cross. Only by its means do our lives acquire a certain genuineness and depth. Only when a man has suffered for his conviction does he attain in them a certain force, a certain quality of the undeniable and, at the same time, the right to be heard and respected.
This he shared with Teilhard de Chardin, also inhibited by the Holy Office, Lambert Beauduin and Paul Couturier. Although protected by Cardinal Gerlier, Couturier had also suffered for his ecumenical work – it broke his health after he was held by the Gestapo on account of this overseas contacts. Much of Couturier’s thinking comes down to giving one’s life for unity. Sometimes the ultimate sacrifice is accepted, as in the case of Maria Gabriella; sometimes it is the constant assault of being misunderstood and misrepresented, ignored or rejected, the perennial experience of the ecumenist, that is the demanding sacrifice for now so that fruits may borne for others later, elsewhere and in different ways. Couturier was known as the apostle of unity; the trials and contribution of Congar has earned him the name, apostle of patience.
Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council
Although the Roman Catholic Church continues not to belong to the World Council of Churches itself, it is actively engaged in extensive discussion and collaboration with many churches and indeed is a full member of the WCC's Faith and Order Commission. Some find it difficult to understand why the Catholic Church is not a full member of the WCC itself, given its leading role in discovering the path to unity. But, as it has come to discern the radical implications of the already God-given unity of Christians in Baptism, it is concerned not to signal acceptance of 'denominationalism', the idea that Christianity is 'many' churches, in place of single-minded trust that the unity of the One Church will be revealed by Christ at the moment of his choosing, 'according to his will, according to his means.' It feels that membership of the WCC could compound the sin of division and formalise separation, rather than transcend it. But with the active, official involvement of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesial communions in the ecumenical movement, the unity of faith in terms of communion has become a much stronger focus for all churches, yielding the rise of bilateral conversations and, in a number of cases, firm agreements and even occasions for sharing the Eucharist.
Twenty-First Century Fulfilment?
As Christians, living in and for the world God creates and redeems, we are not simply concerned with the life and unity of the Church as an institution, nor the unity required for it to be of service to the world. The unity we seek is the life and heart of God the Holy Trinity himself, which the Church exemplifies in his work of creation and redemption, reconciling all things to himself in Christ. In the past, human and ecclesiastical diversity had been understood more as something to be overcome, rather than a central component - and even possibly an engine - of unity. Nowadays, church leaders in almost all traditions see this diversity as not only essential to the life and experience of the Body of Christ as it discovers its underlying unity. It is also something in the nature of humanity and creation, which the Church's communio can embrace, sanctify and endow with renewed vitality. In the face of modern society's pluralism and diversity, ecumenical experts and Church leaders are faced with many of the questions that surrounded the movements of previous ages: whether the churches should accept their separation as different cultural or national expressions; whether it is enough to share similar thoughts, belief and intentions in proclaiming the Gospel and serving the world; whether separately organised denominations can claim to be one, as long as their structures are incompatible and their sacraments signify divergent beliefs and loyalties; whether jurisdiction and authority need to be of one accord in all the churches to effect unity; and whether it is possible to be one with other Christians and yet have very different views, traditions and expressions of faith.
The ecumenical movement, in so far as it has consistently returned to Catholic doctrinal and spiritual principles to move forward, points to the inescapable conclusion that all these questions are resolved in the unique gift of the Catholic Church, its communio.
Those who, in the past in this country, have been part of the quest for authentic Catholic unity – Roman Catholics, Anglicans and others – may have emphasised their different loyalties and perspectives at various stages. But throughout, they have all pointed to the inevitability of unity in the Catholic faith, as it proceeds and develops, in communion with the successor of St Peter, as the authentic future for proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, for building a just and peaceful society, and for overcoming the sin and suffering which our separations have left us with. Within this, the Catholic League, from its Anglican roots to its modern ecumenical character, has had a proud history. The League's founders were involved in the promoting the Church Unity Octave, and popularising it among Anglicans. The League's founders were closely involved with those who made connections with the Abbé Fernand Portal and Cardinal Mercier for the Malines Conversations. The League's members invited the Abbé Paul Couturier to England in the 1930s to promote his vision of spiritual ecumenism and then pioneered the celebration of his renewed Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The League's members actively commended the great renewal of the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council as a gift to the whole Church and worked hard to extend its influence in England both in the Church of England and, with Roman Catholic friends, as a template for the ecumenical journey the Catholic community, as part of the entire 'Pilgrim Church', sees it is now making.
When Archbishop Michael Ramsey, following his predecessor Dr Geoffrey Fisher, visited Pope Paul at the Vatican, Catholic League members, and their counterparts in other ecumenical associations, hoped that the promise of Unity could be realised in a few years. Archbishop Ramsey had appointed the great scholar of St Francis, the Bishop of Ripon, Dr John Moorman, as the Anglican Church's representative at Vatican II. Momentous changes in Roman Catholicism seemed to call forth momentous responses from other Christian traditions. For the first time, the Roman Catholics recognised the Church of England as a beloved sister, the Pope gave the Archbishop his Episcopal Ring as an earnest of future communio and, within a short time after the conclusion of the Council, they both established the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, acknowledging (as had the 17th century dialogue between Bishop Andrewes and Cardinal Bellarmine) that with so much in common, the work should concentrate not on the controversy of the past but in resolving differences for the sake of teaching the Gospel of Christ in the world of today with one accord. Its painstaking work is still in progress, as is that of a number of dialogues and conversations among many other Christian groups and traditions.
In 2001 the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission was set up co-ordinate regular meetings and collaboration between Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops on practical programmes for addressing the needs of the world and proclaiming the saving and reconciling work of the One God in its midst. It also serves as a means to bring in the insight and participation of Christians in other traditions as well. Both in ARCIC and IARCCUM can be recognised the mutual reliance of all Christians upon each other in the face of an increasingly secular world. There can also be discerned how much more can be achieved in the life of faith and in the Church's mission of service to the world, when Peter is called upon to 'strengthen his brothers'. Communio with and through his successor ensures this can grow.
In 2003, Cardinal Walter Kasper, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, together with the Revd Elizabeth Welch, a past Moderator of the United Reformed Church, shared a platform at St Alban's Abbey, close to the site of Britain's first martyrdom when the Church was undivided. They spoke of their vision of unity for the next generation. All called for the recovery of the original guiding vision of spiritual ecumenism. While honestly facing the serious obstacles to unity that still exist between the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Churches of the Reformation, Cardinal Kasper encouraged the irreversible journey to unity with these words, 'We are closer now than at any time since the sixteenth century.'
Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 has reaffirmed the call to Christian Unity enacted by Benedict XV at the height of the earlier Great War, mindful of how necessary it is on the path to the unity, peace, reconciliation and sanctification of all humanity. He continues the great work of Pope John Paul II before him, who lamented how the Catholic Church breathes on only one lung without the other Christians in full communion. Although he said this of the Eastern Churches, it holds true of all the Christian communions and traditions. Pope John Paul was even prepared to relinquish historic claims to jurisdiction over other Christians, in the interest of seeking above all communion with them, and humbly asked them to tell him how he could exercise the office of successor of St Peter to serve, assist and strengthen them. For, of all the gifts that faith, tradition, culture and spirituality bring that one group of followers of Jesus Christ can bring to each other, the greatest is the gift of communion.
Thus in his first address on becoming Pope, Benedict XVI said this: ‘in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty.’
'You are Peter, a rock. And on this rock I will build my Church.'