Sunday, 22 January 2012

Four thoughts on Christian Unity

The eight days that lead up to the feast of the Conversion of St Paul on 25th January have been observed for many years as a week of prayer for Christian Unity. This year's week of prayer was the subject on which Pope Benedict spoke at his weekly general audience on 18th January. The first paragraphs of that audience outline the origins of the week in 1908, and its encouragement in the Catholic Church by Popes St Pius X and Benedict XV.
Il compito ecumenico è dunque una responsabilità dell’intera Chiesa e di tutti i battezzati, che devono far crescere la comunione parziale già esistente tra i cristiani fino alla piena comunione nella verità e nella carità. Pertanto, la preghiera per l’unità non è circoscritta a questa Settimana di Preghiera, ma deve diventare parte integrante della nostra orazione, della vita orante di tutti i cristiani, in ogni luogo e in ogni tempo, soprattutto quando persone di tradizioni diverse s’incontrano e lavorano insieme per la vittoria, in Cristo, su tutto ciò che è peccato, male, ingiustizia, violazione della dignità dell’uomo.
[The work of ecumenism is consequently a responsibility of the whole Church and of all the baptised, who must work to increase the partial communion that already exists among Christians towards full communion in truth and in charity. Therefore, prayer for unity is not limited to this Week of Prayer, but must become an integral part of our prayer, of the life of prayer of all Christians, in every place and in every time, above all when people of different traditions meet each other and work togther for victory, in Christ, over all that is sin, evil, injustice, violation of the dignity of man.]
My first two thoughts are prompted by the celebration yesterday of the feast day of a virgin martyr, St Agnes. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have commented on recognising the extent of the imperfect communion that already exists among Christians, respectively in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint n.84 and in speaking to leaders of other Christian communities in Cologne (8th and 9th paragraphs). One of the most striking suggestions of the paragraph from Ut Unum Sint is that, in the witness to the point of death of martyrdom, the unity that is imperfect in other areas of Christian life, as the truest outcome of a "dialogue of conversion" is already perfect. That St Agnes was both a martyr and a virgin suggests another aspect similar to this significance of martyrdom in our understanding of ecumenical dialogue. The living of the religious life, of a life marked by the three evangelical counsels, might also represent a particular moment in the "dialogue of conversion" that is part of the ecumenical endeavour. It represents a radical conversion to Christ and so, if we follow the principle that Pope John Paul II applied to our understanding of martyrdom, at the very least it represents an increase in the degree of perfection in the imperfect communion between Christians of different denominations who live this style of life. We do perhaps underestimate the ecumenical significance of the life of religious among Christians of other Churches.

In his address in Cologne, Pope Benedict made particular reference to the fraternity existing between Christians of different denominations, and cited this as a fruit of dialogue that is perhaps not valued as much as it should be. At ordinary parish level, where the lay faithful in particular can have a very superficial understanding of what ecumenism is really about, expressions of this fraternity in local covenants, pulpit exchanges or joint prayer often fail to accurately reflect the imperfect nature of the communion that exists. Such initiatives can be antithetical to genuine ecumenical endeavour. Where such fraternity exists in a manner more reflective of the imperfect existing communion is situations of collaborative action on the part of Christians, in fields such as hospital and port chaplaincy (within my own experience) and, so far as I can gather, in military chaplaincy. This is suggested at the end of the quotation from Pope Benedict above. Perhaps we should recognise more the significance of works such as these as measures of the extent of the fruit of ecumenical dialogue.

My fourth thought is completely different. Non-ecclesial, or independent, Christian churches, have seen significant growth in recent years. They are, in themselves, a counter sign to Christian unity as each such church adds to the visible division that others see among Christians. Indeed, their completely self defining nature leads me to feel that their use of the word "Christian" is only an analagous use, since there is intrinsically no attempt to relate their present day community to the earlier historical Christian communities. I am not aware that these non-ecclesial churches take any interest in ecumenism.

No comments: