Bishop Christopher Butler (pictured right) is remembered by Fr Herbert Keldany, MA, for laying the foundations for Unity
THE 1987 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which starts on Sunday, January 18, has as its main theme reconciliation with God in Christ, which is derived from St Paul's Second letter to the Corinthians 5.17, 6.4. The Rome Secretariat for Unity and the World Council of Churches promote this time of prayer. It is kept in thousands of churches across the world with special prayers and services of an ecumenical nature.
The programme for this year was drafted in Britain by the British Council for Churches and adopted for universal use at Taize, the ecumenical centre, last summer. The special prayers, scripture readings and meditations proposed by the British preparatory group are available in the special leaflets produced by the British Council of Churches Publications. (2 Eaton Gate, SW1 98L. Tel 30 9611).
THIS WEEK of Prayer for Christian Unity is universally known and even in danger of being taken for granted among the many other weeks which claim our support. Its dawn, high noon in the time of Vatican Two, and subsequent familiarity coincided and may be said to have been influenced in Britain by the work of the late Bishop Christopher Butler, OSB.
He was not only a great English Abbot, prominent member of the Council, and a pastoral bishop closely involved in the post-conciliar applications. He was like his great predecessor, Newman, haunted by the call of Christian Unity. He was a theologian, "one of the very few English theologians who can be mentioned in the same breath as John Henry Newman" was the view of The Times obituarist.
His long life spanned the past century and epitomised the ecumenism which has been one of its marks. Like Newman he was brough up as an Anglican at Oxford, and like him he made large contributions to the healing of relations between the churches. Basil Butler was born in Reading in May 7, 1902 in a devout High Church family just about the time when the domes of Westminster Cathedral were rising behind the stucco cliffs of Victoria Street 73 years later, he spoke as vicar capitular, at the opening of the piazza before it, of the great debt due to "our Sister the Church of England" who had made the project feasible.
Before he became a monk at Downside Butler had distinguished himself at Oxford by obtaining a triple first and Alloyed to Keble College as a tutor in theology. He became a deacon and was preparing for priestly orders when he suffered a bout of Roman fever. It was at that time that the read and reread Newman's Development of Christian Doctrine and began to fall into step with his great predecessor.
In 1927 he paid his first visit to Downside Abbey in Somerset. The largest Benedictine house in the South of England was to be his community for almost 40 years. He progressed steadily from novice to monk, priest to teacher of priests, headmaster to Abbot, three times re-elected, and finally abbot Primate of the English Benedictines, in which capacity he had a seat in the Vatican Council.
He had just published a book on The Idea of the Church and edited a study of the first Vatican Council of 1870. Long before he had written in the Downside Review "there is a homesickness for visible unity in the Christian world today".
It was from his reading of the early Christian Fathers that he acquired his love for "Koinonia" or community, as the key to diversity in unity. So it was not surprising that he found his feet in the very first session presided over by Pope John. He frankly enjoyed the challenges and soon was elected to the central theological commission which dealt with the nature of the Church. His Benedictine discipline and fluent Latin stood him in good stead. His contributions to the formal sessions may be read in the many volumes of the Acta of Vatican II, but his influence in the private discussions was great too. He became one of the leading English spokesmen, and a valued adviser of the Anglican and other observers who found his evident joy in believing contagious. He helped to bring about the inclusion of the Marian chapter in Lumen. Gentium, and piloted the clause relating to the special place of Anglicans in the decree of Ecumenism.
Within a short time of the end of the Council the Bishop was asked to give the Sarum Lectures at Oxford. In these, he distilled his experience and enthusiasm into The Theology of Vatican II in a short but unrivalled analysis of the main points covered by the Council. Pithy, nuanced and realistic, it was revised and enlarged by its author in 1981. On the last page he put into words is dearest hope, "as the Church captures the spirit of Vatican 11 it will be recognised as a witness to the mystic element in which it flowers".
Whatever ideas he might have entertained for the post-council era Abbot Butler soon dismissed them, for soon after its end Cardinal Heenan invited him to Westminster, saying he needed his help in the diocese and the Conference of Bishops. He ordained him bishop at the end of 1966, and gave him the pastoral care of Hertfordshire and the Presidency of St Edmund's College. There, at a time when others were planning to retire, the bishop was soon engaged in the adaptations needed by a diocesan seminary, a large boys' college, and later one of the first conference centres at All Saints. All this as well as need of new parishes and schools grew in the rapidly developing area catering for the overspill of London.
Once again he threw himself into his new tasks with the enthusiasm of a new curate. Shrewd and business like behind his jokey manner, he made it his first concern to know his priests and help them resolve their problems with, when required, a firm hand to help. His judgement was balanced, informed and refined in prayer. Such was the secret of the man. Punctual to the minute, almost scrupulous over his Mass, he had a great fund of patience. All, priests and people, and the young in particular sensed that he cared for them as people, notably when he puffed at his pipe after services were over.
In those years he was often in London, for he gave unstinting service to diocesan and national commissions. In addition he was much in demand as a lecturer, writer and bishop. His occasional articles in the Catholic Herald and The Tablet, did much to enlighten the postconciliar years and deserve to be edited. No other bishop has written so much for the layman in this period.
He did not hide his debt to others. Ever the monk, he did not hide his debt to members of other orders, such as Pere de Caussade SJ for his teaching on abandon, or Lonergan SJ for his concern for existential man, nor did he disdain crediting a layman, Baron Frisderich von Hugel, for his teaching on the mystical basis of faith.
But Unity in diversity as a key to the new era pervaded the last 20 years of his life. He had the happiness to become one of the main architectsof the successful dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics which was launched by Cardinal Bea in 1970. Many years of patient and careful theologising bore fruit in the final report known as ARCIC I.
Not only for its members, who worked hard, and lived together for periods but for all working at other levels and directions this achievement ranks as one of the major results of Vatican II. Butler was also co-chairman of the less wellknown English ARC for more that a dozen years, and received the rare Cross of St Augustine of Canterbury in recognition.
The first report helped to pave the way for the visit paid by Pope John Paul to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1982, and the third Joint Declaration of the same date.
These events gave Bishop Butler great joy. One of his last contributions to this cause so dear to him was his endorsement of the response of the English Conference of Bishops two years later.